Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 4.: The Sentiment of Justice - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 4.: The Sentiment of 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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The Sentiment of Justice
261. Acceptance of the doctrine of organic evolution determines certain ethical conceptions. The doctrine implies that the numerous organs in each of the innumerable species of animals, have been either directly or indirectly moulded into fitness for the requirements of life by constant converse with those requirements. Simultaneously. through nervous modifications, there have been developments of the sensations, instincts, emotions, and intellectual aptitudes, needed for the appropriate uses of these organs; as we see in caged rodents which exercise their jaw muscles and incisors by purposeless gnawing, in gregarious creatures which are miserable if they cannot join their fellows, in beavers which, kept in confinement, show their passion for dam building by heaping up whatever sticks and stones they can find.
Has this process of mental adaptation ended with primitive man? Are human beings incapable of having their feelings and ideas progressively adjusted to the modes of life imposed on them by the social state into which they have grown? Shall we suppose that the nature which fitted them to the exigencies of savage life has remained unchanged, and will remain unchanged, by the exigencies of civilized life? Or shall we suppose that this aboriginal nature, by repression of some traits and fostering of others, is made to approach more and more to a nature which finds developed society its appropriate environment, and the required activities its normal ones? There are many believers in the doctrine of evolution who seem to have no faith in the continued adaptability of mankind. While glancing but carelessly at the evidence furnished by comparisons of different human races with one another, and of the same races in different ages, they ignore entirely the induction from the phenomena of life at large. But if there is an abuse of the deductive method of reasoning there is also an abuse of the inductive method. One who refused to believe that a new moon would in a fortnight become full and then wane, and, disregarding observations accumulated throughout the past, insisted on watching the successive phases before he was convinced, would be considered inductive in an irrational degree. But there might not unfairly be classed with him those who, slighting the inductive proof of unlimited adjustability, bodily and mental, which the animal kingdom at large presents, will not admit the adjustability of human nature to social life until the adjustment has taken place: nay, even ignore the evidence that it is taking place.
Here we shall assume it to be an inevitable inference from the doctrine of organic evolution, that the highest type of living being, no less than all lower types, must go on molding itself to those requirements which circumstances impose. And we shall, by implication, assume that moral changes are among the changes thus wrought out.
262. The fact that when surfeit of a favorite food has caused sickness, there is apt to follow an aversion to that food, shows how, in the region of the sensations, experiences establish associations which influence conduct. And the fact that the house in which a wife or child died, or in which a long illness was suffered, becomes so associated with painful states of mind as to be shunned, sufficiently illustrates, in the emotional region, the mode in which actions may be determined by mental connections formed in the course of life. When the circumstances of a species make certain relations between conduct and consequence habitual, the appropriately linked feelings may come to characterize the species. Either inheritances of modifications produced by habit, or more numerous survivals of individuals having nervous structures which have varied in fit ways, gradually form guiding tendencies, prompting appropriate behavior and deterring from inappropriate. The contrast between fearless birds found on islands never before visited by man, and the birds around us, which show fear of man immediately they are out of the nest, exemplifies such adaptations.
By virtue of this process there have been produced to some extent among lower creatures, and there are being further produced in man, the sentiments appropriate to social life. Aggressive actions, while they are habitually injurious to the group in which they occur, are not unfrequently injurious to the individuals committing them; since, though certain pleasures may be gained by them, they often entail pains greater than the pleasures. Conversely, conduct restrained within the required limits, calling out no antagonistic passions, favors harmonious cooperation, profits the group, and, by implication, profits the average of its individuals. Consequently, there results, other things equal, a tendency for groups formed of members having this adaptation of nature, to survive and spread.
Among the social sentiments thus evolved, one of chief importance is the sentiment of justice. Let us now consider more closely its nature.
263. Stop an animal's nostrils, and it makes frantic efforts to free its head. Tie its limbs together, and its struggles to get them at liberty are violent. Chain it by the neck or leg, and it is some time before it ceases its attempts to escape. Put it in a cage, and it long continues restless. Generalizing these instances, we see that in proportion as the restraints on actions by which life is maintained are extreme, the resistances to them are great. Conversely, the eagerness with which a bird seizes the opportunity for taking flight, and the joy of a dog when liberated, show how strong is the love of unfettered movement.
