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CHAPTER 15.: Absolute and Relative Ethics - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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Absolute and Relative Ethics
99. As applied to ethics, the word “absolute” will by many be supposed to imply principles of right conduct that exist out of relation to life as conditioned on the earth–out of relation to time and place, and independent of the universe as now visible to us–"eternal” principles, as they are called. Those, however, who recall the doctrine set forth in First Principles, will hesitate to put this interpretation on the word. Right, as we can think it, necessitates the thought of not right, or wrong, for its correlative; and hence, to ascribe rightness to the acts of the Power manifested through phenomena, is to assume the possibility that wrong acts may be committed by this Power. But how come there to exist, apart from this Power, conditions of such kind that subordination of its acts to them makes them right and insubordination wrong? How can Unconditioned Being be subject to conditions beyond itself?
If, for example, any one should assert that the Cause of things, conceived in respect of fundamental moral attributes as like ourselves, did right in producing a universe which, in the course of immeasurable time, has given origin to beings capable of pleasure, and would have done wrong in abstaining from the production of such a universe; then, the comment to be made is that, imposing the moral ideas generated in his finite consciousness, upon the Infinite Existence which transcends consciousness, he goes behind that Infinite Existence and prescribes for it principles of action.
As implied in foregoing chapters, right and wrong as conceived by us can exist only in relation to the actions of creatures capable of pleasures and pains; seeing that analysis carries us back to pleasures and pains as the elements out of which the conceptions are framed.
But if the word “absolute,” as used above, does not refer to the Unconditioned Being–if the principles of action distinguished as absolute and relative concern the conduct of conditioned beings; in what way are the words to be understood? An explanation of their meanings will be best conveyed by a criticism on the current conceptions of right and wrong.
100. Conversations about the affairs of life habitually imply the belief that every deed named may be placed under the one head or the other. In discussing a political question, both sides take it for granted that some line of action may be chosen which is right, while all other lines of action are wrong. So, too, is it with judgments on the doings of individuals: each of these is approved or disapproved on the assumption that it is definitely classable as good or bad. Even where qualifications are admitted, they are admitted with an implied idea that some such positive characterization is to be made.
Nor is it in popular thought and speech only that we see this. If not wholly and definitely yet partially and by implication, the belief is expressed by moralists. In his Methods of Ethics (1st ed., p. 6) Mr. Sidgwick says: “That there is in any given circumstances some one thing which ought to be done and that this can be known, is a fundamental assumption, made not by philosophers only but by all men who perform any processes of moral reasoning.”14 In this sentence there is specifically asserted only the last of the above propositions; namely, that, in every case, what “ought to be done” “can be known.” But though that “which ought to be done” is not distinctly identified with “the right,” it may be inferred, in the absence of any indication to the contrary, that Mr. Sidgwick regards the two as identical; and doubtless, in so conceiving the postulates of moral science, he is at one with most, if not all, who have made it a subject of study. At first sight, indeed, nothing seems more obvious than that if actions are to be judged at all, these postulates must be accepted. Nevertheless, they may both be called in question, and I think it may be shown that neither of them is tenable. Instead of admitting that there is in every case a right and a wrong, it may be contended that in multitudinous cases no right, properly so-called, can be alleged, but only a least wrong; and further, it may be contended that in many of these cases where there can be alleged only a least wrong, it is not possible to ascertain with any precision which is the least wrong.
A great part of the perplexities in ethical speculation arise from neglect of this distinction between right and least wrong–between the absolutely right and the relatively right. And many further perplexities are due to the assumption that it can, in some way be decided in every case which of two courses is morally obligatory.
101. The law of absolute right can take no cognizance of pain, save the cognizance implied by negation. Pain is the correlative of some species of wrong–some kind of divergence from that course of action which perfectly fulfills all requirements. If, as was shown in an early chapter, the conception of good conduct always proves, when analyzed, to be the conception of a conduct which produces a surplus of pleasure somewhere; while, conversely the conduct conceived as bad proves always to be that which inflicts somewhere a surplus of either positive or negative pain; then the absolutely good, the absolutely right, in conduct, can be that only which produces pure pleasure–pleasure unalloyed with pain anywhere. By implication, conduct which has any concomitant of pain, or any painful consequence, is partially wrong; and the highest claim to be made for such conduct is, that it is the least wrong which, under the conditions, is possible–the relatively right.
