Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 7.: Amusements - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 7.: Amusements - 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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225. I have closed the last chapter with a division, the sub-matter of which links it on to the subject matter of this chapter. We pass insensibly from the activities and passivities implied by aesthetic culture, to sundry of those which come under the head of relaxations and amusements. These we have now to consider from the ethical point of view.
To the great majority who have imbibed more or less of that asceticism which, though appropriate to times of chronic militancy and also useful as a curb to ungoverned sensualism, has swayed too much men’s theory of life, it will seem an absurd supposition that amusements are ethically warranted. Yet unless, in common with the Quakers and some extreme evangelicals, they hold them to be positively wrong, they must either say that amusements are neither right nor wrong, or, they must say that they are positively right–are to be morally approved.
That they are sanctioned by hedonistic ethics goes without saying. They are pleasure-giving activities; and that is their sufficient justification, so long as they do not unduly interfere with activities which are obligatory. Though most of our pleasures are to be accepted as concomitants of those various expenditures of energy conducive to self-sustentation and sustentation of family; yet the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake is to be sanctioned, and even enjoined, when primary duties have been fulfilled.
So, too, are they to be approved from the physiological point of view. Not only do the emotional satisfactions which accompany normal life-sustaining labors exalt the vital functions, but the vital functions are exalted by those satisfactions which accompany the superfluous expenditures of energy implied by amusements: much more exalted in fact. Such satisfactions serve to raise the tide of life, and taken in due proportion conduce to every kind of efficiency.
Yet once more there is the evolutionary justification. In section 534 of The Principles of Psychology, it was shown that whereas, in the lowest creatures, the small energies which exist are wholly used up in those actions which serve to maintain the individual and propagate the species; in creatures of successively higher grades, there arises an increasing amount of unused energy: every improvement of organization achieving some economy and so augmenting the surplus power. This surplus expends itself in the activities we call play. Among the superior vertebrata the tendency to these superfluous activities becomes conspicuous; and it is especially conspicuous in man, when so conditioned that stress of competition does not make the sustentation of self and family too laborious. The implication is that in a fully developed form of human life, a considerable space will be filled by the pleasurable exercise of faculties which have not been exhausted by daily activities.
226. In that division of The Principles of Psychology above referred to (secs. 533—40), in which I have drawn this distinction between life-sustaining activities and activities not of a life-sustaining kind, which are pursued for pleasure’s sake, I have not drawn the further distinction between those of the sensory structures and those of the motor structures. There is a distinction between gratifications which aesthetic perceptions yield and those yielded by games and sports. This distinction it was left for Mr. Grant Allen to point out in his Physiological Aesthetics. It cannot be made an absolute distinction, however; since gratifications derived from certain excitements of the senses are often associated with, and dependent upon, muscular actions; and since the gratifications of muscular actions, whatever their kind, are achieved under guidance of the senses. Moreover, with each of them there usually exists a large emotional accompaniment more important than either. Still the division is a natural one, and Mr. Grant Allen has established it beyond question.
Even ascetically minded people do not repudiate those enjoyments, intellectual and emotional, which traveling yields. Pursuit of the aesthetic delights derived from beautiful scenery, the mountains, the sea–primarily those due to the visual impressions which forms and colors give, but secondarily and mainly those due to the poetical sentiments aroused by association–is approved by all. So, too, in a measure, is pursuit of the gratifications yielded by exploration of the unknown forms of human life and its products–foreign peoples, their towns, their ways. One is sometimes saddened to think what a vast majority of men come into the world and go out of it again knowing scarcely at all what kind of world it is. And this thought suggests that while it is to be sanctioned for gratification’s sake, traveling is to be further sanctioned for the sake of culture; since the accompanying enlargement of the experiences profoundly affects the general conceptions and rationalizes them. Modern social changes and changes of belief, are in considerable measure due to facilitation of intercourse with unlike forms of life, and character, and habit, which railways have brought about.
