Front Page Titles (by Subject) I.: the ideal state. - The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 1
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I.: the ideal state. - Frederic William Maitland, The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 1 
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 1911). 3 Vols. Vol. 1.
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the ideal state.
When in 1879 Mr Herbert Spencer published his Data of Ethics in advance of the second and third volumes of his Principles of Sociology, he gave as reasons for thus departing from his philosophic programme his fear lest he should not be able to reach in its proper order the last part of the task which he had marked out for himself, and his unwillingness to leave altogether unfulfilled the purpose which ever since 1842, when he wrote his letters on The Proper Sphere of Government, had been his “ultimate purpose lying behind all proximate purposes,” that, namely, of “finding for the principles of right and wrong in conduct at large a scientific basis2 .” All his many readers are glad in thinking that hitherto this fear has proved groundless, and now that Ceremonial Institutions and Political Institutions have been investigated, we may hope for the completion of that work on Morality of which the Data of Ethics forms but the introductory part. It may seem, therefore, that the present is not a well-chosen moment in which to criticise Mr Spencer’s ethical principles and method as apparent in his already published works, but it may possibly add to the interest with which we shall read any book or books that he may have in store for us if in the meantime we consider what he has led us to expect.
Not the least interesting fact about Mr Spencer’s conception of Ethics is that its chief outlines have remained unaltered for at least thirty years. While he has been maturing an idea of evolution of which but faint glimpses were granted to us in 1851, two cardinal doctrines have been undisturbed from first to last, or rather after every expedition into the material, moral or social world he has returned to his original theme with new faith, new proofs and illustrations. Scientific Ethics must still begin with a study of the relations which will exist between men in that ideal state of society to which we are tending. A law of equal liberty is still the main law, perhaps the only knowable law of those relations. Mr Spencer has indeed cautioned us1 that Social Statics “must not be taken as a literal expression of his present views,” and has given us certain more definite warnings concerning the qualifications with which it should be read, warnings to which it is hoped that due regard will be paid in what here follows; still Mr Spencer “adheres to the leading principles set forth” in his early work, has found new arguments for them in his Data of Ethics, and has applied and defended them in many another book and essay. It would seem, therefore, to be our own fault if we fail to understand the general nature of that undertaking which lies before him in the last part of his task.
Out of the many passages in which Mr Spencer has stated his general doctrine of ethical method, the following may be chosen as one of the most concise:—
“One who has followed the general argument thus far, will not deny that an ideal social being may be conceived as so constituted that his spontaneous activities are congruous with the conditions imposed by the social environment formed by other such beings. In many places, and in various ways, I have argued that conformably with the laws of evolution in general, and conformably with the laws of organisation in particular, there has been, and is, in progress an adaptation of humanity to the social state, changing it in the direction of such an ideal congruity. And the corollary before drawn and here repeated, is that the ultimate man is one in whom this process has gone so far as to produce a correspondence between all the promptings of his nature and all the requirements of his life as carried on in society. If so, it is a necessary implication that there exists an ideal code of conduct formulating the behaviour of the completely adapted man in the completely evolved society. Such a code is that here called Absolute Ethics as distinguished from Relative Ethics—a code the injunctions of which are alone to be considered as absolutely right in contrast with those that are relatively right or least wrong; and which, as a system of ideal conduct, is to serve as a standard for our guidance in solving, as well as we can, the problems of real conduct1 .”
Absolute Ethics stands to Relative Ethics, or Moral Therapeutics, in somewhat the same relation as that in which Physiology stands to Pathology1 . We must have a science of social and moral health, before we can have a science or an art which shall deal with social and moral disease. And moral health implies social health; the perfect man cannot exist in an imperfect society, nor the fully evolved man in a partially evolved society. To make any progress in ethical science we must conceive a “perfect,” “normal,” “ideal,” “fully evolved” society. In the comparison thus instituted between Relative Ethics and Pathology, one who has had no “preparation in Biology” may fancy he detects some confusion between immaturity and disease, but it will be better for him not to meddle or make with these comparisons. In the Social Statics the doctrine seems clear enough that, in so far as an existing society differs from society as it will ultimately be constituted, it is diseased2 . Whether Mr Spencer would hold such language now may be doubted, but the theory that Absolute Ethics is a Physiology to which Relative Ethics is the corresponding Pathology is restated and defended in the Data.