Displaying like feelings in like ways, man displays them in other and wider ways. He is irritated by invisible restraints as well as by visible ones; and as his evolution becomes higher, he is affected by circumstances and actions which in more remote ways aid or hinder the pursuit of ends. A parallel will elucidate this truth. Primitively the love of property is gratified only by possession of food and shelter, and, presently, of clothing; but afterwards it is gratified by possession of the weapons and tools which aid in obtaining these, then by possession of the raw materials that serve for making weapons and tools and for other purposes, then by possession of the coin which purchases them as well as things at large, then by possession of promises to pay exchangeable for the coin, then by a lien on a banker, registered in a passbook. That is, there comes to be pleasure in an ownership more and more abstract and more remote from material satisfactions. Similarly with the sentiment of justice. Beginning with the joy felt in ability to use the bodily powers and gain the resulting benefits, accompanied by irritation at direct interferences, this gradually responds to wider relations: being excited now by the incidents of personal bondage, now by those of political bondage, now by those of class privilege, and now by small political changes. Eventually this sentiment, sometimes so little developed in the Negro that he jeers at a liberated companion because he has no master to take care of him, becomes so much developed in the Englishman that the slightest infraction of some mode of formal procedure at a public meeting or in Parliament, which cannot intrinsically concern him, is vehemently opposed because in some distant and indirect way it may help to give possible powers to unnamed authorities who may perhaps impose unforeseen burdens or restrictions.
Clearly, then, the egoistic sentiment of justice is a subjective attribute which answers to that objective requirement constituting justice–the requirement that each adult shall receive the results of his own nature and consequent actions. For unless the faculties of all kinds have free play, these results cannot be gained or suffered, and unless there exists a sentiment which prompts maintenance of the sphere for this free play, it will be trenched upon and the free play impeded.
264. While we may thus understand how the egoistic sentiment of justice is developed, it is much less easy to understand how there is developed the altruistic sentiment of justice. On the one hand, the implication is that the altruistic sentiment of justice can come into existence only in the course of adaptation to social life. On the other hand the implication is that social life is made possible only by maintenance of those equitable relations which imply the altruistic sentiment of justice. How can these reciprocal requirements be fulfilled?
The answer is that the altruistic sentiment of justice can come into existence only by the aid of a sentiment which temporarily supplies its place, and restrains the actions prompted by pure egoism–a proaltruistic sentiment of justice, as we may call it. This has several components which we must successively glance at.
The first deterrent from aggression is one which we see among animals at large–the fear of retaliation. Among creatures of the same species the food obtained by one, or place of vantage taken possession of by it, is in some measure insured to it by the dread which most others feel of the vengeance that may follow any attempt to take it away; and among men, especially during early stages of social life, it is chiefly such dread which secures for each man free scope for his activities, and exclusive use of whatever they bring him.
A further restraint is fear of the reprobation likely to be shown by unconcerned members of the group. Though in the expulsion of a “rogue” elephant from the herd, or the slaying of a sinning member of the flock by rooks or storks, we see that even among animals individuals suffer from an adverse public opinion; yet it is scarcely probable that among animals expectation of general dislike prevents encroachment. But among mankind, “looking before and after” to a greater extent, the thought of social disgrace is usually an additional check on ill-behavior of man to man.
To these feelings, which come into play before there is any social organization, have to be added those which arise after political authority establishes itself. When a successful leader in war acquires permanent headship, and comes to have at heart the maintenance of his power, there arises in him a desire to prevent the trespasses of his people one against another; since the resulting dissensions weaken his tribe. The rights of personal vengeance and, as in feudal times, of private war, are restricted; and, simultaneously, there grow up interdicts on the acts which cause them. Dread of the penalties which follow breaches of these, is an added restraint.
Ancestor worship in general, developing, as the society develops, into special propitiation of the dead chief's ghost, and presently the dead king's ghost, gives to the injunctions he uttered during life increased sanctity; and when, with establishment of the cult, he becomes a god, his injunctions become divine commands with dreaded punishments for breaches of them.
These four kinds of fear cooperate. The dread of retaliation, the dread of social dislike, the dread of legal punishment, and the dread of divine vengeance, united in various proportions, form a body of feeling which checks the primitive tendency to pursue the objects of desire without regard to the interests of fellow men. Containing none of the altruistic sentiment of justice, properly so called, this proaltruistic sentiment of justice serves temporarily to cause respect for one another's claims, and so to make social cooperation possible.
