Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 3.: Aggression - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 3.: Aggression - 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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125. Under this title, accepted in its full meaning, may be ranged many kinds of acts–acts so many and various that they cannot be dealt with in one chapter. Here I propose to restrict the application of the title to acts inflicting bodily injury on others to the extent of killing or wounding them–acts of kinds which we class as destructive.
Even of these acts, which we may consider as completely or partially homicidal, there are sundry kinds not comprehended under aggression as ordinarily understood. I refer to those which do not imply antagonism or conflict.
The first of them to be named is infanticide. Far from being regarded as a crime, child-murder has been, throughout the world in early times, and in various parts of the world still is, regarded as not even an offense: occasionally, indeed, as a duty. We have that infanticide which is dictated by desire to preserve the lives of adults; for in a tribe which is ever on the border of starvation, addition of some to its number may prove fatal to others. Female infanticide, too, is often dictated by thought of tribal welfare: the established policy is to kill girls, who, while not useful for purposes of war and the chase, will, if in excess, injuriously tax the food supplies. Then, again, we have the child-murder committed in a fit of passion. Among savages, and even among the semicivilized, this is considered an indifferent matter: the power of life and death over children being, in early stages, taken for granted. Once more we have the sacrifice of children to propitiate cannibal chiefs, living or dead. Regarded as an obligation, this may be classed as prompted by a proethical sentiment.
Turning to the socially sanctioned homicides of which the victims are adults, we may set down first those which in many places occur at funerals; as instance Indian suttees until recent times. On much larger scales are the immolations during the obsequies of chiefs and kings. The killing of wives to accompany their dead husbands to the other world, and the killing of male attendants to serve them in the other world (sometimes also of friends) are forms of wholesale slaughter which have occurred in many countries, and still occur in parts of Africa. And with these may be joined such slaughters as those which are common in Dahomey, where a man is killed that his double may carry a message from the king to a deceased ancestor. Homicides of this class have also a kind of proethical warrant; since they are instigated by reverence for custom and by the obligation of loyalty.
Lastly we have the homicides prompted by beliefs classed as religious. With or without the ascription of divine cannibalism, the sacrifices of victims to deities have prevailed widely among various races in early times–Phoenicians, Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Hebrews &c.–carried, in some places, to great extremes; as in Ancient Mexico, where thousands of human victims annually were slain on altars, and where wars were made on the plea that the gods were hungry. And to these religious homicides which, in early stages, ministered to the supposed appetites of the gods, must be added the religious homicides which, in comparatively modern times, have been committed, alike by Catholics and Protestants, to appease the supposed wrath of their God against misbelievers.
Under that theory which regards the rightness of acts as constituted by fulfillment of divine injunctions, these religious homicides, in common with sundry of those above described, were prompted by one of the motives we class as proethical.
126. From these aggressions, taking the form of homicides, which are not consequent on personal or tribal antagonisms, let us pass to those of which bloodthirstiness is the cause, with or without enmity, personal or tribal.
I will begin with an instance which I have named elsewhere–that of the Fijians, among whom murder was thought honorable. Credence to this statement, which otherwise one would be inclined to withhold, is justified by knowledge of kindred statements respecting other peoples. Livingstone tells us that a Bushman
sat by the fire relating his early adventures: among these was killing five other Bushmen. “Two,” said he, counting on his fingers, “were females, one a male, and the other two calves.” “What a villain you are to boast of killing women and children of your own nation! What will God say when you appear before him?” “He will say,” replied he, “that I was a very clever fellow.” . . . I discovered that, though he was employing the word which is used among the Bakwains when speaking of the Deity, he had only the idea of a chief, and was all the time referring to Sekomi.
Still more astounding is the state of things, and the kind of sentiment, described by Wilson and Felkin in their account of Uganda. Here is an illustrative incident.
A young page of Mtesa’s [king of Uganda], son of a subordinate chief, was frequently employed to bring me messages from the palace, and one morning came down to my house, and informed me with great glee that he had just killed his father. I inquired why he had done this, and he said that he was tired of being merely a servant, and wished to become a chief, and said so to Mtesa, who replied, “Oh, kill your father, and you will become a chief”; and the boy did so.
That, among peoples who lead lives of aggression, it is a virtue to be a destroyer and a vice to be peaceful, sundry cases prove.
The name of “harami"–brigand–is still honorable among the Hejazi Bedouins. . . . He, on the other hand, who is lucky enough, as we should express it, to die in his bed, is called “fatis” (carrion, the corps crévé of the Klephts); his weeping mother will exclaim, “O that my son had perished of a cut-throat!” and her attendant crones will suggest, with deference, that such evil came of the will of Allah.