The contents of preceding chapters imply throughout that, considered from the evolution point of view the acts of men during the transition which has been, is still, and long will be, in progress, must, in most cases, be of the kind here classed as least wrong. In proportion to the incongruity between the natures men inherit from the presocial state, and the requirements of social life, must be the amount of pain entailed by their actions, either on themselves or on others. In so far as pain is suffered, evil is inflicted; and conduct which inflicts any evil cannot be absolutely good.
To make clear the distinction here insisted upon between that perfect conduct which is the subject matter of absolute ethics, and that imperfect conduct which is the subject matter of relative ethics, some illustrations must be given.
102. Among the best examples of absolutely right actions to be named, are those arising where the nature and the requirements have been molded to one another before social evolution began. Two will here suffice.
Consider the relation of a healthy mother to a healthy infant. Between the two there exists a mutual dependence which is a source of pleasure to both. In yielding its natural food to the child, the mother receives gratification; and to the child there comes the satisfaction of appetite–a satisfaction which accompanies furtherance of life, growth, and increasing enjoyment. Let the relation be suspended, and on both sides there is suffering. The mother experiences both bodily pain and mental pain; and the painful sensation borne by the child, brings as its results physical mischief and some damage to the emotional nature. Thus the act is one that is to both exclusively pleasurable, while abstention entails pain on both; and it is consequently of the kind we here call absolutely right. In the parental relations of the father we are furnished with a kindred example. If he is well constituted in body and mind, his boy, eager for play finds in him a sympathetic response; and their frolics, giving mutual pleasure, not only further the child’s physical welfare but strengthen that bond of good feeling between the two which makes subsequent guidance easier. And then if, repudiating the stupidities of early education as at present conceived and unhappily state-enacted, he has rational ideas of mental development, and sees that the secondhand knowledge gained through books should begin to supplement the firsthand knowledge gained by direct observation, only when a good stock of this has been acquired, he will, with active sympathy aid in that exploration of the surrounding world which his boy pursues with delight; giving and receiving gratification from moment to moment while furthering ultimate welfare. Here, again, are actions of a kind purely pleasurable alike in their immediate and remote effects–actions absolutely right.
The intercourse of adults yields, for the reason assigned, relatively few cases that fall completely within the same category./ In their transactions from hour to hour, more or less of deduction from pure gratification is caused on one or other side by imperfect fitness to the requirements. The pleasures men gain by laboring in their vocations and receiving in one form or other returns for their services, usually have the drawback that the labors are in a considerable degree displeasurable. Cases, however, do occur where the energies are so abundant that inaction is irksome; and where the daily work, not too great in duration, is of a kind appropriate to the nature; and where, as a consequence, pleasure rather than pain is a concomitant. When services yielded by such a one are paid for by another similarly adapted to his occupation, the entire transaction is of the kind we are here considering: exchange under agreement between two so constituted, becomes a means of pleasure to both, with no setoff of pain. Bearing in mind the form of nature which social discipline is producing, as shown in the contrast between savage and civilized, the implication is that ultimately men’s activities at large will assume this character. Remembering that in the course of organic evolution, the means to enjoyment themselves eventually become sources of enjoyment; and that there is no form of action which may not through the development of appropriate structures become pleasurable; the inference must be that industrial activities carried on through voluntary cooperation, will in time acquire the character of absolute rightness as here conceived. Already indeed, something like such a state has been reached among certain of those who minister to our aesthetic gratifications. The artist of genius–poet, painter, or musician–is one who obtains the means of living by acts that are directly pleasurable to him, while they yield, immediately or remotely pleasures to others. Once more, among absolutely right acts may be named certain of those which we class as benevolent. I say certain of them, because such benevolent acts as entail submission to pain, positive or negative, that others may receive pleasure, are, by the definition, excluded. But there are benevolent acts of a kind yielding pleasure solely. Some one who has slipped is saved from falling by a bystander; a hurt is prevented and satisfaction is felt by both. A pedestrian is choosing a dangerous route, or a fellow passenger is about to alight at the wrong station, and, warned against doing so, is saved from evil: each being, as a consequence, gratified. There is a misunderstanding between friends, and one who sees how it has arisen, explains: the result being agreeable to all. Services to those around in the small affairs of life, may be, and often are, of a kind which there is equal pleasure in giving and receiving. Indeed, as was urged in the last chapter, the actions of developed altruism must habitually have this character. And so, in countless ways suggested by these few men may add to one another’s happiness without anywhere producing unhappiness–ways which are therefore absolutely right.
