Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 8.: Social Beneficence - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 8.: Social 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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459. Is each person under obligation to carry on social intercourse? May he, without any disregard of claims upon him, lead a solitary life, or a life limited to the family circle? Or does positive beneficence dictate the cultivating of friendships and acquaintanceships to the extent of giving and receiving hospitalities? And if there is such a requirement, what constitutes proper discharge of it?
Only vague replies to these questions seem possible. We may indeed say that, peremptory claims permitting, some amount of social intercourse is obligatory; since, without it, general happiness would fall short. If a community of solitaries, or of families leading recluse lives, would be relatively dull–if gatherings for the interchange of ideas and mutual excitation of emotions add, in considerable measure, to the gratifications of each and all; then there seems to be imposed on each the duty of furthering such gatherings.
Of course this duty is less peremptory than most other duties; and when it can be fulfilled must be fulfilled in subordination to them. Receptions entailing appreciable cost have no ethical sanction where there is difficulty in meeting family claims, the claims of justice, and the claims arising from the misfortunes of the worthy. Here that kind of social intercourse which may be carried on without expense (often the best social intercourse) is alone ethically enjoined.
Moreover, such obligation to cultivate the society of our fellows as beneficence imposes, it imposes only on condition that more pleasure than pain is caused. No countenance is given by it to the mechanical process of gathering and dispersing, carried on by those who are “in society,” or in the wider circles which adopt the habits of society. Beneficence tells no one to help in keeping up the movement of “the social treadmill.” Only supposing that the persons brought together, derive from one another's company amounts of enjoyment well purchased by the entailed trouble and cost, can beneficence be said to dictate the bringing of them together.
And here, indeed, it may be said that instead of enjoining mechanical social intercourse, beneficence dictates efforts to restrict and abolish it. Everyone finds that most of the entertainments people give and attend, fail to yield the gratifications sought, while they involve troubles and vexations to hosts and guests: all because display and conformity to conventional requirements are far more thought of than the pleasures of friendship. Many have found, too, that most endeavors to reestablish the reality, at present supplanted by the sham, are futile. Some who, early in the century, desiring to have occasional visits from people they cared about, notified that they would be “at home” on specified evenings, hoped by this abandonment of formalities to get what they wanted. But as fast as the practice spread, the “at-homes” became conventionalized, like all other gatherings; and now are not distinguishable from the “routs” of earlier days. The like has happened even with a more recently attempted remedy–the “at-homes” which are distinguished as “small and early”; for a small and early party has now come to mean one which consists of a room full of people who arrive between ten and eleven.
Social beneficence, then, does not include participation in these kinds of social intercourse which lose the aim in the preparation, and the actuality in the show. Contrariwise, it enjoins unceasing resistance to a system which achieves pain while seeking pleasure.
460. Though the furthering of ordinary social intercourse of the genuine kind, will by many scarcely be classed under beneficence, there is another kind of social intercourse the furthering of which they will not hesitate so to class. I refer to the intercourse between those whose social positions are superior and those who hold inferior social positions.
At all times there has been more or less of this-in old days occasional feasts provided by feudal nobles for their retainers; and in later times entertainments given by squires to villagers at recurring periods, or on special occasions. After an interval during which such usages seem to have become less general, they have revived in new forms–garden parties at country residences to the neighboring poor people: gratis excursions of children and others from London into the country; village school treats, and so forth. Penny Readings, too, and concerts given by amateurs to listeners who are asked to pay little or nothing, are other forms taken by this species of social beneficence. They are in the main to be applauded; both for the immediate pleasures they give, and for their effects in cultivating good feeling between classes, with consequent increase of social cohesion. Usually they are genuine promptings of sympathy; and, in the better among those who are entertained, evoke some gratitude: both results being beneficial. Only in cases where the usage becomes mechanical–is given by routine on the one side and expected as a matter of course on the other, may we recognize a drawback. And only. in other cases, where such entertainments are got up in the interests of religious sects to gather adherents, may we recognize a further drawback. But the drawbacks are not greater, nor so great, as those attendant on the intercourse of the wealthier with one another; and we may safely say that social beneficence enjoins these various modes of bringing rich and poor together.
