Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 1.: Kinds of Altruism - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 1.: Kinds of Altruism - 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.
Kinds of Altruism
387. One division of an earlier work in this series of works–The Principles of Psychology–was devoted to showing that all intellectual operations are ultimately decomposable into recognitions of likeness and unlikeness, with mental grouping of the like and separation of the unlike. The process of intelligence as there analyzed, was shown to be a differentiation in perception and thought, of the impressions produced on us by surrounding things and actions, and the integration of each series of similar impressions into a general conception: the result being the formation of as many different general conceptions as there are objects and acts and combined groups of them, which the particular type of intelligence is able to distinguish. In its lower stages, the process is one which we may call unconscious classification; and through many gradations, it rises to conscious classification, such as we see carried on by men of science.
The mental action by which from moment to moment we thus, in ways commonly too rapid to observe, class the objects and acts around, and regulate our conduct accordingly, has been otherwise named by some, and especially by Professor Bain, “discrimination.” Intelligence is, in its every act, carried on by discrimination; and has advanced from its lowest stages to its highest by increasing powers of discrimination. It has done this for the sufficient reason that during the evolution of life under all its forms, increase of it has been furthered by practice or habit as well as by survival of the fittest; since good discrimination has been a means of saving life, and lack of it a cause of losing life. Let us note a few marked stages of its increase.
Look out towards the sky; shut your eyes; and pass your hand before them. You can discriminate between the presence and absence of an opaque object in front. If, being passive, an object is moved before your closed eyes by some one else, you cannot say whether it is a hand, or a book, or a lump of earth; and cannot say whether it is a small object close to, or a larger object farther off. This experience exemplifies to us the smallest degree of visual discrimination, such as that which is achieved by low creatures possessing nothing more than eye specks–minute portions of sensitive pigment in which light produces some kind of change. Evidently a creature having only this nascent vision is at great disadvantage–cannot distinguish between the obscuration caused by the moving frond of a weed in the water it inhabits, and the obscuration caused by a passing creature; cannot tell whether it results from a small creature near at hand or a larger one at a distance; cannot tell whether this creature is harmless and may serve for prey or is predacious and must be avoided. Thus one of the appliances for maintaining life is deficient, and early loss of life is apt to occur.
Passing over all intermediate grades, observe next the results of presence or absence among herbivorous creatures of the power to discriminate between plants of different kinds and qualities. By appearance, or odor, or taste, one animal is warned off from a poisonous herb, which another animal, less keenly perceptive, eats and dies. As intelligence develops, complex groups of attributes are separated in consciousness from other complex groups to which they are in many respects similar, and survival results from the discrimination; as when the fatal Monkshood is distinguished from the harmless Larkspur.
As we rise to creatures of relatively great intelligence, increasingly complicated clusters of attributes, relations and actions have to be distinguished from one another, under heavy penalties. Instance the ordinary case in which the shape and color and movements of a distant animal are mentally united into a perception of an enemy, or else are discriminated as forming some not unlike perception of a harmless animal: the result being now a successful flight and now a successful chase.
388. A much higher degree of discrimination is reached in creatures capable of appreciating the differences not only between objects perceived or presented, but also between objects conceived or represented–between the imaginations of them. The degree of mental power required for this is occasionally shown in small measure by the higher animals; as when a dog recognizes in idea the difference in length between a road that goes round the angle of a field and a short cut across the field, and takes the last. But generally it is only among men that the ability to discriminate between imagined clusters of things and properties and relations becomes appreciable. Even among men the discriminations often fail in consequence either of inaccuracy of such observations as have been made, or of imperfect ability to reproduce in thought the things observed. The contrast between Monkshood and Larkspur may serve again. Able as they are, when these two plants are before them, to see that though the two are similar in their sizes, modes of growth, deeply cut leaves, colors of flowers, &c., yet the structures of their flowers are unlike, the majority of people, even those having gardens, cannot so compare their ideas of these plants as to be able to say what the points of difference are.