In contrast with these consider the many actions which from hour to hour are gone through, now with an accompaniment of some pain to the actor and now bringing results that are partially painful to others, but which nevertheless are imperative. As implied by antithesis with cases above referred to, the wearisomeness of productive labor as ordinarily pursued, renders it in so far wrong; but then far greater suffering would result, both to the laborer and his family and therefore far greater wrong would be done, were this wearisomeness not borne. Though the pains which the care of many children entail on a mother, form a considerable setoff from the pleasures secured by them to her children and herself; yet the miseries, immediate and remote, which neglect would entail so far exceed them, that submission to such pains up to the limit of physical ability to bear them, becomes morally imperative as being the least wrong. A servant who fails to fulfill an agreement in respect of work, or who is perpetually breaking crockery or who pilfers, may have to suffer pain from being discharged; but since the evil is to be borne by all concerned if incapacity or misconduct is tolerated, not in one case only but habitually must be much greater, such infliction of pain is warranted as a means to preventing greater pain. Withdrawal of custom from a tradesman whose charges are too high, or whose commodities are inferior, or who gives short measure, or who is unpunctual, decreases his welfare, and perhaps injures his belongings; but as saving him from these evils would imply bearing the evils his conduct causes, and as such regard for his well-being would imply disregard of the well-being of some more worthy or more efficient tradesman to whom the custom would else go, and as, chiefly general adoption of the implied course, having the effect that the inferior would not suffer from their inferiority nor the superior gain by their superiority would produce universal misery. withdrawal is justified–the act is relatively right.
103. I pass now to the second of the two propositions above enunciated. After recognizing the truth that a large part of human conduct is not absolutely right, but only relatively right, we have to recognize the further truth that in many cases where there is no absolutely right course, but only courses that are more or less wrong, it is not possible to say which is the least wrong. Recurrence to the instances just given will show this.
There is a point up to which it is relatively right for a parent to carry self-sacrifice for the benefit of offspring; and there is a point beyond which self-sacrifice cannot be pushed without bringing, not only on himself or herself but also on the family evils greater than those to be prevented by the self-sacrifice. Who shall say where this point is? Depending on the constitutions and needs of those concerned, it is in no two cases the same, and cannot be by anyone more than guessed. The transgressions or shortcomings of a servant vary from the trivial to the grave, and the evils which discharge may bring range through countless degrees from slight to serious. The penalty may be inflicted for a very small offense, and then there is wrong done; or after numerous grave offenses it may not be inflicted, and again there is wrong done. How shall be determined the degree of transgression beyond which to discharge is less wrong than not to discharge? In like manner with the shopkeeper’s misdemeanors. No one can sum up either the amount of positive and negative pain which tolerating them involves, or the amount of positive and negative pain involved by not tolerating them; and in medium cases no one can say where the one exceeds the other.
