Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2.: Subhuman Justice - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 2.: Subhuman Justice - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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250. Of the two essential but opposed principles of action by pursuance of which each species is preserved, we are here concerned only with the second. Passing over the law of the family as composed of adults and young, we have now to consider exclusively the law of the species as composed of adults only.
This law we have seen to be that individuals of most worth, as measured by their fitness to the conditions of existence, shall have the greatest benefits, and that inferior individuals shall receive smaller benefits, or suffer greater evils, or both–a law which, under its biological aspect, has for its implication the survival of the fittest. Interpreted in ethical terms, it is that each individual ought to be subject to the effects of its own nature and resulting conduct. Throughout subhuman life this law holds without qualification; for there exists no agency by which, among adults, the relations between conduct and consequence can be interfered with.
Fully to appreciate the import of this law, we may with advantage pause a moment to contemplate an analogous law; or, rather, the same law as exhibited in another sphere. Besides being displayed in the relations among members of a species, as respectively well sustained or ill sustained according to their well-adapted activities or ill-adapted activities, it is displayed in the relations of the parts of each organism to one another.
Every muscle, every viscus, every gland, receives blood in proportion to function. If it does little it is ill fed and dwindles; if it does much it is well fed and grows. By this balancing of expenditure and nutrition, there is, at the same time, a balancing of the relative powers of the parts of the organism; so that the organism as a whole is fitted to its existence by having its parts continuously proportioned to the requirements. And clearly this principle of self-adjustment within each individual, is parallel to that principle of self-adjustment by which the species as a whole keeps itself fitted to its environment. For by the better nutrition and greater power of propagation which come to members of the species that have faculties and consequent activities best adapted to the needs, joined with the lower sustentation of self and offspring which accompany less adapted faculties and activities, there is caused such special growth of the species as most conduces to its survival in face of surrounding conditions.
This, then, is the law of subhuman justice, that each individual shall receive the benefits and the evils of its own nature and its consequent conduct.
251. But subhuman justice is extremely imperfect, alike in general and in detail.
In general, it is imperfect in the sense that there exist multitudinous species the sustentation of which depends on the wholesale destruction of other species; and this wholesale destruction implies that the species serving as prey have the relations between conduct and consequence so habitually broken that in very few individuals are they long maintained. It is true that in such cases the premature loss of life suffered from enemies by nearly all members of the species, must be considered as resulting from their natures–their inability to contend with the destructive agencies they are exposed to. But we may fitly recognize the truth that this violent ending of the immense majority of its lives, implies that the species is one in which justice, as above conceived, is displayed in but small measure.
Subhuman justice is extremely imperfect in detail, in the sense that the relation between conduct and consequence is in such an immense proportion of cases broken by accidents–accidents of kinds which fall indiscriminately upon inferior and superior individuals. There are the multitudinous deaths caused by inclemencies of weather, which, in the great majority of cases, the best members of the species are liable to like the worst. There are other multitudinous deaths caused by scarcity of food, which, if not wholly still in large measure, carries off good and bad alike. Among low types, too, enemies are causes of death which so operate that superior as well as inferior are sacrificed. And the like holds with invasions by parasites, often widely fatal. These frequently destroy the best individuals as readily as the worst.
The high rate of multiplication among low animals, required to balance the immense mortality, at once shows us that among them long survival is not insured by superiority; and that thus the subhuman justice, consisting in continued receipt of the results of conduct, holds individually in but few cases.
252. And here we come upon a truth of great significance–the truth that subhuman justice becomes more decided as organization becomes higher.
Whether this or that fly is taken by a swallow, whether among a brood of caterpillars an ichneumon settles on this or that, whether out of a shoal of herrings this or that is swallowed by a cetacean, is an event quite independent of individual peculiarity: good and bad samples fare alike. With high types of creatures it is otherwise. Keen senses, sagacity agility. give a particular carnivore special power to secure prey. In a herd of herbivorous creatures, the one with quickest hearing, clearest vision, most sensitive nostril, or greatest speed, is the one most likely to save itself.
Evidently, in proportion as the endowments, mental and bodily, of a species are high, and as, consequently, its ability to deal with the incidents of the environment is great, the continued life of each individual is less dependent on accidents against which it cannot guard. And, evidently. in proportion as this result of general superiority becomes marked, the results of special superiorities are felt. Individual differences of faculty play larger parts in determining individual fates. Now deficiency of a power shortens life, and now a large endowment prolongs it. That is to say. individuals experience more fully the results of their own natures–the justice is more decided.
253. As displayed among creatures which lead solitary lives, the nature of subhuman justice is thus sufficiently expressed; but on passing to gregarious creatures we discover in it an element not yet specified.
Simple association, as of deer, profits the individual and the species only by that more efficient safeguarding which results from the superiority of a multitude of eyes, ears, and noses over the eyes, ears, and nose of a single individual. Through the alarms more quickly given, all benefit by the senses of the most acute. Where this, which we may call passive cooperation, rises into active cooperation, as among rooks where one of the flock keeps watch while the rest feed, or as among the cimarrons, a much-hunted variety of mountain sheep in Central America, which similarly place sentries, or as among beavers where a number work together in making dams, or as among wolves where, by a plan of attack in which the individuals play different parts, prey is caught which would otherwise not be caught; there are still greater advantages to the individuals and to the species. And, speaking generally, we may say that gregariousness, and cooperation more or less active, establish themselves in a species only because they are profitable to it; since, otherwise, survival of the fittest must prevent establishment of them.