If, then, between their imaginations of objects of but moderate degrees of complexity, most ordinarily disciplined minds fail to discriminate, still more will they fail to discriminate where the clusters of related attributes and properties and actions are immeasurably involved. Especially will they fail if, while many of the components are coexistent, many of them are sequent; and if, too, the groups of ideas which have to be distinguished from one another, include not only forms, colors, motions, sounds, and the feelings implied in those who make them; but include both the immediate effects wrought by a particular kind of action and the effects to be hereafter wrought by it. When the combinations of thoughts which must be simultaneously kept in mind reach these degrees of involution, the ability to discriminate either from the other, which is like it in many respects but differs in some essential respect, fails even in many highly cultured minds. Let us take instances.
Here is a geometrical problem–say, how to erect a perpendicular at the end of a straight line. Following the established routine, an ordinary teacher either shows his pupil how to solve this problem or tells him what he must do to solve it: the result being that the perpendicular is drawn as directed, and the pupil, not much interested in the proceeding, thenceforth knows how to draw it. Here is another teacher who, disapproving of this mechanical culture, adopts a different method. His pupil having been initiated through simpler problems, severally solved by his persevering efforts, takes to the new problem with zest; and, trying various experiments, in no very long time succeeds. In doing this he receives a relatively strong impression, due partly to the strained attention required, and partly to the pleasurable excitement of success. At the same time he acquires increased aptitude and increased courage; enabling him to deal by and by with more complex problems. Here, then, are two clusters of actions and acquisitions and feelings, which are in sundry respects alike. The problem is the same, the method of solution is the same, the knowledge acquired is the same; and the mechanical teacher, recognizing nothing more, does not discriminate between the two clusters of mental actions, and thinks it just as well to teach by instruction as by discovery.
Of more complex cases, one is furnished by a recent incident–the case of the Eastbourne salvationists. Most of the townspeople object to their processions headed by noisy bands; while these boisterous Christians say that they are simply maintaining that religious liberty which all now admit. But here comes the lack of discrimination. It is forgotten that while, in the interests of religious liberty, each citizen or group of citizens may rightly perform ceremonies ancillary to his belief; in the interests of general liberty, individual citizens or groups of them, may rightly resist intrusions upon that peaceful course of life they are pursuing. There is inability to separate in thought those assertions of religious freedom which do not involve aggressions on others, from those which do involve aggressions on others, in the form of nuisances. And not only do these fanatics fail to distinguish between religious liberty and religious license, but even our legislators (if we suppose them to be acting sincerely instead of seeking votes) also fail.
One more instance furnished by the politics of the day may be added–the failure, alike by legislators and people, to discriminate between the effects of moral injunctions on those having natures with which they are congruous, and their effects on those having natures with which they are incongruous. Here is a set of precepts, printed, read, explained, emphasized; and here are children's minds with their clusters of ideas, powers of understanding, and groups of feelings. The prevalent assumption is that since certain effects result where there is intellectual apprehension of these precepts plus responsive sentiments, like effects will result where there is the same intellectual apprehension minus the responsive sentiments. People think it needs only to teach children what is right and they will do what is right! They expect that by education–nay, even by mere acquisition of a knowledge which is not related to conduct–they will diminish crime!
Discrimination, then, characterizing intelligence from its lowest to its highest forms, is certain to be still very incomplete where the things to be discriminated are not visible objects and actions, but are mental representations of complex aggregates of things and actions and feelings, and causes and effects; part of them belonging to the passing time, and part of them to the time coming. After observing the stretch of imagination required for proper recognition of differences in this wide and obscure field, we may feel certain that alike in sociology and in ethics, failures to discriminate must be many and disastrous.
