Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 4.: Restraints on Undeserved Payments - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 4.: Restraints on Undeserved Payments - 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:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
Restraints on Undeserved Payments
406. Still limiting ourselves to transactions in which money, or some equivalent, plays a part, we have here to consider a kind of negative beneficence which at first sight seems wholly unbeneficent. In daily occurring instances, immediate sympathy prompts certain actions which sympathy of a more abstract and higher form interdicts. I refer to refusals to do or to give things which are expected or asked.
This is a form of negative beneficence so unprepossessing, and so apt to be misinterpreted, that it is little practiced. The cases in which a selfish motive causes resistance to a claim made by another, enormously predominate in number; and hence most people find it nearly impossible to believe that such resistance may be instigated by an unselfish motive. Proximate effects exclusively occupy their thoughts; and they cannot see that recognition of remote pains may prevent actions which yield immediate pleasures. Usually there is scope for self-denial in doing a kind thing; but in some cases there is scope for self-denial in refusing to do what seems a kind thing, but is not so.
These are mostly cases in which regard for social interests, or the welfare of the many, ought to override regard for the welfare of individuals, or of the few. Let us contemplate instances.
407. “Poor fellows! I must give them something,” says a softhearted lady, as she opens the window to hand out sixpence to the leader of a worthless band, which, for some ten minutes, has been disturbing the neighborhood by discordant playing of miserable music; and so saying she thinks she has done a good act, and ascribes lack of feeling to one who disapproves the act.
In the discussion which follows it is of little avail to point out that money given in return for something done, is properly given only when this something done is in one or other way beneficial–that it is right to pay for the receipt of pleasure, but not right to pay for the receipt of pain; and that if the principle of equally paying for pleasure and pain were pursued generally, social relations would dissolve. This is too abstract a conclusion for her. Nor is it of much use to dwell on the obvious fact that every payment of incapable bandsmen, induces them to perambulate other streets, inflicting upon other people their intolerable noises. The evils do not end here. If money can be got by bad playing, good playing will not be to the same extent cultivated; and besides a diffused infliction of pain there results a deprivation of pleasure. Yet one more evil happens. The unmusical musicians, if they were not paid, would abandon the occupation for which they are unfit and take to occupations for which they are fit; and society would then profit by their efforts instead of being injured by them. But, as I have implied, these remoter results are commonly never thought of; and, if pointed out, are too faintly imagined to operate as restraints.
Here a superior negative beneficence is shown by bearing the several pains which refusal entails–The pain which denying the immediate promptings of sympathy implies, and the pain caused by misinterpretation of motives.
408. Among the daily incidents of town life, as carried on by those who have means, may be named another in respect of which an unthinking generosity should be kept in check, and sometimes a considerable annoyance borne. I refer to dealings with cabmen.
The question of regulated cab fares versus cab fares left, like omnibus fares, to open competition, checked only by due announcement of the rates charged, must here be left aside. The established system has adjusted itself in respect of the numbers of cabs and rates of profit of masters and men; and the question is what are the effects of not abiding by the prescribed rates. In the great majority of cases cabmen, a fairly well-behaved class, are content with their due. Here, however, is one who asks more. You know the distance well–have perhaps daily paid the same fare with the certain knowledge that it covers the claim and leaves a wide margin. But the man demands another sixpence; threatens a summons; and even when you have entered the house keeps his cab standing at the door, thinking to alarm you by his persistence. What will you do? It is a disagreeable business; and you feel inclined to pay the extra sixpence, about which you care next to nothing, and thus end the dispute. Moreover you perceive that some of those around think you mean in refusing; so that perhaps, after all, it will be better to do the generous thing as it seems. But if you are swayed by that higher negative beneficence which takes into account distant effects as well as near ones, and the benefit of the many as well as the benefit of the few you will continue your refusal. Observe the various justifications.
