Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 6.: Restraints on Blame - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER 6.: Restraints on Blame - 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 Blame
415. The subject matter of this chapter joins naturally on to that of the last chapter–is, in fact, scarcely to be parted from it: since criticisms passed in conversation and controversy necessarily imply a kind of blame. But blame, specially so called, is sufficiently distinguishable to be separately treated.
Neither sympathy alone, nor judgment alone, serves rightly to regulate the utterance of blame, either in respect of occasion or degree. Sometimes it is a duty to withhold censure, and sometimes censure cannot be withheld without breach of duty. For right guidance many things must be borne in mind. There are the relative positions of the two, as being in some cases parent and child, in some cases employer and employed, in some cases elder and younger; while in some cases they stand in relations of equality and independence. There are the characters of the person reproving and the person reproved, as being relatively superior or inferior, either to the other; and there are the effects as liable to be beneficial or injurious, immediately or remotely or both. The presence or absence of witnesses, too, must be taken into account; as also the degree and manner of the blame.
To adjust behavior in such ways as duly to regard all the facts and circumstances, there needs active fellow feeling and also quick perception and much foresight. Wherever possible, it is desirable that time should be taken for consideration.
416. Blame of the most familiar kind is that which the relation of parent and child leads to. In countries where the imperative need for having a son results from the belief that only by a son can proper sacrifices be made to a father's ghost, we see clearly implied the conception, which has prevailed down to comparatively modern times, that children exist mainly for the benefit of parents. Along with the prevalence of this conception and along with the enjoining of punishment, which accompanied it, the blaming of children could not well be checked by careful thought for their welfare. In modern times, however, characterized if not by entire inversion of this conception, yet by partial inversion of it, so that very often parents exist chiefly for the benefit of children, the blaming of them has come to be qualified by considerations touching the effects wrought. The better natured among parents in our days, find scope for negative beneficence in often restraining themselves from those faultfindings which irritation prompts.
Insight and sympathy will, at the cost of some self-sacrifice, cause tolerance of that restlessness, mental and bodily, characterizing early life; and will, within reasonable limits, prompt submission to that cross-questioning which children are prone to. The aim will be to find pleasure in giving the desired information; and when the questioning becomes too troublesome, to end it, not by words of blame but in some indirect way.
Constant recognition of the truth that from an undeveloped nature there must not be expected conduct which only a developed nature is capable of, will stop many scoldings. The higher regulative emotions, later than others in coming into play, must not be counted upon as though fully operative. Remembering this a parent of well-balanced feelings will not harshly condemn minor transgressions. Not that faults are to be passed over in silence, but that disapproval is to be expressed in a moderated way.
Negative beneficence will check a too-frequent blame because of remote effects as well as because of immediate effects. Perpetual infliction of moral pain produces callousness and eventually alienation. Both of these conflict with salutary discipline. A parent who passes over small faults without comment, or at most visits them with disapproving looks, and reserves open reprobation for serious transgressions, will, other things equal, obtain a control not to be obtained by a harsh parent; for the harsh parent fails to bring into play those motives from which good conduct should have proceeded, and substitutes for them those lower motives which dread of him generates.
Of course much that is here said of the family circle may be said also of the school. The measures used, punitive in a kindly way, should have in view not only the control of present conduct but the permanent moulding of character; and should form parts of a government which though mild is not lax.
417. Primarily. the relations of employer and employed, or of master and servant, must be such as are implied by conformity to contract. Justice takes precedence of beneficence; and here, therefore, considerations touching blame are subordinate to considerations touching duty. Fulfillment of the understanding made, may rightly be insisted on, and reproof for nonfulfillment may rightly be uttered-should, indeed, be uttered; for as healthy social cooperation depends on discharge of engagements, failure in the discharge (unless it is due to adequate unforeseen causes) should not be passed over in silence.
