Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 4.: Robbery - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 4.: Robbery - 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.
130. Between physically injuring another, partially or to the death, and injuring him either by taking possession of his body and labor, or of his property, the kinship in nature is obvious. Both direct and indirect injuries are comprehended under the title “Aggression”; and the second, like the first, might, without undue straining of words, have been brought within the limits of the last chapter. But, as before implied, it has seemed more convenient to separate the aggression which nearly always has bloodshed for its concomitant, from the aggression which is commonly bloodless. Here we have to deal with this last.
The extreme form of this last aggression is that which ends in capturing a man and enslaving him. Though to class this under the head of robbery is to do some violence to the name, yet we may reasonably say that to take a man from himself, and use his powers for other purposes than his own, is robbery in the highest degree. Instead of depriving him of some product of past labor voluntarily undertaken, it deprives him of the products of future labors which he is compelled to undertake. At any rate, whether rightly to be called robbery or not, it is to be classed as an aggression, if not so grave as that of inflicting death, yet next to it in gravity
It is needless here to furnish proofs that this kind of aggression has been, from very early stages of human progress, a concomitant of militancy. Eating the vanquished or turning them into bondsmen, commonly became alternatives where intertribal conflicts were perpetual. From the incidental making of captives there has frequently grown up the intentional making of captives. An established policy has dictated invasions to procure workers or victims. But whether with or without intention, this robbery in the highest degree has been, throughout, a concomitant of habitual war; could not, indeed, have arisen to any extent without war.
A closely allied form of robbery–somewhat earlier, since we find it in rude tribes which do not make slaves–is the stealing of women. Of course, along with victory over combatants there has gone appropriation of the noncombatants belonging to them; and women have consequently been in all early stages among the prizes of conquerors. In books treating of primitive marriage, like that of Mr. McLennan, there will be found evidence that the stealing of women not unfrequently becomes the normal process by which the numbers of a tribe are maintained. It is found best to avoid the cost of rearing them, and to obtain by fighting or theft the requisite number from other tribes. Becoming a traditional policy this custom often acquires a strong sanction; and is supposed by some to have originated the interdict against marriage with those of the same clan. But, however this may be, we habitually find women regarded as the most valued spoils of victory; and often, where the men are killed, the women are preserved to become mothers. It was so with the Caribs in their cannibal days; and it was so with the Hebrews, as shown in Numbers xxxi. 17–18, where we read that, after a successful war, all the wives and the males among the children were ordered by Moses to be killed, while the virgins were reserved for the use of the captors. (See also Deuteronomy xxi.)
Now the truth here to be observed is that in societies which have not risen to high stages, the ethical sentiment, or rather the proethical sentiment, makes no protest against robberies of these kind; but, contrariwise, gives countenance to them. The cruel treatment of prisoners delineated in Egyptian and Assyrian wall paintings and wall-sculptures, implies, what the records tell, that there was a social sanction for their subsequent bondage. Similarly, we do not see in the literature of the Greeks, any more than in the literature of the Hebrews, that the holding of men in slavery called forth moral reprobation. It was the same with the capture of women and the making wives of them, or more frequently concubines: this was creditable rather than discreditable. With the social sanction for the stealing of women by the early Aryans, as narrated in the Mahabharata, there was also a divine sanction; and it is manifest that among the Hebrews there was social if not divine sanction for the taking of the virgins of Jabesh Gilead for wives, and also for the stealing of the “daughters of Shiloh” Judges xxi).
Under this head it needs only to add that modern progress with its prolonged discipline of internal amity as opposed to that of external enmity, has been accompanied by disappearance of these grossest forms of robbery. The ethical sentiment, rightly so-called, has been developed to the extent needful for suppressing them.
131. Success in war being honorable, all accompaniments and signs of such success become honorable. Hence, along with the enslaving of captives if they are not eaten, and along with the appropriation of their women as concubines or wives, there goes the seizing of their property. A natural sequence is that not only during war but at other times, robbery of enemies, and by implication of strangers, who are ordinarily classed as enemies, is distinguished from robbery of fellow tribesmen: the first being called good even when the last is called bad.
Among the Comanches “a young man is not thought worthy to be counted in the list of warriors, till he has returned from some successful plundering expedition, . . . the greatest thieves are . . . the most respectable members of society.” A Patagonian is considered “as indifferently capable of supporting a wife unless he is an adept in the art of stealing from a stranger.” Livingstone says of the East Africans:
In tribes which have been accustomed to cattle-stealing, the act is not considered immoral, in the way that theft is. Before I knew the language well, I said to a chief, “You stole the cattle of so and so.” “No, I did not steal them,” was the reply “I only lifted them.” The word “gapa“ is identical with the Highland term for the same deed.
