Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 10.: Beneficence at Large - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 10.: Beneficence at Large - 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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Beneficence at Large
471. Most readers have been surprised by much which has, in the foregoing chapters, and especially the later ones, been included under the head of beneficence. Only special parts of social and political conduct are usually thought of as having ethical aspects; whereas here most parts of them have been dealt with as having such aspects. But the reader who bears in mind the doctrine laid down at the outset and recently reenunciated, that all conduct which in an indirect, if not in a direct way, conduces to happiness or misery, is therefore to be judged as right or wrong, will see that the various topics touched upon could not rightly be omitted. After the conduct which is of individual concern only, and affects others in but remote ways, if at all; and after the conduct comprehended under the head of justice, which sets forth restraints on individual life imposed by social life; nearly all the remainder of conduct becomes the subject matter of beneficence, negative or positive. For nearly all this remainder of conduct pleasurably or painfully affects others from hour to hour.
After thus conceiving the sphere of beneficence, it becomes obvious that even more has to be included than has yet been included. Large space would be required to treat in detail the incentives and restraints which should guide behavior to those around. There are words and tones and facial expressions which throughout daily intercourse continually excite disagreeable emotions, and others which excite agreeable emotions; and the amounts of happiness or of misery created by them, often far exceed the amounts created by maleficent or beneficent actions of conspicuous kinds. Not, indeed, that agreeableness or disagreeableness of behavior is to be wholly ascribed to the presence or absence of beneficent promptings. The presence or absence of a desire for approbation is commonly a chief cause. But the sweetness of manner which springs from sympathy. is in most cases easily distinguishable. Acted goodness of feeling rarely produces the same effect as real goodness of feeling.
Though beneficence of other kinds may be produced by general sense of duty, by desire to establish right human relations, by a high ideal of conduct, this kind of beneficence can be produced only by active fellow feeling. In a few finely constituted natures, this fellow feeling is dominant, and spontaneously shows itself: beneficence has in so far become with them organic. Everyone feels the better for their presence. They are natural centers of happiness. Those of inferior natures, forming the immense majority, can here fulfill the dictates of beneficence only in so far as they can subordinate themselves to an ideal of behavior; and even then in but a partial way. Occasionally, it may be possible for them to recognize in time some nascent manifestation of unamiable feeling and check it, or to perceive with sufficient quickness an opportunity of showing sympathy, and even of arousing it by a quick imagination of the circumstances. By keeping in mind the requirements of beneficence, some small amount of self-discipline may thus be achieved.
Beyond the beneficent regulation of conduct toward members of the family and towards friends, there is the beneficent regulation of conduct towards those who occupy positions of subordination, or of lower social status. A large sphere for the anodyne influence of sympathy is here opened. From the militant regime, with its graduated ranks and obedience coercively maintained, there have descended those modes of behavior which continually recall the relations of superior and inferior. Pervading social life they influence all in ways difficult to resist. Though, among the better natured on the one side, there is a dislike to usages which make others feel their inferiority, and though the more independent on the other side, vaguely resent such usages; yet it seems impossible to change forthwith the established manners, and to get rid of the unbeneficent emotions accompanying them. Doubtless, along with the substitution of the system of contract for the system of status, there has been a relaxation of those customs which remind men of their respective grades. This has gone so far that in modern days a true gentleman is described as aiming to make those who rank below him in the social scale, at ease in his presence: seeking, not to emphasize any distinction between himself and them, but rather to obliterate the consciousness of the distinction.
As regulating such intercourse, beneficence has the function of increasing the happiness of the less fortunate by raising them for the time being to the level of the more fortunate, and making them as much as possible forget the difference in position or in means.
472. The foregoing paragraphs will probably raise in many minds a silent protest, several times before raised, against the tacit acceptance of a social system which they reprobate. Impatient with the multitudinous evils which humanity at present suffers, and ascribing these to the existing organization of society, they reject indignantly all conclusions which take for granted that this organization is to continue. Let us hear what they say.