Now Mr Spencer differs from some other promoters of ideal commonwealths in this, namely, in believing that the natural and normal course of human progress tends towards the realisation of his ideal. Not that he thinks all movement progress, for he points out that there has been in some instances positive retrogression. There are backwaters in the stream of history, not to speak of stagnant pools. There is social dissolution as well as social evolution. Still social evolution is in some sense normal. There are always forces which are making for it, though they may be thwarted and neutralised. Indeed, it seems to be his present opinion that the ideal state contemplated by Absolute Ethics can never be quite attained, though we shall approach indefinitely or perhaps infinitely near to it, always provided that cosmic processes do not outrun the evolution of humanity, “reduce the substance of the earth to a gaseous state1 “and end all things in the complete equilibration of universal and, it may be, eternal death2 . I know of no formal proof that the ideal state contemplated by Absolute Ethics is necessarily beyond our attainment, but in First Principles this seems to be either assumed or implicitly proved both as to the balance between mankind and its environment and as to the balance between society and the individual. The former “can never indeed be absolutely reached,” and the process which adapts individual to society and society to individual must go on until the balance between the antagonistic forces approaches “indefinitely near perfection3 .” Perhaps there is something in the doctrine of rhythm as conceived by Mr Spencer which forbids our hoping for more than this. At one time he took a more cheerful view, for we were told in Social Statics that all imperfection must disappear, that “the ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain—as certain as any conclusion in which we place the most implicit faith; for instance, that all men will die.” This Mr Spencer formally proved as follows:—“All imperfection is unfitness to the conditions of existence. This unfitness must consist either in having a faculty or faculties in excess; or in having a faculty or faculties deficient; or in both. A faculty in excess is one which the conditions of existence do not afford full exercise to; and a faculty that is deficient is one from which the conditions of existence demand more than it can perform. But it is an essential principle of life that a faculty to which circumstances do not allow full exercise diminishes; and that a faculty on which circumstances make excessive demands increases. And so long as this excess and this deficiency continue, there must continue decrease on the one hand and growth on the other. Finally, all excess and all deficiency must disappear; that is, all unfitness must disappear; that is, all imperfection must disappear1 .” Where Mr Spencer now finds the error in this plausible reasoning is not so plain as might be wished,—but certainly he is not now convinced by it.
In the Data of Ethics we are told that “however near to completeness the adaptation of human nature to the conditions of existence at large, physical and social, may become, it can never reach completeness2 .” And here what seem to be very serious limitations are set to the process of adaptation, so serious that the passage may perhaps betray some momentary “lack of faith in such further evolution of humanity as shall harmonise its nature with its conditions3 .” We learn that “in the private relations of men, opportunities for self-sacrifice prompted by sympathy, must ever in some degree, though eventually in a small degree, be afforded by accidents, diseases and misfortunes in general. . . . Flood, fire and wreck must to the last yield at intervals opportunities for heroic acts1 .” Now poor unscientific Virgil painting his golden age got rid of the possibility of wreck by “omnis feret omnia tellus,” a suggestion which betrays a want of “preparation in Biology.” Mr Spencer, though he certainly does not regard the enterprises of industrialism as “priscæ vestigia fraudis,” should, one would imagine, be ready to say that the fully evolved sailor, with body and mind perfectly adapted to all the rhythms of season and wind and wave, will think any talk of wreck no better than a pedantic allusion to the classics. But so long as we are subject to accidents, diseases and misfortunes in general, we have hardly come even “indefinitely near” the perfect state which allows no “scope for further mental culture and moral progress.”