How profound may become the belief in the virtue of manslaughter, is made clear by the Kukis, whose paradise is “the heritage of the man who has killed the largest number of his enemies in life, the people killed by him attending on him as his slaves.”
With this supposed divine approval of manslaying, we may join the social approval manifested in other cases. Among the Pathans, one of the tribes on the northwest frontier of the Punjab, “there is hardly a man whose hands are unstained,” and “each person counts up his murders.” That, under wild social conditions, a sentiment of this kind readily arises, was shown in California during the gold period. Murderers “continued to notch the number of their victims on neatly kept hilts of pistols or knives.”
127. If from the implied or expressed belief in the honroableness of private homicide, illustrated by some still-extant savages, we turn to the belief in the honorableness of that public and wholesale homicide for which the occasions are given by real or pretended intertribal or international injuries, ancient records of barbarous and semicivilized peoples furnish illustrations in abundance.
Among the gods of the primitive Indians, Indra is lauded in the Rig-Veda as the devastating warrior, and Agni, too, “was born, the slayer of the enemy” and the “destroyer of cities.” Emulating their gods, the warriors of the Rig-Veda and the Mahabharata glory in conquests. Propitiating Indra with deep libations, the hero prays: “Let us share the wealth of him whom thou hast slain; bring us to the household of him who is hard to vanquish.” And then with such prayers, common to militant peoples, may be joined passages from the Mahabharata recommending atrocities.
Let a man inspire his enemy with confidence for some real reason, and then smite him at the proper time, when his foot has slipped a little.
Without cutting into an enemy’s marrow, without doing something dreadful, without smiting like a killer of fish, a man does not attain great prosperity.
A son, a brother, a father, or a friend, who present any obstacle to one’s interests are to be slain.
After these early Aryans, look now at some of the early Semites. Still more extreme in the implied praiseworthiness of sanguinary deeds, are they shown to have been by their records. Assyrian kings glorify themselves in inscriptions describing wholesale slaughters and the most savage cruelties. Sennacherib, driving his chariot through “deep pools of blood,” boasts–"with blood and flesh its wheels were clogged”; Assurbanipal says of the conquered–"their tongues I pulled out,” “the limbs cut off I caused to be eaten by dogs, bears, eagles, vultures, birds of heaven”; Tiglath-Pileser’s account of the slain Muskayans is that “their carcases covered the valleys and the tops of the mountains”; in an inscription of Assur-natsir-pal come the words–"I am a weapon that spares not,” the revolted nobles “I flayed, with their skins I covered the pyramid,” “their young men and maidens I burned as a holocaust”; and of his enemies Shalmaneser II says–"with their blood I dyed the mountains like wool.” Evidently the expectation was that men of after times would admire these merciless destructions, and this implies belief in their righteousness; for we cannot assume that these Assyrian kings intentionally made themselves eternally infamous.
Omitting evidence furnished in plenty by the histories of the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, we find kindred thoughts and feelings betrayed by the peoples of northern Europe. The Gauls of early days, galloping home with the heads of their enemies slung to their saddles, displayed them on stakes or preserved them in chests. According to Cæsar, the Suevi and Germans generally “esteem it their greatest praise . . . that the lands about their territories lie unoccupied to a very great extent.” And the fact that the Norse paradise was conceived as a place for daily combats, sufficiently shows how dominant was the belief in the virtue of successful aggression. That throughout the Middle Ages successful aggression was thought the one thing worth living for, needs no proof. History which is little more than the Newgate Calendar of nations, describing political burglaries and their results, yields illustrations on every page: “arms and the man” supply the universal theme. No better way of showing the dominant sentiment down to comparatively recent times, can be found than that of quoting the mottoes of nobles, of which here are some English ones. Earl of Rosslyn–"Fight”; Baron Hawke–"Strike”; Earl of Sefton–"To conquer is to live”; the Marquis of Downshire–"By God and my sword I will obtain”; the Earl of Carysfort–"This hand is hostile”; Count Magawley–"The red hand to victory”; the Duke of Athole–"Forth, fortune, and fill the fetters.” And the general spirit is well shown by lines illustrating the motto of the Middleton family:
Mottoes being the expressions of feelings held above all others worthy, and tacitly assuming the existence of like feelings in others, those quoted imply the social sanction given to aggressiveness; and we need but recall the religious ceremonies on the initiation of a knight, to see that his militant course of life was supposed to have a divine sanction also. War, even unprovoked war, was supported by a proethical sentiment.
