Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 7.: Restraints on Praise - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 7.: Restraints on Praise - 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 Praise
421. How that form of altruism which we here distinguish as negative beneficence, should put any check on praise, is not obvious: to most, indeed, will appear incomprehensible.
They see at once that regard for truth should in many cases suppress the wish to give pleasure by applause. They do not doubt that when, even if there is no thought of gaining favor, there is professed an admiration which is not felt, a fault has been committed. The ancient Egyptian Ptah-hotep declared that “he who departs from truth to be agreeable is detestable”; and in the intervening five thousand years there have continued to be reprobations of flattery. In our own day the untruthfulness of one who utters insincere eulogies, excites a little contempt, even in the person eulogized. All feel, if they do not say, that there is something wrong in a kindness which prompts undeserved compliments.
But the avoidance of falsehood is in such cases the implied requirement. From veracity, and not from negative beneficence, the interdict is supposed exclusively to come. The withholding of laudations when they are not merited, cannot, it is thought, be referred to that form of altruism which refrains from acts and words productive of pain. Surely it must be a mistake to include restraints on praise under the head of negative beneficence?
No, there are other restraints besides those which truthfulness imposes. Even supposing the applause uttered or displayed arises from genuine admiration, there are circumstances under which it should be kept back. The desire to give immediate pleasure has often to be suppressed by the desire to further ultimate welfare; now of the individual, now of society.
It is difficult to deal separately with these checks to laudation, shown sometimes in look and manner, sometimes in words, which are demanded sometimes by sincerity, and sometimes by consideration of remote effects instead of proximate effects. There will be no harm in massing together the variously required withholdings of praise, which often involve considerable self-sacrifice for others' benefit.
422. Admiration for the child is by implication reflected on to the mother; and, consciously or unconsciously desiring this admiration, the mother summons her little boy from the nursery to be seen by a visitor. Already vanity, dominant enough in existing humanity at large, has been made specially active in the little urchin by daily ministrations–by special attentions to pretty clothes, to carefully curled hair, and by flattering remarks of the nursemaid. Shall you please the child and gratify the mother by some complimentary remark–shall you encourage her still more to foster the child's self-consciousness and appetite for approbation? Not to do this will cause disappointment to both, and will perhaps diminish the mother's friendly feeling. Yet a far-seeing regard for both will arrest the expected eulogy.
Here again is a handsome young lady accustomed to tribute in words and looks. She is constantly thinking of the admiration she excites and is looking for signs of it. Unquestionably her beauty is great–so great that you can scarcely avoid showing that you recognize it. Shall you give her the pleasure she seeks by letting your glances be seen? If you think only of proximate results you may; but not if you think also of remote results. If you recognize the fact that already her nature is in large measure deformed by vanity–if you watch the manifestations of her purely egoistic desire, and see how it excludes from consciousness altruistic desires, which should predominate; you will endeavor to avoid showing that you are thinking any more about her than about other persons.
Such self-restraint, called for by negative beneficence, will probably be thought by many needless or even absurd. If, however, they will consider that the mental attitude described often proves a deplorable one, eventually entailing unhappiness on self and others–if they remember that it is liable in after years to vitiate domestic life in various ways, even to the extent of making mothers jealous of their daughters; and if they remember that it has been developed year after year by the open and tacit flatteries of those around; they will see that the reticence here insisted on is not unimportant.
423. Kindred restraints, imposed now by sincerity and now by the wish to avoid doing injury, are called for in multitudinous cases where the applause expected is of something achieved–a book, a poem, or a speech, a painting or other work of plastic art, a song or a musical performance. In private life the spectator or auditor finds it difficult to act conscientiously. The wish not to disappoint prompts the utterance of approval which is not felt, and shuts out from thought the evils that may arise from uncandid speeches. Where encouragement is needed, there should of course be no greater restraint on praise than is required by truthfulness; and something may commonly be found in the way of partial approval which, serving to give pleasure without fostering vanity may serve to excite further efforts. If the product is a sketch or a decorative work, there need to be no check caused by thought of remoter consequences; but if the product is of a literary kind–verses, an essay, or perhaps a volume–there should usually be a suppression of words which might encourage an unrealizable ambition. Silence, or adverse criticism gently expressed, is in such cases kind: not alone as perhaps preventing future disappointment of the aspirant, but also as tending to prevent public evil. Verses which have no true poetry in them, and books which contain neither facts nor thoughts of any value, do not simply entail loss to the community in paper and print thrown away, but help to smother things of true worth. The withholding of praise hence becomes in multitudinous cases a duty to the world at large. Negative beneficence commands silence.