“Your conception of beneficence is a radically unbeneficent one. Your remarks about restraints on free competition, and on free contract, imply the belief that all men are hereafter, as now, to fight for individual gain. Services rendered by the ill-off to the well-off are taken for granted in your remarks about restraints on blame. The various modes of administering charity, condemned or approved by you, assume that in the future there must be rich and poor as at present. And some of the immediately foregoing exhortations concerning behavior, presuppose the continued existence of superior and inferior classes. But those who have emancipated themselves from beliefs imposed by the past, see that all such relations of men to one another are bad and must be changed. A true ethics–a true beneficence–cannot recognize any such inequalities as those you take for granted. If ethical injunctions are to be carried out, then all social arrangements of the kinds we now know must be abolished, and replaced by social arrangements in which there are neither caste differences nor differences of means. And, under the implied system, large parts of the actions you have classed as beneficent will have no place. They will be excluded as needless or impossible.”
Unquestionably there is an a priori warrant for this protest. A society in which there are marked class distinctions cannot fulfill the conditions under which only the fullest happiness can be achieved. Though it is not within the range of possibility that all the units shall be equal in respect of their endowments (a dreadful state, could it be reached), yet it is possible that there may be reached such kind of equality as results from an approximately even distribution of different kinds of powers–those who are inferior in some respects being superior in others: so producing infinite variety with a general uniformity, and so excluding gradations of social position. Some such type of human nature, and consequent social type, are contemplated by absolute ethics.
But it is forgotten that during the stages through which men and society are slowly passing, we are chiefly concerned with relative ethics and not with absolute ethics. The dictates of absolute ethics being kept before us as the ideal, we have little by little to mold the real into conformity with them, as fast as the nature of things permits. Sudden transformation being impossible, sudden fulfillment of the highest ethical requirements is impossible.
473. Those who, not content with that progress through small modifications which is alone permanent, hope to reach by immediate reorganization a high social state, practically assume that the human mind can forthwith have its qualities so changed that its bad products will be replaced by good products. Old beliefs in the wonders to be worked by a beneficent fairy, were not more baseless than are these new beliefs in the wonders to be worked by a revolutionized social system.
A world which, from the far east of Russia to the far west of California and from Dunedin in the North to Dunedin at the Antipodes, daily witnesses deeds of violence, from the conquests of one people by another to the aggressions of man on man, will not easily find place for a social order implying fraternal regard of each for each. A nature which generates international hatreds and intense desires for revenge–which breeds duelists and a contempt for those who do not seek to wipe out a slight by a death, is not a nature out of which harmonious communities can be molded. Men who rush in crowds to witness the brutalities of football matches, who roar out ferocious suggestions to the players, and mob the umpires who do not please them, so that police protection is required, are not men who will show careful consideration of one another's claims when they have agreed to work together for the common good. Not by any ingenuity can there be framed well-working institutions for people who shoot those who will not enter the political combinations they form, who mutilate and torture the cattle of dissentients, who employ emissaries to blow up unconcerned persons and cause a panic, and who then, when the wretches have been convicted, are indignant that they are not released. Only to a wild imagination will it seem possible that a social regime higher than the present, can be maintained by men who, as railway employees, wreck and burn the rolling stock of companies which will not yield to their demands–men who, as ironworkers, salute with bullets those who come to take the wages they refuse, try by dynamite to destroy them along with the houses they inhabit and seek to poison them wholesale–men who, as miners, carry on a local civil war to prevent a competition they do not like. Strange, indeed, is the expectation that those who, unscrupulous as to means, selfishly strive to get as much as possible for their labor and to give as little labor as possible, will suddenly become so unselfish that the superior among them will refrain from using their superiority lest they should disadvantage the inferior!
Without having recourse to such extreme illustrations, we may see, on contemplating a widely diffused habit, how absurd is the belief that egoistic conduct may forthwith be changed into altruistic conduct. Here, throughout the whole community, from the halls of nobles and the clubs frequented by the upper ten thousand, down through the trading classes, their sons and daughters, and even to the denizens of kitchens and the boys in the street, we find gambling and betting; the universal trait of which is that each wishes to gain by his neighbor's loss. And now we are told that under a new social system, all those who have greater ability will submit to loss that those who have less ability may gain! Without any transformation of men's characters, but merely by transforming social arrangements, it is hoped to get the effects of goodness without the goodness!