Not less to be approved, if not indeed more to be approved, are the efforts made by some to give instruction, as well as pleasure, to fellow citizens who are not so well off as themselves. Those who, a century ago, strove to dissipate the ignorance of artisans and laborers by Sunday Schools, deserve far more to be remembered than many whose names are familiar; and the tens of thousands of the middle classes who, for generations after, devoted large parts of their Sundays to teaching–bearing for many years the reprobation of those who considered themselves their “betters”–ought to be remembered with gratitude: with much more gratitude than those who have busied themselves to coerce people into giving and receiving Board-School lessons. Though this Sunday School system, spreading first among the Dissenters and then adopted by the church to prevent loss of its members, has been in part subordinated to sectarian purposes; yet the original aim was good, and the self-sacrificing fulfillment of the aim has been in the main good. Social beneficence has been in this way well exemplified.
Voluntary teaching of another kind has in recent days taken a serviceable development. I refer to lectures given in towns and villages by nonprofessional lecturers. Sometimes employer and employed are thus associated in a way other than by business contracts. A late friend of mine, the number of whose work people exceeded a thousand, besides occasional entertainments and excursions into the country. gave them from time to time explanatory accounts of various classes of physical phenomena, with illustrative experiments. But whether by a master to his hands, or by some local man, who has cultivated a specialty, to an assemblage of his neighbors, this gratis yielding of information is a beneficence to be commended. Especially does there need volunteered teaching in respect of topics touching the conduct of life and social affairs. The state of society might now have been far better had men capable of doing it, enlightened those living around them on political and moral questions. Many wild ideas now prevailing would probably never have arisen.
But in all cases customs tend to become laws–concessions to become rights; and these extensions of social intercourse giving instruction, as well as those giving pleasure, are apt to lose the quality of beneficence and fall into settled observances accompanied by little kindness on the one side or thanks on the other. How to prevent this usual decadence it is difficult to see.
461. Thus far the requirements of social beneficence specified, if not practically fulfilled by readers, will be theoretically admitted by them. But we come now to less obvious requirements–requirements which, indeed, will by most be denied, and by many will even be considered at variance with social obligations. I refer to actions which have for their ends to change habits and usages that are opposed to general well-being.
Though they do not contend that conformity to conventions is a moral duty, yet the majority of people think it a duty; and they speak in reprobation of those who break any of the rules which society has tacitly enacted for the regulation of life and behavior. They may be unable to give good reasons for these rules; they may admit that many of them entail trouble and annoyance for no beneficial purpose; they may even condemn some as absurd. Yet they hold that these rules, even down to the color of an evening necktie, should be respected. While they regard disobedience as a transgression to be frowned upon, they do not ask whether the observance does not entail grave evils, and whether they ought not to try and abolish those evils.
One who does not pick up his opinions ready made, but elaborates them himself, will see clearly enough that along with other duties to his fellow men, there goes the duty of seeking to increase their happiness by rationalizing their modes of life. He will see that beneficence, rightly understood, is not limited to the giving of money, the yielding of assistance, the manifestation of sympathy, the uttering of kind words; but that it includes also the doing of various things which, though proximately painful to others, are remotely beneficial to them; and which, instead of bringing him smiles, bring him frowns. In a degree far beyond what the mass of people conceive, their lives are vitiated by observance of the regulations–many needless and others injurious–imposed by an unseen social power. Let us contemplate some of the mischievous mandates which should be disobeyed.
462. Naturally there may be taken first in order those which concern dress. To denounce here the follies of fashion is superfluous: everyone recognizes them. No one however, or scarcely anyone, refuses to join in them. Not only do nearly all conform, but they defend their conformity. They laugh at the modes exhibited in old books of costume, and admit that were it not for habit they might think the current modes equally absurd. The needless expenditure entailed by discarding dresses which are still good, because they are no longer as is required, they recognize and even lament. They also complain occasionally of the amount of time and trouble and worry entailed by keeping their clothing up to date. Nevertheless the assertion that, alike on their own behalf and on behalf of others, they ought to resist a dictation which brings these mischievous results, they combat and even ridicule. Social beneficence, as conceived by them, includes submission rather than resistance.
Doubtless they may plead lack of courage. They dare not risk the deprecations of friends and the jeers of strangers. But, in the first place, the bearing of disagreeable consequences of right actions, is one of the forms which beneficence takes; and, in the second place, when a nonconformity which is intrinsically rational, obviously results neither from ignorance nor poverty but from independence, the world generally accepts the situation, and not only tolerates it but even secretly respects it.