Concerning the Kalmucks the account of Pallas is that they are addicted to theft and robbery on a large scale, but not of people of their own tribe. And Atkinson asserts the like of the Kirghiz: “Thieving of this kind [stealing horses or camels from one of the same tribe] is instantly punished among the Kirghiz; but a baranta, like the sacking of a town, is honorable plunder.” Hence doubtless arises that contrast, seeming to us so strange, between the treatment which robber-tribes, such as Bedouins, show to strangers under their roofs and the opposite treatment they show to them after they have departed. Says Atkinson: “My host [a Kirghiz chief] said Koubaldos [another Kirghiz chief to whom I was going] would not molest us at his aoul, but that some of his bands would be set on our track and try to plunder us on our march.” Perhaps it is among the Turkomans that we find the most marked illustrations of the way in which predatory tribes come to regard theft as honorable. By the people of Merv, raids “even among members of the same tribe are not, or were not until lately, looked upon in the light of robberies”; but the raids must be on a respectable scale. “It is curious that, while red-handed murder and robbery were a recognized means of existence among the Tekkés, thievery, in the sense of stealing from the person, or filching an article from a stall of the bazaar, was despised.” And Mr. O’Donovan subsequently relates that when urging on the Merv Council the cessation of marauding expeditions, a member “with angry astonishment” asked “how in the name of Allah they were going to live if raids were not to be made"! To all which evidence we may add the facts that “the Pathan mother often prays that her son may be a successful robber,” that according to Rowney the like is done by the Afridi mother, and the further fact that among the Turkomans a celebrated robber becomes a saint, and pilgrimages are made to his tomb to sacrifice and pray.
While, in most of these cases, a marked distinction is recognized between robbery outside the tribe and robbery within the tribe, in other cases the last as well as the first is deemed not only legitimate but praiseworthy. Dalton says of the Kukis: “The accomplishment most esteemed amongst them was dexterity in thieving.” Similarly, according to Gilmour, “In Mongolia known thieves are treated as respectable members of society. As long as they manage well and are successful, little or no odium seems to attach to them.” Of another Asiatic tribe we read: “They [Angamis] are expert thieves and glory in the art, for among them, as with the Spartans of old, theft is only dishonorable and obnoxious to punishment when discovered in the act of being committed.” From America may be instanced the case of the Chinooks, by whom “cunning theft is regarded as honorable; but they despise and often punish the inexpert thief.” A case in Africa is furnished by the Waganda, warlike and bloodthirsty among whom “the distinctions between meum and tuum are very ill-defined; and indeed all sin is only relative, the crime consisting in being detected.” And then, passing to Polynesia, we find that among the Fijians “success, without discovery is deemed quite enough to make thieving virtuous, and a participation in the ill-gotten gain honorable.” So that in these instances skill or courage sanctifies any invasion of property rights.
132. Evidence yielded by the historic races proves that along with a less active life of external enmity and a more active life of internal amity, there goes a change of ethical ideas and sentiments, allied to that noted in the last chapter.
The Rig-Veda describes the thievish acts of the gods. Vishnu “stole the cooked mess” at the libations of Indra. When Tvashtri began to perform a soma-sacrifice in honor of his son who had been slain by Indra, and refused, on the ground of his homicide, to allow the latter to assist at the ceremony then “Indra interrupted the celebration, and drank off the soma by force.”
The moral principle thus exemplified by the gods is paralleled by the moral principle recommended for men: “Even if he were to covet the property of other people, he is bound as a Kshatriya to take it by force of arms, and never to beg for it.” But the Indian literature of later ages, displaying the results of settled life, inculcates opposite principles.
Passing over illustrative facts furnished by other ancient historic peoples, it will suffice if we glance at the facts which medieval and modern histories furnish. Dasent tells us of the Norsemen that “Robbery and piracy in a good straightforward wholesale way were honored and respected.” Similarly with the primitive Germans. Describing them, Caesar says:
Robberies which are committed beyond the boundaries of each state bear no infamy. . . . And when any of their chiefs has said in an assembly “that he will be their leader, let those who are willing to follow, give in their names”; they who approve of both the enterprise and the man arise and promise their assistance, and are applauded by the people; such of them as have not followed him are considered deserters and traitors, and confidence in all matters is afterward refused them.