After the pleasures given by actual presentations of new scenes, may fitly be named the pleasures yielded by pictorial representations of them. While in many cases these fall short of those which the realities give, in many other cases they exceed them. By its reproduction on canvas there is given to a rural view or a domestic interior an artificial interest; so that something intrinsically commonplace is transfigured into something beautiful: possibly because the mind in presence of the object itself was so much occupied with its other aspects as to give no attention to its aesthetic aspects. Be the cause what it may, however, works of art open new fields of delight, and by hedonism acceptance of this delight is sanctioned, or rather enjoined. Few pleasures are more entirely to be approved, and less open to abuse, than those yielded by paintmgs, and of course also by sculptures.
It seems undesirable to insist that there is an ethical sanction for the pleasures given by light literature, seeing that there is so general a tendency to excess in the pursuit of them. Perhaps such exaltation of feeling as the reading of good poetry produces, is not sought in an undue degree; but, unquestionably, there is far too much reading of fiction; often excluding, as it does, all instructive reading, and causing neglect of useful occupations. While ethical approval must be given to occasional indulgence in that extreme gratification produced by following out the good and ill fortunes of imaginary persons made real by vivid character drawing; yet there much more needs ethical reprobation of the too frequent indulgence in it which is so common: this emotional debauchery undermines mental health. Nor let us omit to note that while sanction may rightly be claimed for fiction of a humanizing tendency, there should be nothing but condemnation for brutalizing fiction–for that culture of bloodthirst to which so many stories are devoted.
Of course much that has just been said concerning fiction may be said concerning the drama. Higher even than the gratification yielded by a good novel, is that yielded by a good play; and the demoralization caused by excess of it would be still greater were there the same opportunity for continuous absorption. Pleasures which are intense must be sparingly partaken of. The general law of waste and repair implies that in proportion to the excitement of a faculty must be its subsequent prostration and unfitness for action–an unfitness which continues until repair has been made. Hence, overwhelming sympathy felt for personages in a fiction or drama, is felt at the cost of some subsequent callousness. As the eye by exposure to a vivid light is momentarily incapacitated for appreciating those feeble lights through which objects around are distinguished; so, after a tearful fellow feeling with the sufferers of imaginary woes, there is for a time a lack of fellow feeling with persons around. Much theatergoing, like much novel reading, is therefore to be ethically reprobated.
Perhaps among gratifications of the aesthetic class, that which music yields is that which may be indulged in most largely without evil consequences. Though after a concert, as after a fiction or a play, life in general seems tame; yet there is a less marked reaction, because the feelings excited are more remotely akin to those associated with daily intercourse. Still, the pleasures of music are frequently enjoyed to an excess which, if not otherwise injurious, is injurious by the implied occupation of time–by the filling of too large a space in life.
227. Throughout the foregoing class of pleasures, resulting from the superfluous excitements of faculties, the individual is mainly passive. We turn now to the class in which he is mainly active; which again is subdivisible into two classes–sports and games. With sports, ethics has little concern beyond graduating its degrees of reprobation. Such of them as involve the direct infliction of pain, especially on fellow beings, are nothing but means to the gratification of feelings inherited from savages of the baser sort. That after these thousands of years of social discipline, there should still be so many who like to see the encounters of the prize ring or witness the goring of horses and riders in the arena, shows how slowly the instincts of the barbarian are being subdued. No condemnation can be too strong for these sanguinary amusements which keep alive in men the worst parts of their natures and thus profoundly vitiate social life. Of course in a measure, though in a smaller measure, condemnation must be passed on field sports–in smaller measure because the obtainment of food affords a partial motive, because the inffiction of pain is less conspicuous, and because the chief pleasure is that derived from successful exercise of skill. But it cannot be denied that all activities with which there is joined the consciousness that other sentient beings, far inferior though they may be, are made to suffer, are to some extent demoralizing. The sympathies do, indeed, admit of being so far specialized that the same person who is unsympathetic toward wild animals may be in large measure sympathetic toward fellow men; but a full amount of sympathy cannot well be present in the one relation and absent in the other. It may be added that the specializing of the sympathies has the effect that they become smaller as the remoteness from human nature becomes greater; and that hence the killing of a deer sins against them more than does the killing of a fish.
