Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 28.: The Limits of State Duties–Continued - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 28.: The Limits of State Duties–Continued - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Limits of State Duties–Continued
374. In simple matters direct perception cannot be trusted: to insure trustworthy conclusions we must use some mode of measurement by which the imperfections of the senses may be corrected. Contrariwise, in complex matters unaided contemplation suffices: we can adequately sum up and balance the evidences without reference to any general truth.”
Does anyone smile at this absurd proposition? Why should he do so? The probabilities are ten to one that, under a disguised form, this proposition forms part of his tacitly accepted creed. If he hears of an artisan who pooh-poohs thermometers, and says he can tell better by his hand what is the right temperature for the liquid he uses, the reader, knowing that the sensation of heat or cold which anything yields varies greatly according to the temperature of the hand, sees how absurd is this self-confidence resulting from want of knowledge. But he sees no absurdity in the attempt to reach without any guiding principle a right conclusion respecting the consequences of some action affecting in multitudinous ways millions of people: here there needs no kind of meter by which to test the correctness of direct impressions. If, for instance, the question is whether he shall advocate the system of payment by results in state-aided schools, he thinks it obvious that the stimulus given by it to teachers cannot fail to be beneficial to pupils. It does not occur to him that perhaps the induced pressure will be too great; that perhaps it will foster a mechanical receptivity; that mere cram may end in ultimate aversion to learning; that there may be prompted special attention to clever pupils whose success will profit the teacher, and consequent neglect of dull ones; that a system which values knowledge for gaining money grants, and not for its own sake, is unlikely to produce healthy intelligence; and that even the teachers under such a system are likely to become mere machines. Seeing, as he thinks quite clearly, the immediate results, and either not perceiving at all the remote results or making light of them, he has no doubt that the plan will be a good one. And then when, after some twenty years the effects of the plan are found to be so injurious that it is abandoned, after having damaged the healths of millions of children and inflicted an immeasurable amount of physical and mental pain, he is not in the least the wiser for his disastrous misjudgment, but is ready next day to decide about some newly proposed scheme in the same way–by simple inspection and balancing probabilities. That is, as above said, though the aid of general principles is thought needful in simple matters, it is thought not needful in the most complex matters.
And yet a minute's thought should make it clear to every one not only that these unguided judgments are very likely to be wrong, but also that there must exist some guidance by which correct judgments may be reached. For what can be more nonsensical than the belief that there is no natural causation in social affairs? And how can anyone evade the charge of folly who, admitting that there must be natural causation, devises laws which take no account of it? As argued in a preceding chapter, if there is no causation then one law is as good as another, and lawmaking ridiculous. If one law is not as good as another, it must be that on men socially aggregated one law will operate more beneficially than another; and its more beneficial operation implies some adaptation to the natures of the men and their modes of cooperation. Concerning these there must exist some general truths, some deepest uniformities; and the ultimate effect of any legislation must depend on its recognition of such uniformities and its subordination to them. How, then, can there be anything more senseless than to proceed before inquiring what they are?
375. Pursuit of happiness without regard to the conditions by fulfillment of which happiness is to be achieved, is foolish socially as well as individually–nay. indeed, more foolish; since the evils of disregarding the conditions are not unfrequently evaded by the individual, but, in consequence of the averaging of effects among many individuals, cannot be evaded by the society.
Estimating the probable results of each act apart from any general sanction other than the pursuit of happiness, is the method pursued by every criminal. He thinks the chances are in favor of gaining pleasures and escaping pains. Ignoring those considerations of equity which should restrain him, he contemplates the proximate results and not the ultimate results; and, in respect of the proximate results, he is occasionally right: he has the gratifications which his ill-gotten gains bring and does not suffer the punishment. But in the long run it turns out that the evils are greater than the benefits; partly because he does not always avoid the penalties, and partly because the kind of nature fostered by his actions is incapable of the higher kinds of happiness.
