Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 29.: The Limits of State Duties–Concluded - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 29.: The Limits of State Duties–Concluded - 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–Concluded
380. Of the many reasons for restricting the range of governmental actions, the strongest remains to be named. The end which the statesman should keep in view as higher than all other ends, is the formation of character. And if there is entertained a right conception of the character which should be formed, and of the means by which it may be formed, the exclusion of multiplied state agencies is necessarily implied.
“How so?” will doubtless be the exclamation of many. “Is not the formation of character the end to which much of the legislation we advocate is directed? Do we not contend that an all-important part of the state's business is the making of good citizens? and are not our school systems, our free libraries, our sanitary arrangements, our gymnasia, &c., devised with the view of improving their natures?”
To this interrogative reply. uttered with an air of astonishment and an implied conviction that nothing remains to be said, the answer is that everything depends on the goodness of the ideal entertained and the appropriateness of the appliances for realizing it; and that both of them are radically wrong.
These paragraphs sufficiently indicate the antagonist views to be here discussed. Let us now enter on the discussion of them systematically.
381. Upwards from hordes of savages to civilized nations, countless examples show that to make an efficient warrior preparation is needed. Practice in the use of weapons begins in boyhood; and throughout youth the ambition is to be a good marksman with the bow and arrow to throw the javelin or the boomerang with force and precision, and to become an adept in defense as well as in attack. At the same time speed and agility are effectually cultivated, and there are trials of strength. More relevant still to the end in view comes the discipline in endurance; sometimes going to the extent of submission to torture. In brief, each male of the tribe is so educated as to fit him for the purposes of the tribe–to fit him for helping it in maintaining its existence, or subjugating its neighbors, or both. Though not a state education in the modern sense, the education is one prescribed by custom and enforced by public opinion. That it is the business of the society to mold the individual is asserted tacitly if not openly.
With that social progress which forms larger communities regularly governed, there goes a further development of state education. Not only are there now deliberately cultivated the needful strength, skill, and endurance, but there is cultivated that subordination which is required for the performance of military evolutions, and that further subordination to leaders and to rulers without which the combined forces cannot be used in the desired ways. It is needless to do more than name Greece, and especially Sparta, as exemplifying this phase.
With this practice went an appropriate theory. From the belief that the individual belonged neither to himself nor to his family but to his city, there naturally grew up the doctrine that it was the business of his city to mold him into fitness for its purposes. Alike in Plato and in Aristotle we have elaborate methods proposed for the due preparation of children and youths for citizenship, and an unhesitating assumption that in a good state, education must be a public business.
Evidently, then, while war is the chief business of life, the training of individuals by governmental agency after a pattern adapted to successful fighting, is a normal accompaniment. In this case experience furnishes a tolerably correct ideal to be aimed at, and guidance in the choice of methods productive of the ideal. All free men have to be made as much as may be into military machines, automatically obedient to orders; and a unifying discipline is required to form them. Moreover, just as in the militant type the coercive system of rule which regimentation involves, spreads from the fighting part throughout the whole of the ancillary parts which support it; so, there naturally establishes itself the theory that not soldiers only, but all other members of the community, should be molded by the government into fitness for their functions.
382. Not recognizing the fundamental distinction between a society which, having fighting for its chief business, makes sustentation subordinate, and a society which, having sustentation for its chief business, makes fighting subordinate, there are many who assume that a disciplinary policy appropriate to the first is appropriate to the last also. But the relations of the individual to the state are in the two cases entirely different. Unlike the Greek, who, not owning himself was owned by his city, the Englishman is not in any appreciable degree owned by his nation, but in a very positive way owns himself. Though, if of fit age, he may on great emergency be taken possession of and made to help in defending his country; yet this contingency qualifies to but small-extent the private possession of his body and the self-directing of his actions.
Throughout a series of chapters we saw that the progressive establishment by law of those rights which are deduced by ethics, made good the free use of himself by each individual, not only against other individuals but, in many respects, against the state: the state, while defending him against the aggressions of others, has in various directions ceased to aggress upon him itself. And it is an obvious corollary that in a state of permanent peace this change of relation would be complete.
How does this conclusion bear on the question at issue? The implication is that whereas the individual had to be molded by the society to suit its purposes, the society has now to be molded by the individual to suit his purposes. Instead of a solidified body politic, wielding masses of its units in combined action, the society. losing its coercive organization, and holding together its units with no other bonds than are needed for peaceful cooperation, becomes simply a medium for their activities. Once more let me emphasize the truth that since a society in its corporate capacity is not sentient, and since the sentiency dwells exclusively in its units, the sole reason for subordinating the sentient lives of its units to the unsentient life of the society, is that while militancy continues the sentient lives of its units are thus best preserved; and this reason lapses partially as militancy declines, and wholly as industrialism becomes complete. The claim of the society to discipline its citizens disappears. There remains no power which may properly prescribe the form which individual life shall assume.
