Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 5.: Stimulation - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 5.: Stimulation - 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:
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:
214. To write sundry chapters on the ethics of individual life and to say nothing about the taking of stimulants is out of the question. While, on large parts of private conduct, most men pass no moral judgments, and assume that they are subject to none; over that part of private conduct which concerns the drinking of fermented liquors, most men, passing strong moral judgments, unhesitatingly assume that ethics exercises peremptory rule; and the inclusion within the domain of ethics of questions concerning alcoholic stimulants, is followed by inclusion of questions concerning opium-eating.
We may observe here, as we have observed before, that the reprobation of practices which, in excess, are certainly injurious, and are held by many to be injurious altogether, is practically limited to practices which are primarily pleasurable. A man may bring on himself chronic rheumatism by daily careless exposure, or an incurable nervous disorder by overapplication; and though he may thus vitiate his life and diminish his usefulness in a far greater degree than by occasionally taking too much wine, yet his physical transgression meets with only mild disapproval, if even that. But in these cases the transgression is displeasurable, whereas excess in wine is pleasurable; and the damnable thing in the misconduct is the production of pleasure by it.
If it be said that this contrast of moral estimates is due to the perception that there is danger of falling into injurious habits which are primarily pleasurable, while there is no danger of falling into injurious habits which are primarily painful; the reply is that though we naturally suppose this to be true, yet it is not true. The obligations men are under, or suppose themselves to be under, lead them in multitudinous cases to persist in sedentary lives, to work too many hours, to breathe impure air, and so forth, spite of the feelings which protest–spite of continual proofs that they are injuring themselves. Clearly it is the vague notion that gratification is vicious, which causes the condemnation of gratifying transgressions while ungratifying transgressions are condemned but slightly or not at all.
Here we have to consider the matter, as far as we can, apart from popular judgments, and guided only by physiological considerations.
215. It cannot, I think, be doubted that from the point of view of absolute ethics, stimulants of every kind must be reprobated; or, at any rate, that daily use of them must be reprobated. Few, if any, will contend that they play a needful part in complete life.
All normal ingesta subserve the vital processes either by furnishing materials which aid in the formation and repair of tissues, or materials which, during their transformations, yield heat and force, or the material–water–which serves as a vehicle. A stimulant, alcoholic or other, is neither tissue food, nor heat food, nor force food. It simply affects the rate of molecular change-exalting it and then, under ordinary circumstances, if taken in considerable quantity, depressing it. Now matters which can be used neither for building up the body nor as stores of force, do not increase the sum of vital manifestations, but only alter the distribution of them. And since, in a being fully fitted for the life it has to lead, the functions are already adjusted to the requirements, it does not seem that any advantage can be obtained by changing the established balance.
This inference is far reaching-carries us beyond the point to which the total abstainers from fermented liquors wish to go. Tea and coffee also must be excluded from dietaries. The vegeto-alkalies, to which they owe their effects, are just as little akin to food properly so called, as is alcohol; and, like alcohol, simply modify for a time the rate of molecular change, causing greater genesis of energy during one interval with the effect of diminishing it during another. From the physiological point of view, therefore, the use of these must be condemned if the use of alcohol is condemned.
Should it be said that the condemnation of the last is evoked by the liability to abuse, it may be replied that the liability to abuse holds of the others also; though the mischiefs wrought are neither so frequent nor so conspicuous. In France there are occasional deaths from coffee dririking, and in England undue drinking of tea not infrequently causes nervousness.
216. But while, from the point of view of absolute ethics, the use of stimulants seems indefensible, we may still ask whether relative ethics affords any justification for it–whether, under existing conditions, imperfectly adapted as we are to the social state, and obliged to diverge from natural requirements, we may not use stimulants to countervail the consequent mischiefs.
It is a fact of some significance that throughout the world, among unallied races and in all stages of progress, we find in use one or other agent which agreeably affects the nervous system–opium in China, tobacco among the American Indians, bang in India, hashish in sundry Eastern places, a narcotic fungus in Northern Asia, kava among the Polynesians, chica and coca in Ancient Peru, and various fermented liquors besides the wine of Europeans, and the beer of various African tribes–the soma of the primitive Aryans and the pulque of the Mexicans. Not that this universality of habits of stimulation justifies them in face of the evidence that diseases often result; but it suggests the question whether there is not a connection between the use of some exciting or sedative agent, and the kind of life circumstances entail–a life here monotonous, there laborious, and in other places full of privations. Possibly these drugs and liquors may sometimes make tolerable an existence which would be otherwise intolerable; or, at any rate, so far mitigate the bodily or mental pains caused, as to diminish the mischiefs done by them.