389. But why this long psychological disquisition? The answer is foreshadowed in the title of the chapter–“Kinds of Altruism.” That altruistic conduct has divisions which must be distinguished is obviously implied. That the conceptions of these respective divisions, made up of represented things, acts, relations, and results, present and future, are among those complex things which are difficult to part from one another, has been above shown by analogy. That only those who are at once observant, critical, and have great powers of mental representation, can adequately make the discriminations, is a further implication. And that grave evils result from the prevalent inability is a corollary.
As distinguished from egoistic actions, altruistic actions include all those which either negatively by self-restraint, or positively by efforts for their benefit, conduce to the welfare of fellow men: they include both justice and beneficence. As we have seen in the last part, the first of these great divisions of altruism implies a sympathetic recognition of others' claims to free activity and the products of free activity; while the other great division implies a sympathetic recognition of others' claims to receive aid in the obtainment of these products, and in the more effectual carrying on of their lives. In section 54 I pointed out that the highest form of life, individual and social, is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but that there must be joined with a reign of beneficence. Here is a part of the argument:
A society is conceivable formed of men leading perfectly inoffensive lives, scrupulously fulfilling their contracts, and efficiently rearing their offspring, who yet, yielding to one another no advantages beyond those agreed upon, fall short of that highest degree of life which the gratuitous rendering of services makes possible. Daily experiences prove that every one would suffer many evils and lose many goods, did none give him unpaid assistance. The life of each would be more or less damaged had he to meet all contingencies single-handed. Further if no one did for his fellows anything more than was required by strict performance of contract, private interests would suffer from the absence of attention to public interests. The limit of evolution of conduct is consequently not reached, until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others.
Throughout the past there has been slowly growing into clearness the distinction between these two primary divisions of altruism. But though justice and generosity have in recent days come to be fairly well discriminated, the changes now going on are confusing them again. The universal dissolution by which the old order of things is being abolished while a new order is being established, is bringing with it a dissolution of old conceptions: many of them wrong but some of them right. Among the last is this distinction between justice and beneficence. On the one side the many, eagerly expecting good, and on the other side the few, anxious to do good to them, agree in practically disregarding the line of demarcation between things which are to be claimed as rights and things which are to be accepted as benefactions; and while the division between the two is being obliterated, there is ceasing to be any separation made between means appropriate to the one and means appropriate to the other. Hotheaded philanthropy, impatient of criticism, is, by helter-skelter legislation, destroying normal connections between conduct and consequence; so that presently, when the replacing of justice by generosity has led to a redistribution of benefits irrespective of deserts, there will be reached a state having for its motto the words: It shall be as well for you to be inferior as to be superior.
390. The two great divisions of altruism, justice and beneficence, are to be discriminated as the one needful for social equilibrium, and therefore of public concern, and the other as not needful for social equilibrium, and therefore only of private concern. Observe why the two must be kept separate.
We have seen that justice in its primordial form, as seen throughout the animal kingdom at large, requires that each creature shall take the consequences of its own conduct; and among all ungregarious creatures this law operates without any qualification.
Along with gregariousness, especially when it reaches the degree which the human race exhibits, there arises a further requirement. While, as before, the relation between conduct and consequence has to be so maintained that actions shall be restrained by experience of results, actions have to be further restrained by the necessity of so limiting them that the interference of each citizen with others shall not be greater than is implied by the associated state.
But, as shown in the above quotation, before life, individual and social, can reach their highest forms, there must be fulfilled the secondary law, that besides exchange of services under agreement there shall be a rendering of services beyond agreement. The requirements of equity must be supplemented by the promptings of kindness.
And here we come upon the truth above hinted, and now to be emphasized, that the primary law of a harmonious social cooperation may not be broken for the fulfillment of the secondary law; and that therefore, while enforcement of justice must be a public function, the exercise of beneficence must be a private function. A moment's thought will make this implication manifest.
