Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2.: What Ideas and Sentiments Are Ethical? - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 2.: What Ideas and Sentiments Are Ethical? - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
What Ideas and Sentiments Are Ethical?
119. A silent protest has been made by many readers, and probably by most, while reading that section of the foregoing chapter which describes the ethics of enmity. Governed by feelings and ideas which date from their earliest lessons, and have been constantly impressed on them at home and in church, they have formed an almost indissoluble association between a doctrine of right and wrong in general, and those particular commands and interdicts included in the decalogue, which, contemplating the actions of men to one another in the same society, takes no note of their combined actions against men of alien societies. The conception of ethics has, in this way, come to be limited to that which I have distinguished as the ethics of amity; and to speak of the ethics of enmity seems absurd.
Yet, beyond question, men associate ideas of right and wrong with the carrying on of intertribal and international conflicts; and this or that conduct in battle is applauded or condemned no less strongly than this or that conduct in ordinary social life. Are we then to say that there is one kind of right and wrong recognized by ethics and another kind of right and wrong not recognized by ethics? If so, under what title is this second kind of right and wrong to be dealt with? Evidently men’s ideas about conduct are in so unorganized a state, that while one large class of actions has an overtly recognized sanction, another large class of actions has a sanction, equally strong or stronger, which is not overtly recognized.
The existence of these distinct sanctions, of which one is classed as moral and the other not, is still more clearly seen when we contrast the maxims of Christianity with the dogmas of duellists. During centuries throughout Europe, and even still throughout the greater part of it, there has existed, and exists, an imperative “obligation,” under certain conditions, to challenge another to fight, and an imperative obligation to accept the challenge–an obligation much more imperative than the obligation to discharge a debt. To either combatant the word “must” is used with as much emphasis as it would be used were he enjoined to tell the truth. The “duty” of the insulted man is to defend his honor; and so wrong is his conduct considered if he does not do this, that he is shunned by his friends as a disgraced man, just as he would be had he committed a theft. Beyond question, then, we see here ideas of right and wrong quite as pronounced, with corresponding sentiments of approbation and reprobation quite as strong, as those which refer to fulfillments and breaches of what are classed as moral injunctions. How, then, can we include the last under ethical science and exclude the first from it?
The need for greatly widening the current conception of ethics is, however, still greater than is thus shown. There are other large classes of actions which excite ideas and feelings undistinguishable in their essential natures from those to which the term ethical is conventionally limited.
120. Among uncivilized and semicivilized peoples, the obligations imposed by custom are peremptory. The universal belief that such things ought to be done, is not usually made manifest by the visiting of punishment or reprobation on those who do not conform, because nonconformity is scarcely heard of. How intolerable to the general mind is breach of usages, is shown occasionally when a ruler is deposed and even killed for disregard of them: a sufficient proof that his act is held wrong. And we sometimes find distinct expressions of moral sentiment on behalf of customs having nothing which we should call moral authority, and even on behalf of customs which we should call profoundly immoral.
I may begin with an instance I have named elsewhere in another connection–the instance furnished by some Mahomedan tribes who consider that one of the worst offenses is smoking: “drinking the shameful,” as they term it. Palgrave narrates that while “giving divine honors to a creature,” is regarded by the Wahhabees as “the first of the great sins,” the second great sin is smoking–a sin in comparison with which murder, adultery, and false witness, are trivial sins. Similarly, by certain Russian sects close to Siberia, smoking is an offense distinguished from all others as being never forgiven: “every crime can be expiated by repentance except this one.” In these cases the repugnance felt for an act held by us to be quite harmless, is of the same nature as the repugnance felt for the blackest crimes: the only difference being that it is more intense.
Lichtenstein tells us that when Mulihawang, king of the Matelhapees (a division of the Bechuanas), was told that Europeans are not permitted to have more than one wife, “he said it was perfectly incomprehensible to him how a whole nation could submit voluntarily to such extraordinary laws.” Similar was the opinion of the Arab sheikh who, along with his people, received the account of monogamy in England with indignation, and said “the fact is simply impossible! How can a man be contented with one wife?” Nor is it only men who think thus. Livingstone says of the Makololo women on the shores of the Zambesi, that they were quite shocked to hear that in England a man had only one wife: to have only one was not “respectable.” So, too, in Equatorial Africa, according to Reade, “If a man marries, and his wife thinks that he can afford another spouse, she pesters him to marry again; and calls him a ‘stingy fellow’ if he declines to do so.” Similar is the feeling shown by the Araucanian women. “Far from being dissatisfied, or entertaining any jealousy toward the newcomer, she [one of two wives] said that she wished her husband would marry again; for she considered it a great relief to have some one to assist her in her household duties, and in the maintenance of her husband.” No notion of immorality, much less criminality, such as we associate with bigamy and polygamy, is here entertained; but, contrariwise, when a woman calls her husband a “stingy fellow” if he does not take a second wife, we have proof that monogamy is reprobated.
