Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2.: Activity - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 2.: Activity - 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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199. In a systematic treatise the express statement of certain commonplaces is inevitable. A coherent body of geometrical theorems, for instance, has to be preceded by self-evident axioms. This must be the excuse for here setting down certain familiar truths.
The infant at first feebly moves about its little limbs; by and by it crawls on the floor; presently it walks, and after a time runs. As it develops, its activities display themselves in games, in races, in long walks: the range of its excursions being gradually extended, as it approaches adult existence. Manhood brings the ability to make tours and exploring expeditions; including passages from continent to continent, and occasionally round the world. When middle life is passed and vigor begins to decline, these extreme manifestations of activities become fewer. Journeys are shortened; and presently they do not go beyond visits to the country or to the seaside. As old age advances, the movements become limited to the village and the surrounding fields; afterwards to the garden; later still to the house; presently to the room; finally to the bed; and at last, when the power to move, gradually decreasing, has ceased, the motions of the lungs and heart come to an end. Taken in its ensemble, life presents itself in the shape of movements which begin feebly, gradually increase up to maturity, and then culminating, decrease until they end as feebly as they began.
Thus life is activity; and the complete cessation of activity is death. Hence arises the general implication that since the most highly evolved conduct is that which achieves the most complete life, activity obtains an ethical sanction, and inactivity an ethical condemnation.
This is a conclusion universally accepted and needing no enforcement. Even from those who habitually evade useful activities, there comes reprobation for such of their class as are too inert even to amuse themselves; absolute sloth is frowned on by all.
200. The kind of activity with which we are here chiefly concerned, is the activity directed primarily to self-sustentation, and secondarily to sustentation of family
In the order of nature the imperativeness of such activity effectually asserts itself. Among all subhuman creatures (excepting most parasites) individuals which lack it die, and after them their offspring, if they have any. Those only survive which are adequately active; and, among such, a certain advantage in self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring is gained by those in which activity is greater than usual: the general effect being to raise the activity to that limit beyond which disadvantage to the species is greater than advantage. Up to the time when men passed into the associated state, this law held of them as of the lower animals; and it held of them also throughout early social stages. Before the making of slaves began, no family could escape from the relation between labor and the necessaries of life. And the ethical sanction for this relation in primitive societies is implied in the fact that extreme inequality in the distribution of efforts and benefits between the sexes, must always have resulted in deterioration and eventual extinction.
Though, in the course of social evolution, there have arisen multiplied possibilities of evading the normal relation between efforts and benefits, so as to get the benefits without the efforts; yet, bearing in mind the foregoing general law of life, we must infer that the evasions call for reprobation more or less decided, according to circumstances.
Being here directly concerned only with the ethics of individual life, we need not take account of the implied relation between the idle individual and the society in which he exists. Ignoring all other cases, we may limit ourselves to those cases in which property equitably acquired by a parent, without undue tax on his energies, serves, when bequeathed, to support a son in idleness: cases in which there is no implied trespass on fellow citizens. On each of such cases the verdict is that though it is possible for the individual to fulfill the law of life, insofar as physical activities are concerned, by devoting himself to sports and games, and insofar as certain kinds of mental activities are concerned, by useless occupations; yet there lack those mental activities, emotional and intellectual, which should form part of his life as a social being; and insofar his life becomes an abnormal one.
201. The chief question for us, however, is–What are the ethical aspects of labor considered in its immediate relations to pleasure and pain? From this point of view of absolute ethics, actions are right only when, besides being conducive to the future happiness of self, or others, or both, they are also immediately pleasurable. What then are we to say of necessary labor; most of which is accompanied by disagreeable feelings?
Such labor is warranted, or rather demanded, by the requirements of that relative ethics which is concerned not with the absolute right but with the least wrong. During the present transitional state of humanity, submission to such displeasurable feeling as labor involves, is warranted as a means of escaping from feelings which are still more displeasurable–a smaller pain to avoid a greater pain, or to achieve a pleasure, or both.
The state necessitating this compromise is the state of imperfect adaptation to social life. The change from the irregular activities of the savage man to the regular activities of the civilized man, implies a remolding–a repression of some powers which crave for action, and a taxing of other powers beyond the pleasurable limit: the capacity for persistent effort and persistent attention, being one especially called for, and one at present deficient. This adaptation has to be undergone, and the accompanying sufferings have to be borne.
And here seems a fit place for commenting on the varying amounts of displeasurable feeling, often rising to positive pain, necessitated by fulfillment of the obligation to work. The majority of people speak of effort, bodily or mental, as if the cost of it were the same to all. Though personal experience proves to them that when well and fresh, they put forth with ease a muscular force which, when prostrate with illness or exhausted by toil, it is painful to put forth–though they find, too, that when the mental energies are high they think nothing of a continuous attention which, when enfeebled, they are quite unequal to; yet they do not see that these temporary contrasts between their own states, are paralleled by permanent contrasts between states of different persons.
Ethical judgments must take account of the fact that the effort, bodily or mental, which is easy to one is laborious to another.