Concerning dress, social beneficence has something more to say than to enjoin resistance to these perpetual changes from one absurd pattern to another. Beyond an improper obedience to an illegitimate control of dress, there is an undue regard for dress itself, considered apart from fashion. Here, again, protest is superfluous; since large expenditure of money and time in providing externals which shall evoke applause, is a stock subject for reprobation. What needs, perhaps, to be emphasized is the truth that undue devotion of life and thought to the gaining of admiration by personal adornment, often brings loss of admiration. The feeling with which an overdressed woman is regarded, shows this in a pronounced way; and this feeling is excited, if less strongly. by many who are not condemned as overdressed. For any such elaborate toilette as shows the beholder that desire for approbation has been dominant, causes in him a reactive emotion: disapproval of the moral trait being set against approval of the appearance achieved. Nobody thinks love of praise a fine characteristic.
To be beautiful without manifest cost, elegant without manifest thought, is that which dress should achieve. Such attention to appearance as implies a certain respect for those around is proper; and yet not an attention which implies great anxiety about their opinions. A dash of aesthetic genius, possessed by but few is requisite for success in this compromise. But it may be approached by others; and the approach to it should be aided and approved by that social beneficence which aims at rationalizing social usages.
463. Allied to the undue regard for appearance in clothing is the undue regard for appearances in general. Time, among the women of the upper and middle ranks, is largely, and often mainly, spent in pursuit of the ornamental. To make things look pretty seems to have become with them the chief end of life; and they never ask whether there is any proper limit to aesthetic gratifications.
As was pointed out in the closing chapter of Part III, very much in the right conduct of life turns on a due proportioning of the various activities. Recognizing in a measure an ancient doctrine, we saw that concerning each kind of activity. judgment has to decide whereabouts between the two extremes lies the mean. And we also saw that, beyond this, judgment is called for to decide what is the proper ratio between each kind of activity and other kinds of activity. In contemplating the doings of people around, we see that this due proportioning is very little attended to; and, indeed, by many there seems to be no perception that it is needed. Here in respect of work, there in respect of amusement, now in respect of culture, and again in respect of a hobby, there is undue absorption of energy; and no one seems to pause and ask whether the pursuit of their particular aim does not unduly sacrifice the pursuit of other aims. It is especially thus with the pursuit of beauty, or that which is thought to be beauty. Into many minds, and especially feminine minds, there seems never to have entered the question whether the spending of time over ornamental surroundings may not be carried to excess. The tacit assumption is that achievement of the elegant and the decorative everywhere and always, is meritorious; and the consequent neglect of important ends is not recognized. In a degree which examination provides to be extreme, the mind is perverted and the body injured by this insane subordination of reality to show. While many things needful of satisfactory living are left undone, the mistress of the house spends much of her time in fancy work, in keeping ornamental things in order, in arranging flowers, &c.: much more time than she gives to procuring food of good quality and well cooked, and to superintending the education of her children.4
Not only is all this to be ethically disapproved as putting the less important ends of life before the more important ends, but it is even to be aesthetically disapproved. The pursuit of beauty carried to excess defeats itself. In the first place many domestic objects are not fit for decoration. Between an elaborately ornamented coal scuttle and its black, dirty contents, there is an absurd incongruity; and the time spent in making imitation leaves and flowers to cover a pie crust, stands in ridiculous contrast with the trivial result: the crust being destroyed nearly as soon as seen. A large proportion of things in a house should be simply unobtrusive or inoffensive. In the second place, if beauty is aimed at only in objects which exist exclusively for it as their end, and in other permanent objects which may be made beautiful without diminishing their usefulness, there results an increased totality of aesthetic pleasure; for, to be fully appreciated, beautiful things must have as their foils things which make no pretensions to beauty. A graceful statuette, or a fine watercolor landscape, looks far better amid surroundings that are relatively plain and inconspicuous, than in a room crowded with multitudinous pretty things or things supposed to be pretty. Moreover while the room, if filled with pictures and sculptures and vases and numerous curiosities, loses its individuality, it may, when containing only a small number of beautiful objects artistically arranged, become itself a work of art.
Similarly rooted in an undue desire for display, goes the practice of accumulating needless appliances. As a typical instance may be named a silver butter knife. It is an implement utterly superfluous. There can be no pretense that there is any chemical action of the butter on steel; for a steel knife is used by each person to spread it. There can be no pretense that a steel knife is not equally effective as a tool: indeed the butter knife is mechanically ill adapted for its purpose. It has no raison d'être whatever, save to show the possession of money enough to purchase an appliance which society prescribes. With various other domestic superfluities it is the same. Needless original outlay and daily cost in cleaning, are entailed by useless articles which people buy lest silent criticisms should be passed in their absence.