The policy thus pursued with egoistic ends by the lawbreaker is pursued with altruistic ends by the expediency politician. He, too, not for his own good, but, as he thinks, for the good of others, makes calculations of probable pleasures and pains; and, ignoring the dictates of pure equity, adopts such methods as he thinks will achieve the one and avoid the other. If it is a question of providing books and newspapers in so-called free libraries, he contemplates results which he makes no doubt will be beneficial; and practically ignores the inquiry whether it is just to take by force the money of A, B, and C, to pay for the gratifications of D, E, and F. Should his aim be the repression of drunkenness and its evils, he thinks exclusively of these ends, and, determined to impose his own beliefs on others, tries to restrict men's freedom of exchange and to abolish businesses in which capital has been invested with legal and social assent. Thus, as above said, the altruistic aggressor, like the egoistic aggressor, disregards all other guidance than that of estimated proximate results–is not restrained by the thought that his acts break the first principle of harmonious social life.
Clearly this empirical utilitarianism, which makes happiness the immediate aim, stands in contrast with the rational utilitarianism, which aims at fulfillment of the conditions to happiness.
376. The upholders of political empiricism cannot object if we bring their own method to the empirical test. If, ignoring abstract principles, we are to be guided by results, either as calculated beforehand or as ascertained by experience, then, clearly, we cannot do better than judge in like manner of the empirical method itself. Let us do this.
In a discussion on socialistic legislation which took place in the House of Lords on May 19, 1890, our Prime Minister said, “We no more ask what is the derivation or philosophical extraction of a proposal before we adopt it than a wise man would ask the character of a footman's grandfather before engaging the footman.”
After thus ridiculing the supposition that there are any general laws of social life to which legislation should conform, he went on to say, “We ought first to discuss every subject on its own merits.” And Lord Salisbury's method thus distinctly avowed, is the method universally followed by politicians who call themselves practical and sneer at “abstract principles.”
But unhappily for them their method is the method which has been followed by those legislators who, throughout past thousands of years, have increased human miseries in multitudinous ways and immeasurable degrees by mischievous laws. Regard for “the merits of the case” guided Diocletian when he fixed the prices of articles and wages of workers, and similarly guided rulers of all European nations who, century after century, in innumerable cases, have decided how much commodity shall be given for so much money, and in our own country guided those who, after the Black Death, framed the Statute of Labourers, and presently caused the peasant revolt. The countless acts which, here and abroad, prescribed qualities and modes of manufacture, and appointed searchers to see that things were made as directed, were similarly prompted by consideration of “the merits of the case”: evils existed which it was obviously needful to prevent. Doubtless, too, the orders to farmers respecting the proportions of their arable and pasture lands, the times for shearing sheep, the number of horses to a plough, as well as those which insisted on certain crops and prohibited others, had “the merits of the case” in view. Similarly was it with the bounties on the exports of some commodities and the restrictions on the imports of others; and similarly was it with the penalties on forestallers, and the treatment of usury as a crime. Each one of those multitudinous regulations enforced by swarms of officials, which in France nearly strangled industry, and was a part cause of the French revolution, seemed to those who established it, a regulation which “the merits of the case” called for; and no less did there seem to be called for the numberless sumptuary laws which, generation after generation, kings and their ministers tried to enforce. Out of the 14,000-odd acts which, in our own country, have been repealed, from the date of the Statute of Merton down to 1872–some because of consolidations, some because they proved futile, some because they were obsolete–how many have been repealed because they were mischievous? Shall we say one-half? Shall we say one-fourth? Shall we say less than one-fourth? Suppose that only 3,000 of these acts were abolished after proved injuries had been caused, which is a low estimate. What shall we say of these 3,000 acts which have been hindering human happiness and increasing human misery; now for years, now for generations, now for centuries?
