Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 5.: Succor to the Ill-Used and the Endangered - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 5.: Succor to the Ill-Used and the Endangered - 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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Succor to the Ill-Used and the Endangered
444. In everyone who is capable of ethical ideas and sentiments, more than one kind of motive prompts the defense of those who are aggressed upon: especially when they are weaker than the aggressors. There cooperate an immediate sympathy with the pains, mentally or bodily, inflicted; a feeling of indignation against the person who inflicts them; a sense of justice which is irritated by the invasion of personal rights; and (where there is a quick consciousness of remote results) an anger that the established principles of social order should be broken. Whoever is civilized, not in the superficial sense but in the profound sense, will feel himself impelled to aid one who is suffering violence, either physical or moral; and will be ready to risk injury in yielding the aid.
The courage shown by one of those hired men who unite in conquering small semicivilized nations and weak, uncivilized tribes, is to be admired about as much as is the courage of a brute which runs down and masters its relatively feeble prey. The courage of one who fights in self-defense, or who as a soldier fights to defend his country when it is invaded, is respectable–is a proper manifestation of direct egoism in the one case, and in the other case a manifestation of that indirect egoism which makes it the interest of every citizen to prevent national subjugation. But the courage which prompts the succoring of one who is ill used, and which, against odds of superior strength, risks the bearing of injury that the weaker may not be injured, is courage of the first order–a courage backed, not as in many cases by base emotions, but backed by emotions of the highest kind.
One might have thought that even in a pagan society the ill-treatment of the weak by the strong would be universally reprobated. Still more might one have thought that in a professedly Christian society, general indignation would fall upon a bully who used his greater bodily powers to oppress a victim having smaller bodily powers. And most of all one might have felt certain that in educational institutions, governed and officered by professed teachers of Christianity, ever enjoining beneficence, ill-treatment of the younger and weaker by the elder and stronger would be sternly forbidden and severely repressed. But in our clerically administered public schools, the beneficence just described as of the highest order, finds no place; but, contrariwise, there finds place an established maleficence. Bullying and fagging, in past times carried to cruel extremes, still survive; and, as happened not long since, a resulting death is apologized for and condoned by one of our bishops. There is maintained and approved a moral discipline not inappropriate for those who, as legislators and military officers, direct and carry out, all over the world, expeditions which have as their result to deplete pagans and fatten Christians.
But though public-school ethics and, by transmission, the ethics of patriotism so-called, do not in practice (whatever they may do in theory) include that form of beneficence which risks injury to self in defending the weak against the strong, the ethics of evolution, as here interpreted, emphasize this form of beneficence; since the highest individual nature and the highest social type, cannot exist without a strength of sympathy which prompts such self-sacrificing beneficence.
445. And here, before considering the demands for self-sacrifice arising, not in the cases of injuries threatened by maleficent human beings, but in the cases of injuries threatened by the forces of nature, something should be said concerning the courage required for the last as for the first; and, indeed, frequently more required, since the forces of nature are merciless.
Very generally the virtue of courage is spoken of as though it were under all circumstances worthy of the same kind of applause, and its absence worthy of the same kind of contempt. These indiscriminating judgments are indefensible. In large measure, though not wholly, the development of courage depends on personal experience of ability to cope with dangers. It is in the order of nature that one who perpetually fails, and suffers from his failures, becomes increasingly reluctant to enter into conflict with either organic or inorganic agencies; while, conversely, success in everything undertaken fosters a readiness to run risks–sometimes an undue readiness: each fresh success being an occasion of extreme satisfaction, the expectation of which becomes a temptation. Hence, to a considerable extent, timidity and courage are their own justifications: the one being appropriate to a nature which is physically, or morally, or intellectually defective in a greater or less degree; and the other being appropriate to a nature which is superior either in bodily power, or strength of emotion, or intellectual aptitude and quickness. Errors of estimation in this matter may be best excluded by taking a case in respect of which men's preconceptions are not strongly established–say the case of Alpine explorations. Here is one who has constitutionally so little strength that he is prostrated by climbing two or three thousand feet; or whose hands are not capable of a powerful and long-sustained grip; or whose vision is not keen enough to make him quite sure of his footing; or who cannot look down a precipice without feeling dizzy; or who so lacks presence of mind that he is practically paralyzed by an emergency. All will admit that any one of these physical or mental deficiencies rightly interdicts the attempt to scale a mountain peak, and that to make the attempt would be a mark not of courage but of folly. Contrariwise, one who to strength of limb adds power of lungs, and with these joins acute senses, a clear and steady head, and resources mental and bodily which rise to the occasion when danger demands, may be held warranted in a risky undertaking; as, for instance, descending into a crevasse to rescue one who has fallen into it. His courage is the natural accompaniment of his ability.
Such contrasts of natures should ordinarily determine such contrasts of actions; and estimates of conduct should recognize them–should, in large measure, take the form of pity for the incapacities of one or other kind which fear implies, and respect for the superiorities implied by courage. “In large measure,” I say, because there are degrees of timidity beyond those which defects justify, and degrees of courage beyond those appropriate to the endowments; and while the first of these rightly deserves reprobation, the last may be duly admired, supposing it is not pushed to the extent of irrational imprudence.
Speaking generally, then, the sanction for courage must take into account the relation between the thing to be done and the probable capacity for doing it. The judgment formed must obviously vary according to the age–cannot be the same for the young or the old as for one in the prime of life; must vary with the state of health, which often partially incapacitates; must vary with what is called the “personal equation,” since, when in danger, slowness of perception or of action is often fatal. The single fact that heart disease produces timidity–a timidity appropriate to that inability which failure of circulation involves–suffices alone to show that, both in self and in others, the estimated obligation to run a risk must always be qualified by recognition of personal traits.
