Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 9.: Parenthood - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 9.: Parenthood - 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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235. The subject matter of this chapter is of course only in part separable from the subject matter of the last chapter. But though in discussing the ethics of marriage, as primarily concerning the relations of parents to each other, it has been needful to take account of the relations of parents to offspring, it has seemed best to reserve the full consideration of these last relations for a distinct chapter.
Already it has been pointed out that in the order of nature–"so careful of the type . . . so careless of the single life"–the welfare of progeny takes precedence of the welfare of those who produce them. Though the happiness or misery of the married pair is ordinarily the result chiefly contemplated, this result must be held of secondary importance in comparison with the results reached in offspring–the superiority or inferiority of the children born and reared to maturity. For in proportion as race maintenance is well- or ill-achieved in each case, must be the tendency of the species or variety to prosper or decline.
Hence all requirements touching the proximate end, marriage, are to be considered in subordination to requirements touching the ultimate end–the raising up members of a new generation. Evolutionary ethics demands that this last end shall be regarded as the supreme end.
236. Obviously the parental instincts in large measure secure fulfillment of this supreme end; since any species or variety in which they are not strong enough to do this, must presently become extinct. Here, then, we are introduced to the truth that achievement of those pleasures which parenthood brings, has a double sanction–that which the ethics of individual life directly yields, and that which is yielded indirectly by the ethics of social life.
But satisfaction of the parental affections, while not to be ignored as an end in itself, is, as above implied, chiefly to be regarded as a spur to the discharge of parental responsibilities. The arrangements of things are dislocated if the two are not kept in relation–if the responsibilities, instead of being discharged by parents, are shouldered upon others. It might have been thought that this truth is too obvious to need enunciation; but, unhappily it is far otherwise. We have fallen upon evil times, in which it has come to be an accepted doctrine that part of the responsibilities are to be discharged not by parents but by the public–a part which is gradually becoming a larger part and threatens to become the whole. Agitators and legislators have united in spreading a theory which, logically followed out, ends in the monstrous conclusion that it is for parents to beget children and for society to take care of them. The political ethics now in fashion, makes the unhesitating assumption that while each man, as parent, is not responsible for the mental culture of his own offspring, he is, as citizen, along with other citizens, responsible for the mental culture of all other men’s offspring! And this absurd doctrine has now become so well established that people raise their eyebrows in astonishment if you deny it. A self-evident falsehood has been transformed into a self-evident truth! Along with the almost universal superstition that society is a manufacture and not a growth, there goes the unwavering belief that legislators, prompted by electors, can with advantage set aside one of the fundamental arrangements under which organic nature at large, and human nature in particular, has evolved thus far! Men who have proved cunning in business speculation, men who ride well to hounds and are popular in their counties, men who in courts of justice are skilled in making the worse cause appear the better, men who once wrote good Latin verses or proved themselves learned about the misbehavior of the Greek gods, unite in trying to undo organized dependencies resulting from millions of years of discipline. Men whose culture is so little relevant to the functions they have assumed, that they do not even see that everything in social life originates from certain traits of individual life, that individual human life is but a specialized part of life at large, and that therefore until the leading truths presented by life at large are comprehended, there can be no right comprehension of society–men who are thus ignorant of the great facts which it chiefly concerns them to know, have promised to do the behests of men who are ignorant not only of such facts but of most other things. The half-blind elected by the wholly blind take upon themselves the office of creation menders! Daily accustomed to discover that established laws are bad and must be repealed by act of Parliament, they have unawares extended their thought to laws not of human origin, and calmly undertake to repeal by act of Parliament a law of nature!
But this ignoring of the truth that only by due discharge of parental responsibilities has all life on the earth arisen, and that only through the better discharge of them have there gradually been made possible better types of life, is in the long run fatal. Breach of natural law will in this case, as in all cases, be followed in due time by nature’s revenge–a revenge which will be terrible in proportion as the breach has been great. A system under which parental duties are performed wholesale by those who are not the parents, under the plea that many parents cannot or will not perform their duties–a system which thus fosters the inferior children of inferior parents at the necessary cost of superior parents and consequent injury of superior children–a system which thus helps incapables to multiply and hinders the multiplications of capables, or diminishes their capability, must bring decay and eventual extinction. A society which persists in such a system must, other things equal, go to the wall in the competition with a society which does not commit the folly of nurturing its worst at the expense of its best.
The ethical code of nature, then, allows of no escape of parents from their obligations. While under its hedonistic aspect it sanctions in an emphatic way the gratification of parental affections, under its evolutionary aspect it peremptorily requires fulfillment of all those actions by which the young are prepared for the battle of life. And if the circumstances are such that part of these actions must be performed by deputy, it still requires that the implied cost and care shall be borne, and not transferred to others’ shoulders.
