Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 5.: Restraints on Displays of Ability - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 5.: Restraints on Displays of Ability - 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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Restraints on Displays of Ability
411. Beyond the material advantages which men give and receive under the system of social cooperation, they give and receive nonmaterial advantages. These are the benefits, or satisfactions, or pleasures, obtained during social intercourse; and which may or may not be apportioned in the most desirable ways. Here the office of negative beneficence is that of so restraining the actions which bring such gratifications to self, as to allow others to obtain their shares.
The superiorities, bodily or mental or both, which enable one citizen to exceed others in gaining wealth, but which, as we have seen, he ought not to utilize to the extreme, regardless of others' welfare, are superiorities which may also bring to him an unusually large share of approbation. Or an unusually large share of approbation may come to one who has superiorities of another order, conducive, say, not to material prosperity but to popularity. In such cases there arises the question–How far shall the superior push his advantages? To what extent shall he refrain from using his greater faculties; so that others may obtain applause, or may not experience the pain of defeat?
Difficult questions grow out of these. The battle of life through which all higher powers, subhuman and human, have arisen, may rightly be carried out of that activity which has sustentation for its end, into that activity which has for its end the pleasures given by superfluous play of the faculties. In the absence of this competition, partly bodily but mainly mental, social intercourse would lose its salt. And yet in this field, as in the other, sympathy ought to produce a self-restraint limiting the pleasures of success.
412. A form of selfishness occasionally displayed, and rightly condemned, is that of men who display without bounds their remarkable conversational powers. Of various brilliant talkers we read that on some occasions the presence of others who vied with them, raised obvious jealousies; and that on other occasions, in the absence of able competitors, they talked down everyone, and changed what should have been conversation into monologue. Contrariwise, we sometimes hear of those who, though capable of holding continuously the attention of all, showed solicitude that the undistinguished or the modest should find occasions for joining in the exchange of thoughts: even going to the extent of “drawing them out.” Men of these contrasted types exemplify the absence and presence of negative beneficence; and they exemplify. too, the truth, commonly forgotten, that undue efforts to obtain applause often defeat themselves. One who monopolizes conversation loses more by moral reprobation than he gains by intellectual approbation.
Over the dinner table, or in groups of persons otherwise held together, there frequently occur cases in which an erroneous statement is made or an invalid argument urged. One who recognizes the error may either display his superior knowledge or superior logic, or he may let the error pass in silence: not wishing to raise the estimate of himself at the cost of lowering the estimate of another. Which shall he do? A proper decision implies several considerations. Is the wrong statement or invalid argument one which will do appreciable mischief if it passes uncorrected? Is the person who utters it vain, or one whose self-esteem is excessive? Is he improperly regarded as an authority by those around? Does he trample down others in the pursuit of applause? If to some or all of these questions the answer is–Yes, the correction may fitly be made; alike for the benefit of the individual himself and for the benefit of hearers. But should the error be trivial, or should the credit of one who makes it, not higher than is proper, be unduly injured by the exposure, or should his general behavior in social intercourse be of a praiseworthy kind, then sympathy may fitly dictate silence–negative beneficence may rightly restrain the natural desire to show superiority.
Of course much of what is here said respecting the carrying on of conversation or discussion, applies to the carrying on of public controversy. In nearly all cases the intrusion of personal feeling makes controversy of small value for its ostensible purpose–the establishment of truth. Desire for the éclat which victory brings, often causes a mercilessness and a dishonesty which hinder or prevent the arrival at right conclusions. Negative beneficence here conduces to public benefit while it mitigates private injury. Usually the evidence may be marshaled and a valid argument set forth, without discrediting an opponent in too conspicuous a manner. Small slips of statement and reasoning, which do not affect the general issue, may be generously passed over; and generosity may fitly go to the extent of admitting the strength of the reasons relied on, while showing that they are inadequate. A due negative beneficence will respect an antagonist's amour propre; save, perhaps, in cases where his dishonesty, and his consequent endeavor to obscure the truth, demand exposure. Lack of right feeling in this sphere has disastrous public effects. It needs but to glance around at the courses of political controversy and of theological controversy, to see how extreme are the perversions of men's beliefs caused by absence of that sympathetic interpretation which negative beneficence enjoins.
413. A few words may be added respecting more special motives which should occasionally prevent the superior from manifesting his superiority.
A game of skill is being played with one whose little boy is a spectator. The father's play is such as makes his antagonist tolerably certain of victory, should he put out his strength. But if he is adequately swayed by the sentiment of negative beneficence, he will, not obtrusively but in a concealed way, play below his strength, so as to let the father beat him. He will feel that such small pleasure as triumph might bring, would be far more than counterbalanced by sympathy with the annoyance of the father at being defeated in presence of his son, and by sympathy with the son on finding his father not so superior as he supposed. Though in this course some insincerity is implied, yet that evil is trivial in comparison with the evils otherwise entailed.
In like manner none will doubt that one who, in a discussion or in a wit combat, might be easily overcome, may, even though at other times unworthy of consideration, be rightly let off under particular circumstances. Say, for instance, that his fiancée is present. To show that he is ignorant, or that he is illogical, or to utter a witticism at his expense, would be cruel. All but the unusually callous will see that to shame him before a witness with whom he stands in such a relation, would be an improper exercise of intellectual power. An interlocutor who is swayed by due fellow feeling, will, in such a case, consent to see himself ill-informed or stupid, rather than inflict the pain which would follow any other course.
414. Here, then, are ways in which negative beneficence should operate by voluntarily making a conscious superiority, and thus harmonizing social intercourse.
Perhaps in such cases we see more clearly than in others, the propriety of mitigating, so far as we can, the pains caused by inequalities of faculty. As admitted on a previous occasion, the harsh discipline of nature, which favors the well-endowed and leaves the ill-endowed to suffer, has, from the human point of view, an aspect of injustice; and though, as we have seen, it is not permissible so to traverse the normal relation between conduct and consequence, as to equalize the fates of the well-endowed and the ill-endowed, it is permissible to modify its results where this may be done without appreciably interfering with the further progress of evolution. Though many difficulties stand in the way of thus qualifying the material effects which severally come to the efficient and the inefficient in the battle of life, yet comparatively little difficulty stands in the way of qualifying the mental effects, as socially manifested.
There are doubtless cases in which display of mental power in conversation or controversy, conduces to pecuniary benefit, and may hence be regarded as rightly to be taken advantage of in the struggle for life; but in the cases above instanced, which typify the average cases, the more skilled player, or better talker, or keener logician, may hold his greater powers in check without endangering the prosperity of the superior, and may avoid discrediting a competitor without appreciably furthering the prosperity of the inferior. He may here diminish the evils caused by nature's unfairness, without entailing other evils.
And restraint of the desire for triumph, thus inculcated by negative beneficence, is the restraint of a barbarous desire appropriate to early stages of human evolution. For the pride taken in victory over an opponent, is of like kind whether the opponent fights with hand or with tongue–wields the sword or wields the pen. The militant nature which throughout social progress has gloried in successful bodily encounters, is essentially the same militant nature which glories in successful mental encounters. In the interests of a higher civilization, therefore, there should be practiced this self-restraint which prevents a needless discrediting of the mentally inferior.