Ideas relevant to the relations of the sexes, still more profoundly at variance with our own, are displayed in many places. Books of travel have made readers familiar with the fact that among various races, a traveller entertained by a chief is offered a wife or a daughter as a temporary bedfellow; and the duty of hospitality is held to require this offer. In other cases the loan takes a somewhat different shape. Of the Chinooks we read:
Among all the tribes, a man will lend his wife or daughter for a fish-hook or a strand of beads. To decline an offer of this sort is, indeed, to disparage the charms of the lady, and therefore give such offense, that although we had occasionally to treat the Indians with rigor, nothing seemed to irritate both sexes more than our refusal to accept the favors of the females.
Still more pronounced is the feeling shown by the members of an Asiatic tribe which Erman visited: “The Chuckchi offer to travelers who chance to visit them, their wives, and also what we should call their daughters’ honor, and resent as a deadly affront any refusal of such offers.” Here we see that deeds which among ourselves would be classed among the profoundest disgraces, are not only regarded without shame, but declining to participate in them causes indignation: implying a sense of wrong.
As it concerns in another way the relations of the sexes, I may instance next a further contrast between the sentiments entertained by many partially civilized peoples, and those which have arisen along with the advance of civilization. Interdicts on marriages between persons of different ranks, breaches of which have in some cases brought the severest punishment, date back to very early times. Thus, in the Mahabharata we read that Draupadi refused the “ambitious Karna, saying, “I wed not with the baseborn.” And then, coming down to comparatively modern times, we have the penalties entailed on those who broke the laws against mésalliances; as in France during the feudal period, on nobles who married beneath them: they were excluded from tournaments, and their descendants also. But the condemnation thus manifested five centuries ago is not paralleled now. Though a certain amount of reprobation is in some cases shown, in other cases there is approbation; and witness Tennyson’s “Miller’s Daughter” and Mrs. Browning’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.” Here the different feelings excited, though like in nature to those we call moral, are not concerned with either supposed divine commands or with acts usually classed as moral or immoral.
Returning to the uncivilized races, I may instance the conceptions associated with the division of labor between the sexes. Concerning various tribes of American Indians, North and South, we read that custom, limiting the actions of the men mainly to war and the chase, devolves on the women all the menial and laborious occupations; and these customs have an imperative sanction. Says Falkner concerning the Patagonians: “So rigidly are” the women “obliged to perform their duty, that their husbands cannot help them on any occasion, or in the greatest distress, without incurring the highest ignominy.” And these usages are fully approved of by the women themselves; as witness the following extract concerning the Dakotas:
It is the worst insult one virago can cast upon another in a moment of altercation. “Infamous woman!” will she cry, “I have seen your husband carrying wood into his lodge to make the fire. Where was his squaw, that he should be obliged to make a woman of himself?”
Clearly this indignation is the correlative of a strong moral feeling enlisted on behalf of the prescribed conduct. But if, among ourselves, any women were left, as among the Esquimaux, “to carry stones [for building houses], almost heavy enough to break their backs,” while “the men look on with the greatest insensibility not stirring a finger to assist them,” moral reprobation would be felt. As there are no specific injunctions, divine or human, referring to transactions of these kinds, the strongly contrasted emotions which they excite in ourselves and in these uncivilized peoples, must be ascribed to unlikenesses of customs–unlikenesses, however, which are themselves significant of innate emotional unlikenesses.
As further illustrating in a variety of ways these differences of feelings akin in nature to those we call moral, though not ordinarily classed as such, I may, without commenting upon each, here append a series of them.
The Caffers despise the Hottentots, Bushmen, Malays, and other people of color, on account of their not being circumcised. On this account, they regard them as boys, and will not allow them to sit in their company, or to eat with them.
A Mayorvna, who had been baptized, when at the point of death was very unhappy . . . because, dying as a Christian, instead of furnishing a meal to his relations, he would be eaten up by worms.
The Bambara washerwomen . . . were stark naked, yet they manifested no shame at being seen in this state by the men composing our caravan.