“But surely the society in its corporate capacity, guided by the combined intelligences of its best members, may with advantage frame a conception of an individual nature best fitted for harmonious industrial life, and of the discipline calculated to produce such a nature?” In this plea there is tacitly assumed the right of the community through its agents to impose its scheme–an assumed right quite inconsistent with the conclusions drawn in foregoing chapters. But not here dwelling on this, let us ask what fitness the community has for deciding on the character to be desired, and for devising means likely to create it.
383. Whether the chosen ideal of a citizen, and the chosen process for producing him, be good or bad, the choice inevitably has three implications, any one of which condemns it.
The system must work towards uniformity. If the measures taken have any effect at all, the effect must in part be that of causing some likeness among the individuals: to deny this is to deny that the process of molding is operative. But in so far as uniformity results advance is retarded. Everyone who has studied the order of nature knows that without variety there can be no progress–knows that, in the absence of variety, life would never have evolved at all. The inevitable implication is that further progress must be hindered if the genesis of variety is checked.
Another concomitant must be the production of a passive receptivity of whatever form the state decides to impress. Whether submissiveness be or be not part of the nature which the incorporated society proposes to give its units, it cannot enforce its plans without either finding or creating submissiveness. Whether avowedly or not, part of the desired character must be readiness in each citizen to submit, or make his children submit, to a discipline which some or many citizens determine to impose. There may be men who think it a trait of high humanity thus to deliver over the formation of its nature to the will of an aggregate mostly formed of inferior units. But with such we will not argue.
One further necessary implication is that either there exists no natural process by which citizens are in course of being molded, or else that this natural process should be superseded by an artificial one. To assert that there is no natural process is to assert that, unlike all other beings, which tend ever to become adapted to their environments, the human being does not tend to become adapted to his environment–does not tend to undergo such changes as fit him for carrying on the life which circumstances require him to lead. Anyone who says this must say that the varieties of mankind have arisen without cause; or else have been caused by governmental action. Anyone who does not say this must admit that men are in course of being naturally adjusted to the requirements of a developed social state; and if he admits this, he will hesitate before he asserts that they may be better adjusted artificially.
384. Let us pass now from these most abstract aspects of the matter to more concrete aspects.
It is decided to create citizens having forms fit for the life of their society. Whence must the conception of a fit form be derived? Men inherit not only the physical and mental constitutions of their ancestors, but also, in the main, their ideas and beliefs. The current conception of a desirable citizen must therefore be a product of the past, slightly modified by the present; and the proposal is that past and present shall impose their conception on the future. Anyone who takes an impersonal view of the matter can scarcely fail to see in this a repetition, in another sphere, of follies committed in every age by every people in respect of religious beliefs. In all places and in all times, the average man holds that the creed in which he has been brought up is the only true creed. Though it must be manifest to him that necessarily in all cases but one, such beliefs, held with confidence equal to that which he feels, are false; yet, like each of the others, he is certain that his belief is the exception. A confidence no less absurd, is shown by those who would impose on the future their ideal citizen. That conceived type which the needs of past and present times have generated, they do not doubt would be a type appropriate for times to come. Yet it needs but to go back to the remote past, when industrial life was held contemptible and virtue meant fortitude, valor, bravery; or to the less remote past when noble meant highborn while laborer and villein were equivalents; or to the time when abject submission of each grade to the grade above was thought the primary duty; or to the time when the good citizen of every rank was held bound to accept humbly the appointed creed; to see that the characters supposed to be proper for men were unlike the characters we now suppose proper for them. Nevertheless, the not very wise representatives of electors who are mostly ignorant, are prepared, with papal assumption, to settle the form of a desirable human nature, and to shape the coming generation into that form.
While they are thus confident about the thing to be done, they are no less confident about the way to do it; though in the last case as in the first, the past proves to them how utter has been the failure of the methods century after century pursued. Throughout a Christendom full of churches and priests, full of pious books, full of observances directed to fostering the religion of love, encouraging mercy and insisting on forgiveness, we have an aggressiveness and a revengefulness such as savages have everywhere shown. And from people who daily read their Bibles, attend early services, and appoint weeks of prayer, there are sent out messengers of peace to inferior races, who are forthwith ousted from their lands by filibustering expeditions authorized in Downing Street; while those who resist are treated as “rebels,” the deaths they inflict in retaliation are called “murders,” and the process of subduing them is named “pacification.”
