Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 6.: Pecuniary Aid to Relatives and Friends - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 6.: Pecuniary Aid to Relatives and Friends - 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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Pecuniary Aid to Relatives and Friends
449. A curious change of sentiments has accompanied a curious change of obligations, during the transition from that ancient type of social structure in which the family is the unit of composition to that modern type in which the individual is the unit of composition. The state of things still existing among the native Australians, under which the guilt of a murderer is shared in by all his kindred, who severally hold themselves subject to vengeance–the state of things which, throughout Europe in early days, made the family or clan responsible for any crime committed by one of its members, seems strange to us now that we have ceased to bear the burdens, criminal or other, not only of our remote relatives but even of our near relatives.
From one point of view the ancient system seems ethically superior–seems more altruistic. From another point of view, however, it is the reverse; for it goes along with utter disregard of, and very often enmity to, those not belonging to the family group. The modern system, while it does not recognize such imperative claims derived from community of blood, recognizes more than the old, claims derived from community of citizenship, and also claims derived from community of human nature. If we bear in mind that the primary ethical principle is that each individual shall experience the effects of his own nature and consequent conduct, and that under the ancient system sundry effects of his conduct were visited as readily on his relatives as on himself, whereas, under the modern system, they are visited on himself only; we shall infer that the modern system is the higher of the two. And we shall infer this the more readily on remembering that it is accompanied by a more equitable political regime, and consequent social ameliorations.
Acceptance of this inference will guide our judgments respecting obligations to assist relatives. The claims of immature children on parents, are directly deducible from the postulate that continuance of the species is a desideratum–a postulate from which, as we have seen, ethical principles in general originate. The reciprocal claims of parents on children are directly deducible from the position of indebtedness in which parental care has placed the children. But no other claims of relationship have anything like a fundamental authority. Community of blood arising from community of parentage, has not in itself any ethical significance. The only ethical significance of fraternity is that which arises from community of early life, and reciprocal affections presumably established by it. Brethren and sisters usually love one another more than they love those who are outside the family circle; and the accepted implication is that the stronger attachments which have arisen among them, originate stronger dictates to yield mutual aid. If, as is rightly said, relatives are ready-made friends, then children of the same parents must be regarded as standing in the first rank of such friends. But their obligations to one another must be held as consequent not on their common origin but on their bonds of sympathetic feeling–bonds made to vary in their strengths by differences of behavior, and which therefore generate different degrees of obligation.
This view, which will probably be dissented from by many, I enunciate before asking how far positive beneficence requires brothers and sisters to yield one another pecuniary aid. And I enunciate it the more emphatically because of the extreme mischiefs and miseries apt to result from the making and conceding of claims having no other warrant than community of parentage. Within these three years I have become personally cognizant of two cases in which, here impoverishment and there ruin, have been brought on sisters who have lent money to brothers. Ignorant of business, incapable of criticizing plausible representations, prompted by sisterly regard and confidence, they have yielded to pressure: being further led to yield by belief in a moral obligation consequent on the relationship. A rational beneficence countenances no such concessions. A brother who, in pursuit of his own advantage, wishes thus to hypothecate the property of sisters, who will grievously suffer should he not succeed, is a brother who proves himself devoid of proper fraternal feeling. The excuse that he feels sure of success is an utterly inadequate excuse. It is the excuse made by men who, to tide over emergencies, appropriate the funds they hold in trust, or by men who forge bills which they hope to be able to meet before they are due. And if in such cases it is recognized as criminal thus to risk the property of others on the strength of a hoped-for success, we cannot absolve from something like criminality a brother who, on the strength of a similar hope, obtains loans from trustful sisters. One who does such a thing should no longer be considered a brother.
