Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 1.: Introductory - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 1.: Introductory - 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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193. The foregoing fourteen chapters have shown that ethical sentiments and ideas are, in each place and time, determined by the local form of human nature, the social antecedents, and the surrounding circumstances. Hence the question arises–How from all which is special and temporary shall we separate that which is general and permanent?
We have been shown, if not overtly yet tacitly, that the very language used in speaking of moral questions, so involves the current beliefs that men are scarcely able to think away from them: the words used are question-begging words. “Duty” and “obligation,” for example, carry with them the thought of obedience, subordination, subjection to authority; and thus, imply that right and wrong conduct are not such by their intrinsic natures, but are such by their extrinsic enactments. How, then, shall we free ourselves from the influence of the particular code we have been brought up under, and the misleading connotations of our terms?
Evidently we must for a time ignore established doctrines and expressions. We must go direct to the facts and study them afresh, apart from all preconceptions. I do not mean that the old ideas and the old words are to be rejected. Far from it. We shall find that the greater part of them are well warranted and have to be reinstated: in some cases with added authority and in other cases with more or less of qualification.
Ethical ideas and sentiments have to be considered as parts of the phenomena of life at large. We have to deal with man as a product of evolution, with society as a product of evolution, and with moral phenomena as products of evolution. Let no one anticipate any loss of authority. Instead of finding that evolutionary ethics gives countenance to lower forms of conduct than those at present enjoined, we shall find that, contrariwise, evolutionary ethics is intolerant of much which those who profess to have the highest guidance think harmless or justifiable.
194. Integration being the primary process of evolution, we may expect that the aggregate of conceptions constituting ethics enlarges, at the same time that its components acquire heterogeneity. definiteness, and that kind of cohesion which system gives to them. As fulfilling this expectation, we may first note that while drawing within its range of judgment numerous actions of men towards one another which at first were not recognized as right or wrong, it finally takes into its sphere the various divisions of private conduct–those actions of each individual which directly concern himself only, and in but remote ways concern his fellows.
Nearly all these actions are usually supposed to lie beyond ethical rule: not only those multitudinous ones which are indifferent, and, like our movements from minute to minute, may be as well one way as another, but those numerous ones which bring some good or evil to self. But a theory of right and wrong which takes no cognizance of nine-tenths of the conduct by which life is carried on, is a folly. Life in general is a desideratum or it is not. If it is a desideratum, then all those modes of conduct which are conductive to a complete form of it are to be morally approved. If, contrariwise, life is not a desideratum, the subject lapses: life should, not be maintained, and all questions concerning maintenance of it, including the ethical, disappear. As commonly conceived, ethics consists solely of interdicts on certain kinds of acts which men would like to do and of injunctions to perform certain acts which they would like not to do. It says nothing about the great mass of acts constituting normal life; just as though these are neither warranted nor unwarranted. So influential are traditional sentiments and expressions, that the mass of readers will even now be unable to conceive that there can be an ethical justification for the pursuit of positive gratifications.
Such private conduct as errs in the direction of sensual excess, like drunkenness, they do indeed include as subject to ethical judgment and resulting condemnation: a perceived injury. primarily to self and secondarily to others, being the ground for the condemnation. But they ignore the truth that if injury to self is, in this case, a reason for moral reprobation, then benefit to self (so long as there is no contingent injury to others or remote injury to self) is a reason for moral approbation.
195. Far above other creatures though he is, man remains, in common with them, subject to the laws of life; and the requirement for him, as for them, is conformity to these laws. By him, as by every living thing, self-preservation is the first requisite; since without self-preservation, the discharge of all other obligations, altruistic as well as egoistic, becomes impossible.
But self-preservation is effected only by the performance of actions which are prompted by desires. Therefore the satisfaction of these desires is to be enjoined if life should be maintained. That this is so with the sensations which prompt breathing, eating, drinking, and avoidance of extremes of temperature, needs no proof: pain and death result from disobedience and pleasure from obedience. And as taking each of our primary pleasures directly furthers the vital activities, so, taking each of our secondary pleasures furthers them indirectly:
Unquestionably, then, there is a division of ethics which yields sanctions to all the normal actions of individual life, while it forbids the abnormal ones. This most general view at once evolutionary and hedonistic, harmonizes with several more special views.
196. As was pointed out in the preface, a disastrous effect is produced on the majority of minds by presenting ethics as a stern monitor, denouncing certain kinds of pleasures while giving no countenance to pleasures of other kinds. If it does not openly assert that all gratifications are improper, yet, by forbidding a number of them and saying nothing about the rest, it leaves the impression that the rest, if not to be condemned, are not to be approved. By this one-sided treatment of conduct it alienates multitudes who would otherwise accept its teachings.
Assuming that general happiness is to be the aim (for if indifference or misery were to be the aim, nonexistence would be preferable), then the implication is that the happiness of each unit is a fit aim; and a sequent implication is that for each individual, as a unit, his own happiness is a fit aim. Happiness as experienced by him, as much adds to the total amount as does happiness experienced by another; and if happiness may not be pursued for self, why may it be pursued for anyone else? If the totality of happiness could be made greater by each pursuing another’s happiness, while his own was pursued for him by others, something might be said for the theory of absolute altruism. But, in the first place, the greater part of the grateful consciousness possible for each is achievable only by himself–is a consciousness accompanying certain activities, and cannot exist without them. In the second place, even were it otherwise, loss would arise if each pursued only the happiness of others; since as each of the others would have to do the like, there would be required the same amount of effort joined with a further amount of effort consequent on misunderstandings from cross-purposes. Imagine A feeding B while B fed A, and so on with C, D, &c., and instead of increase of satisfactions there would be decrease. The like would happen with the majority of other wants to be satisfied. As shown at the outset (secs. 82, 91), a system of ethics which insists on altruism and ignores egoism, is suicidal.