And a kindred statement is made concerning the Wakavirondo by Thomson, who describes their women as nevertheless altogether modest, and, remarking that “morality has nothing to do with clothes,” says of these people that “they are the most moral of all the tribes of this region, and they are simply angels of purity beside the decently dressed Masai.” “I found that the married men,” among the Hassanyeh Arabs, says Petherick,
felt themselves highly flattered by any attentions paid to their better halves during their free-and-easy days. [Their marriages are for three or four days in the week only.] They seem to take such attentions as evidence that their wives are attractive.
Among the Khonds, so far as constancy to a husband from being required in a wife, that her pretensions do not, in the least, suffer diminution in the eyes of either sex when fines are levied on her convicted lovers; while on the other hand, infidelity on the part of a married man is held to be highly dishonorable, and is often punished by deprivation of many social privileges.
I have reserved for the last, two remarkable cases in which feelings like those which we class as moral, are definitely expressed in ways to us very surprising. The first concerns the Tahitians, who were described by Cook as without shame in respect of actions which among ourselves especially excite it, and as feeling shame in respect of actions which among ourselves excite none. These people were extremely averse to our custom of eating in society. “They eat alone, they said, because it was right.” The other instance, equally anomalous, is even more startling. In Vate “it is considered a disgrace to the family of an aged chief if he is not buried alive.” A like usage and accompanying feeling existed in Fiji.
A son said, when about to bury his mother alive, that it was from love to his mother that he had done so; that, in consequence of the same love, they were now going to bury her, and that none but themselves could or ought to do so sacred an office! . . . she was their mother, and they were her children, and they ought to put her to death.
The belief being that people commence life in the next world at the stage they have reached when they leave this world; and that hence postponement of death till old age entails a subsequent miserable existence.
Thus we have abundant proof that with acts which do violence to our moral sentiments, there are associated, in the minds of other races, feelings and ideas not only warranting them but enforcing them. They are fulfilled with a sense of obligation; and nonfulfillment of them, regarded as breach of duty, brings condemnation and resulting self-reproach.
121. Everywhere during social progress custom passes into law. Practically speaking, custom is law in undeveloped societies. “The old Innuits did so, and therefore we must,” say the existing Innuits (Esquimaux); and other uncivilized peoples similarly express the constraint they are under. In subsequent stages, customs become the acknowledged bases of laws. It is true that afterwards the body of laws is made up in part of alleged divine commands–the themistes of the Greeks, for example; but in reality these, supposed to come from one who was originally an apotheosized ruler, usually enforce existing customs. Leviticus shows us a whole body of practices, many of them of kinds which would be now regarded as neither religious nor moral, thus acquiring authority. Whether inherited from the undistinguished forefathers of the tribes, or ascribed to the will of a deceased king, customs embody the rule of the dead over the living; as do also the laws into which they harden.
Of course, therefore, if ideas of duty and feelings of obligation cluster round customs, they cluster round the derived laws. The sentiment of “ought” comes to be associated with a legal injunction, as with an injunction traced to the general authority of ancestors or the special authority of a deified ancestor. And not only does there hence arise a consciousness that obedience to each particular law is right and disobedience to it wrong, but eventually there arises a consciousness that obedience to law in general is right and disobedience to it wrong. Especially is this the case where the living ruler has a divine or semidivine character; as witness the following statement concerning the ancient Peruvians: “The most common punishment was death, for they said that a culprit was not punished for the delinquencies he had committed, but for having broken the commandment of the Ynea, who was respected as God.” And this conception, reminding us of religious conceptions anciently current and still current, is practically paralleled by the conceptions still expressed by jurists and accepted by most citizens. For though a distinction is commonly made between legal obligation and moral obligation, in those cases where the law is of a kind in respect of which ethics gives no direct verdict; yet the obligation to obey has come to be, if not nominally yet practically, a moral obligation. The words habitually used imply this. It is held “right” to obey the law and “wrong” to disobey it. Conformity and nonconformity bring approbation and reprobation, just as though the legal injunction were a moral injunction. A man who has broken the law, even though it be in a matter of no ethical significance–say a householder who has refused to fill up the census paper or a peddler who has not taken out a license–feels, when he is brought before the magistrates, that he is regarded not only by them but by spectators as morally blameworthy. The feeling shown is quite as strong as it would be were he convicted of aggressing on his neighbors by nuisances–perpetual noises or pestilent odors–which are moral offenses properly so called. That is to say, law is upheld by a sentiment indistinguishable from moral sentiment. Moreover, in some cases where the two conflict, the sentiment which upholds the legal dictum overrides the sentiment which upholds the moral dictum; as in the case of the peddler above named. His act in selling without a license is morally justifiable, and forbidding him to sell without a license is morally unjustifiable–is an interference with his due liberty, which is ethically unwarranted. Yet the factitious moral sentiment enlisted on behalf of legal authority, triumphs over the natural moral sentiment enlisted on behalf of rightful freedom.