Those expenditures of energy which take the form of games, yield pleasures from which there are but small, if any, drawbacks in the entailed pains. Certain of them, indeed, as football, are as much to be reprobated as sports, than some of which they are more brutalizing; and there cannot be much ethical approbation of those games, so-called, such as boat races, in which a painful and often injurious overtax of the system is gone through to achieve a victory, pleasurable to one side and entailing pain on the other. But there is ethical sanction for those games in which, with a moderate amount of muscular effort, there is joined the excitement of a competition not too intense, kept alive from moment to moment by the changing incidents of the contest. Under these conditions the muscular actions are beneficial, the culture of the perceptions is useful, while the emotional pleasure has but small drawbacks. And here I am prompted to denounce the practice, now so general, of substituting gymnastics for games–violent muscular actions, joined with small concomitant pleasures, for moderate muscular actions joined with great pleasures. This usurpation is a sequence of that pestilent asceticism which thinks that pleasure is of no consequence, and that if the same amount of exercise be taken, the same benefit is gained: the truth being that to the exaltation of the vital functions which the pleasure produces, half the benefit is due.
Of indoor games which chiefly demand quickness of perception, quickness of reasoning, and quickness of judgment, general approval may be expressed with qualifications of no great importance. For young people they are especially desirable as giving to various of the intellectual faculties a valuable training, not to be given by other means. Under the stress of competition, the abilities to observe rapidly perceive accurately and infer rightly are increased; and in addition to the immediate pleasures gained, there are gained powers of dealing more effectually with many of the incidents of life. It should be added that such drawbacks as there are, from the emotions accompanying victory and defeat, are but small in games which involve chance as a considerable factor, but are very noticeable where there is no chance. Chess, for example, which pits together two intelligences in such a way as to show unmistakably the superiority of one to the other in respect of certain powers, produces, much more than whist, a feeling of humiliation in the defeated, and if the sympathies are keen this gives some annoyance to the victor as well as to the vanquished.
Of course, such ethical sanction as is given to games, cannot be given where gambling or betting is an accompaniment. Involving, as both do, in a very definite way and often to an extreme degree, the obtainment of pleasure at the cost of another’s pain, they are to be condemned both for this immediate effect and for their remote effect–the repression of fellow feeling.
228. Before passing to the altruistic aspect of amusements, there should be noted a less familiar egoistic aspect. Unless they have kept up during life an interest in pastimes, those who have broken down from overwork (perhaps an overwork entailed on them by imperative duties) usually find themselves incapable of relaxing in any satisfactory way: they are no longer amusable. Capacities for all other pleasures are atrophied, and the only pleasure is that which business gives. In such cases recovery is, if not prevented, greatly retarded by the lack of exhilarating occupations. Frequently dependents suffer.
This last consideration shows that these, like other classes of actions which primarily concern the individual, concern, to some extent, other individuals. But they concern other individuals in more direct and constant ways also. On each person there is imposed not only the peremptory obligation so to carry on his life as to avoid inequitably interfering with the carrying on of others’ lives, and not only the less peremptory obligation to aid under various circumstances the carrying on of their lives, but there is imposed some obligation to increase the pleasures of their lives by sociality and by the cultivation of those powers which conduce to sociality A man may be a good economical unit of society. while remaining otherwise an almost worthless unit. If he has no knowledge of the arts, no aesthetic feelings, no interest in fiction, the drama, poetry, or music–if he cannot join in any of those amusements which daily and at longer intervals fill leisure spaces in life–if he is thus one to whom others cannot readily give pleasure, at the same time that he can give no pleasure to others; he becomes in great measure a dead unit, and unless he has some special value might better be out of the way.
Thus, that he may add his share to the general happiness, each should cultivate in due measure those superfluous activities which primarily yield self-happiness.