265. Creatures which become gregarious tend to become sympathetic in degrees proportionate to their intelligences. Not, indeed, that the resulting sympathetic tendency is exclusively, or even mainly, of that kind which the words ordinarily imply; for in some there is little beyond sympathy in fear, and in others, little beyond sympathy in ferocity. All that is meant is that in gregarious creatures a feeling displayed by one is apt to arouse kindred feelings in others, and is apt to do this in proportion as others are intelligent enough to appreciate the signs of the feeling. In two chapters of the Principles of Psychology–“Sociality and Sympathy” and “Altruistic Sentiments”–I have endeavored to show how sympathy in general arises, and how there is eventually produced altruistic sympathy.
The implication is, then, that the associated state having been maintained among men by the aid of the proaltruistic sentiment of justice, there have been maintained the conditions under which the altruistic sentiment of justice itself can develop. In a permanent group there occur, generation after generation, incidents simultaneously drawing from its members manifestations of like emotions–rejoicings over victories and escapes, over prey jointly captured, over supplies of wild food discovered; as well as laments over defeats, scarcities, inclemencies, &c. And to these greater pleasures and pains felt in common by all, and so expressing themselves that each sees in others the signs of feelings like those which he has and is displaying, must be added the smaller pleasures and pains daily resulting from meals taken together, amusements, games, and from the not infrequent adverse occurrences which affect several persons at once. Thus there is fostered that sympathy which makes the altruistic sentiment of justice possible.
But the altruistic sentiment of justice is slow in assuming a high form, partly because its primary component does not become highly developed until a late phase of progress, partly because it is relatively complex, and partly because it implies a stretch of imagination not possible for low intelligences. Let us glance at each of these reasons.
Every altruistic feeling presupposes experience of the corresponding egoistic feeling. As, until pain has been felt there cannot be sympathy with pain, and as one who has no ear for music cannot enter into the pleasure which music gives to others; so, the altruistic sentiment of justice can arise only after the egoistic sentiment of justice has arisen. Hence where this has not been developed in any considerable degree, or has been repressed by a social life of an adverse kind, the altruistic sentiment of justice remains rudimentary.
The complexity of the sentiment becomes manifest on observing that it is not concerned only with concrete pleasures and pains, but is concerned mainly with certain of the circumstances under which these are obtainable or preventible. As the egoistic sentiment of justice is gratified by maintenance of those conditions which render achievement of satisfactions unimpeded, and is irritated by the breaking of those conditions, it results that the altruistic sentiment of justice requires for its excitement not only the ideas of such satisfactions but also the ideas of those conditions which are in the one case maintained and in the other case broken.
Evidently, therefore, to be capable of this sentiment in a developed form, the faculty of mental representation must be relatively great. Where the feelings with which there is to be sympathy are simple pleasures and pains, the higher gregarious animals occasionally display it: pity and generosity are from time to time felt by them as well as by human beings. But to conceive simultaneously not only the feelings produced in another, but the plexus of acts and relations involved in the production of such feelings, presupposes the putting together in thought of more elements than an inferior creature can grasp at the same time. And when we come to those most abstract forms of the sentiment of justice which are concerned with public arrangements, we see that only the higher varieties of men are capable of so conceiving the ways in which good or bad institutions and laws will eventually affect their spheres of action, as to be prompted to support or oppose them; and that only among these, therefore, is there excited, under such conditions, that sympathetic sentiment of justice which makes them defend the political interests of fellow citizens.
There is, of course, a close connection between the sentiment of justice and the social type. Predominant militancy, by the coercive form of organization it implies, alike in the fighting body and in the society which supports it, affords no scope for the egoistic sentiment of justice, but, contrariwise, perpetually tramples on it; and, at the same time, the sympathies which originate the altruistic sentiment of justice are perpetually seared by militant activities. On the other hand, in proportion as the regime of status is replaced by the regime of contract, or, in other words, as fast as voluntary cooperation which characterizes the industrial type of society. becomes more general than compulsory cooperation which characterizes the militant type of society, individual activities become less restrained, and the sentiment which rejoices in the scope for them is encouraged; while, simultaneously, the occasions for repressing the sympathies become less frequent. Hence, during warlike phases of social life the sentiment of justice retrogrades, while it advances during peaceful phases, and can reach its full development only in a permanently peaceful state.1
[]Permanent peace does in a few places exist, and where it exists the sentiment of justice is exceptionally strong and sensitive. l am glad to have again the occasion for pointing out that among men called uncivilized, there are some, distinguished by the entire absence of warlike activities, who in their characters put to shame the peoples called civilized. In Political Institutions, sections 437 and 574, l have given eight examples of this connection of facts, taken from races of different types.