Various testimonies are to the effect that where the daily life is one entailing much wear and tear of brain, the sedative influence of tobacco is useful–serves to check that nervous waste which otherwise the continuance of thought and anxiety would produce. In a normal state, those parts of the system which have been taxed cease to act when the strain is over: the supply of blood is shut off, and they become quiescent. But in the abnormal states established in many by over-work, it is otherwise. The parts which have been active become congested, and remain active when action is no longer demanded. Thinking and feeling cannot be stopped, and there occurs an expenditure which is not only useless but injurious. Hence a justification for using an agent which prevents waste of tissue and economizes the energies.
Again, where the constitutional powers are flagging, and a day’s work proves so exhausting that the ability to digest partially fails, it may be held that vascular action and nervous discharge may advantageously be raised by alcohol to the extent needful for effectually dealing with food; since a good meal well digested serves to render the system fit for another day’s work, which otherwise it would not be.
There are those, too, in whom undue application establishes a state of nervous irritation which is mitigated or ended by a dose of opium; and the life may sometimes be such that the state thus dealt with frequently recurs. If this happens the use of the remedy appears justified.
217. Even total abstainers admit that alcoholic beverages may rightly be used for medicinal purposes; and their admission, consistently interpreted, implies that, as above contended, stimulants in general may properly be employed, not only where positive illness exists, but where there is inability to cope with the requirements of life. For if a very conspicuous departure from the normal state may often be best treated by brandy or wine, it cannot well be denied that a less conspicuous departure, occurring perhaps daily may similarly be treated. Constitutional debility, or the debility which comes with advancing years, may like the debility of an invalid, be advantageously met by temporarily raising the power of the system at times when it has to do work conducive to restoration–that is, when food has to be digested, and sometimes when sleep has to be obtained. But there hence results a defense only for such uses of stimulants as aid the system in repairing itself. When, as by taking alcoholic liquors between meals, or by the hypodermic injection of morphia, there is achieved a temporary exaltation of power or feeling, which conduces to no restorative end, reprobation rightly takes the place of approbation. In the order of nature, normal pleasures are the concomitants of normal activities, and pleasures which are achieved by gratuitous deviations from the normal have no ethical sanctions.
One exception only should be made. Stimulants may be taken with advantage when the monotony of ordinary life is now and then broken by festive entertainments. As implied in a preceding chapter, daily repetition of the same activities, which in our state are inevitably specialized, necessitates undue taxing of certain parts of the system. Breaches in the uniformity therefore yield benefits by furthering restoration of equilibrium. The functions, chronically kept out of balance, are aided in returning to a balance. Hence it happens that social meetings at which, along with mental exhilaration, there goes the taking of abundant and varied food, and wine even in large quantity, often prove highly salutary–are not followed by injurious reactions but leave behind invigoration. Such means used for such ends, however, must be used but occasionally: if often repeated they defeat themselves.
218. To sum up what has been said in a tentative way on this difficult question: we may, in the first place, conclude that absolute ethics, insofar as it concerns individual life, can give no countenance to the daily use of stimulants. They can have no place in a perfectly normal order.
In such approximately normal life as that enjoyed during their early days by vigorous persons, there is also no place for them. So long as there is nothing to prevent the full discharge of all the organic functions, there can be no need for agents which temporarily exalt them. What ethics has to say in the matter must take the form of an interdict.
Only when the excessive obligations which life often entails produce more or less of daily prostration, or when from constitutional feebleness or the diminished strength of old age, the ordinary tax on the energies is somewhat greater than can be effectually met, does there seem a valid reason for using exciting agents, alcoholic or other; and then only when they are taken in such wise as to aid reparative processes.
Beyond this there is a defense for such occasional uses of these agents as serves, when joined with raised nutrition and enlivening circumstances, to take the system out of its routine, which in all cases diverges somewhat, if not much, from a perfect balance.