474. While the majority believe that human nature is unchangeable, there are some who believe that it may rapidly be changed. Both beliefs are wrong. Great alterations may be wrought, but only in course of multitudinous generations: the small alterations, such as those which distinguish nation from nation, taking centuries, and the great alterations, molding an egoistic nature into an altruistic one, taking eras. Nothing but a prolonged discipline of social life–obtainment of good by submission to social requirements, and suffering of evil from disregard of them–can effect the change.
This would scarcely need saying were it not that the education received by the upper classes, and now diligently forced by them on the lower, leaves all with nature's open secrets unlearned. One of these is that there can be no social or political actions but what are determined by the minds, separate or aggregated, of human beings; that these human beings can have no mental processes and consequent activities which are not parts of their lives, subject to the laws of their lives; and that the laws of their lives are included within those most general laws to which life at large must conform. Could statesmen and politicians and philanthropists and schemers recognize this truth, which profoundly concerns them, they would see that all social phenomena, from the beginning down to the present, and onward through the future, must be concomitants of the readaptation of mankind to its new circumstances–the change from a nature which fitted men for the wandering and predatory habits of the savage, to a nature which fits them for the settled and industrial habits of the civilized. They would see that this long process, during which old aptitudes and desires have to dwindle, while new aptitudes and desires have to be developed, is necessarily a process of continued suffering. It would become manifest to them that this suffering, caused by the constant overtaxing of some powers and denying to others the activities they crave, cannot by any possibility be escaped. And they would infer, lastly, that to suspend the process by shielding individuals and classes from those stern requirements imposed by the social state, must not only fail to prevent suffering but must increase it; since the loss of adaptation consequent upon relaxation of the conditions, has eventually to be made good. The readaptation has to be gone through afresh, and the suffering borne over again.
Thus, along with those permanent functions of beneficence which will become more dominant in an ultimate social state, there must, for thousands of years, continue those temporary functions of it proper to our transitional state. After men's attempts to realize their ideals, and reform society without reforming themselves, have ended in disaster, and, sobered by sufferings, they submit themselves afresh to the hard discipline which has brought us thus far, further progress may be made. But there must be great changes before this progress can go on unimpeded. Over the greater part of the earth, men have ceased to devour one another, and to receive honor in proportion to their achievements in that way; and when societies shall have ceased to devour one another, and cease to count as glory their success in doing this, the humanization of the brute may become comparatively rapid. It is impossible that there can be much advance towards a reign of political justice internally, while there is maintained a reign of political burglary externally. But when the antagonism between the ethics of amity and the ethics of enmity has come to an end, there may go on without much check, the rise toward that high state vaguely foreshadowed by the distorted visions of our social schemes.
Meanwhile, the chief temporary function of beneficence is to mitigate the sufferings accompanying the transition; or rather, let us say, to ward off the superfluous sufferings. The miseries of readaptation are necessary; but there are accompanying unnecessary miseries which may, with universal advantage, be excluded. The beneficence which simply removes a pain must, considered apart from other effects, be held intrinsically good. The beneficence which yields present relief so far as consists with the individual's welfare, is better. But the beneficence which takes into account not only the immediate and remote results to the individual, but also the results to posterity and to society at large, is best. For this is the beneficence which is so dominated by the sense of responsibility, that it consents to bear immediate sympathetic pain, rather than be subject to the consciousness of having helped to entail greater and more widespread pains. The highest beneficence is that which is not only prepared, if need be, to sacrifice egoistic pleasures, but is also prepared, if need be, to sacrifice altruistic pleasures.
475. And here we come again to the conclusion once before reached, that these self-sacrifices imposed by the transitional state, gradually diminishing, must eventually occupy but small spaces in life; while the emotions which prompted them, ceasing to be the mitigators of misery, will become the multipliers of happiness. For sympathy, which is the root of all altruism, causes participation in pleasurable feelings as well as in painful feelings; and in proportion as painful feelings become less prevalent, participation in pleasurable feelings must be its almost exclusive effect.