How strong is the artificial sanction acquired by a constituted authority, is seen very strikingly in the doings of Joint Stock associations. If the directors of a company formed to carry out a specified undertaking, decide to extend their activities so as to include undertakings not originally specified, and even undertakings wholly unallied to those originally specified; and if they bring before the proprietary their proposals for doing this; it is held that if a majority (at one time a simple majority, but now two-thirds) approve the proposal, the proprietary at large is bound by the decision. Should a few protest against being committed to such new undertakings, they are frowned upon and pooh-poohed as unreasonable obstructions: moral reprobation is vented against such resistance to the ruling agent and its supporters. Nevertheless, the moral reprobation should be inverted. As a question of pure equity, the incorporated body cannot enter on any businesses not specified or implied in the deed of incorporation. Those who break the original contract by entering on unspecified businesses, are unjustified; while those who stand by the original contract, however few in number, are justified. Yet so strong is the quasi-moral sanction associated with the acts of a constituted authority, that its ethically wrong course is thought right, and insistence on regard for the ethically right course is thought wrong!
122. How then are ethical ideas and sentiments to be defined? How, indeed, are they to be conceived in any consistent way? Let us recapitulate.
Throughout the past, and down to present days in most minds, conceptions of right and wrong have been directly associated with supposed divine injunctions. Acts have been classed as good or bad, not because of their intrinsic natures but because of their extrinsic derivations; and virtue has consisted in obedience. Under certain circumstances, we find conduct regarded as praiseworthy or blameworthy according as it does or does not inflict suffering or death upon fellow beings; while, under other circumstances, we find the praise or blame given according as it does or does not conduce to the welfare of fellow beings. Then there is the opposition between hedonism and asceticism: by some approbation is felt for deeds which apparently conduce to the happiness of self or others or both; while, contrariwise, others look with reprobation upon a way of living which makes happiness an end. By this class the perceptions of good and evil conduct, along with love of the one and hatred of the other, are traced to a moral sense; and ethics becomes the interrogation of, and obedience to, conscience. Contrariwise, by that class such guidance is ridiculed; and calculations of consequences, irrespective of sentiment of right or theory of right, occupy the ethical sphere. Universally in early stages, and to a considerable degree in late stages, the idea of ought is associated with conformity to established customs, irrespective of their natures; and when established customs grow into laws, the idea of ought comes to be associated with obedience to laws: no matter whether considered intrinsically good or intrinsically bad.
Clearly, therefore, the conceptions of right, obligation, duty, and the sentiments associated with those conceptions, have a far wider range than the conduct ordinarily conceived as the subject matter of moral science. In different places and under different circumstances, substantially the same ideas and feelings are joined with classes of actions of totally opposite kinds, and also with classes of actions of which moral science, as ordinarily conceived, takes no cognizance. Hence, if we are to treat the subject scientifically, we must disregard the limits of conventional ethics, and consider what are the intrinsic natures of ethical ideas and sentiments.
123. A trait common to all forms of sentiments and ideas to be classed as ethical, is the consciousness of authority. The nature of the authority is inconstant. It may be that of an apotheosized ruler or other deity supposed to give commands. It may be that of ancestors who have bequeathed usages, with or without injunctions to follow them. It may be that of a living ruler who makes laws, or a military commander who issues orders. It may be that of an aggregate public opinion, either expressed through a government or otherwise expressed. It may be that of an imagined utility which every one is bound to further. Or it may be that of an internal monitor distinguished as conscience.
Along with the element of authority at once intellectually recognized and emotionally responded to, there goes the element, more or less definite, of coercion. The consciousness of ought which the recognition of authority implies, is joined with the consciousness of must, which the recognition of force implies. Be it the power of a god, of a king, of a chief soldier, of a popular government, of an inherited custom, of an unorganized social feeling, there is always present the conception of a power. Even when the injunction is that of an internal monitor, the conception of a power is not absent; since the expectation of the penalty of self-reproach, which disobedience may entail, is vaguely recognized as coercive.