Nor is it essentially otherwise even now. Thinly veiled by conventional respect for the professed religious creed, the old spirit continually discloses itself. Much more feeling than is excited by a hymn, is excited by the song–"The Hardy Norseman”; and pride in the doing of the “seawolves” who “conquered Normandy” shown by the line–"Oh, ne’er should we forget our sires,” is habitually sympathized in. No reading is more popular than narratives of battles; and the epithet “great,” as applied to Alexander, Karl, Peter, Frederick, Napoleon, is applied notwithstanding all the atrocities they committed. Occasionally, indeed, we meet with overt expression of this sentiment. Lord Wolseley says of the soldier: “He must believe that his duties are the noblest that fall to man’s lot. He must be taught to despise all those of civil life": a sentiment which is not limited to the “duties” of the soldier as a defender of his country, which in our day he never performs, but is extended to his “duties” as an invader of other countries, and especially those of weak peoples: the appetite for aggression transforms baseness into nobility. When, in the Hindoo epic, the god Indra is described as conquering a woman, we are astonished to find a victory which we should consider so cowardly lauded by the poet; and when, on the walls of Karnak, we see Rameses represented as a giant holding by the hair half-a-dozen dwarfs, and cutting off all their heads with one sweep of his sword, we think it strange that he should have thought to glorify himself by depicting an easy triumph of strong over weak. But when with arms of precision, with shells, with rockets, with far-reaching cannon, peoples possessed only of feeble weapons are conquered with as great facility as a man conquers a child, there comes applause in our journals, with titles and rewards to the leaders! The “duties” of the soldier so performed are called “noble”; while, held up in contrast with them, those of the peaceful citizen are called despicable!
Beyond question, then, the sentiment which rejoices in personal superiority and, not asking for equitable cause, is ready under an authority it willingly accepts, to slaughter so-called enemies, is still dominant. The social sanction, and the reflected inner sanction due to it, constitute a proethical sentiment which, in international relations, remains supreme.
128. The ethics of enmity thus illustrated, very little qualified in some tribes of savages, especially cannibals, qualified in but a moderate degree in ancient semicivilized societies, and continuing predominant during the development of civilized societies, has been qualified more and more by the ethics of amity as the internal social life has disciplined men in cooperation: the relative prosperities of nations, while in part determined by their powers of conquest, having been all along in part determined by the extents to which, in daily intercourse, the aggressiveness of their members has been restrained.
Such peoples as have produced literatures show us, in relatively early days, the rise of an ethics of amity set in opposition to the ethics of enmity. Proceeding, as the expressions of it do, from the mouths of poets and sages, we may not measure by them the beliefs which then prevailed; any more than we may now measure the prevailing beliefs by the injunctions to forgive enemies, perpetually uttered by our priests. But even the occasional enunciation of altruistic sentiments, occurring in ancient societies after there had been long-established states of relatively peaceful life, is significant. And it is interesting to observe, too, how after the absolute selfishness of the antagonistic activities, a violent reaction led to the preaching of absolute unselfishness. Thus while of that vast compilation which constitutes the Mahabharata, the older parts are saguinary in sentiment, the latter parts contain condemnations of needless warfare. It is said that fighting is the worst means of gaining victory, and that a king should extend his conquests without fighting. And there are much more pronounced reprobations of aggressive action, as this:
And then in the writings of an Indian moralist, said by Sir William Jones to date three centuries B.C., we read the extreme statement: “A good man who thinks only of benefiting his enemy has no feelings of hostility towards him even at the moment of being destroyed by him.” Similarly among the Persians, we find Sadi writing–"Show kindness even to thy foes”; and again–"The men of God’s true faith, I’ve heard, grieve not the hearts e’en of their foes.” In like manner among the Chinese, the teaching of Lao-Tsze was that
Peace is his highest aim. . . . he who rejoices at the destruction of human life is not fit to be entrusted with power in the world. He who has been instrumental in killing many people should move on over them with bitter tears.
Confucius said: “In carrying on your government, why should you use killing at all? Let your evinced desires be for what is good, and the people will be good.” Mencius held that “he who has no pleasure in killing men can” unite the empire; and of the warlike he said that:
When contentions about territory are the ground on which they fight, they slaughter men, till the fields are filled with them. When some struggle for a city is the ground on which they fight, they slaughter men till the city is filled with them. . . . Death is not enough for such a crime.
Early as was his time, Mencius evidently entertained higher sentiments than do “the western barbarians” at the present time. The characterization which has been given to slavery–"the sum of all villainies"–would probably have been given by him to aggressive war.
