Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 10.: General Conclusions - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 10.: General Conclusions - 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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241. The title of this division–"The Ethics of Individual Life"–has excited a publicly expressed curiosity respecting the possible nature of its contents. Nothing beyond prudential admonitions could, it was thought, be meant; and there was evident surprise that ethical sanction should be claimed for these.
The state of mind thus implied is not, I believe, exceptional. Ordinary individual life, when it is such as not directly to affect others for good or evil, is supposed to lie outside the sphere of ethics; or rather, there is commonly entertained no thought about the matter. Ethics, as usually conceived, having made no formal claim to regulate this part of conduct is assumed to be unconcerned with it. It is true that now and then come expressions implying a half-conscious belief to the contrary. “You ought not to have overtaxed your strength by so great an exertion”; “you ought not to have gone so long without food”; are not unfrequent utterances. “You were quite right to throw up the situation if your health was giving way,” is said to one; while on another is passed the criticism, “He is wrong in idling away his time, wealthy though he may be.” And we occasionally hear insistence on the duty of taking a holiday to avoid an illness: especially in view of responsibilities to be discharged. That is to say the words ought, right, wrong, duty are used in connection with various parts of private conduct; and such uses of these words, which in other cases have ethical significance, imply that they have ethical significance in these cases also.
Moreover, as pointed out in the opening chapter, there are some modes of individual life concerning which ethical convictions of the most pronounced kinds prevail–excess in drinking, for example. Recognition of the immense evils entailed by this prompts strong reprobation. But there is no consciousness of the obvious truth that if, because of its mischievous consequences, this deviation from normal life is to be condemned; so, too, are all deviations which have mischievous consequences, however relatively small. It must be admitted that, conceived in its fully developed form, ethics has judgments to give upon all actions which affect individual welfare.
Throughout the foregoing series of chapters, it has, I think, been made sufficiently manifest that there is great need for ethical rule over this wider territory.
242. Doubtless this rule must be of an indefinite kind–may be compared rather with that of a suzerain than with that of an acting governor. For throughout the greater part of this territory, there have to be effected compromises among various requirements; and in the majority of cases ethical considerations can do little more than guide us toward rational compromises.
This will probably be regarded as a reversion to the ancient doctrine of the mean–a doctrine expressed in a manner generally vague, but occasionally distinct, by Confucius, and definitely elaborated by Aristotle. And it must be admitted that throughout most classes of actions which do not directly affect other persons, paths lying between extremes have to be sought and followed. The doctrine of the mean is not, as Aristotle admitted, universally applicable; and its inapplicability is conspicuous in respect of that part of conduct which stands above all others in importance–justice; not, indeed, justice as legally formulated, nor justice as it is conceived by communists and others such, but justice as deducible from the conditions which must be maintained for the carrying on of harmonious social cooperation. Ethics does not suggest partial fulfillment of a contract, as being the mean between non-fulfillment and complete fulfillment. It does not countenance moderate robbery of your neighbor, rather than the taking from him everything or the taking nothing. Nor does it dictate the assault of a fellow man as intermediate between murdering him and not touching him. Contrariwise, in respect of justice ethics insists on the extreme-enjoins complete fulfillment of a contract, absolute respect for property, entire desistance from personal injury. So likewise is it with veracity. The right does not lie between the two extremes of falsehood and truth: complete adherence to fact is required. And there are sundry kinds of conduct classed as vices, which are also not contemplated by the doctrine; since they are to be interdicted not partially but wholly. In respect of ordinary private life, however, the doctrine of the mean may be considered to hold in the majority of cases.
But admitting this, there still presents itself the question–How to find the mean? Until the positions of the extremes have been ascertained, the position of the mean cannot be known. As has rightly been remarked, “It is impracticable to define the position of that, which is excessive on the one hand, and defective on the other, till excess and defect have been themselves defined.” And here it is that the ethics of individual life finds its subject matter. The guidance of uncultured sense, ordinarily followed throughout private conduct, it replaces by a guidance which, though still mainly empirical, is relatively trustworthy; since it results from a deliberate and methodic study of the requirements–a study which dissipates misapprehensions and reduces vague ideas to definite ones. In respect of nutrition, for instance, it is doubtless true that abstinence on the one hand, and gluttony on the other, are to be avoided–that food is to be taken in moderation. But it may rightly be contended that eating is not to be guided by observation of the mean between these two extremes; but is to be guided by reaching that which may in a sense, be called an extreme–the complete satisfaction of appetite. And here we are shown the need for critical inquiry, For the conception of a mean between abstinence and gluttony is confounded with the conception of a mean between no satisfaction of appetite and complete satisfaction of appetite; and in consequence of the confusion this last mean is by some prescribed. But the notion, not infrequently expressed, that it is best to leave off eating while still hungry would never have been enunciated were there not so many people who lead abnormal lives, and so many people who eat before appetite prompts. In that state of health which exists where there has not been, on the part of either self or ancestors, a chronic disregard of physiological needs, proper nutrition is achieved not by partial fulfillment of the desire for food but by entire fulfillment of it–by going up to the limit set by inclination.