Social beneficence, then, enjoins efforts to diminish the sacrifice of use to appearance, and the accompanying expenditure of time, energy, and money for secondary ends to the neglect of primary ends.
464. Endeavors to benefit fellow citizens by improvements in modes of life, have yet another sphere of action. There are various prescribed habits, and various social observances, which should be resisted, and modified or abolished, in the interests of men at large. Already philanthropy in some cases recognizes this duty.
We have, for example, the efforts made to check extravagant outlays for funerals. It is seen that the demands of custom weigh heavily on necessitous families: perhaps seriously diminishing the small sum left to meet the immediate wants of a widow and her children. Lack of a certain display is thought to imply lack of respect for the dead; and hence the peremptory need for disbursements which cannot be borne without suffering. The evil is far more intense among some slightly-civilized peoples, as those of the Gold Coast, where, according to Beecham, “a funeral is usually absolute ruin to a poor family.” For discouraging lavish expenditure, even though among us it is far less, there are the further reasons that, as the costly burial rites are equally accorded to the bad and to the good, they fail to be signs of respect; and that were they generally abandoned, no slight would be implied by the absence of them.
Kindred reasons may be given for trying to moderate sun-dry wedding customs. These have in some places gone to extremes beyond any known in this part of the world; and have entailed astonishing mischiefs. In one case among the partially civilized, if not in more, the marriage feast has become so ruinously costly to the bride's family, that female infanticide is practiced as a remedy: daughters being put out of the way while infants, because of the expense they would one day entail if reared. Here, though parental expenditures entailed by weddings are less serious, there are concomitant evils which cry aloud for remedy. In old times the making of presents to a newly married couple, had for its purpose to start them in housekeeping; and now, as of old, presents given with this end are justified. But out of this once rational custom has grown an irrational one. Presents are showered in upon brides who, as well as the bridegrooms, are wealthy enough to provide for themselves amply in all ways, by friends prompted less by feelings of friendship than by fears of criticism: a heavy tax on those who have many friends, being the consequence. And now among the upper classes, the system has grown to the extent that, in an utterly shameless way. lists of the presents with the names of their donors are published in newspapers. So that we have a public boast of social position on the one side and generosity on the other.
A further group of observances may be named among those to be discouraged by everyone who has a far-seeing regard for social well-being. I refer to the various complimentary actions brought round by the seasons. It is said that in Paris the making of Easter presents has become so burdensome a usage, that not a few escape from it by going on a journey, for one or other alleged reason. People have created for themselves a system of mutual taxation. A feels bound to give to B, C, D, and the rest; B, to A, C, D, and the rest; and so on throughout the alphabet. Among ourselves have arisen in recent times, the less serious mischiefs accompanying distribution of Christmas cards and Easter cards. Beyond the expenditure of money and trouble and time, these entail both negative and positive evils–negative, because such customs, as fast as they grow general, lose their meaning and cease to give pleasure; and positive, because neglect of them produces ill-feeling. So long as these kindnesses are shown spontaneously to one or a few, specially liked or loved, they have their value; but as fast as they become matters of routine they become valueless or worse.
Let every one insist on reality and sincerity, and refrain as much as he can from complimentary usages which involve untruths. If each resolves to tell as few tacit lies as possible, social intercourse will be much healthier.
465. Doubtless most readers have been surprised to find the three foregoing sections included in a work on ethics: having been unaccustomed to contemplate acts of social conformity under their ethical aspects. But, as has been contended from the beginning, all conduct which issues in increase or decrease of happiness, has its ethical aspect; and it cannot be questioned that the observances imposed by society either conduce to happiness or the contrary.
But the social beneficence which enjoins resistance to in- jurious customs, is by some disapproved because resistance is followed by a reputation for eccentricity, and this diminishes the ability to forward more important reforms: political and religious, for example. The conclusion might be granted, were the premise rightly admitted. It is not true that the reform of social usages is less important than other reforms. Consider the evil results of partially turning night into day, while breathing the bad air generated by artificial lights. Consider, too, the mischiefs entailed by ill-arranged meal hours–taking the chief meal at a time when digestive power is flagging, instead of at a time when it is greatest. Note, again, how this irrational arrangement abridges social intercourse, and increases the formality of what remains. Remember to what an extent, as shown in preceding sections, life, or at least the life of the well-to-do classes, is absorbed in fulfilling usages–now in needless changes of dress, in consulting dressmakers, in discussing fashions with friends; now in buying, or producing, pretty things so named, which are mostly in the way; now in making calls, often in the hope that those called on will not be at home.5 When there is added the unceasing trouble and large cost entailed by parties yielding little satisfaction and much annoyance, it will be seen that the evils to be combated are anything but trivial. Those who diligently conform to the requirements, instead of being happy are simply playing at being happy.