In men’s wider relations frequently occur circumstances under which a decision one or other way is imperative, and yet under which not even the most sensitive conscience helped by the clearest judgment, can decide which of the alternatives is relatively right. Two examples will suffice. Here is a merchant who loses by the failure of a man indebted to him. Unless he gets help he himself will fail; and if he fails he will bring disaster not only on his family but on all who have given him credit. Even if by borrowing he is enabled to meet immediate engagements, he is not safe; for the time is one of panic, and others of his debtors by going to the wall may put him in further difficulties. Shall he ask a friend for a loan? On the one hand, is it not wrong forthwith to bring on himself, his family and those who have business relations with him, the evils of his failure? On the other hand, is it not wrong to hypothecate the property of his friend, and lead him too, with his belongings and dependents, into similar risks? The loan would probably tide him over his difficulty; in which case would it not be unjust to his creditors did he refrain from asking it? Contrariwise, the loan would very possibly fail to stave off his bankruptcy; in which case is not his action in trying to obtain it, practically fraudulent? Though in extreme cases it may be easy to say which course is the least wrong, how is it possible in all those medium cases where even by the keenest man of business the contingencies cannot be calculated? Take, again, the difficulties that not infrequently arise from antagonism between family duties and social duties. Here is a tenant farmer whose political principles prompt him to vote in opposition to his landlord. If, being a Liberal, he votes for a Conservative, not only does he by his act say that he thinks what he does not think, but he may perhaps assist what he regards as bad legislation: his vote may by chance turn the election, and on a Parliamentary division a single member may decide the fate of a measure. Even neglecting, as too improbable, such serious consequences, there is the manifest truth that if all who hold like views with himself, are similarly deterred from electoral expression of them, there must result a different balance of power and a different national policy: making it clear that only by adherence of all to their political principles, can the policy he thinks right be maintained. But now, on the other hand, how can he absolve himself from responsibility for the evils which those depending on him may suffer if he fulfills what appears to be a peremptory public duty? Is not his duty to his children even more peremptory? Does not the family precede the state; and does not the welfare of the state depend on the welfare of the family? May he, then, take a course which, if the threats uttered are carried out, will eject him from his farm; and so cause inability perhaps temporary perhaps prolonged, to feed his children. The contingent evils are infinitely varied in their ratios. In one case the imperativeness of the public duty is great and the evil that may come on dependents small; in another case the political issue is of trivial moment and the possible injury which the family may suffer is great; and between these extremes there are all gradations. Further, the degrees of probability of each result, public and private, ranging from the nearly certain to the almost impossible. Admitting, then, that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the state; and admitting that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the family; we have to recognize the fact that in countless cases no one can decide by which of the alternative courses the least wrong is likely to be done.
These instances will sufficiently show that in conduct at large, including men’s dealings with themselves, with their families, with their friends, with their debtors and creditors, and with the public, it usually happens that whatever course is taken entails some pain somewhere; forming a deduction from the pleasure achieved, and making the course in so far not absolutely right. Further, they will show that throughout a considerable part of conduct, no guiding principle, no method of estimation, enables us to say whether a proposed course is even relatively right; as causing, proximately and remotely specially and generally the greatest surplus of good over evil.
104. And now we are prepared for dealing in a systematic way with the distinction between absolute ethics and relative ethics.
Scientific truths, of whatever order, are reached by eliminating perturbing or conflicting factors, and recognizing only fundamental factors. When, by dealing with fundamental factors in the abstract, not as presented in actual phenomena but as presented in ideal separation, general laws have been ascertained, it becomes possible to draw inferences in concrete cases by taking into account incidental factors. But it is only by first ignoring these and recognizing the essential elements alone, that we can discover the essential truths sought. Take, in illustration, the progress of mechanics from its empirical form to its rational form.
All have occasional experience of the fact that a person pushed on one side beyond a certain degree, loses his balance and falls. It is observed that a stone flung or an arrow shot, does not proceed in a straight line, but comes to the earth after pursuing a course which deviates more and more from its original course. When trying to break a stick across the knee, it is found that success is easier if the stick is seized at considerable distances from the knee on each side than if seized close to the knee. Daily use of a spear draws attention to the truth that by thrusting its point under a stone and depressing the shaft, the stone may be raised the more readily the further away the hand is towards the end. Here, then, are sundry experiences, eventually grouped into empirical generalizations, which serve to guide conduct in certain simple cases. How does mechanical science evolve from these experiences? To reach a formula expressing the powers of the lever, it supposes a lever which does not, like the stick, admit of being bent, but is absolutely rigid; and it supposes a fulcrum not having a broad surface, like that of one ordinarily used, but a fulcrum without breadth; and it supposes that the weight to be raised bears on a definite point, instead of bearing over a considerable portion of the lever. Similarly with the leaning body, which, passing a certain inclination, overbalances. Before the truth respecting the relations of center of gravity and base can be formulated, it must be assumed that the surface on which the body stands is unyielding; that the edge of the body itself is unyielding; and that its mass, while made to lean more and more, does not change its form–conditions not fulfilled in the cases commonly observed. And so, too, is it with the projectile: determination of its course by deduction from mechanical laws, primarily ignores all deviations caused by its shape and by the resistance of the air. The science of rational mechanics is a science which consists of such ideal truths, and can come into existence only by thus dealing with ideal cases. It remains impossible so long as attention is restricted to concrete cases presenting all the complications of friction, plasticity, and so forth. But now after disentangling certain fundamental mechanical truths, it becomes possible by their help to guide actions better; and it becomes possible to guide them still better when, as presently happens, the complicating elements from which they have been disentangled are themselves taken into account. At an advanced stage, the modifying effects of friction are allowed for, and the inferences are qualified to the requisite extent. The theory of the pulley is corrected in its application to actual cases by recognizing the rigidity of cordage; the effects of which are formulated. The stabilities of masses, determinable in the abstract by reference to the centers of gravity of the masses in relation to the bases, come to be determined in the concrete by including also their characters in respect of cohesion. The courses of projectiles having been theoretically settled as though they moved through a vacuum, are afterwards settled in more exact correspondence with fact by taking into account atmospheric resistance. And thus we see illustrated the relation between certain absolute truths of mechanical science, and certain relative truths which involve them. We are shown that no scientific establishment of relative truths is possible, until the absolute truths have been formulated independently We see that mechanical science fitted for dealing with the real, can arise only after ideal mechanical science has arisen.