202. We come now to a question of special interest to us–Can the human constitution be so adapted to its present conditions, that the needful amount of labor to be gone through will be agreeable?
An affirmative answer will, to most people, seem absurd. Limiting their observations to facts around, or at most extending them to such further facts as the records of civilized people furnish, they cannot believe in the required change of nature. Such evidence as that which, in the first part of this work (secs. 63—67), was assigned to prove that pleasures and pains are relative to the constitution of the organism, and that in virtue of the unlimited modifiability of constitution, actions originally painful may become pleasurable, does not weigh with them. Though they probably know some who so love work that it is difficult to restrain them–though here and there they meet one who complains that a holiday is a weariness; yet it does not seem to them reasonable to suppose that the due tendency to continuous labor, which is now an exceptional trait, may become a universal trait.
It is undeniable that there are various expenditures of energy bodily and mental–often extreme expenditures–which are willingly entered upon and continued eagerly: witness field sports, games, and the intellectual efforts made during social intercourse. In these cases the energy expended is often far greater than that expended in daily avocations. What constitutes the difference? In the one class of actions emulation makes possible the pleasurable consciousness which accompanies proved efficiency and the pleasurable consciousness of the admiration given to efficiency; while, in the other class, the absence of emulation, or at any rate of direct visible emulation, implies the absence of a large proportion of this pleasurable consciousness. Nevertheless, what remains may become a powerful stimulus, making continuous application agreeable. Hobbies exemplify this truth. I can name two cases in which occupations of this kind are, without need, pursued so eagerly as scarcely to leave time for meals. Though in these cases the pleasurable exercise of skill is a large factor, and though in many occupations there seems but small scope for this, yet, nearly everywhere, the satisfaction attendant on the doing of work in the most perfect manner, may be sufficient to render the work agreeable, when joined with that overflowing energy which is to be anticipated as the concomitant of a normally developed nature.
203. It remains to consider whether, concluding that labor up to a certain limit is obligatory, there is any reason for concluding that beyond that limit it is the reverse of obligatory. The present phase of human progress fosters the belief that the more work the more virtue; but this is an unwarranted belief.
Absolute ethics does not dictate more work than is requisite for efficient self-sustentation, efficient nurture of dependents, and discharge of a due share of social duties. As in the lowest creatures, so in the highest, survival is the primary end to be achieved by actions; and though, in an increasing degree as we ascend, actions themselves with their associated feelings become secondary ends, yet pursued to the detriment of the primary end in all its fulness–the leading of a life complete, not in length only but in breadth and depth. The hedonistic view, which is involved in the evolutionary view, implies an ethical sanction for that form of conduct which conduces in the highest degree to self-happiness and the happiness of others; and it follows that labor which taxes the energies beyond the normal limit, or diminishes more than is needful the time available for other ends, or both, receives no ethical sanction.
If adaptation to the social state must in time produce a nature such that the needful labor will be pleasurable, a concomitant conclusion is that it will not produce a capacity for labor beyond this limit. Hence labor in excess of this limit will be abnormal and improper. For as labor inevitably entails physical cost–as the waste involved by it has to be made good out of the total supply which the organic actions furnish; then superfluous labor, deducting from this supply more than is necessary, diminishes the amount available for life at large–diminishes the extent or the intensity of that life.
Obviously, however, this reasoning refers to that fully evolved form of life which absolute ethics contemplates, rather than to the present form, which has to be guided by relative ethics. In our transitional state, with its undeveloped capacity for work, frequent overstepping of the limit is requisite, and must be regarded as incident to the further development of the capacity. All we may fairly say is that, at present, the limit should not be so transgressed as to cause physical deterioration, and that it should be respected where there exists no weighty reason for going beyond it.
204. Connected as each man’s actions are with the actions of others in multitudinous ways, it follows that the ethics of individual life cannot be completely separated from the ethics of social life. Conduct of which the primary results are purely personal, has often secondary results which are social. Hence we must in each case consider the ways in which acts that directly concern self indirectly concern others.
In the present case it scarcely needs saying that beyond that obligation to labor which is deducible from the laws of individual life, there is a social obligation reinforcing it. Though, in a primitive community it is possible for an individual to take upon himself all the results of his inactivity; yet, in an advanced community consisting of citizens not devoid of sympathy it becomes difficult to let the idle individual suffer in full the results of his idleness, and still more difficult to let his offspring do this. Even should it be decided by fellow citizens that the extreme consequences of idleness shall be borne, yet this decision must be at the cost of sympathetic pain. In any case, therefore, evil is inflicted on others as well as on self, and the conduct inflicting it is, for this further reason, to be ethically reprobated.
Reprobation, though quite of another quality. is also deserved by conduct of the opposite kind–by the carrying of labor to such extreme as to cause illness, prostration, and incapacity For by this conduct, too, burdens and pains are entailed on others.
Hence altruistic motives join egoistic motives in prompting labor up to a certain limit, but not beyond that limit.