Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 6.: The Formula of Justice - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 6.: The Formula 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 Formula of Justice
272. After tracing up the evolution of justice in its simple form, considered objectively as a condition to the maintenance of life; after seeing how justice as so considered becomes qualified by a new factor when the life is gregarious, more especially in the human race; and after observing the corresponding subjective products–the sentiment of justice and the idea of justice–arising from converse with this condition; we are now prepared for giving to the conclusion reached a definite form. We have simply to find a precise expression for the compromise described in the last chapter.
The formula has to unite a positive element with a negative element. It must be positive in so far as it asserts for each that, since he is to receive and suffer the good and evil results of his actions, he must be allowed to act. And it must be negative in so far as, by asserting this of everyone, it implies that each can be allowed to act only under the restraint imposed by the presence of others having like claims to act. Evidently the positive element is that which expresses a prerequisite to life in general, and the negative element is that which qualifies this prerequisite in the way required when, instead of one life carried on alone, there are many lives carried on together.
Hence, that which we have to express in a precise way, is the liberty of each limited only by the like liberties of all. This we do by saying: Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.
273. A possible misapprehension must be guarded against. There are acts of aggression which the formula is presumably intended to exclude, which apparently it does not exclude. It may be said that if A strikes B, then, so long as B is not debarred from striking A in return, no greater freedom is claimed by the one than by the other; or it may be said that if A has trespassed on B's property, the requirement of the formula has not been broken so long as B can trespass on A's property. Such interpretations, however, mistake the essential meaning of the formula, which we at once see if we refer back to its origin.
For the truth to be expressed is that each in carrying on the actions which constitute his life for the time being, and conduce to the subsequent maintenance of his life, shall not be impeded further than by the carrying on of those kindred actions which maintain the lives of others. It does not countenance a superfluous interference with another's life, committed on the ground that an equal interference may balance it. Such a rendering of the formula is one which implies greater deductions from the lives of each and all than the associated state necessarily entails; and this is obviously a perversion of its meaning.
If we bear in mind that though not the immediate end, the greatest sum of happiness is the remote end, we see clearly that the sphere within which each may pursue happiness has a limit, on the other side of which lie the similarly limited spheres of action of his neighbors; and that he may not intrude on his neighbor's spheres on condition that they may intrude on his. Instead of justifying aggression and counteraggression, the intention of the formula is to fix a bound which may not be exceeded on either side.
274. And here, on this misapprehension and this rectification, an instructive comment is yielded by the facts of social progress. For they show that, in so far as justice is concerned, there has been an advance from the incorrect interpretation to the correct interpretation.
In early stages we see habitual aggression and counter-aggression: now between societies and now between individuals. Neighboring tribes fight about the limits to their territories, trespassing first on one side and then on the other; and further fights are entailed by the requirement that mortality suffered shall be followed by mortality inflicted. In such acts of revenge and re-revenge there is displayed a vague recognition of equality of claims. This tends towards recognition of definite limits, alike in respect of territory and in respect of bloodshed; so that in some cases a balance is maintained between the numbers of deaths on either side.
Along with this growing conception of intertribal justice goes a growing conception of justice among members of each tribe. At first it is the fear of retaliation which causes such respect for one another's persons and possessions as exists. The idea of justice is that of a balancing of injuries–“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This remains the idea during early stages of civilization. After justice, as so conceived, ceases to be enforced by the aggrieved person himself, it is this which he asks to have enforced by the constituted authority. The cry to the ruler for justice is the cry for punishment–for the infliction of an injury at least as great as the injury suffered, or, otherwise, for a compensation equivalent to the loss. Thus the equality of claims is but tacitly asserted in the demand to have rectified, as far as may be, the breaches of equality.
How there tends gradually to emerge from this crude conception of justice the finished conception of justice, it seems scarcely needful to explain. The true idea is generated by experience of the evils which accompany the false idea. Naturally, the perception of the right restraints on conduct becomes clearer as respect for these restraints is forced on men, and so rendered more habitual and more general. Men's incursions into one another's spheres constitute a kind of oscillation, which, violent at the outset, becomes gradually less with the progress towards a relatively peaceful state of society. As the oscillations decrease there is an approach to equilibrium; and along with this approach to equilibrium comes approach to a definite theory of equilibrium.
Thus that primitive idea of justice in which aggression is to be balanced by counteraggression, fades from thought as fast as it disappears from practice; and there comes the idea of justice here formulated, in which are recognized such limitations of conduct as exclude aggressions altogether.
NOTE. For the views of Kant concerning the ultimate principle of right, see Appendix A.