All this holds of moral science. As by early and rude experiences there were inductively reached, vague but partially true notions respecting the overbalancing of bodies, the motions of missiles, the actions of levers; so by early and rude experiences there were inductively reached, vague but partially true notions respecting the effects of men’s behavior on themselves, on one another, and on society: to a certain extent serving in the last case, as in the first, for the guidance of conduct. Moreover, as this rudimentary mechanical knowledge, though still remaining empirical, becomes during early stages of civilization at once more definite and more extensive; so during early stages of civilization these ethical ideas, still retaining their empirical character, increase in precision and multiplicity. But just as we have seen that mechanical knowledge of the empirical sort can evolve into mechanical science, only by first omitting all qualifying circumstances, and generalizing in absolute ways the fundamental laws of forces; so here we have to see that empirical ethics can evolve into rational ethics only by first neglecting all complicating incidents, and formulating the laws of right action apart from the obscuring effects of special conditions. And the final implication is that just as the system of mechanical truths, conceived in ideal separation as absolute, becomes applicable to real mechanical problems in such way that making allowance for all incidental circumstances there can be reached conclusions far nearer to the truth than could otherwise be reached; so, a system of ideal ethical truths, expressing the absolutely right, will be applicable to the questions of our transitional state in such ways that, allowing for the friction of an incomplete life and imperfection of existing natures, we may ascertain with approximate correctness what is the relatively right.
105. In a chapter entitled “Definition of Morality” in Social Statics, I contended that the moral law, properly so-called, is the law of the perfect man–is the formula of ideal conduct–is the statement in all cases of that which should be, and cannot recognize in its propositions any elements implying existence of that which should not be. Instancing questions concerning the right course to be taken in cases where wrong has already been done, I alleged that the answers to such questions cannot be given “on purely ethical principles.” I argued that–
No conclusions can lay claim to absolute truth, but such as depend upon truths that are themselves absolute. Before there can be exactness in an inference, there must be exactness in the antecedent propositions. A geometrician requires that the straight lines with which he deals shall be veritably straight: and that his circles, and ellipses, and parabolas shall agree with precise definition–shall perfectly and invariably answer to specified equations. If you put to him a question in which these conditions are not complied with, he tells you that it cannot be answered. So likewise is it with the philosophical moralist. He treats solely of the straight man. He determines the properties of the straight man; describes how the straight man comports himself; shows in what relationship he stands to other straight men; shows how a community of straight men is constituted. Any deviation fromstrict rectitude he is obliged wholly to ignore. It cannot be admitted into his premises without vitiating all his conclusions. A problem in which a crooked man forms one of the elements is insoluble by him.
Referring to this view, specifically in the first edition of the Methods of Ethics but more generally in the second edition, Mr. Sidgwick says:
Those who take this view adduce the analogy of Geometry to show that Ethics ought to deal with ideally perfect human relations, just as Geometry treats of ideally perfect lines and circles. But the most irregular line has definite spatial relations with which Geometry does not refuse to deal: though of course they are more complex than those of a straight line. So in Astronomy, it would be more convenient for purposes of study if the stars moved in circles, as was once believed: but the fact that they move not in circles but in ellipses, and even in imperfect and perturbed ellipses, does not take them out of the sphere of scientific investigation: by patience and industry we have learnt how to reduce to principles and calculate even these more complicated motions. It is, no doubt, a convenient artifice for purposes of instruction to assume that the planets move in perfect ellipses (or even–at an earlier stage of study–in circles): we thus allow the individual’s knowledge to pass through the same gradations in accuracy as that of the race has done. But what we want, as astronomers, to know is the actual motion of the stars and its causes: and similarly as moralists we naturally inquire what ought to be done in the actual world in which we live.