At the same time that we thus find good reason to reject the artificial method of molding citizens as wrong in respect alike of end and means, we have good reason to put faith in the natural method–the spontaneous adaptation of citizens to social life.
385. The organic world at large is made up of illustrations, infinite in number and variety. of the truth that by direct or indirect processes the faculties of each kind of creature become adjusted to the needs of its life; and further, that the exercise of each adjusted faculty becomes a source of gratification. In the normal order not only does there arise an agent for each duty, but consciousness is made up of the more or less pleasurable feelings which accompany the exercise of these agents. Further, the implication is that where the harmony has been deranged, it gradually reestablishes itself–that where change of circumstances has put the powers and requirements out of agreement, they slowly, either by survival of the fittest or by the inherited effects of use and disuse, or by both, come into agreement again.
This law holding of human beings among others, implies that the nature which we inherit from an uncivilized past, and which is still very imperfectly fitted to the partially civilized present, will, if allowed to do so, slowly adjust itself to the requirements of a fully civilized future. And a further implication is that the various faculties, tastes, abilities, gradually established, will have for their concomitants the satisfactions felt in discharging the various duties social life entails. Already there has been gained a considerable amount of the needful capacity for work, which savages have not; already the power of orderly cooperation under voluntary agreement has been developed; already such amounts of self-restraint have been acquired that most men carry on their lives without much impeding one another; already the altruistic interests felt by citizens in social affairs at large are such as prompt efforts, individual and spontaneously combined, to achieve public ends; and already men's sympathies have become active enough to generate multitudinous philanthropic agencies–too multitudinous in fact. And if, in the course of these few thousand years, the discipline of social life has done so much, it is folly to suppose that it cannot do more–folly to suppose that it will not in course of time do all that has to be done.
A further truth remains. It is impossible for artificial molding to do that which natural molding does. For the very essence of the process as spontaneously carried on, is that each faculty acquires fitness for its function by performing its function; and if its function is performed for it by a substituted agency, none of the required adjustment of nature takes place; but the nature becomes deformed to fit the artificial arrangements instead of the natural arrangements. More than this: it has to be depleted and dwarfed, for the support of the substituted agencies. Not only does there result the incapable nature, the distorted nature, and the nature which misses the gratifications of desired achievement; but that the superintending instrumentalities may be sustained, the sustentation of those who are superintended is diminished: their lives are undermined and their adaptation in another way impeded.
Again, then, let me emphasize the fundamental distinction. While war is the business of life, the entailed compulsory cooperation implies molding of the units by the aggregate to serve its purposes; but when there comes to predominate the voluntary cooperation characterizing industrialism, the molding has to be spontaneously achieved by self-adjustment to the life of voluntary cooperation. The adjustment cannot possibly be otherwise produced.
386. And now we come round again at last to the general principle enunciated at first. All reasons for going counter to the primary law of social life prove invalid; and there is no safety but in conformity to that law.
If the political meddler could be induced to contemplate the essential meaning of his plan, he would be paralyzed by the sense of his own temerity. He proposes to suspend, in some way or degree, that process by which all life has been evolved–to divorce conduct from consequence. While the law of life at large is to be partially broken by him, he would more especially break that form of it which results from the associated state. Traversing by his interference that principle of justice common to all living things, he would traverse more especially the principle of human justice, which requires that each shall enjoy the benefits achieved within the needful limits of action: he would redistribute the benefits. Those results of accumulated experiences in each civilized society which, registered in laws, have, age after age, established men's rights with increasing clearness, he proposes here or there to ignore, and to trespass on the rights. And whereas in the course of centuries, the ruling powers of societies, while maintaining men's rights against one another more effectually, have also themselves receded from aggressions on those rights, the legislative schemer would invert this course, and decrease that freedom of action which has been increasing. Thus his policy, setting at nought the first principle of life at large and the first principle of social life in particular, ignores also the generalized results of observations and experiments gathered during thousands of years. And all with what warrant? All for certain reasons of apparent policy, every one of which we have found to be untrustworthy.
But why needs there any detailed refutation? What can be a more extreme absurdity than that of proposing to improve social life by breaking the fundamental law of social life?
Endnotes to Part IV
THE ETHICS OF SOCIAL LIFE: NEGATIVE BENEFICENCE