Two illustrations occur to me as showing how, in social life as carried on according to rule, the reality is lost in the show. One of them was furnished by a lady pursuing the ordinary upper-class routine, to whom I was expressing my aversion to the weariness of railway traveling; and who said that, contrariwise, she always found it a great satisfaction to enter a train at Paris on the way to Algiers (where they had a residence), and to feel that for many hours she would be free from her wearisome occupations–no parties, no calls, no letters. The other was furnished by the testimony of some who have contrasted the trammeled life in England with an untrammeled colonial life. The early emigrants to New Zealand belonged to a more cultivated class than colonists generally do, and carried with them those observances of civilized life which originate in good feeling, while leaving behind those which are merely conventional. After experiencing for years the resulting pleasures, some who came back to England were so disgusted by the artificiality of its ways, that they returned to New Zealand. Two only of these colonists have I known, and both decided to end their days there.
Far from being true, then, is the belief that the rationalization of social observances is relatively unimportant. It may be doubted whether, as measured by the effects on happiness, it is not an end more important than any other. The simplification of appliances and usages, with resulting decrease of the friction of life, a well-wisher to his species will unceasingly strive for. Social beneficence here finds an object to be kept ever in view.
[]For these many years I have wished to write an essay on aesthetic vices, and have accumulated illustrations of the way in which life is vitiated by making attractiveness of appearance a primary end, instead of a secondary end to be thought of only in subordination to usefulness. Here are a few out of multitudinous illustrations of the ways in which comfort and health are alike perpetually trenched on to achieve some real or fancied beauty in a thing which should make no pretensions to beauty. You take up a poker to break a lump of coal, and find that the ornamented brass handle, screwed on the steel shaft, is loose, making the poker rickety; and you further find that the filigree work of this brass handle hurts your hand if you give the lump a blow. Observing that the fire is low you turn to the coal scuttle, and, perceiving it to be empty, ring for more coal; and then, because the elegant coal scuttle, decorated perhaps with a photograph surrounded by elaborate gilding, may not be damaged in the cellar, you are obliged to hear the noise of pouring in coal from a black scuttle outside the door, accompanied by the making of dust and probably the scattering of bits: all which you are expected to be content with for the sake of the photograph and the gilding. Then, when you sit down, after having put the fire in order, some discomfort at the back of your head draws your attention to a modern antimacassar, made of string which is hardened by starch: the beauty of its pattern being supposed to serve you as compensation for the irritation of your scalp. So is it with a meal. At breakfast you are served with toast made from bread of an undesirable quality, but which has the advantage that its slices can be cut into triangles, much admired for their neatness. If you take a poached egg you discover that, for the sake of looking pretty, it has been cooked in shallow water; with the effect that while the displayed yolk in the center is only half done, the surrounding white is overdone and reduced to a leathery consistence. should the meal be a more elaborate one you meet with more numerous illustrations. To name the sweets only, you observe that here is a tart of which the crust is bad, because the time that should have been devoted to making it has been devoted to making the filigree work decorating its outside; and here is another of which the paste, covered with a sugared glaze, has been made close and indigestible by the consequent keeping in of the steam. At one end of the table is a jelly which, that it may keep the shape of the elegant mould it was cast in (which the proper material often fails to do) is artificially stiffened; so that if you are unwise enough to take a mouthful, it suggests the idea of soluble India rubber. And then at the other end, you see the passion for appearance carried to the extent that to make a shaped cream attractive, it is colored with the crimson juice of a creature which, when alive, looks like a corpulent bug. such is the experience all through the day, from the first thing in the morning, when while standing dripping wet, you have to separate the pretty fringes of the bath towel which are entangled with one another, to the last thing at night, when the bootjack, which, not being an ornamental object is put out of sight, has to be sought for.
[]An amusing satire on this system appeared some dozen years or so ago in The Owl. The proposal was that there should be established a Ladies' Exchange (Clearinghouse it should have been named) to which their men-servants should every day severally take the cards that were due from them to various friends, and receive the cards owned them by other friends: so performing the mechanical process of distribution more economically.