[P. 19, 2nd ed.]
Beginning with the first of these two statements, which concerns geometry I must confess myself surprised to find my propositions called in question; and after full consideration I remain at a loss to understand Mr. Sidgwick’s mode of viewing the matter. When, in a sentence preceding those quoted above, I remarked on the impossibility of solving “mathematically a series of problems respecting crooked lines and broken-backed curves,” it never occurred to me that I should be met by the direct assertion that “geometry does not refuse to deal” with “the most irregular line.” Mr. Sidgwick states that an irregular line, say such as a child makes in scribbling, has “definite spatial relations.” What meaning does he here give to the word “definite.” If he means that its relations to space at large are definite in the sense that by an infinite intelligence they would be definable; the reply is that to an infinite intelligence all spatial relations would be definable: there could be no indefinite spatial relations–the word “definite” thus ceasing to mark any distinction. If, on the other hand, when saying that an irregular line has “definite spatial relations,” he means relations knowable definitely by human intelligence; there still comes the question, how is the word “definite” to be understood? Surely anything distinguished as definite admits of being defined; but how can we define an irregular line? And if we cannot define the irregular line itself, how can we know its “spatial relations” definitely? And how in the absence of definition, can geometry deal with it? If Mr. Sidgwick means that it can be dealt with by the “method of limits,” then the reply is that in such case, not the line itself is dealt with geometrically but certain definite lines artificially put in quasi-definite relations to it: the indefinite becomes cognizable only through the medium of the hypothetically definite.
Turning to the second illustration, the rejoinder to be made is that in so far as it concerns the relations between the ideal and the real, the analogy drawn does not shake but strengthens my argument. For whether considered under its geometrical or under its dynamical aspect, and whether considered in the necessary order of its development or in the order historically displayed, astronomy shows us throughout, that truths respecting simple, theoretically exact relations, must be ascertained before truths respecting the complex and practically inexact relations that actually exist, can be ascertained. As applied to the interpretation of planetary movements, we see that the theory of cycles and epicycles was based on preexisting knowledge of the circle: the properties of an ideal curve having been learned, a power was acquired of giving some expression to the celestial motions. We see that the Copernican interpretation expressed the facts in terms of circular movements otherwise distributed and combined. We see that Kepler’s advance from the conception of circular movements to the conception of elliptic movements, was made possible by comparing the facts as they are with the facts as they would be were the movements circular. We see that the subsequently learned deviations from elliptic movements, were learned only through the presupposition that the movements are elliptical. And we see, lastly, that even now predictions concerning the exact positions of planets, after taking account of perturbations, imply constant references to ellipses that are regarded as their normal or average orbits for the time being. Thus, ascertainment of the actual truths has been made possible only by preascertainment of certain ideal truths. To be convinced that by no other course could the actual truths have been ascertained, it needs only to suppose any one saying that it did not concern him, as an astronomer, to know anything about the properties of circles and ellipses, but that he had to deal with the solar system as it exists, to which end it was his business to observe and tabulate positions and directions and to be guided by the facts as he found them. So, too, is it if we look at the development of dynamical astronomy The first proposition in Newton’s Principia deals with the movement of a single body round a single center of force; and the phenomena of central motion are first formulated in a case which is not simply ideal, but in which there is no specification of the force concerned: detachment from the real is the greatest possible. Again, postulating a principle of action conforming to an ideal law, the theory of gravitation deals with the several problems of the solar system in fictitious detachment from the rest; and it makes certain fictitious assumptions, such as that the mass of each body concerned is concentrated in its center of gravity. Only later, after establishing the leading truths by this artifice of disentangling the major factors from the minor factors, is the theory applied to the actual problems in their ascending degrees of complexity; taking in more and more of the minor factors. And if we ask whether the dynamics of the solar system could have been established in any other way we see that here, too, simple truths holding under ideal conditions, have to be ascertained before real truths existing under complex conditions can be ascertained.