Remembrance of the various conclusions drawn in preceding chapters, such as those which concern activity and rest, culture and amusement, will make it clear that it is everywhere the business of the ethics of individual life thus to dissipate erroneous beliefs, by systematic observation and analysis of private conduct and its results.
243. Remembrance of these conclusions suggests that beyond giving a definite conception of the mean, when the mean is to be adopted, the ethics of individual life gives definiteness to a kindred idea–the idea of proportion. I do not refer to that proportion which is implied by the doctrine of the mean, and connotes a just estimation of excess and defect; but I mean that proportion which obtains among different parts of conduct.
While, within each division of the activities, the middle place may be duly regarded, there may be no due regard for proportion among the several divisions of the activities. There are various kinds of bodily action, some needed for self-sustentation and some not; there are various kinds of mental action, aiding in different ways and degrees the maintenance of individual life, and various others which do not aid this maintenance, or do so in but remote ways. And then, beyond the preservation of a right proportion between the lifesubserving occupations and the occupations which do not directly subserve life, there is the preservation of right proportions among the subdivisions of these last–right proportions between culture and amusement and between different kinds of culture and different kinds of amusements. The conception of a mean does not touch the numerous problems thus presented; since it implies a compromise between two things, and not a number of compromises among many things.
Any one on glancing round may see that the great majority of lives are more or less distorted by failure to maintain balanced amounts of the activities, bodily and mental, required for complete health and happiness; and that there are here, therefore, many problems with which the ethics of individual life has to concern itself.
244. But while this division of ethics which has the control of private conduct for its function, may, by its ordered judgments, serve to prevent each kind of activity from diverging very far on either side of moderation; and while it may serve to prevent extreme disproportions among the different kinds of activities; it cannot be expected to produce by its injunctions a perfectly regulated conduct.
Only by the gradual remolding of human nature into fitness for the social state, can either the private life or the public life of each man, be made what it should be. In respect of private life, especially the problems presented are so complex and so variable, that nothing like definite solutions of them can be reached by any intellectual processes, however methodic and however careful. They can be completely solved only by the organic adjustment of constitution to conditions. All inferior creatures, incapable of elaborating reasoned codes of conduct, are guided entirely by the promptings of instincts and desires, severally adapted to the needs of their lives. In each species the feelings are kept duly adjusted in their strengths to the requirements, and duly proportioned to one another, by direct or indirect equilibration, or by both; since, inevitably, the individuals in which the balance of them is not good, disappear, or fail to rear progeny. There are many who, while they recognize this necessity as operative throughout subhuman life, tacitly deny that it is operative throughout human life, or, at any rate, ignore its operation; and they do this notwithstanding their knowledge of the immense divergences of habits and sentiments, which multiform human nature itself has acquired under the different circumstances it has been subject to. Any one, however, who contemplates the contrast between those who witness with pleasure the tortures of men and animals, and those who cannot be induced to witness such tortures because of the sympathetic pain they experience, may infer from this single contrast, a capacity for modification which makes possible an approximately complete adjustment of the nature to the life which has to be led–an adjustment towards which there will be appreciable progress, when there have died out the fatuous legislators who are continually impeding it.
Eventually, then, the degree of each of the activities constituting private conduct, and the proportions among the different activities, must be spontaneously regulated by the natural promptings. In the meantime, all which the ethics of individual life can do, is to keep clearly in view and continually to emphasize, the needs to which the nature has to be adjusted.
245. Finally, there must be uttered a caution against striving too strenuously to reach the ideal–against straining the nature too much out of its inherited form. For the normal remolding can go on but slowly.
As there must be moderation in other things, so there must be moderation in self-criticism. Perpetual contemplation of our own actions produces a morbid consciousness, quite unlike that normal consciousness accompanying right actions spontaneously done; and from a state of unstable equilibrium long maintained by effort, there is apt to be a fall towards stable equilibrium, in which the primitive nature reasserts itself. Retrogression rather than progression may hence result.
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