Even without taking account of such special reasons, there is, indeed, a prevailing consciousness that some proportion should be maintained between the degree of danger and the ability to meet the danger. It is usual to condemn as “rash,” conduct which disregards this proportion. The saying that “discretion is the better part of valor,” though by implication referring only to the risks of battle, is applicable to other risks; and implies that there should be not approval but disapproval if the danger is too great. Similarly the epithet “foolhardy,” applied to one who needlessly chances death or great injury, is an epithet of reprobation; and implies, too, the perception that not unfrequently a large part of that which passes for courage is simply stupidity–an inability to perceive what is likely to happen. There is in fact generally felt a certain kind of obligation not to risk life too recklessly, even with a good motive.
While the injunction uttered by positive beneficence to succor those who are endangered by the merciless powers of nature, must be thus qualified, it must, as we shall presently see, be further qualified by recognition of the collateral results, should the effort to yield the succor prove fatal.
446. From the general we may turn now to the special. Let us ask what is the obligation imposed by beneficence to rescue one who is drowning. In what cases is the duty positive, and in what cases must it be doubtful or be negatived?
Clearly a man who, being a good swimmer, has the requisite ability, and yet makes no effort to save the life of one who, at no great distance, is in danger of sinking, is not only to be condemned as heartless but as worse. If at small risk to himself he can prevent another's death and does not, he must be held guilty of something like passive manslaughter. The only supposable excuse for him is his consciousness that one who is drowning is apt to grapple his rescuer in such way as to incapacitate him, and cause the deaths of both–a liability, however, which he might know is easily excluded by approaching the drowning person from behind.
But what are we to say when there is less fitness in strength, or skill, or both, to meet the requirements? What if weakness makes long-continued exertion impracticable? Or suppose that though he has general strength enough, the bystander has not acquired an ability to swim more than fifty yards, while the person to be rescued is considerably further off. Or suppose that, the scene of the threatened disaster being the sea, the power of the breakers is such that once in their grasp there is small chance of getting out again: even alone, much less when helping one who is drowning. Here it seems manifest that however much an unthinking beneficence may prompt running the risk, a judicial beneficence will forbid. An irrational altruism has in such cases to be checked by a rational egoism; since it is absurd to lose two lives in a hopeless effort to save one.
Other restraints have usually to be taken into account. A man who is without a wife or near relatives, so that his death will inflict no great amount of mental suffering–a man who is not responsible for the welfare of children or perhaps aged parents, may fitly yield to the immediate promptings of sympathy, and dare to do that which should not be done by one whose life is needful to other lives. In such cases beneficence urges and beneficence restrains. Quite apart from the instinct of self-preservation, the sense of duty to dependents may forbid the attempt to give that succor which fellow feeling instigates.
So that nothing definite can be said. Save in the instances first indicated, where the obligation is manifest, the obligation must be judged by the circumstances of each case: account being taken, not only of the qualifications named, but the value of the person for whom the effort is made; for the same risks should not be run on behalf of a criminal as on behalf of one who is noble in character, or one who is highly serviceable to his society.
447. Difficult as are the questions sometimes raised in presence of probable death from drowning, they are exceeded in difficulty by questions raised in presence of probable death from fire. In the one case the ability of the rescuer, resulting from his strength, skill, and quickness, counts for much; and the actions of the element, now quiet now boisterous, with which he has to contend, may be fairly well gauged by him; but, in the other case, he has to contend with an agent the destructive actions of which are much more terrible, much less calculable, and not to be overcome by strength.
From time to time we read of those who, at the peril of their lives, have rescued relatives and even strangers from burning houses; and again we read of others whose efforts of like kind have proved fatal. Are we then, under parallel circumstances, to say–Go thou and do likewise? Does beneficence demand disregard of self, carried to the extreme that it may very likely end in the sacrifice of a second life without the saving of a first? No general answer can be given. The incidents of the case and the special emotions–parental, filial, fraternal, or other–must decide. Often the question is one which cannot be answered even if there is absolute self-abnegation; as when, having brought out a child from one room which is in flames, a parent has to decide whether to rush into an upper room and rescue another child, at the same time that fire on the staircase threatens death to all. Evidently in such a chaos of conditions and feelings and obligations and risks, nothing can be said. And what is true in this extreme case is true in a large proportion of the cases. Ethics is dumb in presence of the conflicting requirements.
When not the life of the rescuer only is concerned, but when loss of his life must make other lives miserable, and leave grave obligations undischarged, interdict rather than injunction may be the ethical verdict.
448. Doubtless it is well for humanity at large to maintain the tradition of heroism. One whose altruistic promptings are so strong that he loses his own life in an almost hopeless effort to save another's life, affords an example of nobility which, in a measure, redeems the innumerable cruelties, brutalities, and meannesses, prevailing among men, and serves to keep alive hope of a higher humanity hereafter. The good done in occasionally putting egoism to the blush, may be counted as a setoff against the loss of one whose altruistic nature should have been transmitted.
But in all questions of the kind dealt with in this chapter, we may fitly fall back on the ancient doctrine of the mean. When throwing dice with death, the question whether death's dice are loaded may fitly be asked. Even the extreme maxim “Love thy neighbor as thyself” does not imply that each should value his own life at a less rate than that of another. Hence it seems inferable that though positive beneficence enjoins succoring the endangered where there seems an overbalancing probability that life will be saved, it does not enjoin more than this.