Evils less widely diffused, but more conspicuous, arise from applauding those who have received the customary musical culture but have no considerable musical faculty, and who, on all available occasions, are invited to perform for the supposed pleasure of those around. The pestilent social system which aims to make every individual as like every other individual as possible, by passing all through the same educational mill, insists on giving to each young lady lessons in singing, and a course of instruction on the piano; even though she has not a tolerable ear, and is utterly averse to the practices she has to go through. Daily. for years, are caused weariness to the pupil and irritation to the teachers, annoyance to the household, nuisance to the neighbors; and all to achieve the result that when there comes an evening party, a song ill sung or an ill played piece on the piano, may be inflicted upon guests, who hypocritically say “Thank you.” Manifestly the giving of praise, which sincerity forbids, is also here forbidden by regard for the general welfare. Negative beneficence of the wider kind interdicts utterances which, individually trivial though they may be, serve by their aggregate effect to maintain a system that vitiates social intercourse.
It goes without saying that duty to society should still more imperatively forbid the public critic from giving currency to unmerited encomiums.
424. There is a form of praise allied to flattery which also needs to be restrained–the tacit flattery implied by constant agreement with another person's opinions. If, on the one hand, we must disapprove of that nature which always finds reason to dissent, we must, on the other hand, disapprove of that nature which (moved perhaps in some measure by sympathy but often in a greater measure by a kind of servility) always finds reason to assent.
Of course regard for truth represses this undue tendency to coincide with others' views. Save in those who have got no ideas at all, there cannot but frequently arise convictions at variance with those they hear; and to utter words inconsistent with these convictions, everyone condemns as dishonest. Not only does sincerity require that the tacit praise taking this form shall be restrained, but a far-seeing negative beneficence also requires it. It is not a matter of indifference whether another continues to believe that which you see reason to think is untrue. A double evil may result from an expressed acquiescence in his statement or opinion. The error itself may have injurious consequences to him; and, further, a groundless self-esteem may be fostered. Moreover, as an ultimate effect of this acquiescent habit, social intercourse is rendered uninteresting by absence of mental conflict. Emerson somewhere reprobates the man who is “a mush of concession”; and it is clear that among those who are thus characterized, conversation must lose its point. All pronounced opinions and all individualities of character must disappear in a tame uniformity, if everybody is anxious to please everybody else by agreeing with him.
The restraint which, in this sphere, negative beneficence may rightly enjoin, is the maintaining of silence in cases where no good will be effected by avowed dissidence. Often it requires some tact to preserve the right attitude–neither to express difference when it is useless nor to profess agreement when it is not felt; but there are cases in which such tact comes in aid of kindly feeling.
425. The request to join in giving public honor to an individual who has probably done no more than perform well the duties before him, calls for another restraining action of negative beneficence.
Passive resistance to the getting up of testimonials, is seen by many to be needful to prevent further growth of an abuse. A presentation-portrait in recognition of services is proposed. If the man to be thus distinguished is actively sympathetic, he will prefer rather to go without such a mark of esteem than to have his friends taxed all round that he may receive it: knowing, as he does, that in most cases their contributions would be given under a kind of moral coercion. But if the beneficiary, not thus unusually sympathetic, countenances the subscription, then one who, under the ordinary circumstances refuses to subscribe, may do this simply from a beneficent regard for the general welfare.
Even where the applause takes the form of a costless testimonial, he may still often find good reason for refraining from joining in it. He may be restrained by the thought that the distribution of testimonials is ill adjusted to the merits of individuals: many of the more worthy being passed over while the less worthy are honored: the result being a misdirection of public opinion. And, further, he may be restrained by the belief that for the beneficiary to have done well what we had to do, should not be regarded as a reason for special eulogy; since everyone should do this as a matter of duty and not with a view to approbation.
And here, indeed, we come upon a final reason for being reticent of praise. As was pointed out in The Principles of Psychology, sections 519—23, the ego-altruistic sentiments have been, from early days down to our own, among the chief regulators of social conduct; and have been needful in the absence of anything like adequate amounts of the altruistic sentiments. Desires for reputation, fame, glory, have been the prompters; and not desires to do the appointed work, discharge obligations, behave kindly. Love of praise has in large measure served in place of love of rectitude. The proethical sentiments have had to rule because the ethical sentiments were not strong enough to take their places. But if so, it follows that a higher state, individual and social, will be one in which “the last infirmity of noble minds” will have greatly diminished; and in which, by implication, applause will be less sought for and less given. Men will be ruled by higher motives than love of approbation; and approbation being less demanded will be less yielded. From which conclusion it is a corollary that the appetite for praise should be discharged. A far-seeing desire to further human development, may rightly become a motive for often withholding applause–especially where it is greedily claimed.