237. The time will come when, along with full recognition of parental duties, there will go an unyielding resistance to the usurpation of those duties. While the parent, as he ought to be, will conscientiously satisfy all the demands which his parenthood entails, he will sternly deny the right of any assemblage of men to take his children from him and mold them as they please. We have outgrown the stage during which the despot, with an army at his back, could impose his will on all citizens; but we have not yet outgrown the stage during which a majority of citizens, with police at their back, can impose their will, concerning all matters whatever, upon citizens not of their number. But when there has passed away this contemptible superstition that, having the power, the majority have the right, to do as they please with the persons and property and actions of those who happen to be in the minority–when it is understood that governmental orders are limited by ethical injunctions; every parent will hold his sphere as one into which the state may not intrude. And if under such conditions there occasionally, though rarely, happens a nonperformance of parental duties, the entailed evil brings, in nature’s stern way, its own cure. For with mankind as with lower kinds, the ill-nurtured offspring of the inferior fail in the struggle for existence with the well-nurtured offspring of the superior; and in a generation or two die out, to the benefit of the species. A harsh discipline this, most will say. True; but nature has much discipline which is harsh, and which must, in the long run, be submitted to. The necessities which she imposes on us are not to be evaded, even by the joint efforts of university graduates and workingmen delegates; and the endeavor to escape her harsh discipline results in a discipline still harsher. Measures which prevent the dwindling away of inferior individuals and families, must, in the course of generations, cause the nation at large to dwindle away.
At the same time that intrusion into the parental sphere must, in a normal social state, be resented as a trespass, it will be further resented as a deprivation of those daily pleasures yielded by furthering the development of the young in body and mind. For when there have died out the stupidities of an education which may be briefly described as denying the mind that which it wants and forcing upon it that which it does not want, there will have come a time when the superintendence of education, at any rate in all its simpler parts, will be at once easy and enjoyable. The general law that through successive stages of organic evolution, there is an elongation of the period during which parental care is given, shown finally in the contrast between the human race and inferior races, as well as in the contrast between uncivilized and civilized, is a law which, involving as now a long and careful physical nurturing of the young by their parents, will hereafter involve a long and careful psychical nurturing by them; and though the higher and more special educational functions will have to be discharged by proxy, yet the proxy discharge will be under parental superintendence.
People feel no adequate pride in bringing to maturity fine human beings. It is true that the mother, exhibiting each infant with triumph, and during the childhood of each pleasing herself by presenting it to visitors prettily clothed and with hair on which much time has been spent morning and evening, is not wholly neglectful of diet, and takes care that the day’s lessons are attended to. It is true, also, that the father, commonly leaving fashion to determine the places of education for his boys, sometimes makes inquiries and exercises independent judgment; and, more-over, looks with satisfaction on a well-grown youth and one who has brought home prizes. But it is nevertheless true that scarcely anywhere do we see proper solicitude. Grave mischiefs are daily done in almost every family by ignorance of physiological requirements; and in the absence of guiding knowledge in parents, innumerable children grow up with constitutions damaged for life. At the same time there is no such thoughtful ministration to the mind of each child as is called for–no search for a course of intellectual culture which is rational in matter and method, and nothing beyond a rough and ready moral discipline. On observing what energies are expended by father and mother to achieve worldly success and fulfill social ambitions, we are reminded how relatively small is the space occupied by the ambition to make their descendants physically, morally, and intellectually superior. Yet this is the ambition which will replace those they now so eagerly pursue; and which, instead of perpetual disappointments, will bring permanent satisfactions.
And then, following on the discharge of these high parental functions, will come that reward in old age consisting of an affectionate care by children, much greater than is now known.
238. Anything like due fulfillment of parental functions as thus conceived, is possible only under conditions commonly disregarded–conditions the disregard of which is supposed not to fall within the range of ethical judgments.
“Providence has sent me a large family,” is a remark which may occasionally be heard from one who has more children than he can provide for. Though, in other directions, he does not profess an oriental fatalism, in this direction he does. “God has willed it so,” appears to be his thought; and thinking this, he holds himself absolved from blame in bringing about the distresses of a poverty-stricken household.
If, however, improvident marriages are to be reprobated–if to bring children into the world when there will probably be no means of maintaining any is a course calling for condemnation; then there must be condemnation for those who bring many children into the world when they have means of properly rearing only a few. Improvidence after marriage cannot be considered right, if improvidence before marriage is considered wrong.
The stunted and ill-formed bodies of dwellers in the East end of London, tell of the meager diet and deficient clothing from which the many children of parents with narrow means, have suffered during their early days; and even in country villages, where the sanitary conditions are relatively good, one may see in feeble and sickiy people, the results of attempting to rear large families on small wages. This reckless multiplication, while it infficts the daily-recurring pains of unsatisfied appetites and the miseries of insufficient warmth–while it is to be debited with that lack of bodily strength which makes efficient work impracticable, commonly involves also a stupidity which negatives all but the most mechanical functions; for mental power cannot be got from ill-fed brains. Unhappy and wearisome lives are thus entailed by parents who beget more children than they can properly bring up.
Matters are made worse, too, by the undue tax brought on the parents themselves–on the father, if he is conscientious by an injurious amount of labor; and still more on the mother, whose system, exhausted by the bearing of many children, is still further exhausted by the cares which all day long the many children need. Manifestly hedonistic ethics if we regard it as contemplating, more especially, immediate effects on happiness, severely denounces conduct which thus creates miseries all round; while evolutionary ethics, if we consider it as more especially contemplating future results, severely denounces conduct which thus bequeaths lower natures instead of higher to subsequent generations.