Ethical judgments on questions hence arising, are complicated by the consciousness that in the relation between employer and employed, and especially in that between master and servant, there is an element scarcely recognizable by absolute ethics. Though the agreement to render specified services for specified sums, is perfectly consistent with pure equity; yet, since fulfillment of one side of the contract, payment of money, occurs only at intervals while fulfillment of the other side by obedience to orders is continuous, there clings to it a feeling not wholly different from that which clings to the obedience of slave to owner (see sec. 169). Whether, under a reign of absolute ethics, social organization may become such as practically to eliminate this feeling, we cannot say; but under such social organizations as we now know, elimination is not possible, and a system of relative ethics has to make the best of forms of conduct which subordination gives rise to. One way of making the best of these forms is to restrain blame in amount and manner; so as to keep out of view, as much as may be, this undesirable relation.
Of the several nonfulfillments of duty, those which have their origin in the dishonest disregard of contracts entered into, are, as above implied, those on which blame may with least hesitation be visited. The withholding of blame in such cases, though it may be suggested by immediate sympathy, is not approved by that higher beneficence which recognizes distant results–the reform of the erring individual and the welfare of society. For the individual who, by lack of reproof, is encouraged in lax discharge of functions, is less likely to prosper than if his laxity is checked; and those with whom he may afterward be engaged will be advantaged by whatever improvement is made in him.
A mode of discipline to be used as much as possible in cases of the above class, may be used also with advantage in cases of another class–those in which the cause of failure in duty is forgetfulness. In the treatment of servants as in the treatment of children, the discipline of the natural reaction should be allowed to act where practicable. If they continually find that what has been left undone has eventually to be done, neglect, whether due to idleness or to carelessness, is not unlikely to be prevented. When one who in winter cannot remember to shut the door, is required to come back and shut it, there may be produced a certain amount of irritation; but the irritation will probably be less than that produced by perpetual scolding, and the desire to avoid trouble will often be effectual.
Faults which result from stupidity or awkwardness are those which, though frequently visited with the sharpest reproofs, deserve the mildest. Such faults more manifestly than most others arise from inherited defects of organization. A scarcely credible slowness of apprehension, even of simple things, is often found among children of the poor; and those in whom unintelligence is innate or superinduced by ill- nurture, are to be dealt with tenderly. If it is a function of beneficence to mitigate, so far as consists with other ends, the injustices of nature, then the lowly endowed should not have those injustices of nature from which they suffer, made harder to bear by the needlessly harsh treatment of men. Negative beneficence requires that such blame as their failures call for, shall be sparing in amount and gentle in kind.
Not for altruistic reasons only, but also for egoistic reasons, should the tendency to blame be kept under restraint. For beyond the direct self-injury caused by excess of it, there is the indirect self-injury arising from failure of its purpose. Those whose faultfinding is perpetual cease to be regarded; and those who, though in authority, but rarely blame, produce unusual effects.
418. What is to be said about the expression of blame when the persons concerned are independent of one another–either friends or strangers? The question is one to which there seems no general answer. Each case must be separately considered.
Misbehavior on the part of a stranger, if not great in degree, may often be best ignored, or at any rate be noticed only by look or manner; since more evil than good is likely to result from word–especially if the misbehavior is towards oneself. But if it is of a grave kind, both immediate and remote reasons call for notice of it. Everyone is bound to resist distinct aggression, alike in his own interests and in the interests of other men; for if no one resists an aggressor he is encouraged in his aggressiveness. If the misbehavior is towards others, the utterance of blame is not therefore uncalled for, but is in some respects more called for; since self-interest is no longer a factor. Interference, even by words, is in such cases often resented. Among the vulgar there is commonly vented the exclamation “What is it to you?” and the vulgar-minded in any class usually entertain the thought thus expressed. In such cases negative beneficence has no place. Any desire there may be not to give pain to the transgressor, is a desire which should be overridden by sympathy with the injured. Positive beneficence comes into play. For the transgressor who in such case makes the common rejoinder “Mind your own business” needs to be told that it is the business of everyone to aid in maintaining harmonious social life, and to defend those who are ill-treated by word or deed.