The alleged necessary precedence of absolute ethics over relative ethics is thus, I think, further elucidated. One who has followed the general argument thus far, will not deny that an ideal social being may be conceived as so constituted that his spontaneous activities are congruous with the conditions imposed by the social environment formed by other such beings. In many places, and in various ways, I have argued that conformably with the laws of evolution in general, and conformably with the laws of organization in particular, there has been, and is, in progress, an adaptation of humanity to the social state, changing it in the direction of such as ideal congruity. And the corollary before drawn and here repeated, is that the ultimate man is one in whom this process has gone so far as to produce a correspondence between all the promptings of his nature and all the requirements of his life as carried on in society. If so, it is a necessary implication that there exists an ideal code of conduct formulating the behavior of the completely adapted man in the completely evolved society. Such a code is that here called absolute ethics as distinguished from relative ethics–a code the injunctions of which are alone to be considered as absolutely right in contrast with those that are relatively right or least wrong; and which, as a system of ideal conduct, is to serve as a standard for our guidance in solving, as well as we can, the problems of real conduct.
105a. A clear conception of this matter is so important that I must be excused for bringing in aid of it a further illustration, more obviously appropriate as being furnished by organic science instead of by inorganic science. The relation between morality proper and morality as commonly conceived, is analogous to the relation between physiology and pathology; and the course usually pursued by moralists is much like the course of one who studies pathology without previous study of physiology.
Physiology describes the various functions which, as combined, constitute and maintain life; and in treating of them it assumes that they are severally performed in right ways, in due amounts, and in proper order: it recognizes only healthy functions. If it explains digestion, it supposes that the heart is supplying blood and that the visceral nervous system is stimulating the organs immediately concerned. If it gives a theory of the circulation, it assumes that blood has been produced by the combined actions of the structures devoted to its production, and that it is properly aerated. If the relations between respiration and the vital processes at large are interpreted, it is on the presupposition that the heart goes on sending blood, not only to the lungs and to certain nervous centers, but to the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Physiology ignores failures in the actions of these several organs. It takes no account of imperfections, it neglects derangements, it does not recognize pain, it knows nothing of vital wrong. It simply formulates that which goes on as a result of complete adaptation of all parts to all needs. That is to say in relation to the inner actions constituting bodily life, physiological theory has a position like that which ethical theory under its absolute form as above conceived, has to the outer actions constituting conduct. The moment cognizance is taken of excess of function, or arrest of function, or defect of function, with the resulting evil, physiology passes into pathology. We begin now to take account of wrong actions in the inner life analogous to the wrong actions in the outer life taken account of by ordinary theories of morals.
The antithesis thus drawn, however, is but preliminary. After observing the fact that there is a science of vital actions normally carried on, which ignores abnormal actions; we have more especially to observe that the science of abnormal actions can reach such definiteness as is possible to it, only on condition that the science of normal actions has previously become definite; or rather let us say that pathological science depends for its advances on previous advances made by physiological science. The very conception of disordered action implies a preconception of well-ordered action. Before it can be decided that the heart is beating faster or slower than it should, its healthy rate of beating must be learned; before the pulse can be recognized as too weak or too strong, its proper strength must be known; and so throughout. Even the rudest and most empirical ideas of diseases, presuppose ideas of the healthy states from which they are deviations; and obviously the diagnosis of diseases can become scientific, only as fast as there arises scientific knowledge of organic actions that are undiseased.
Similarly, then, is it with the relation between absolute morality or the law of perfect right in human conduct, and relative morality which, recognizing wrong in human conduct, has to decide in what way the wrong deviates from the right, and how the right is to be most nearly approached. When, formulating normal conduct in an ideal society we have reached a science of absolute ethics, we have simultaneously reached a science which, when used to interpret the phenomena of real societies in their transitional states, full of the miseries due to nonadaptation (which we may call pathological states) enables us to form approximately true conclusions respecting the natures of the abnormalities, and the courses which tend most in the direction of the normal.
106. And now let it be observed that the conception of ethics thus set forth, strange as many will think it, is one which really lies latent in the beliefs of moralists at large. Though not definitely acknowledged it is vaguely implied in many of their propositions.