Not to attempt the impossible task of tracing through some ten centuries the relation between the perpetual wars, large and small, public and private, and the plundering of men by one another, wholesale and retail, it will suffice to single out special periods. Of France in the early feudal period, Ste. Palaye says: Our old writers denounce the avarice, greed, deceit, perjury, pillage, theft, and brigandage, and other excesses of an unbridled soldiery equally devoid of principles, morals, and sentiments.” During the Hundred Years War a regime of robbery became universal. Among the nobles the desire for plunder was the motive for fighting. Everywhere there was brigandage on a large scale, as well as on a small scale. In addition to multitudinous scattered highwaymen there were organized companies of robbers who had their fortresses, lived luxuriously on the spoils of the surrounding country, kidnapped children for pages and women for concubines, and sold at high prices safe-conducts to travelers. And then, along with all these plunderings on land, there was habitual piracy at sea. Not only states, but towns and individuals equipped vessels for buccaneering; and there were established refuges for marine freebooters. Take, again, the evidence furnished by the Thirty Years War in Germany. Universal marauding became the established system. Soldiers were brigands. Not only did they plunder the people everywhere, but they used “thousandfold torments” to make them disclose the places where they had hidden their goods; and the peasants had to “till their fields armed to the teeth” against their fellow countrymen. Meanwhile the soldiers were themselves cheated by their officers, small and great, who some of them made large fortunes by their accumulated embezzlements, at the same time that the princes robbed the nation by debasing the coinage.
Involved and obscure as the evidence is, no one can fail to recognize the broad fact that with progress towards a state in which war is less frequent, and does not, as of old, implicate almost everyone, there has been a decrease of dishonesty and a higher appreciation of honesty; to the extent that now robbery of a stranger has come to be as much a crime as robbery of a fellow citizen. It is true that there are still thefts. It is true that there are still multitudinous frauds. But the thefts are not so numerous, and the frauds are not of such gross kinds as they were. From the days when kings frequently tricked their creditors and shopkeepers boasted of their ability to pass bad money as Defoe tells us, we have somewhat advanced in the respect for meum and tuum. Nay, as shown by Pike’s History of Crime, the contrast is marked even between the amount of transgression against property during the war period ending in 1815 and the recent amount of such transgression.
133. But of the relationship alleged, the clearest proofs are furnished by contrasts between the warlike uncivilized tribes instanced above, and the peaceful uncivilized tribes. Here are traits presented by some of these last.
Not only, according to Hartshorne, is the harmless Wood-Veddah perfectly honest, but he cannot conceive it possible that a man should “take that which does not belong to him.” Of the Esquimaux, among whom war is unknown, we read that “they are uniformly described as most scrupulously honest”; and any such qualification of this statement as is made by Bancroft, refers to Esquimaux demoralized by contact with white traders. Of the Fuegians we learn from Darwin that “if any present was designed for one canoe, and it fell near another, it was invariably given to the right owner.” And Snow says they were very honorable in their commercial dealings with him. Concerning certain of the Papuans on the southern coast of New Guinea, who are described as too independent for combined action in war, we read that “in their bargaining the natives have generally been very honest, far more so than our own people.” And concerning others of this race, Kops tells us that the natives of Dory give evidence “of an inclination to right and justice, and strong moral principles. Theft is considered by them as a very grave offense, and is of very rare occurrence.” A like character is ascribed by Kolff to the aborigines of Lette. In The Principles of Sociology, sections 437 and 574, I have given testimonies respecting the honesty of the peaceful Todas, Santáls, Lepchas, Bodo and Dhimáls, Hos, Chakmás, Jakuns. Here I add some further testimonies. Consul Baker tells us of the aborigines of Vera Cruz, now a subject race averse to military service, that “the Indian is honest, and seldom yields to even the greatest temptation to steal.” In his description of a race inhabiting a “long strip of swamp and forest” at “the foot of the Himalayas,” Mr. Nesfield says that “their honesty is vouched for by a hundred stories; such at least is the character of the Tharu, so long as he remains in the safe seclusion of his solitary wilds,” where he is free from hostilities. And then, with the fact stated by Morgan concerning the Iroquois, that “theft, the most despicable of human crimes, was scarcely known among them,” we have to join the fact that their league had been formed for the preservation of peace among its component peoples and had succeeded in its purpose for many generations.