If it is proper for you to yield, then it is proper for all others similarly overcharged, and similarly threatened, to yield; and it is proper that, by this process, the daily profits of cabmen should be raised. What do we learn respecting the effects, from political economy–the “dismal science,” as Mr. Carlyle called it, much as a child might call its arithmetic dismal because of a like repugnance? The first effect would be a great increase in the number of cabdrivers: a pleasant occupation for idle fellows, of whom there is always no lack. The body of cabdrivers would be augmented partly by influx of these, and partly by recruits from other occupations which did not yield such good daily returns. Supposing the number of hirings of cabs remained the same (which it would not, since higher rates would lessen the demands of customers) what would be the subsequent effects on the enlarged body of cabdrivers? The same number of drives having to be divided among a larger number of drivers, it would result that, though each received more from every fare, he would have fewer fares. The reduction of his abnormally raised returns in this way, would go on until the profits of cabdriving no longer caused an influx into the occupation–until, that is, it had been brought down in its desirableness to the same level as before. A concomitant effect would be an increase in the number of cabs built; for an extra demand for them made by cabdrivers, would be met by an extra supply of cabs, and an extra rate charged for them: part of the total extra payments for cabs would go into the pockets of cab masters. Yet another evil sequence must be named. There would come a superfluous number of cabs and of horses drawing them–a wasteful investment of capital. A supply of cabs and horses in excess of the need implies a national loss. Nor have we even now got to the end of the mischief. To the wealthier of those who hire cabs, the payment of fares in excess of the authorized rates would be of no consequence, pecuniarily considered; but it would be of consequence to the less wealthy and more numerous, who are in some cases obliged to hire them, and who in other cases would be prevented from hiring them when fatigue or hurry prompted.
Of course it is not meant that through the mind of one who refuses the unwarranted demand, there suddenly pass thoughts of all these ultimate results. It is meant, rather, that if he has occasionally traced out the ramifying effects of men's actions, he is immediately conscious that breach of the understanding tacitly entered into when he took the cab, tends towards evil. He is aware, for instance, that the giving of considerable gratuities to the servants at hotels, had the effect of making their places so profitable that they had to buy them from the landlords; and he is aware that since the system of charging for servants in the bill has been established, the practice has been growing up afresh, and being presently taken account of by the landlords, will end in giving lower wages. That is, he recognizes the general truth that deviations from the normal relation of payments proportioned to services, are sure, after many mischievous perturbations, to end in reestablishment of the relation; and, being possessed by this general truth, he declines in the interests of all those who will in the long run be injuriously affected, to encourage a vicious system.
409. Other acts which appear to be beneficent but are essentially unbeneficent, are committed every hour at every railway station in the “tipping” of guards and porters. Organizations when first formed are healthy. and time is required for corruptions to gain entrance and spread. In early railway days, boards of directors were pure, and the administrations they presided over were pure. There were no share traffickings, no floatings of bad schemes for the sake of premiums, no cooking of accounts; and officials of all grades down to the lowest were paid due wages, for which they were expected to perform prescribed duties without further payments. At first, and for many years, the taking of fees by those who came in contact with passengers, was peremptorily forbidden: punishment being threatened, and occasionally inflicted, for breach of the regulation. But slowly and insidiously the feeing of porters and bribing of guards crept in, and has now become so general that even those who long resisted it as a mischievous abuse, have had to yield. To fee has become proper, and not to fee contemptible. Scarcely anyone recognizes the truth that the system arose not from generosity but from selfishness, and that it works out in various disastrous ways. Here are some of them.
Originally the contract between passenger and company was one under which the company for a certain sum agreed to carry the passenger to a specified place, giving him prescribed accommodation; and part of the accommodation was taking charge of his baggage, to do which it employed and paid certain attendants. Every passenger had a claim to the services of these attendants, and no one could take more than his share without diminishing the share equitably due to others. From the beginning, however, some passengers to whom small sums were of no moment, secretly gave these in return for extra promptness or nonessential aid: not remembering that the gaining of these attentions was at the cost of others who equally needed them–often needed them more. While the porter, expecting sixpence from some wealthy-looking man entering a first class, is fussing about in the compartment arranging his bundle of rugs, and parcels, and umbrella, in the rack, or is coming back from the van to tell him his portmanteau and gun case have been duly placed in it, two or three others are kept waiting–a shabby-looking person with bag in hand, from whom probably not a penny will come, or a widow with a cluster of children and miscellaneous belongings, who is agitated lest the train should start without her. So that the richer passenger's seeming generosity to the porter, involves ungenerosity to other passengers.
