Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 2.: Parental Beneficence - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 2.: Parental Beneficence - 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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434. Already in the chapter “Parenthood,” forming part of “The Ethics of Individual Life,” much has been said which might equally well or better have been reserved for treatment under the above title. But the conduct of parents to children has still several aspects, not included in that chapter, which remain to be considered here.
Speaking generally, we may say that parental conduct exemplifies beneficence more than any other conduct. Though in the relation of parent to child egoism now and then becomes more pronounced than altruism, and though there is such a thing as the selfishness of affection which sacrifices the higher interests of a child to gain immediate pleasurable emotion, yet there is here less need for emphasizing beneficence than there is for emphasizing certain restrictions upon it.
Thoughtless beneficence has to be replaced by thoughtful beneficence. In cases where there is an ungrudging supply of everything needful for bodily development, and a furnishing by proxy of all the requisite aids to intellectual development, there is often but a niggardly expenditure of the reflection and attention required for good management.
435. To the mass of people nothing is so costly as thought. The fact that, taking the world over, ninety-nine people out of a hundred accept the creed to which they were born, exemplifies their mental attitude towards things at large. Nearly all of them pursue mechanically the routine to which they have been accustomed, and are not only blind to its defects but will not recognize them as defects when they are pointed out. And the reluctance to think which they show everywhere else, is shown in their dealings with children. The tacit assumption is that when they have provided well for their physical needs, and delivered them over to teachers paid by themselves or by the public, they have done their duty.
But parental beneficence truly conceived includes more than this. Some parts of mental culture may rightly be deputed; other parts cannot. Though the later stages of intellectual education may with advantage be consigned to teachers, the earlier stages of it, as well as the education of the emotions during all stages, devolve on parents. They may here be aided by others but cannot properly be replaced by others. Even while yet in arms, the child looks for intellectual sympathy: thrusting something given to it into your face that you too may look at it; and when it reaches a conversational age, constantly adding to its statements the question “Isn't it?”–so showing its desire for agreement and verification. From parents more than from others should come the response to this intellectual need; and by parents more than by others should the normal process of instruction be based on the child's habits of inquiry. For parental affection, where it is joined with an observing and reasoning intelligence, will give an interest to this process of unfolding–a greater interest than can be felt by others. The eagerness for knowledge which every child shows by perpetual questions, parental beneficence will aim to satisfy: from time to time opening the way to new classes of inquiries concerning facts which a child's mind can appreciate. It may be said that a father after his business fatigues, or a mother in the midst of her domestic cares, cannot do this. But a very small amount of attention given daily will suffice to aid and direct self-development; and rightly cultured parents will find interest in watching the progress.
Still more is home regulation required for the right molding of character, alike in the earlier and in the later stages of education. If parental conduct has been what it should be, the reciprocal affection produced gives to a parent a greater power of influencing the emotions than can be possessed by anyone else; and a good parent will regard it as a part of daily duty to use this influence to the best purpose. Not by coercive methods will he proceed; for if a right relation has been established these will rarely be needed, but he will proceed by influence–signs of approval and disapproval, of sympathy and repugnance, given to actions which are now above and now below the standard. Where from the beginning there has been pursued a proper course, and where there is a due amount of that inventive thought required for adjusting modes of control to peculiarities of nature, moral education will cease to be a trouble and may become a pleasure.
But whatever may be the difficulties in the way, parental beneficence includes ministration to the minds of children as well as ministration to their bodies. If the young are to be reared into fitness for life, it is absurd to suppose that parents are concerned with one factor in the fitness and not with the other.
436. While parental beneficence usually falls far short of the requirement in some ways, it greatly exceeds the requirement in other ways; or rather, let us say, in other ways it prompts the giving of immediate happiness without due regard for remote happiness. Of course I refer to the practice, everywhere recognized and condemned, of “spoiling” children.
If it is the business of education to produce fitness for adult life, then it should make the life of early days simulate the life to be led in later days, in so far as to maintain, if not the same proportion, yet some proportion, between its labors and its pleasures. Doubtless early life, as being the time for growth and development, should differ from later life in the respect that more should be given and less demanded, both physically and mentally. But, nevertheless, there should from the first be initiated that relation between efforts and benefits which is to become pronounced at maturity. There should not be a perpetual giving gratification out of all relation to industry. A thoughtful beneficence will avoid a profuse ministration to childish desires.
Besides the mischief caused by too great a dissociation of benefits from efforts, there is often in modern times an accompaning mischief–not among the poorer members of the community but among those who have means. Various social pleasures which should be reserved for adult life, are provided in large amounts for children; and a necessary consequence is that adult life has much less to give them than it should have. In a rationally conducted education, the surrounding world and the incidents of every day, may be made to yield pleasures quite sufficient to fill the leisure parts of a child's life, without having recourse to many artificial pleasures; and a wise beneficence, by taking care fully to utilize these, will avoid the evil now frequently inflicted by indulgent parents, who make a son blasé before life in its full form has been entered upon.
437. Often where parental beneficence is adequate in all other ways, there remains a way in which it falls short. There is a lack of proper self-control in the proportioning of kindnesses and attentions to different children. This causes much mischief, of which there seems but little consciousness.
It is in the nature of things that there cannot be equal amounts of affection felt by parents for all their children. The law of the instability of the homogeneous shows itself in this detail as everywhere else. There is inevitably a gravitation toward inequality, and more or less of favoritism. Even from birth some children commend themselves less to maternal affection than others do; and the differences in the feelings drawn out toward them, once established, are apt to be increased by the differences of treatment which result, and the different amounts of responsive affection.