Were we here speculating as to the future of the human race it would become us to consider what are Mr Spencer’s reasons for setting to progress bounds which it shall not pass, and also to ask whether, if mankind is always to fall so very far short of adaptation to its environment as to continue permanently subject to flood, fire and wreck, accidents, diseases and misfortunes in general, there must not to the very last be at times a very wide divergence between the desires and aims of the individual and those of his neighbours. So long as we have not discovered all truth discoverable by man, so long as there is scope for further mental culture, there may well be danger lest some new discovery or invention should throw the social machine out of gear and introduce discordant notes into the pre-established harmony.
But here we are dealing with the ideal of Absolute Ethics, the fully-adapted man, the fully-evolved society. Nor have we plausible pretext for grumbling if Mr Spencer will not allow us to be quite perfect. All tends towards the best in this only possible evolution. The life of man will be sociable, rich, nice, human, long, and not only long but broad. There will be the greatest totality of life, quantum of life being estimated “by multiplying its length into its breadth1 .” Industrialism will have supplanted militancy, the religion of enmity will be reconciled with the religion of amity, and egoism will lie down with altruism. Without further question, therefore, whether we are embarking under a Christopher Columbus who will make for a real concrete America hereafter to be peopled by an ingenious and thriving race, or under a Raphael Hythlodaye who steers for Utopia, we will suppose this ideal state made real and see what may be said of it.
In the first place, we must notice that in this state there will not be any right or wrong in our sense of the words; certainly no wrong in any sense at all, and with us right seems to imply possibility of wrong. The four sanctions of morality will have become useless, and their existence will perhaps be pronounced essentially unthinkable. No religious sanction, for no fear of the supernatural; no legal sanction, for no command of earthly superiors; no social sanction, for society will never be displeased; no internal sanction, for no war in our members, no lusting of the flesh against the spirit, or the spirit against the flesh. If such words as right, duty, ought survive at all, they will survive as pretty archaisms of uncertain meaning. May not even the same be said of liberty; what meaning can it have when no one is ever tempted to interfere with his neighbour’s desires? Law goes too, at least law in one of its meanings. When we say of these fully-evolved men that they will obey the law of equal liberty or any other law, we can only mean that they will obey in the sense in which matter is sometimes said to obey the law of gravity. In short, our ideal code is a code “formulating,” not regulating, “the behaviour of the completely-adapted man in the completely-evolved society.”
This, as I think, is Mr Spencer’s view of the ideal state. In the most interesting chapter of his Data, he has sought to show that not only the external sanctions of morality, theological, legal, social, but also the internal or specifically moral sanction are the accompaniments of imperfect evolution1 . As we become better and better adapted to our environment, self-coercion, like every other form of coercion, tends to disappear. We are brought to the “conclusion, which will be to most very startling, that the sense of duty or moral obligation is transitory, and will diminish as fast as moralisation increases.” “Evidently, then,” we are told, “with complete adaptation to the social state, that element in the moral consciousness which is expressed by the word obligation, will disappear2 .” This is just what we should expect: the notion of obligation or duty disappears. But here as well as elsewhere Mr Spencer cannot be brought to say, perhaps would deny, that the ideal will ever be quite perfectly realised. “In their proper times and places and proportions, the moral sentiments will guide men just as spontaneously and adequately as now do the sensations. And though, joined with their regulating influence when this is called for, will exist latent ideas of the evils which nonconformity would bring, these will occupy the mind no more than do ideas of the evils of starvation at the time when a healthy appetite is being satisfied by a meal1 .” . . . “With complete evolution, then, the sense of obligation, not ordinarily present in consciousness, will be awakened only on those extraordinary occasions that prompt breach of the laws otherwise spontaneously conformed to2 .” This, however, though for some reason or other it will be the last stage of human progress, is clearly not the ideal state, for further adaptation is conceivable. “Ideal congruity” is not yet realised. The ideal man must be adapted to “extraordinary occasions,” as well as to ordinary occasions. The perfect man will never be prompted to break the law. The moral sentiments will lose their “regulating influence” over competing motives, and the “ideas