Beneficence exercised by a society in its corporate capacity, must consist in taking away from some persons parts of the products of their activities, to give to other persons, whose activities have not brought them a sufficiency. If it does this by force it interferes with the normal relation between conduct and consequence, alike in those from whom property is taken and in those to whom property is given. Justice, as defined in the foregoing pages, is infringed upon. The principle of harmonious social cooperation is disregarded; and the disregard and infringement, if carried far, must bring disasters. There are three, which we may contemplate separately.
391. If, that the inferior may have benefits which they have not earned, there are taken from the superior benefits which they have earned, it is manifest that when this process is carried to the extent of equalizing the positions of the two, there ceases to be any motive to be superior. Long before any such extreme is reached, there must result an increasing discouragement of the industrious, who see the surplus products of their industry carried away; and there must result among these better citizens an intensifying dissatisfaction, tending ever towards revolution. There must be a decline towards an unprosperous state and an unstable state.
A further result must be a slow degeneracy. bodily and mental. If, by an indiscriminate philanthropy, means of subsistence are forcibly taken from the better for the improved maintenance of the worse, the better, most of whom have means already insufficient for the good nurture of offspring, must have those means made still further deficient; while the offspring of the worse must, to a like extent, be artificially fostered. An average deterioration must be caused.
An equally disastrous, or still more disastrous, effect remains to be named. The policy. if persistently pursued, leads on to communism and anarchism. If society in its corporate capacity undertakes beneficence as a function–if, now in this direction and now in that, the inferior learn by precept enforced by example, that it is a state duty not simply to secure them the unhindered pursuit of happiness but to furnish them with the means to happiness; there is eventually formed among the poorer, and especially among the least deserving, a fixed belief that if they are not comfortable the government is to blame. Not to their own idleness and misdeeds is their misery ascribed, but to the badness of society in not doing its duty to them. What follows? First there grows up among numbers, the theory that social arrangements must be fundamentally changed in such ways that all shall have equal shares of the products of labor–that differences of reward due to differences of merit shall be abolished: there comes communism. And then among the very worst, angered that their vile lives have not brought them all the good things they want, there grows up the doctrine that society should be destroyed, and that each man should seize what he likes and “suppress,” as Ravachol said, everyone who stands in his way. There comes anarchism and a return to the unrestrained struggle for life, as among brutes.
Such then are the ultimate results of not discriminating between justice and beneficence, and between the instrumentalities proper for carrying on the two.
392. But now we come to a question, no doubt existing unshaped in the minds of many, the right answer to which clears up, in another way, the prevailing confusion. Let me put this question in the form most favorable to those whose illusions I am seeking to dissipate.
“You say that justice in its primordial form requires that each creature shall receive the results of its own nature and consequent conduct. Of human justice, however, you say that while, as before, it demands that actions shall bring their natural consequences, the actions which do this must be limited to such as do not interfere with the similarly limited actions of others. Obviously the result is that while, under the reign of brute justice, each individual takes advantage of his powers, to the extent of injuring or destroying not only prey but also competitors, under the reign of human justice he may not do this–he is forbidden to injure competitors. What happens? Being protected by the incorporated society, the inferior members are enabled to carry on their activities and reap all the benefits; which they could not have done had the superior used their superiorities without control. May it not be, then, that under the reign of human justice raised to a higher form, the inferior, thus partially saved from the results of their inferiority, shall be still further saved from them–shall not only be equalized with the superior by preserving for them their spheres of activity, but shall also be equalized with them in respect of the benefits they obtain within their spheres of activity?”
Doubtless, as I have elsewhere admitted, it seems, from one point of view, unjust that the inferior should be left to suffer the evils of their inferiority, for which they are not responsible. Nature, which everywhere carries on the struggle for life with unqualified severity, so as even to prompt the generalization–“the law of murder is the law of growth,” cares not for the claims of the weaker, even to the extent of securing them fair play; and if it be admitted that this severity of nature may, among associated men, rightly be mitigated by artificially securing fair play to the inferior, why ought it not to be further mitigated by saving them from all those evils of inferiority which may be artificially removed?