From early times downwards we find in ethical speculations, references to the ideal man, his acts, his feelings, his judgments. When Socrates said that well-doing is the thing to be chiefly studied, and that he achieved it who devoted to the study searching and labor, he made the actions of the superior man his standard, since he gave no other. Plato, in Minos, asserts that “the authoritative rescripts or laws are those laid down by the artists or men of knowledge in that department”; and the doctrine contained in Laches is that only “the One Wise Man” can estimate the good or evil, or the comparative value of two alternative ends in each individual case": an ideal man is postulated. Aristotle says: “For it is the man whose condition, whether moral or bodily is in each case perfect who in each case judges rightly and at once perceives the truth. . . . And herein it is that the perfect man may be said to differ most widely from all others, in that in all such cases he at once perceives the truth, being, as it were, the rule and measure of its application.” While observing that the Stoics, like other ancient philosophers, failing to distinguish properly between intellect and feeling, identified wisdom with goodness, we see that they, too, made the perfect man the measure of rectitude. And Epicurus, also, regards the wise man as the only one who can achieve a happy life–"he alone knows how to do the right thing in the right way.”
If in modern times, influenced by theological dogmas concerning human sinfulness, and by a theory of divinely prescribed conduct, moralists have not so frequently referred to an ideal, yet various references are traceable. We may see one in the dictum of Kant–"Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” For this implies the thought of a society in which the maxim is acted upon by all and universal benefit recognized as the effect: there is a conception of ideal conduct under ideal conditions. And though Mr. Sidgwick, in the quotation above made from him, implies that ethics is concerned with man as he is, rather than with man as he should be; yet, in elsewhere speaking of ethics as dealing with conduct as it should be, rather than with conduct as it is, he postulates ideal conduct and indirectly the ideal man. On his first page, speaking of ethics along with jurisprudence and politics, he says that they are distinguished “by the characteristic that they attempt to determine not the actual but the ideal–what ought to exist, not what does exist.”
It requires only that these various conceptions of an ideal conduct and of an ideal humanity, should be made consistent and definite, to bring them into agreement with the conception above set forth. At present such conceptions are habitually vague. The ideal man having been conceived in terms of the current morality, is thereupon erected into a moral standard by which the goodness of actions may be judged; and the reasoning becomes circular. To make the ideal man serve as a standard, he has to be defined in terms of the conditions which his nature fulfills–in terms of those objective requirements which must be met before conduct can be right; and the common defect of these conceptions of the ideal man, is that they suppose him out of relation to such conditions.
All the above references to him, direct or indirect, imply that the ideal man is supposed to live and act under existing social conditions. The tacit inquiry is, not what his actions would be under circumstances altogether changed, but what they would be under present circumstances. And this inquiry is futile for two reasons. The coexistence of a perfect man and an imperfect society is impossible; and could the two coexist, the resulting conduct would not furnish the ethical standard sought. In the first place, given the laws of life as they are, and a man of ideal nature cannot be produced in a society consisting of men having natures remote from the ideal. As well might we expect a child of English type to be born among Negroes, as expect that among the organically immoral, one who is organically moral will arise. Unless it be denied that character results from inherited structure, it must be admitted that since, in any society, each individual descends from a stock which, traced back a few generations, ramifies everywhere through the society, and participates in its average nature, there must, nothwithstanding marked individual diversities, be preserved such community as prevents anyone from reaching an ideal form while the rest remain far below it. In the second place, ideal conduct such as ethical theory is concerned with, is not possible for the ideal man in the midst of men otherwise constituted. An absolutely just or perfectly sympathetic person, could not live and act according to his nature in a tribe of cannibals. Among people who are treacherous and utterly without scruple, entire truthfulness and openness must bring ruin. If all around recognize only the law of the strongest, one whose nature will not allow him to inflict pain on others, must go to the wall. There requires a certain congruity between the conduct of each member of a society and other's conduct. A mode of action entirely alien to the prevailing modes of action, cannot be successfully persisted in-must eventuate in death itself, or posterity, or both.
Hence it is manifest that we must consider the ideal man as existing in the ideal social state. On the evolution-hypothesis, the two presuppose one another; and only when they coexist, can there exist that ideal conduct which absolute ethics has to formulate, and which relative ethics has to take as the standard by which to estimate divergencies from right, or degrees of wrong.
[]I do not find this passage in the second edition; but the omission of it appears to have arisen not from any change of view, but because it did not naturalIy come into the recast form of the argument which the section contains.