But what is to be done when a loan is asked not from a sister but from a brother–a brother who has considerable means and is a competent judge? The answer here is of course indeterminate. The prospective creditor may in this case be capable of estimating the probable results–capable of estimating, too, his brother's business ability; and he may also rightly have such confidence in his own power of making money that he can reasonably risk a considerable loss. Especially if it is a case of difficulty to be met, sympathy may join fraternal affection in prompting assent. Even here, however, there may fitly be hesitation on both sides. Where there is in the matter an element of speculation, the one who needs money, if a conscientious man, will scarcely like to receive, much less to ask–will feel that it is bad enough to play with anyone the game “Heads I win, tails you lose”; and worse still with a brother.
450. Respecting those who are more remotely related or who are not related at all, much the same incentives and restraints may be alleged. If affection and fellow feeling, rather than common parentage or common ancestry, are the true prompters to needful monetary aids, then a friend with whom a long and kindly intercourse has established much sympathy, has a stronger claim than a little known relative, whose conduct has led now to disapproval now to dislike. Recognition of personal worth, or recognition of value as a citizen, may also rightly guide beneficent feeling to yield assistance where a difficulty, and especially an unforeseen difficulty, threatens evil. When it comes to the question of advancing means, not for preventing a probable disaster, but for entering upon some new undertaking, a longer pause for reflection is demanded. The worth and honesty of the borrower being taken for granted, there have still to be considered the amount of his energy, his appropriate knowledge, his proved capacity; and there have still to be considered the effects which will be felt should he fail. For the act must be considered from the egoistic side as well as from the altruistic side; and the degree of possible self-sacrifice may be greater than ought to be asked. Balanced judgments are in such cases hard to reach.
Much the same things may be said concerning that indirect hypothecation which consists in giving security. Here the difficulty of deciding is often greater; since there is no reply but either yes or no, and since the amount risked is usually large. Between a proper altruism and a reasonable egoism there is much strain in such cases. On the one hand, to negative the obtainment of some desirable post, which may be the first step towards a prosperous life, seems cruel. On the other hand, to risk the possible ruin which may come from yielding, seems something more than imprudent. A much greater power of judging character than is common must be possessed by one who can safely furnish a warrant for another's behavior. The incongruity between appearance and reality is often extreme; and there are but few adequately on their guard against it. Agreeableness and plausible professions usually attract a confidence which is repelled by a brusque sincerity that makes little effort to please; and trustworthiness is wrongly identified with the one rather than with the other.
But manifestly in such cases, as in preceding ones, the strongest restraint on a too easy beneficence is that which comes from due regard for the claims of dependents. One who, with exalted generosity, is ready to risk the wreck of his own life, is not warranted in risking the wreck of lives for which he is responsible. A judicial beneficence, weighing the possible future mischiefs to others against the present benefit to one, will usually see reason to resist the pressure.
In these days, however, such considerations scarcely need setting down; for now that the principle of insurance has been extended to the giving of security for good behavior on payment of an annual sum, no right-minded man will think of asking a friend to become security for him. Anyone who now asks another thus to endanger himself, is thereby proved to be unworthy of confidence.
451. To these counsels of kindness qualified by prudence, which are such as ordinary experience will suggest to most, there has to be added one other, which does not lie quite so much upon the surface. While desire for a friend's or relative's welfare may in some cases prompt the yielding of a large loan, a wise forethought for his welfare will often join other motives in refusing such aid.
For the beneficiary himself often needs saving from the disasters which his too sanguine nature threatens to bring on him. A large proportion of those who want loans may rightly be refused in their own interests. Anxiety to borrow so often goes along with incapacity to acquire, that we may almost say that money should be lent only to those who have proved their ability to make money. Hence, in many cases, the withholding of a desired accommodation is the warding off unhappiness from one who asks it.
I say this partly on the strength of a remark made in my hearing by a highly conscientious man who had carried on a business–a manufacture, I think–with borrowed capital. He said that the anxiety nearly killed him. The thought of the extent to which the welfare of others was staked, and the strain to fulfil his obligations, made his life a misery. Clearly, therefore, a far-seeing beneficence will in many cases decline, for the sake of the borrower, to furnish money, where a shortsighted beneficence would assent.