Front Page Titles (by Subject) APPENDIX C.: The Moral Motive - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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APPENDIX C.: The Moral Motive - 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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The Moral Motive
Some months after the first five chapters of this volume appeared in The Nineteenth Century, the Rev J. Llewelyn Davies published in The Guardian for July 16, 1890, some criticisms upon them. Such of these criticisms as concern other questions I pass over, and here limit myself to one which concerns the sentiment of duty, and the authority of that sentiment. Mr. Davies says:
To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Spencer, though often challenged, has never fully explained how, with his philosophy, he can take advantage of the ordinary language and sentiment of mankind about . . . . I have to repeat a criticism which I offered in my former paper. Mr. Spencer seems to me to imply what he professes not to recognize. To construct the idea and sentiment of justice, he implies a law having authority over the human mind and its conduct–viz., that the well-being of the species is to be desired, and an acknowledgment by the human mind of that law, a self-justifying response to it. Whilst he confines himself to tracing natural evolution, he has no right to use the terms of duty. What can be added to the dictum of Kant, and how can it be confuted?
If we fix our eyes simply upon the course of nature, the ought has no meaning whatever. It is as absurd to ask what nature ought to be as to ask what sort of properties a circle ought to have. The only question we can properly ask is, What comes to pass in nature? just as we can only ask, What actually are the properties of a circle?
When Mr. Spencer inveighs with genuine moral vehemence against aggression and other forms of illdoing, when he protests, for example, against “that miserable laisse-faire which calmly looks on while men ruin themselves in trying to enforce by law their equitable claims”–he is borrowing our thunder, he is stealing fire from heaven.
And then, after further argument, Mr. Davies ends his letter by asking for “some justification of the use of ethical terms by one who professes only to describe natural and necessary processes.
As Mr. Davies forwarded to me a copy of The Guardian containing his letter, my reply took the form of a letter addressed to him, which appeared in The Guardian for August 6. With the exception of an omitted part, relating to another matter, it ran as follows:
Fairfield, Pewsey, Wilts, July 24, 1890
Dear Mr. Davies–The copy of the Guardian has just reached me, and I have read your criticism with much interest. Would that criticisms in general were written in the same spirit!
In asserting the illegitimacy of my use of the words “duty,” “ought,” “obligation,” &c., you remind me of the criticisms of Mr. Lilly. By such community as exists between you, amid your differences, you are both led to the assumption that the idea of “duty” can have no other than a supernatural origin.
This assumption implies that men's actions are determined only by recognition of ultimate consequences, and that if recognition of ultimate consequences does not lead them to do right, they can have no motive to do right. But the great mass of men's actions are directly prompted by their likings, without thought of remote results; and among actions thus prompted are, in many cases, those which conduce to other men's welfare. Though, on reflection, such actions are seen to be congruous with the ends ranked as the highest, yet they are not prompted by thought of such ends.
The relation of direct to indirect motives is best seen in a familiar case. Any normally constituted parent spends much labor and thought in furthering the welfare of his children, and daily, for many years, is impelled to do this by immediate liking–cannot bear to do otherwise. Nevertheless, while he is not impelled to do what he does by the consciousness that he ought to do it, if you ask the reasons for his self-sacrificing conduct he will say that he is under obligation; and if you push your inquiries to the end, you will compel him to assign the fact that if men in general did not do the like the race would disappear. Though the consciousness of obligation may serve to justify, and perhaps in a small degree to strengthen, the promptings of his natural affections, yet these are quite sufficient of themselves.
Similarly is it with the idea of obligation in respect of conduct to our fellow men. As you must know from your personal experiences, such conduct may be effectually prompted by immediate desire, without thought of other consequence than the benefits given. And though these benefits are given from simple desire to give them, if the question be raised whether they should be given, there comes the answer that it is a duty to minister to human welfare.
You contend that my theory of moral guidance gives me no warrant for anger against aggression, or other ill doing: saying of me that, in such case, “he is borrowing our thunder.” This implies the assertion that only those who accept the current creed have any right to feel indignant when they see other men wronged. But I cannot allow you thus to monopolize righteous indignation. If you ask what prompts me to denounce our unjust treatment of inferior races, I reply that I am prompted by a feeling which is aroused in me quite apart from any sense of duty quite apart from any thought of Divine command, quite apart from any thought of reward or punishment here or hereafter. In part the feeling results from consciousness of the suffering inflicted, which is a painful consciousness, and in part from irritation at the breach of a law of conduct on behalf of which my sentiments are enlisted, and obedience to which I regard as needful for the welfare of humanity in general. If you say that my theory gives me no reason for feeling this pain, the answer is that I cannot help feeling it; and if you say that my theory gives me no reason for my interest in asserting this principle, the answer is that I cannot help being interested. And when analysis shows me that the feeling and the principle are such as, if cherished and acted upon, must conduce to the progress of humanity towards a higher form, capable of greater happiness, I find that though my action is not immediately prompted by the sense of obligation, yet it conforms to my idea of obligation.