See then the verdict. If we are to be led by observation and experience, what do observation and expenence say respecting this method of guidance? Do they not show beyond all possibility of denial that it has proved a gigantic failure? “No,” may perhaps be the reply–“You forget that though numerous laws have been repealed after doing mischief, numerous others have not been repealed but have proved beneficial.” Very true; but this reply is no less unfortunate than the original allegation. For which are the successful laws? They are the laws which conform to those fundamental principles which practical politicians pooh-pooh. They are the laws countenanced by that social philosophy of which Lord Salisbury speaks so contemptuously. They are the laws which recognize and enforce the various corollaries from the formula of justice. For, as we have seen in a number of preceding chapters, social evolution has been accompanied by the progressive establishment of these ethically enjoined laws. So that the evidence yields a double condemnation of the method of empirical utilitarianism. Facts conclusively prove the failure of that method and the success of the opposite method.
But now observe that neither Lord Salisbury nor any adherent of the same political creed, pursues with consistency this method of judging by “the merits of the case.” Contrariwise, throughout by far the most important classes of cases they pursue the method they ridicule. Bring them to the test, and they will emphatically repudiate guidance by “the merits of the case,” when the case is one in which the issues are simple and clear.
In explanation of the frequent escapes of thieves in public thoroughfares, a letter to one of the daily papers narrated how, after witnessing a theft, the writer asked a man who was passed by the thief when running away, why he did not stop him. The reply was–“I was not going to stop the poor fellow. I expect the things he stole would do him more good than the man he stole them from.” Here, consideration of “the merits of the case” was the avowed way of judging: the relative degrees of happiness of the thief and the person robbed were estimated and the decision justified the theft. “But the rights of property must be maintained,” Lord Salisbury would reply. “Society would dissolve if men were allowed to take other men's goods on the plea that they had more need of them than the owners.” Just so. But this is not judging by “the merits of the case”; it is judging by conformity to a general principle. That philosophy at which Lord Salisbury sneers, shows that social cooperation can be effectively and harmoniously carried on, only if the relations between efforts and benefits are maintained intact. And, as we have seen, it is the same with all those laws the enforcement of which constitutes the administration of justice, and which it is part of Lord Salisbury's essential business to uphold: all of them are embodied corollaries from the philosophy he scorns.
The essential difference is that though the lessons of thousands of years show that society improves in proportion as there is better and better conformity to these corollaries; and though it is to be inferred that it will be best to conform to them in each new case which arises; Lord Salisbury thinks that nonconformity to them is proper if a majority decides that “the merits of the case” demand it.
377. That anyone who has before him the facts daily set forth in newspapers, should suppose that when measures are taken to meet “the merits of the case,” the consequences can be shut up within the limits of the case, is astonishing. That, after seeing how a change set up in some part of a society initiates other changes unforeseen, and these again others, anyone should think he is going to produce by act of Parliament certain effects intended and no unintended effects, shows how possible it is to go on reading day by day without getting wiser. In any aggregate formed of mutually dependent parts, there comes into play what I have elsewhere described as fructifying causation. The effects of any cause become themselves causes, often more important than their parent; and their effects, again, become other causes. What happened when a great rise in the price of coals occurred some years ago? The expenditure of every household was affected, and the poor were especially pinched. Every factory was taxed, and either the wages lowered or the price of the commodity raised. The smelting of iron became more expensive, and the cost of all those things, such as railways and engines, into which iron enters largely, was increased. The ability to compete with various classes of foreign manufactures was diminished; fewer vessels were chartered for carrying products abroad; and the shipbuilding trade flagged with all the dependent trades. Similarly throughout in directions too numerous to follow. See, again, what has resulted from the late dock strike–or rather, from the ill-judged sympathy which, guided by “the merits of the case,” led public and police to tolerate the violence employed by dockers to achieve their ends. Successful use in this case of assaulting, bullying, and boycotting, prompted elsewhere strikes enforced by like means–at Southampton, Tilbury, Glasgow, Nottingham, &c. Other classes followed the lead–painters, leather workers, cabinetmakers, scalemakers, bakers, carpenters, printers, sandwich men, &c. And there were prompted like movements, still more unscrupulous, in Australia and America. Then, as secondary results, came the stoppages and perturbations of businesses, and through them of connected businesses, with consequent decrease of employment. Among tertiary results we have encouragement of the delusion that it only requires union for workers to get what terms they please, prompting suicidal demands. And, among still remoter results, we have the urging on of meddling legislation and the fostering of socialistic ideas.