Here we are shown the way in which blind instincts, even of the altruistic kind, require to be checked and guided by the higher sentiments. For beneficence and justice alike dictate as near an approach as may be to equal treatment of children–that is, to equal participation in parental care and kindness. No one will question that, as a matter of justice, each child has as good a claim as another to those aids to development which parents are called on to yield; and it can scarcely be denied that such parts of parental conduct as exceed justice and pass into beneficence, should also be distributed with approximate fairness.
It is important that in this sphere the rule of the sentiments over the instincts should be strong; for immense mischiefs arise from favoritism in families. Parents in many respects high-minded, often inflict great cruelties on some of their children, to whom they show habitual indifference while daily lavishing affection on their brothers and sisters. It is no small thing to cast a gloom over all the years of a child's life. But beyond the direct evil there are indirect evils. The mental depression produced tends toward discouragement; and often causes intellectual inefficiency. The character is unfavorably modified by the awakening of antagonistic and jealous feelings. And there is a loss of that controlling power which is gained by a parent who has fostered sympathetic relations with a child.
In few directions is parental beneficence more called for than in resisting the tendency which inevitably arises to distribute kindnesses to children unequally.
438. The most injurious kind of ill-regulated parental beneficence remains to be named–an excess in one direction often associated with deficiencies in other directions. A father who has discharged his duties to children quite mechanically, taking no trouble about their mental culture, and giving to them throughout their early lives but little parental sympathy, has nevertheless devoted many years of untiring labor to accumulating a large fortune, which he bequeaths to them. Not, indeed, that he has been prompted wholly, or even mainly, by the wish to leave them well provided for. Often the purely egoistic desire to obtain the honor which wealth brings, has been the chief motive. But joined with this there has been the desire that his children shall have bequests which will enable them to live without labor and anxiety. In so far as this shows beneficence, it shows a mistaken beneficence.
Our existing social regime, with its vast amounts of property in relatively few hands, though a regime appropriate to the existing type of humanity, and probably essential to it, is one which we may rightly regard as transitional. Just as modern times have seen a decrease in those great political inequalities, and accompanying inequalities of power, which characterized earlier times; so future times will most likely see a decrease in those great pecuniary inequalities which now prevail. Having emerged from the militant social type, we appear to be passing through a social type which may be distinguished as militant industrialism–an industrialism which, though carried on under the system of contract, instead of under the system of status, is in considerable measure carried on in the old militant spirit; as, indeed, it could not fail to be, seeing that men's characters and sentiments can be changed only in the course of long ages. Though pecuniary inequalities–some of them perhaps not inconsiderable–may be expected to characterize the future, reasserting themselves after socialisms and communisms have temporarily triumphed; yet we may infer that under higher social forms and a better type of humanity, they will be nothing like so marked as now. There will be neither the possibilities nor the desires for accumulating large fortunes: decrease in the desires being, in part, caused by recognition of the truth that parental beneficence, instead of enforcing them, interdicts them.
For a man's children are injuriously influenced both by the hope that they will be enabled to live without labor and by the fulfillment of that hope. As indicated in the chapter “Activity” and elsewhere, there can be no truly healthful life if benefits are dissociated from efforts. The principle on which human beings, in common with all other beings (save parasites) are organized, is that sustentation shall be effected by action; and detriment results if the sustentation comes without the action. There is initiated a relaxation of the organic adjustments which, if continued generation after generation, will cause decay. There is no need to emphasize this. The demoralization caused by “great expectations” is matter of common remark.
While parental beneficence when it exceeds the normal requirement–that of fully preparing children for complete living, and helping them to make a fair start in life–is disastrous in the way pointed out, it is disastrous in another way. It generates in children thoughts and feelings profoundly at variance with the filial relation. The scene between Henry V and his dying father, when to Prince Henry's excuse for taking away the crown, “I never thought to hear you speak again,” the king replies, “Thy wish was father, Henry, to that thought”; may be taken as typical of the state of mind which is apt to arise where a father's death brings to a son great power or property or both. The well-recognized fact that between the existing owner of an entailed estate and the expectant owner, there commonly arises a certain silent jealousy, sufficiently proves this. Inevitably, therefore, one who accumulates a large fortune which at his death will pass to his children, who will simultaneously escape from tutelage, runs an imminent risk of raising in their minds the dreadful wish that he may die. Thoughts about the benefits which will come after his decease frequently suggest themselves; and though filial affection may be strong enough to repress them, they cannot be long absent, and must produce a chronic emotional conflict of a demoralizing kind.
In all ways is this common habit of providing largely for children maleficent rather than beneficent. Besides tempting them to inactivity and carelessness while they are young, and besides confirming these traits when they come into possession, thus making their lives abnormal ones, it is injurious alike to parent and to society. Entire absorption in business–an utter materialization of aims, while it dwarfs the parental life mentally, undermines it physically: bringing on ill-health, and an end earlier than is natural. At the same time the greed of property frequently prompts that merciless competition which, as we saw in a preceding chapter, not only inflicts misery on competitors needlessly, but entails social mischief.
Hence it is inferable that due regard for his own claims, for the claims of fellow citizens, and for social claims, should conspire with a far-seeing beneficence in preventing a parent from making his children independent.