If it is a friend who has misbehaved, toward either self or others, the desire not to give pain by utterance of a reproach, is often so far enforced by the desire not to lose a friend, or not to decrease friendly feeling, that it operates unduly. The negative beneficence which in such case prompts passivity is not always to be obeyed. Blame may rightly be uttered in defense of personal claims, and still more may rightly be uttered in defense of the claims of third persons, when these have been disregarded. Contemplation of remote effects as well as immediate effects, will then show that the disagreeable thing must be said, even at the cost of giving serious offense.
But when those concerned are intimate, expression of blame may often fitly be limited to change of behavior. For while coldness of manner frequently conveys a reproof as distinctly as words, and sometimes even more forcibly, since it leaves play to the imagination of the person reproved, it has the advantage that it does not inflict pain in the same overt way, and gives much less specific reason for complaint and possible alienation.
419. Along with insufficient restraints on blame in some cases, there go, in other cases, restraints that are too great. The utterance of condemnation, or of statements which would lead to condemnation, is often withheld where it is not only deserved but demanded.
In countries where the moral tone is low, we see antagonism to the law and sympathy with the criminal. The law is regarded by citizens as the common enemy rather than as the common friend. A feeling of kindred nature is shown among ourselves at public schools, with the result that it is a point of honor to shield a transgressor from punishment and a disgrace to inform against him. This feeling goes even to the extent that a smaller boy who has been seriously ill treated by a bigger boy, dare not say anything about his grievance to those in authority. If he does, he is sent to Coventry: the result being that no blame comes on him who has deserved it, while blame comes on him who has not deserved it.
Influenced very much as they are by school ethics, many men betray in the afterlife sentiments like these of schoolboys; so that not unfrequently they take the side of one who has seriously misbehaved, while they frown on one who exposes his misbehavior. Often, indeed, it seems better to have done wrong than to have drawn attention to the wrongdoing. The strangest anomalies occasionally arise from this reluctance to express blame where it is called for. A chairman of directors was discovered in treasonable negotiations, injurious to the interests of the company he presided over. His colleagues forced him to resign; and then, by way of “letting him down easily,” as the phrase goes, gave him a testimonial–a testimonial which was subscribed to by the member of the board who informed me of the fact.
Now, as rightly understood, negative beneficence does not require such withholdings of blame: quite the contrary. There can be no ethical justification for practice which enables demerit to prosper, and makes it dangerous to bring on demerit its normal results.
420. Much that has been said in this chapter applies, with change of terms, to punishment–the blame which takes the form of hard deeds instead of hard words. Here, as elsewhere, the principle of the natural reaction should be acted upon whenever it is possible. For instance, though sympathy will rightly cause the occasional unpunctuality of an employee to be passed by in silence, yet if the unpunctuality is chronic, maintenance of contract, in which all citizens are concerned, requires that there shall be experienced the natural reaction, by losing, in some way, part of the sum agreed upon for services. If an employer has workmen who constantly come behind time, he is defrauded of a certain amount of the work which was to be given in return for the sum to be paid; and he may rightly deduct an equivalent amount–may impose fines. Unhappily there are in our present phase of progress, many natures on which neither sense of duty, nor mild expostulation, nor strong words, have any appreciable effects; and in dealing with them the normal punishment constituted by loss of benefit, is called for by justice, and must not be interdicted by negative beneficence.
Respecting punitive deeds as well as punitive words, we may say that where decisive blame is deserved, the function of negative beneficence is that of preventing the undue severity which anger–even a legitimate anger–is apt to prompt. The sympathy which in some cases checks a direct infliction of pain, and in others suggests mitigation of reproof, may in all cases rightly rein in the excited feelings.
Moderation not abstinence is the word. There is a general notion, taking for its formula “Never lose your temper,” which assumes that under all circumstances anger is improper. This is quite a mistake. Anger is a normal, and in some cases a needful, mode of displaying feeling. Were anger never shown by those who are aggressed upon, aggressions would be multitudinous. Mankind are at present not sufficiently civilized to dispense with the check which fear puts upon them. Negative beneficence can do no more than keep anger within due bounds.