A further component of the ethical consciousness, and often the largest component, is the represented opinion of other individuals, who also, in one sense, constitute an authority and exercise a coercion. This, either as actually implied in others’ behavior, or as imagined if they are not present, commonly serves more than anything else to restrain or impel. How large a component this is, we see in a child who blushes when wrongly suspected of a transgression, as much as when rightly suspected; and probably most have had proof that, when guiltless, the feeling produced by the conceived reprobation of others is scarcely distinguishable from the feeling which would be produced by such reprobation if guilty That an imagined public opinion is the chief element of consciousness in cases where the acts ascribed or committed are intrinsically wrong, is shown when this imagined or expressed opinion refers to acts which are not intrinsically wrong. The emotion of shame ordinarily accompanying some gross breach of social convention which is morally indifferent, or even morally praiseworthy (say wheeling home the barrow of a costermonger who has lamed himself), may be quite as strong as the emotion of shame which follows the proved utterance of an unwarranted libel–an act intrinsically wrong. In the majority of people the feeling of ought not will be more peremptory in the first case than in the last.
If, now, we look at the matter apart from conventional classifications, we see that where the consciousnesses of authority, of coercion, and of public opinion, combined in different proportions, result in an idea and a feeling of obligation, we must class these as ethical irrespective of the kind of action to which they refer. If the associated conceptions of right are similar, and the prompting emotions similar, we must consider the mental states as of the same nature, though they are enlisted on behalf of acts radically opposed. Or rather, let us say that, with the exception of an idea and a sentiment incidentally referred to, we must class them as forming a body of thought and feeling which may be called proethical; and which, with the mass of mankind, stands in place of the ethical properly so called.
124. For now let us observe that the ethical sentiment and idea properly so called, are independent of the ideas and sentiments above described as derived from external authorities, and coercions, and approbations–religious, political, or social. The true moral consciousness which we name conscience, does not refer to those extrinsic results of conduct which take the shape of praise or blame, reward or punishment, externally awarded; but it refers to the intrinsic results of conduct which, in part and by some intellectually perceived, are mainly and by most, intuitively felt. The moral consciousness proper does not contemplate obligations as artificially imposed by an external power; nor is it chiefly occupied with estimates of the amounts of pleasure and pain which given actions may produce, though these may be clearly or dimly perceived; but it is chiefly occupied with recognition of, and regard for, those conditions by fulfillment of which happiness is achieved or misery avoided. The sentiment enlisted on behalf of these conditions is often in harmony with the proethical sentiment compounded as above described, though from time to time in conflict with it; but whether in harmony or in conflict, it is vaguely or distinctly recognized as the rightful ruler: responding, as it does, to consequences which are not artificial and variable, but to consequences which are natural and permanent.
It should be remarked that along with established supremacy of this ethical sentiment proper, the feeling of obligation, though continuing to exist in the background of consciousness, ceases to occupy its foreground; since the right actions are habitually performed spontaneously or from liking. Though, while the moral nature is imperfectly developed, there may often arise conformity to the ethical sentiment under a sense of compulsion by it; and though, in other cases, nonconformity to it may cause subsequent self-reproach (as instance a remembered lack of gratitude, which may be a source of pain without there being any thought of extrinsic penalty); yet with a moral nature completely balanced, neither of these feelings will arise, because that which is done is done in satisfaction of the appropriate desire.
And now having, mainly for the purpose of making the statement complete, contemplated the ethical sentiment proper, as distinguished from the proethical sentiment, we may for the present practically dismiss it from our thoughts, and consider only the phenomena presented by the proethical sentiment under its various forms. For throughout the remaining chapters of this division, treating inductively of ideas and feelings about conduct displayed by mankind at large we shall be concerned almost exclusively with the proethical sentiment: the ethical sentiment proper being, in the great mass of cases, scarcely discernible.
Before entering on the task indicated, let me add that a good deal which approaches to repetition will be found in the immediately succeeding pages–not repetition in so far as the evidence given is concerned, but in so far as the cardinal ideas are concerned. In the preliminary discussion to which this chapter and the preceding one have been devoted, it has been necessary to state in brief some of the leading conceptions which a general inspection of the phenomena suggests. These conceptions have now to be set forth in full, along with the masses of facts which give birth to them. But while it seems well to apologize beforehand for the recurrence, in elaborated forms, of ideas already expressed in small space, I do not altogether regret having to elaborate the ideas; since there will be afforded occasion for further emphasizing conclusions which can scarcely be too much dwelt upon.