The indirect effects, multiplying and again multiplying, are often in the long run the reverse of those counted on. Past and present alike supply instances. Among those from the past may be named the Act of 8th Elizabeth, which, to protect the inhabitants of Shrewsbury against strangers, forbade all save freemen to trade in Welsh cottons, and which, six years afterwards, the Shrewsbury people begged should be repealed, because “of the impoverishing and undoing of the poor artificers and others, at whose suit the said act was procured”: an experience paralleled in later days by that of the Spitalfields weavers. Then of striking examples which present times furnish, we have the results of certain laws in the Western states of America. In his message to the Colorado legislature, January 8, 1885, Governor Grant says: “These laws were designed to exterminate the hawks, wolves, and loco weeds. . . the hawks and wolves have steadily increased under the auspices of these bounty laws”; that is, as measured by the amount paid. Kindred results have been experienced in India.
From the times when vagrants swarmed round monasteries to the old Poor Law days when many parishes were nearly swamped by paupers, experience has continually shown that measures guided by the apparent “merits of the case,” have done exactly the reverse of that which was proposed to be done–have increased distress instead of diminishing it. And recent facts have continued to illustrate the same thing. The chairman of the Bradfield Union, writing to the Spectator of April 19, 1890, points out that seventeen years' administration led by principle instead of impulse, had reduced the indoor paupers from 259 to 100, and the outdoor paupers from 999 to 42: the conviction with which he ends his letter being that “the majority of paupers are created by out-relief.” And this warning against being guided by the seeming necessities, has been since emphasized by Mr. Arnold White, writing from Tennyson Settlement, Cape Colony, to the Spectator for January 10, 1891, in which he says: “Any colonizing scheme that does not distinctly include death to the willfully idle if they choose to die, is predestined to failure. . . . the lesson has been burned into me by long and bitter years of hard-earned experience.” Which is to say that if, in respect of charity, we let ourselves be swayed by the apparent “merits of the case,” we shall eventually exacerbate the evils instead of curing them.
The judgments of the legislator who derides philosophy, and thinks it needful only to look at the facts before him, are equally respectable with those of the laborer who joins his fellows in vociferous advocacy of some public undertaking, for the reason that it will give employment–thus looking, as he does, at “the merits of the case” as directly to be anticipated, and thinking nothing of the remoter consequences: not asking what will be the effect of expending capital in doing something that will not bring adequate returns; not asking what undertakings, probably more remunerative and therefore more useful, the capital would have been otherwise devoted to; not asking what other trades and artisans and laborers would then have had employment. For though the legislator may contemplate effects somewhat more remote, yet he is practically as far as the laborer from conceiving the ultimate waves of change, reverberating and re-reverberating throughout society.
378. Which is the more misleading, belief without evidence, or refusal to believe in presence of overwhelming evidence? If there is an irrational faith which persists without any facts to support it, there is an irrational lack of faith which persists spite of the accumulation of facts which should produce it; and we may doubt whether the last does not lead to worse results than the first.
The average legislator, equally with the average citizen, has no faith whatever in the beneficent working of social forces, notwithstanding the almost infinite illustrations of this beneficent working. He persists in thinking of a society as a manufacture and not as a growth: blind to the fact that the vast and complex organization by which its life is carried on, has resulted from the spontaneous cooperations of men pursuing their private ends. Though, when he asks how the surface of the earth has been cleared and made fertile, how towns have grown up, how manufactures of all kinds have arisen, how the arts have been developed, how knowledge has been accumulated, how literature has been produced, he is forced to recognize the fact that none of these are of governmental origin, but have many of them suffered from governmental obstruction; yet, ignoring all this, he assumes that if a good is to be achieved or an evil prevented, Parliament must be invoked. He has unlimited faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous failures, and has no faith in the agency which has achieved multitudinous successes.