That motives hence resulting may be adequately operative, you will find proof on recalling certain transactions, dating back some eight years, in which we were both concerned. You can scarcely fail to remember that those who were moved by feelings and ideas such as I have described, and not by any motives which the current creed furnishes, displayed more anxiety that our dealings with alien peoples should be guided by what are called Christian principles than is displayed by Christians in general.1 I am, sincerely yours,
P.S.–Should you wish to publish this letter as my response to your appeal, I am quite willing that you should do so. Other claims on my time will, however, prevent me from carrying the discussion further.
Along with this letter, when published in The Guardian, there appeared a rejoinder from Mr. Davies, which, omitting, as before, a part concerning a different question, ran thus:
Kirkby Lonsdale, July 28, 1890
Dear Mr. Spencer–I am much obliged to you for responding so kindly to the challenge which I ventured to address to you. You will not think it ungracious, I hope, if, notwithstanding the purpose which you intimate in your postscript, I make public some of the reflections which your letter suggests to me.
Most amply do I acknowledge the generous zeal for human welfare, the indignation against oppression, shown by yourself and others who recognize no supernatural sanction of morality. The Christianity of today owes much to–has, I hope, really gained much from–your own humane ardor and the bold protestations of the followers of Comte. A Christian's allegiance is not to the Christian world, not even to Christianity but to the law of Christ and the will of the Heavenly Father; and he may as easily admit that Christians have been surpassed in Christian feeling and action by agnostics as that the priest and the Levite were put to shame by the Samaritan.
I have also no difficulty in acknowledging that the performance of good offices may arise out of sympathy and pleasure in doing them. l do not understand why “the assumption that the idea of ‘duty’ has a supernatural origin” should be supposed to imply “that men's actions are determined only by recognition of ultimate consequences, and that if recognition of ultimate consequences does not lead them to do right, they can have no motive to do right.” I never thought of questioning that men act, in a great part of their conduct, from the motives you describe. What I wish to know is why, when the thought of duty comes in, a man should think himself bound to do, whether he likes it or not, what will tend to the preservation of the species. It is quite intelligible to me that you “cannot help” trying to protect other men from wrong: what I still fail to see clearly is how your philosophy justifies you in reproaching those who can help being good. It is nature, you say, that makes the thoughtful parent good, that makes the generous man sacrifice himself for the benefit of his fellow men. But nature also makes many parents selfishly regardless of the interests of their children; nature makes some men hardened freebooters. If they also cannot help being what they are, is there any sense, from your point of view, in saying that they act as they ought not to act? Would they feel that you were appealing to their sense of duty if you explained to them as a fact of nature that, should other men do as they are doing, the race would tend to disappear? To Mr. Huxley, as a philosopher, a taste for good behavior belongs to the same category as an ear for music–some persons have it and others are without it; the question which I cannot help asking is whether that is the ultimate word of your ethics. I cannot see how a man who is made aware that he acts only from natural impulse can reasonably consider whether he ought or ought not to do a certain thing, nor how a man who knows that he acts only for the gratification of his own desires can reasonably throw himself away for the sake of any advantage to be won for others.
As I do not quite know what “the current creed” may be on the questions at issue, I beg leave to sum up my own belief as follows: The Unseen Power is gradually creating mankind by processes of development, and the human consciousness is so made as to be responsive to the authority of this Power; justice is the progressive order which the Maker is establishing amongst human beings, and it is binding upon each man as he becomes aware of it, and is felt to be binding, because he is the Maker's creature. Believe me, very truly yours,
J. Llewelyn Davies
Before proceeding to discuss further the special question at issue, I may remark, respecting the more general question involved in Mr. Davies' closing paragraph, that there is a curiously close kinship between his view and that which I have myself more than once expressed. In section 34 of First Principles I have said, in reference to the hesitating inquirer:
It is not for nothing that he has in him these sympathies with some principles and repugnance to others. He, with all his capacities, and aspirations, and beliefs, is not an accident, but a product of the time. He must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future; and that his thoughts are as children born to him, which he may not carelessly let die. He, like every other man, may properly consider himself as one of the myriad agencies through whom works the Unknown Cause; and when the Unknown Cause produces in him a certain belief, he is thereby authorized to profess and act out that belief.