But now mark that this profitable association is made possible only by observance of certain conditions. The acts directed to self-sustentation which each performs, are performed more or less in presence of others performing like acts; and there tends to result more or less interference. If the interference is great, it may render the association unprofitable. For the association to be profitable the acts must be restrained to such extent as to leave a balance of advantage. Survival of the fittest will else exterminate that variety of the species in which association begins.
Here, then, we find a further factor in subhuman justice. Each individual, receiving the benefits and the injuries due to its own nature and consequent conduct, has to carry on that conduct subject to the restriction that it shall not in any large measure impede the conduct by which each other individual achieves benefits or brings on itself injuries. The average conduct must not be so aggressive as to cause evils which outbalance the good obtained by cooperation. Thus, to the positive element in subhuman justice has to be added, among gregarious creatures, a negative element.
254. The necessity for observance of the condition that each member of the group, while carrying on self-sustentation and sustentation of offspring, shall not seriously impede the like pursuits of others, makes itself so felt, where association is established, as to mould the species to it. The mischiefs from time to time experienced when the limits are transgressed, continually discipline all in such ways as to produce regard for the limits; so that such regard becomes, in course of time, a natural trait of the species. For, manifestly, regardlessness of the limits, if great and general, causes dissolution of the group. Those varieties only can survive as gregarious varieties in which there is an inherited tendency to maintain the limits.
Yet further, there arises such general consciousness of the need for maintaining the limits, that punishments are inflicted on transgressors–not only by aggrieved members of the group, but by the group as a whole. A “rogue” elephant (always distinguished as unusually malicious) is one which has been expelled from the herd: doubtless because of conduct obnoxious to the rest–probably aggressive. It is said that from a colony of beavers an idler is banished, and thus prevented from profiting by labors in which he does not join: a statement made credible by the fact that drones, when no longer needed, are killed by worker-bees. The testimonies of observers in different countries show that a flock of crows, after prolonged noise of consultation, will summarily execute an offending member. And an eyewitness affirms that among rooks, a pair which steals the sticks from neighboring nests has its own nest pulled to pieces by the rest.
Here, then, we see that the a priori condition to harmonious cooperation comes to be tacitly recognized as something like a law; and there is a penalty consequent on breach of it.
255. That the individual shall experience all the consequences, good and evil, of its own nature and consequent conduct, which is that primary principle of subhuman justice whence results survival of the fittest, is, in creatures that lead solitary lives, a principle complicated only by the responsibilities of parenthood. Among them the purely egoistic actions of self-sustentation have, during the reproductive period, to be qualified by that self-subordination which the rearing of offspring necessitates, but by no other self-subordination. Among gregarious creatures of considerable intelligence, however, disciplined, as we have just seen, into due regard for the limits imposed by other's presence, the welfare of the species, besides demanding self-subordination in the rearing of offspring, occasionally demands a further self-subordination.
We read of bisons that, during the calving season, the bulls form an encircling guard round the herd of cows and calves, to protect them against wolves and other predatory animals: a proceeding which entails on each bull some danger, but which conduces to the preservation of the species. Out of a herd of elephants about to emerge from a forest to reach a drinking place, one will first appear and look round in search of dangers, and, not discerning any. will then post some others of the herd to act as watchers; after which the main body comes forth and enters the water. Here a certain extra risk is run by the few that the many may be the safer. In a still greater degree we are shown this kind of action by a troop of monkeys, the members of which will combine to defend or rescue one of their number, or will fitly arrange themselves when retreating from an enemy–“the females, with their young, leading the way. the old males bringing up the rear . . . the place of danger”; for though in any particular case the species may not profit, since more mortality may result than would have resulted, yet it profits in the long run by the display of a character which makes attack on its groups dangerous.
Evidently. then, if by such conduct one variety of a gregarious species keeps up, or increases, its numbers, while other varieties, in which self-subordination thus directed does not exist, fail to do this, a certain sanction is acquired for such conduct. The preservation of the species being the higher end, it results that where an occasional mortality of individuals in defense of the species furthers this preservation in a greater degree than would pursuit of exclusive benefit by each individual, that which we recognize as subhuman justice may rightly have this second limitation.
256. It remains only to point out the order of priority, and the respective ranges, of these principles. The law of relation between conduct and consequence, which, throughout the animal kingdom at large, brings prosperity to those individuals which are structurally best adapted to their conditions of existence, and which, under its ethical aspect, is expressed in the principle that each individual ought to receive the good and the evil which arises from its own nature, is the primary law holding of all creatures; and is applicable without qualification to creatures which lead solitary lives, save by that self-subordination needed among the higher of them for the rearing of offspring.
Among gregarious creatures, and in an increasing degree as they cooperate more, there comes into play the law, second in order of time and authority, that those actions through which, in fulfillment of its nature, the individual achieves benefits and avoids evils, shall be restrained by the need for noninterference with the like actions of associated individuals. A substantial respect for this law in the average of cases, being the condition under which alone gregariousness can continue, it becomes an imperative law for creatures to which gregariousness is a benefit. But, obviously, this secondary law is simply a specification of that form which the primary law takes under the conditions of gregarious life; since, by asserting that in each individual the interactions of conduct and consequence must be restricted in the specified way. it tacitly reasserts that these interactions must be maintained in other individuals, that is in all individuals.
Later in origin, and narrower in range, is the third law, that under conditions such that, by the occasional sacrifices of some members of a species, the species as a whole prospers, there arises a sanction for such sacrifices, and a consequent qualification of the law that each individual shall receive the benefits and evils of its own nature.
Finally, it should be observed that whereas the first law is absolute for animals in general, and whereas the second law is absolute for gregarious animals, the third law is relative to the existence of enemies of such kinds that, in contending with them, the species gains more than it loses by the sacrifice of a few members; and in the absence of such enemies this qualification imposed by the third law disappears.