Here we reach the place of divergence. Here we see the need for discrimination among complex conceptions. Here we see how important is recognition of the difference between justice and beneficence, and consequent difference between the instrumentalities appropriate to the two. For with the admission that that ferocious discipline of brute justice which issues in survival of the fittest, has, in societies of men, to be much qualified, not only by what we distinguish as human justice, but also by what we distinguish as beneficence, there must go the assertion that while the first may rightly be enforced, the second must be left to voluntary action. Denial that the second as well as the first should be attended to by the state, by no means involves denial that the second should be attended to; but merely implies that it should be otherwise attended to. It is admitted that the evils caused by inferiority should be mitigated in both ways; but it is asserted that while mitigations of the one kind should be public and general, those of the other kind should be private and special. For, as we have seen, the primary law of harmonious cooperation may not be broken for the purpose of fulfilling the secondary law; since, if it is so broken to any great extent, profound mischiefs result.
393. For the discrimination thus demanded by a due regard for social stability. social prosperity, and social health, yet a further reason must here be urged. Only by maintaining this discrimination can the reciprocal benefits of beneficence, “blessing him that gives and him that takes,” be preserved. When any of the evils which their inefficiencies or other defects bring on the inferior, are diminished by aid which some of the superior voluntarily furnish, these are made better by the exercise of their fellow feeling; but if, to mitigate them, funds are taken by force from the superior, none of this moralization results: often a demoralization–an excitement of ill feeling. Not only. as the poet says, “the quality of mercy is not strained,” but also the quality of beneficence in general. If it is strained it ceases to be beneficence.
At the same time there is a corresponding difference between the effects produced on the beneficiaries. Kindly acts spontaneously done, usually excite in them emotions of gratitude and attachment; and a community containing beneficiaries thus related to benefactors, is one in which not only are the feelings of the lower favorably exercised as well as those of the higher, but one in which there is thereby produced an increased coherence and stability.
394. Having, too elaborately perhaps, discriminated between the primary altruism we call justice and the secondary altruism we call beneficence, and emphasized the need for the discrimination, we may now deal with the different kinds of beneficence. Let us first group these under certain subdivisions.
There comes first the species of beneficent conduct which is characterized by passivity in deed or word, at times when egoistic advantage or pleasure might be gained by action. Many forms of self-restraint, not commonly regarded as ethically enjoined, ought nevertheless to be so regarded; and have here to be pointed out and emphasized. These, which we have first to consider, fall under the general title–negative beneficence.
After them there come to be dealt with those kinds of actions alone recognized in the ordinary conception of beneficence, but which are here distinguished as positive beneficence. Under this head are comprised all actions which imply sacrifice of something actually or potentially possessed, that another or others may be benefited–sacrifice, it may be, of strength which would otherwise be economized, sacrifice of the product of efforts actually obtained, or of the forthcoming product of efforts made in the past. In all these there is a proximate loss of pleasure or means to pleasure; though there may be an immediate or remote compensation in sympathetic pleasure.
To complete preliminaries it needs to add that there is a cross-classification by which both of these groups have to be divided. The most conspicuous, though not the most familiar, kinds of beneficent actions, positive and negative, are those shown towards individuals who are inferior, or unfortunate, or both. But there are also beneficent actions, usually small but very numerous, which benefit those who are neither inferior nor unfortunate–actions which further the gratifications of persons around, and raise the tide of happiness in all.
In treating these divisions and subdivisions of beneficence in the order here indicated, we shall have to consider three sets of effects produced: 1, the reactive effects upon the benefactor, upon his dependents, and upon all who have claims on him; 2, the immediate effects on the beneficiary, as conducive to increase of his pleasure or diminution of his pain, and the remote effects as conducive to one or other change of character; and 3, the effects upon society at large, as influencing its stability, its immediate prosperity, and its remote prosperity.