Of the various feelings which move men to action, each class has its part in producing social structures and functions. There are first the egoistic feelings, most powerful and most active, the effects of which, as developing the arrangements for production and distribution, have been above adverted to, and which, whenever there is a new sphere to be profitably occupied, are quick to cause new growths. From the cutting of a Suez Canal and the building of a Forth Bridge, to the insurance of ships, houses, lives, crops, windows, the exploration of unknown regions, the conducting of travelers' excursions, down to automatic supply boxes at railway stations and the loan of opera glasses at theaters, private enterprise is ubiquitous and infinitely varied in form; and when repressed by state agency in one direction buds out in another. Reminding us of the way in which, in Charles II's time, there was commenced in London a local penny post, which was suppressed by the government, we have, in the Boy Messengers' Company and its attempted suppression, illustrations of the efficiency of private enterprise and the obstructiveness of officialism. And then, if there needs to add a case showing the superiority of spontaneously formed agencies we have it in the American Express Companies, of which one has 7,000 agencies, has its own express trains, delivers 25,000,000 parcels annually. is employed by the government, has a moneyorder system which is replacing that of the Post Office, and has now extended its business to Europe, India, Africa, South America, and Polynesia.
Beyond those egoistic feelings by the combined forces of which the sustaining organization of every society has been developed, there are in men the ego-altruistic and altruistic feelings–the love of approbation and the sympathy–which prompt them to various other single and combined actions, and generate various other institutions. It is needless to go back into the past to exemplify the operation of these in the endowments for charitable and educational purposes. The present day furnishes ample evidence of their potency. Here, and still more in America, we have vast sums left for founding colleges, and, in more numerous cases, sums for endowing professorial chairs and scholarships; we have gifts of immense sums to build and fill public libraries; we have parks and gardens given to towns by private individuals; we have museums bequeathed to the nation. In The Standard for April 11, 1890, is given an account showing that the bequests to hospitals, asylums, missions, societies, for 1889 amounted to £1,080,000; and that for the first quarter of 1890 they amounted to £300,000. Then, in The Nineteenth Century, for January, 1890, Mr. Huish has pointed out that during the last few years, the gifts of private individuals for the support of art, have been respectively. for buildings £347,500, and in pictures or money £559,000; to which may be added the more recent donation of £80,000 for a gallery of British Art.
Nor must we forget the daily activities of multitudinous philanthropic people in urging one or other movement for the benefit of fellow citizens. Countless societies, with an enormous aggregate revenue, are formed for unselfish purposes: all good in design if not in result. And the motives, largely if not wholly altruistic, which prompt the establishment and working of these, far from showing any decrease of strength, become continually stronger.
Surely, then, if these forces have already done so much and are continually doing more, their future efficiency may be counted upon. And it may be reasonably inferred that they will do many things which we do not yet see how to do.
379. So that even if we disregard ethical restraints, and even if we ignore the inferences to be drawn from that progressing specialization which societies show us, we still find strong reasons for holding that state functions should be restricted rather than extended.
Extension of them in pursuit of this or that promised benefit, has all along proved disastrous. The histories of all nations are alike in exhibiting the enormous evils that have been produced by legislation guided merely by “the merits of the case”; while they unite in proving the success of legislation which has been guided by considerations of equity.
Evidence thrust before us every morning shows throughout the body politic a fructifying causation so involved that not even the highest intelligence can anticipate the aggregate effects. The practical politician so-called, who thinks that the influences of his measure are to be shut up within the limits of the field he contemplates, is one of the wildest of theorists.
And then, while his faith in the method of achieving artificially this or that end, is continually discredited by failures to work the effects intended and by working unintended effects, he shows no faith in those natural forces which in the past have done much, are at present doing more, and in the future may be expected to do most.