Much more serious results arise. These passengers from whom nothing is to be expected, have eventually to be accommodated. The train must wait until they, too, have been seated and their things taken charge of. What necessarily happens? The time spent in doing needless things for the paying passenger, and in telling him that his baggage is safe, and in waiting for a fee, is time in which other passengers could have been attended to. The postponed attention to these now keeps the train waiting. This effect, which I have myself repeatedly observed, and have led friends to observe, recurs at every large station, producing delay upon delay; and the general result is–chronic unpunctuality. That some passengers may have an undue share of the services for which every one paid when he took his ticket, all passengers must lose time. Fifty or a hundred people get to their journeys' ends long after the announced hours: occasionally to their great inconvenience. Nor is this all. The great majority of railway accidents are caused by unpunctuality. Collisions never occur between trains which are where they should be at the appointed times.
Collateral mischiefs have followed. From the feeing of porters has grown the bribing of guards; and to this are due sundry evils. That a gentleman–or one dressed as such–who has given or promised a shilling, may have partial or entire monopoly of a compartment, other compartments are inconveniently crowded. Worse happens. Here is one who, seeking a place, looks in where there are but two persons, with coats and rugs on the seats to represent others, and hurriedly seeks elsewhere in vain. At length he asks the guard whether these seats are occupied, and, forcing out the reply that they are not, only after stern demand has the locked door opened: a transaction which shows clearly how the system of gratuities initiates a selfish habit of getting extra advantage by taking from others the advantages they have paid for. Still worse is a concomitant evil–the bribing of guards to allow smoking in nonsmoking compartments. This abuse has now grown to the extent that guards carry in their pockets labels with the printed word “Smoking,” which they fasten on the window of this or that compartment, as their paying clients inside request. It has actually come to this, and the company condones practices by which all first-class compartments are being made to stink like the taproom of a pothouse.
Here, then, are illustrations of the mode in which an apparently innocent yielding to the tacit expectations of porters, leads the way to grave abuses: some of them occasionally entailing great loss of property and even loss of life. We are shown how that kind of negative beneficence which takes account of general and remote welfare, sometimes enjoins resistance to the instigations of immediate sympathy, and enjoins also the bearing of odium.
410. Generalizing these conclusions, we may say that exchange of benefits should always conform as nearly as possible to actual or tacit contract where there is one; or, where there is no contract, to such a conceived one as might have been reasonably made.
One of the traits of evolution is increasing definiteness, and, in the course of social progress, we find increasing definiteness in the transactions among citizens. Originally there were no wages or salaries, no specified agreements, no avowed prices for commodities. The regime was one of compulsory services, of presents, of bribes; and exchanges of benefits were vague and uncertain. Hence the implication is that deviations from cooperation under contract, are retrograde changes–tend towards a lower type of society, and should be resisted.
That social life may be carried on well without gratuities, we have clear proof. A generation ago, while there still continued much of the purity which at first characterized American institutions, employees, and among others the servants in hotels, looked for nothing beyond the wages they had contracted to have for services rendered. In England, too, at the present time, there are to be found, even among the more necessitous, those who will not accept more than they have bargained to receive. I can myself recall the case of a poor workwoman who, seeming to be underpaid by the sum she asked, declined to receive the extra amount I offered her. So that, evidently, it is quite possible to have on both sides resistance to a retrograde form of social cooperation.
In such a state the function of negative beneficence, in so far as it concerns the relations of employers and employed, is that of seeing that the employed do not, when the agreement is made, underestimate the values of their services. Clearly, under the rule of the implied sentiments, that which is lost by the cessation of irregular payments will, in the long run, be gained by the raising of regular payments.