Such a system is, if the expression may be admitted, doubly suicidal; since, while its immediate operation must be detrimental, its remote operation must be still more detrimental. A loss of capacity for happiness must be the effect produced on all. For many of our pleasures are organically bound up with performance of functions needful for bodily welfare; and nonacceptance of them involves a lower degree of life, a decreased strength, and a diminished ability to fulfill all duties.
197. A further implication, almost universally ignored, must be here again emphasized. Already, in section 71, I have drawn attention to the obvious truth that the individual is not alone concerned in the matter, but that all his descendants are concerned.
In the utter disregard of this truth we see more clearly than usual how low is the average human intelligence. Sometimes, when observing on the Continent how the women, with faces unshaded, are, to keep out the bright sunlight, obliged to half-close their eyes and wrinkle up the corners of them, so producing, by daily repetition, crows’ feet some ten or twenty years earlier than need be; I have thought it astonishing that, anxious though these women are to preserve beauty, they should have failed to perceive so simple a relation between cause and effect. But it may be held that an instance of stupidity even more extreme (if the expression may pass), is furnished by the inability of people to see that disregard of self involves disregard of offspring. There are two ways in which it does this.
Inability to provide for them adequately is one evil consequence. Without bodily welfare in parents there cannot be effectual sustentation of children; and if the race should be maintained, then care of self with a view to care of progeny becomes an obligation. This normal egoism must be such as results not merely in continued life, but in that vigorous life which gives efficiency. Nor is due care of self demanded only because the duties of the breadwinner cannot otherwise be fulfilled; but it is demanded also by regard for educational duties. Ill-health brings irritability and depression; incapacities for right behavior to children; and, by souring their tempers and deadening their sympathies, injures them for life.
Still more closely, however, is the welfare of descendants bound up with self-welfare. Good or ill treatment of his or her body or mind by each person, influences for good or ill the constitutions of his or her progeny. Unless it be held that stalwart and robust men may be expected to come from stunted and unhealthy parents, or that high intelligences and noble characters are likely to be inherited from stupid and criminal fathers and mothers, it must be admitted that any treatment of self which furthers bodily or mental development tends towards the benefit of the next generation (I say “tends” because there are complicating influences due to atavism), and that any treatment of self which undermines bodily health or injures the mind intellectually or emotionally, tends towards a lowering of the nature in the next generation. Yet while people daily make remarks about the likenesses of children to parents, and note the inheritance of this or that defect of mind or body, their criticisms on conduct entirely disregard the implication. They fail to draw the inference that if constitutions are transmitted, the actions which damage constitutions or improve them influence for good or ill the physical and mental characters of children and of children’s children.
In certain extreme cases there is, indeed, a distinct recognition of the mischiefs entailed by the transgressions of parents. Though reprobation of those who have transmitted acquired diseases to their children is not often heard, yet there can be no doubt that it is strongly felt. Probably most will agree that, if the amount of suffering inflicted be used as a measure, murder is a smaller crime than is the giving of offspring infected constitutions and consequent lifelong miseries. But even in its grossest form this transgression is thought little of by the transgressors. There are, indeed, kindred cases in which the sense of responsibility sometimes serves as a deterrent–cases, for example, where knowledge of the existence of insanity in the family causes abstention from marriage. Very generally, however, where the weaknesses, or disorders, or taints they are likely to communicate, are of less conspicuous kinds, people, in a lighthearted way, are ready to inflict uncounted evils on descendants.
Still less is an allied consciousness of responsibility There is no recognition of the truth that such persistent misuse of body or mind as injures it, involves the injury of descendants; and there is consequently no recognition of the truth that it is a duty so to carry on life as to preserve all parts of the system in their normal states.
These further reasons for due care of self have to be insisted upon. Each man’s constitution should be regarded by him as an entailed estate, which he is bound to pass on in as good a condition as he received it, if not better.
198. Beyond this special altruism which makes imperative a normal egoism, there is a general altruism which also makes it in a measure obligatory. The obligation has both a negative and a positive aspect.
Such care of self as is needful to exclude the risk of burdening others, is implied in a proper regard for others. As, from those rude groups in which men lead lives so independent that they severally take the entire results of their own conduct, we advance to developed nations, fellow men become more and more implicated in our actions. Under a social system carried on by exchange of services, those on whom undue self-sacrifice has brought incapacity are commoniy obliged to break contracts partially or wholly, and so to inflict evil; and then any such incapacity as negatives breadwinning, ordinarily imposes, first on relatives and then on friends, or else on the public, a tax implying extra labor. Everyone, therefore, is bound to avoid that thoughtless unselfishness which is apt to bring evils on others–evils that are often greater than those which entire selfishness produces.
The altruistic justification of egoism referred to as of a positive kind, results, firstly, from the obligation to expend some effort for the benefit of particular persons or for the benefit of society–an obligation which cannot be properly discharged if health has been undermined. And it results, secondly, from the obligation to become, so far as inherited nature permits, a source of social pleasure to those around; to fulfill this requirement there must ordinarily be a flow of mental energy such as the invalid cannot maintain.