As was pointed out in section 93, quick and wide sympathies would intensify and multiply miseries, did they exist during stages in which the pains of average lives exceeded the pleasures. If the better constituted and the more fortunately circumstanced, were fully conscious of all which their fellow creatures have to bear, the result would be to make them as unhappy as the rest, and so increase the total unhappiness. Life would be intolerable to the highly sympathetic, could they vividly represent to themselves the tortures inflicted on Negroes by Arab slave catchers, the dreadful years passed by kidnapped Kanakas, who are slaves under another name, the daily sufferings of Hindu ryots, half-starved and heavily taxed, the dreary existence of Russian peasants, conscripted, or even in the midst of famine, bled to support conscripts. Acute fellow feeling would be a curse to its possessors, did it bring vividly before them the states of body and mind experienced even by the masses around–the long persistence in work under protesting sensations, the poor food often insufficient in quantity, the thin clothing, the insufficient fire, the scanty bedding, the crying children, the wife soured by privation and the husband occasionally brutalized by drink: all joined with hopelessness–with the consciousness that most of this has to be borne throughout the rest of life, and much of it to be intensified as old age comes on. Evidently the altruistic sentiments, while they serve in a measure to mitigate the sufferings accompanying the readaptation of the race, are continually repressed or seared by the presence of this irremediable misery, and can develop only in proportion as it diminishes. Slightly decreased suffering may be followed by slightly increased sympathy; and this, rightly directed, may further decrease the suffering; which, again, may make more sympathy possible; and so on pari passu. But only when the amount of suffering has become insignificant, can fellow feeling reach its full development.
When the pressure of population has been rendered small–proximately by prudential restraints and ultimately by decrease of fertility–and when long-range rifles, big guns, dynamite shells, and other implements for wholesale slaughter which Christian peoples have improved so greatly of late, are to be found only in museums; sympathy will probably increase to a degree which we can now scarcely conceive. For the process of evolution must inevitably favor all changes of nature which increase life and augment happiness: especially such as do this at small cost. Natures which, by the help of a more developed language of emotion, vocal and facial, are enabled to enter so fully into others' pleasurable feelings that they can add these to their own, must be natures capable of a beatitude far greater than is now possible. In such natures a large part of the mental life must result from participation in the mental lives of others.
Thus, along with increasing readaptation, altruism will become less and less the assuager of suffering and more and more the exalter of happiness.
476. To most this conclusion will not commend itself: dissent being in some intellectually prompted and in others emotionally prompted. The first constitute the class of men who, while believing in organic evolution, and knowing that many of the multitudinous transformations effected by it are so marvellous as to seem scarcely credible, nevertheless tacitly assume that no further transformations will take place–not even such relatively small ones as would raise the higher types of men to a type fitted for harmonious social cooperation. The second constitute the much larger class, to whom the future of humanity is not a matter of much interest; and who regard with indifference a conclusion which holds out no promise of benefit to themselves, either here or hereafter.
But there exist a few who differ intellectually from the one of these classes and morally from the other. To them it seems not only rational to believe in some further evolution, but irrational to doubt it–irrational to suppose that the causes which have in the past worked such wonderful effects, will in the future work no effects. Not expecting that any existing society will reach a high organization, nor that any of the varieties of men now living will become fully adapted to social life, they yet look forward through unceasing changes, now progressive now retrogressive, to the evolution of a humanity adjusted to the requirements of its life. And along with this belief there arises, in an increasing number, the desire to further the development. The anxieties which in many now go beyond the welfares of personal descendants, and include the welfare of the nation and its institutions, as well as, in some cases, the welfares of other nations and other races, will more and more become an anxiety for human progress at large.
Hereafter, the highest ambition of the beneficent will be to have a share–even though an utterly inappreciable and unknown share–in “the making of man.” Experience occasionally shows that there may arise extreme interest in pursuing entirely unselfish ends; and, as time goes on, there will be more and more of those whose unselfish end will be the further evolution of humanity. While contemplating from the heights of thought, that far-off life of the race never to be enjoyed by them, but only by a remote posterity, they will feel a calm pleasure in the consciousness of having aided the advance towards it.
Endnotes to Part VI