In section 573 of The Principles of Sociology, as also in section 437, instances are given of various tribes which, nonaggressive externally are also nonaggressive internally–tribes in which crimes of violence are so rare that scarcely any control is needed. There may be added a few other examples. There are the aborigines of Sumatra, a simple people who, thrust into the interior by the Malays, are described by Marsden as “mild, peaceable, and forbearing"–that is nonaggressive. There are the Thârus, inhabiting a retired strip of forest at the foot of the Himalayas, which affords them a refuge from invaders, and who are described as “a peaceful and good-natured race.” Further, we have a specially relevant testimony given by different authorities respecting the Iroquois. In his work, The League of the Iroquois, Morgan says: “It was the boast of the Iroquois that the great object of their confederacy was peace–to break up the spirit of perpetual warfare, which had wasted the red race from age to age.” And then clear indication of the results is contained in the following statement made by the same writer: “Crimes and offenses were so unfrequent under their social system, that the Iroquois can scarcely be said to have had a criminal code.”
Here, however, the truth which it specially concerns us to note is that during states of hostility which make aggression habitual, it acquires a social sanction, and in some cases a divine sanction: there is a proethical sentiment enlisted on its behalf. Contrariwise, in the cases just referred to, aggressiveness meets with reprobation. An ethical sentiment, rightly so-called, produces repugnance to it.
Nor was it otherwise with the Hebrews. After the chronic antagonisms of nomadic life had been brought to an end by their captivity, and after their subsequent wars of conquest had ended in a comparatively peaceful state, the expression of altruistic sentiments became marked; until, in Leviticus, we see emerging the principle, often regarded as exclusively Christian–"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"–a principle, however, which appears to have been limited to “the congregation of the children of Israel.” And then in later days by the Essenes, as well as by Christ and his apostles, the ethics of amity, extended so as to include enemies, was carried even to the extreme of turning the cheek to the smiter.
129. Into what general induction may these facts be grouped? Taken in the mass, the evidence shows, as we might expect, that in proportion as intertribal and international antagonisms are great and constant, the ideas and feelings belonging to the ethics of enmity predominate; and, conflicting as they do with the ideas and feelings belonging to the ethics of amity, proper to the internal life of a society they in greater or less degrees suppress these, and fill with aggressions the conduct of man to man.
Miscellaneous kinds of homicide, such as were noted at the outset–infanticide, killing for cannibalism, immolations at funerals, sacrifices to the gods–are characteristic of societies in which warfare is habitual. Those most atrocious of man-eaters, the Fijians, among whom every one carried his life in his hand, implied their ingrained militancy by their conception of the other world, where their gods “make war, and kill and eat each another,” and bear such names as “the murderer,” “fresh from the cutting up or slaughter,” &c.; where a chief arriving after death, boasts that he has “destroyed many towns, and slain many in war”; and where “men who have not slain an enemy” suffer “the most degrading of all punishments.” The Bushmen, exhibiting pride in private murder, pass their lives in ceaseless antagonism with men and beasts around–aggressing and aggressed upon. So, too, the Bedouin tribes instanced as thinking any death save one suffered in combat disgraceful, commit never-ending aggressions. And the Waganda, the king of whom suggested to his page the parricide gladly carried out by him, are soldiers noted for “their warlike character, which tinges the whole of their life and government.”
If, from the relations as illustrated in these extreme cases, we pass to the relations as illustrated in developing societies, we see that with decrease of external aggressiveness there goes decrease of internal aggressiveness. During the Merovingian period, along with chronic militant activities on large and small scales, occurring even to the extent of wars between towns, perpetual violence characterized the relations of individuals: kings murdered their queens, royal fathers were murdered by their sons, princely brothers murdered brothers, while bloodshed and cruelty prevailed everywhere. In the next period the conquests of Charlemagne were accompanied by atrocities large and small. He beheaded 4,000 Saxons in one day and inflicted death on those who refused baptism or ate flesh during Lent. Similarly throughout the feudal ages, recurring international fights were accompanied by perpetual fights among nobles; the chroniclers describe little else than crimes; and the slaughtering of serfs by knights was passed over as a thing not calling for reproach. But as the course of ages and the consolidation of kingdoms brought diminution of a diffused warfare, and as, by consequence, industrial activities, with resulting internal cooperation, filled larger spaces in men’s lives, the more unscrupulous forms of aggressiveness came to be reprobated, while approbation was given to conduct characterized by regard for others. And though modern times have seen great wars, yet, since the militant activities have not been all-pervading as in earlier times, the sentiments appropriate to peaceful activities have not been so universally repressed. Moreover, as we elsewhere saw (Principles of Sociology, sec. 573), the brutality of citizens to one another has from time to time increased along with renewed militancy and decreased along with cessation of it; while there have been concomitant modifications in the ethical standard.