Even where parents have means sufficient to provide abundantly for the bodily welfare of many children, there must still be an insufficient provision for their mental welfare. Though, in a family of several, the children amuse and teach one another, and thus mutually aid mental growth; yet, when the number is large, the parental attention they severally need becomes too much subdivided; and the daily display of parental affection, which is a large factor in the moral development of children, cannot be given in adequate amount to each.
239. With the ethical censure of this improvident multiplication, must be joined a like censure of an improvidence habitually associated with it, and in large measure the cause of it. The nature of this will best be shown by citing some facts furnished by races which, being uncivilized, are regarded as therefore in all respects our inferiors.
The first of them comes from a society utterly brutal in most of its usages–Uganda: “The women rarely have more than two or three children, and the law is that when a woman has borne a child she must live apart from her husband for two years, at which age the children are weaned.”
In a still more brutal society–that of the Fijians–we meet with a kindred fact. Says Seemann:
After childbirth, husband and wife keep apart for three, even four years, so that no other baby may interfere with the time considered necessary for suckling children. . . . I heard of a white man, who being asked how many brothers and sisters he had, frankly replied, “Ten!” “But that could not be,” was the rejoinder of the natives, “one mother could scarcely have so many children.” When told that these children were born at annual intervals, and that such occurrences were common in Europe, they were very much shocked, and thought it explained sufficiently why so many white people were “mere shrimps.”
In these cases, however, polygamy prevails: in Uganda, for instance, the enormous preponderance of women, due partly to the destruction of men in war and partly to the capture of women by war, rendering it almost universal. Here, therefore, the usage, insofar as it affects men, is not so remarkable. But in two leading districts of New Guinea, there are monogamous peoples among whom a like rule holds. The Rev. J. Chalmers tells us that in Motu-Motu, the parents, after the birth of a child, “do not live together again until the child is strong, walking, and weaned, and all that time he [the husband] sleeps in dubu. His friends cook food for him.” Similarly of the Motu tribe, he tells us that the parents keep apart “until the child walks and is weaned.” To ascertain the current opinion on the matter he asked the question, “If another child is born before the first is big and able to walk, are they ashamed?” To which he got the answer, “Yes, terribly; and all the village will be talking about it."
Even these warlike and sanguinary peoples then, and still more these trading, peaceful, and monogamous tribes of New Guinea, show us a deep consciousness of the truth that too frequent childbearing is injurious to the race–tells against the fullest development of both the already born child and the child to be presently born. Beyond that constant surplus vitality which, in the female economy, remains after meeting the expenditure of individual life, there is also what we may call a reserve of vital capital, accumulated during intervals in which the surplus is not being demanded. This reserve, used up during the interval in which an infant is being developed, takes some time to replace–a time shorter or longer according as the constitutional vigor is great or small. And if, much before the end of that time, the reproductive system is again called into action, the double result is an overtax of the maternal system, and an infant which falls short of the fullest development; at the same time that its predecessor is too early deprived of its natural supply of food. These are necessary consequences. They are collateral results of that general cause which makes reproduction impossible before and after certain ages.
Here then, as in sundry preceding cases, evolutionary ethics utters an interdict which current ethics, from whatever source derived, shows no signs of uttering.
240. How then are there to be reconciled the interests of the individual and the interests of the race? This question, which here unavoidably presents itself, is one difficult, if not impossible to answer–perhaps they cannot be reconciled.
As already many times said, men have been long in course of acquiring fitness for that social state into which increase of numbers has forced them, and have still but partially acquired fitness for it. In multitudinous ways the survival of instincts appropriate to the presocial stage, has been a chronic cause of miseries; and in multitudinous ways the lack of sentiments appropriate to the social stage, has been a chronic cause of other miseries.
While it has continually increased that pressure of population which has been a cause of progress, excess of fertility has been among the chief factors in the production of these miseries, and must long continue to be such; but, as is shown in The Principles of Biology, sections 373—74, the implication of the general law traceable throughout the whole animal kingdom, is that still a higher development of mind, brought about by still increasing pressure of population, and still greater cerebral activity entailed by it, will gradually diminish the fertility. until the excess practically disappears: the highest degree of individuation entailing the lowest degree of reproduction. And the further implication, there pointed out, is that this degree of individuation, especially shown in a more exalted mental life–wider intelligence and more intense feelings–will not involve conscious stress, but will be the natural outcome of an organization adjusted to the requirements of a more costly self-sustentation. Hence, if there are deprivations which ethics dictates, they must step by step be accompanied by compensations, probably greater in amount.
Only in the slow course of ages, however, can any such change of balance be wrought. Whether, in the meantime, there may arise any qualifications of the process, it is impossible to say. One thing, however, is certain. No conclusion can be sustained which does not conform to the ultimate truth that the interests of the race must predominate over the interests of the individual.