And then in the Data of Ethics, section 62, speaking of the different types of ethical doctrine as severally presenting one or other aspect of the truth, I have said:
The theological theory contains a part. If for the divine will, supposed to be supernaturally revealed, we substitute the naturally revealed end towards which the Power manifested throughout Evolution works; then, since Evolution has been, and is still, working towards the highest life, it follows that conforming to those principles by which the highest life is achieved, is furthering that end.
Returning now to the special question, I have first to remark that Mr. Davies, and those who take kindred views, tacitly assume that the conception of “ought” is a universal and a fixed conception; whereas it is a variable conception, and is in large measure relevant to the social needs of the time being. In an article on “The Ethics of Kant,” published in The Fortnightly Review for July 1888 and now contained in the third volume of my Essays, I have given seven authorities in support of the conclusion that “the lower races of men may be said to be deficient in the idea of right”: they have no such feeling of “ought” as is general with us, and where it exists it is often quite otherwise directed. Among various savage peoples the duty of blood revenge is of all duties the most sacred. A Fijian slave tribe “said it was their duty to become food and sacrifices for the chiefs”; and Jackson tells of a Fijian chief who was thrown into religious frenzy from a belief that the god was angry with him for not killing more of the enemy. Nor is it among the inferior races that we meet with conceptions of “ought” utterly different from those which Mr. Davies assumes are recognized by men as of supreme authority. Among the Riff pirates of the Morocco coast, the greatest insult a man can receive is to be told that his father died in his bed–that he did not die fighting while engaged in robbery: the implication being that he ought to have so died. Similarly is it with European peoples in respect of duels. The aggrieved man is forced by a strong sense of obligation to challenge one who has injured him; and the injurer entertains no doubt that he ought to accept the challenge–feels, in common with all his associates, that it is his duty to do this thing which is condemned by the creed he professes. And in the German Emperor's recent applause of dueling clubs as giving to the youth “the true direction of his life,” we see a deliberate advocacy of usages utterly at variance with the nominally accepted principles of right conduct.
These cases show, I think, that the conception of “ought” is relevant, partly to sentiments predominant in the individual, partly to the feelings and ideas instilled during education, and partly to the public opinion which prevails: all of them variable factors. The truth is that every desire, seeking as it does gratification, carries along with it the idea that its gratification is proper or right; and when it is a powerful desire it generates, when it is denied, the idea that the denial is wrong. So true is this that a feeling which prompted a wrong action, but was effectually resisted, will, in some cases, afterward generate regret that the act prompted was not committed; while, conversely, a good action at variance with the habitual bad actions may be followed by repentance: instance the miser who feels sorry that he was betrayed into a piece of generosity. Similarly the consciousness of “ought,” as existing among men of superior types, is simply the voice of certain governing sentiments developed by the higher forms of social life, which are in each individual endorsed by transmitted beliefs and current opinion–a sanction much stronger than that which any of the inferior feelings have.
A full answer to the question put by Mr. Davies, presented in a different and much more elaborate form, has been already given in The Data of Ethics. In the chapter entitled “The Psychological View,” and more especially in sections 42—46, the genesis of the feeling of obligation is explained at considerable length.
Perhaps he will still ask–Why, having the feeling of obligation, should a man yield to it? If so, the answer is of the same general nature as that which may be given to the question–Why, having an appetite for food, should a man eat? Though, in the normal order, a man eats to satisfy hunger, and without definite consciousness of remoter ends, yet, if you demand his justification, he replies that, as conducive to health, strength, and ability to carry on life and do his work, the yielding to his appetite is needful. And similarly one who performs an act which his sense of duty prompts, if asked for his reason, may fitly reply that though he yielded to the feeling without thought of distant consequences, yet he sees that the distant consequences of such conformity are, on the average of cases, beneficial not only to others but in the long run to himself. And here let me repeat a truth which I have elsewhere insisted upon, that just as food is rightly taken only when taken to appease hunger, while the having to take it when there is no inclination implies deranged physical state; so, a good act or act of duty is rightly done only if done in satisfaction of immediate feeling, and if done with a view of ultimate results, in this world or another world, implies an imperfect moral state.
[After the publication of the first edition of this work, I received from Mr. Davies a letter containing, among others, the following paragraph:
“Allow me to demur to one statement you make in the Appendix on the moral motive. I think I, for one, do not tacitly assume that the conception of ‘ought’ is ‘a fixed conception.’ I hold that the notions of what is right vary with the variations, and advance with the progress, of the social order.”
Hence it appears that in a further respect Mr. Davies' views and my own diverge in a smaller degree than at first appeared.]
[]In my letter as originally written, there followed two sentences which l omitted for fear of provoking a controversy. They ran thus: “Even one of the religious papers recognized the startling contrast between the energy of those who do not profess Christianity and the indifference of those who do. I may add that on going back some years further you will find that a kindred contrast was implied by the constitution of the Jamaica Committee.”