of the evils which nonconformity would bring” having become latent must finally vanish. Whether absolute perfection be practically possible or no, whether or no there will always be some slight tremors and oscillations about the point of equilibrium, it must be with the perfectly-adapted man and the perfectly-adapted society that Absolute Ethics must deal. Obviously to accept as ideal anything short of absolute perfection would be to vitiate the whole procedure. “No conclusions can lay claim to absolute truth, but such as depend upon truths that are themselves absolute. Before there can be exactness in an inference, there must be exactness in the antecedent propositions. A geometrician requires that the straight lines with which he deals shall be veritably straight; and that his circles and ellipses and parabolas shall agree with precise definitions—shall perfectly and invariably answer to specified equations. If you put to him a question in which these conditions are not complied with, he tells you that it cannot be answered. So likewise is it with the philosophical moralist. He treats solely of the straight man. He determines the properties of the straight man; describes how the straight man comports himself; shows in what relationship he stands to other straight men; shows how a community of straight men is constituted. Any deviation from strict rectitude he is obliged wholly to ignore. It cannot be admitted into his premisses without vitiating all his conclusions. A problem in which a crooked man forms one of the elements is insoluble by him1 .” The geometrician is not to be put off with slightly crooked lines because they are the straightest that can be made, nor can the moralist accept as straight a man who is on “extraordinary occasions” prompted to break the moral law.
This should be well understood, for Mr Spencer not unfrequently sets before us a less remote ideal, a state through which we shall pass on the way to an ultimate goal, but not itself by any means the goal. There will be a time—we might call it the Silver Age—when society will still coerce the individual but only for a few purposes. There will still be laws in the lawyer’s sense of the word, the individual will still be compelled to submit his will to the wills of others. But the sphere of political coercion will be much smaller than it at present is. To enforce the law of equal liberty, to protect life, limb, reputation, and property, to compel the performance of contracts, will still be the function of the state. Within this narrow sphere the coercive force will for a time be more active than it is at present. When Mr Huxley labelled Mr Spencer’s political theory as “Administrative Nihilism1 “the latter replied that what he desired was “Specialised Administration,” and he has said that the phrase laissez faire does not fairly represent his opinions2 . The state should give over meddling with many or most of those matters which are now thought proper subjects for coercive regulation and should concentrate its efforts on the provision of justice swift, cheap, foreknowable in accordance with the law of equal liberty. Political coercion should be specialised. Bentham himself has not spoken more strongly than Mr Spencer of the ills which flow from our law’s delay, and Mr Spencer thinks that the remedy lies in concentrating upon the administration of justice those coercive governmental forces which are now dissipated in a thousand and one channels. But beyond this provisional paradise there lies the veritable land of promise. Perhaps the individual’s “right to ignore the state” of which we read in Social Statics3 will never be admitted as a right in our sense of the word, for the existence of a right seems to imply some probability or at least possibility of infringement, but the day will come when coercive co-operation will give way to voluntary co-operation, and no society will attempt to retain a member who wishes to be quit of it. Whether any particular type of voluntary society will be called a state, or a body politic, or the like, would seem to be a question barely about the future history of language, but membership of every social body will be terminable at the will of the member, whose will, however, cannot but be consonant with the will of each of his fellows.
It is necessary to state this clearly, for in his Data of Ethics Mr Spencer sometimes uses words which, if I have caught his meaning, might mislead an unwary reader. Thus a department of Ethics is marked off which “considering exclusively the effects of conduct on others, treats of the right regulation of it with a view to such effects1 .” This division of Ethics comprises the field of Justice. We then read as follows:—“This division of Ethics, considered under its absolute form, has to define the equitable relations among perfect individuals who limit one another’s spheres of action by co-existing, and who achieve their ends by cooperation. It has to do much more than this. Beyond justice between man and man, justice between each man and the aggregate of men has to be dealt with by it. The relations between the individual and the state, considered as representing all individuals, have to be deduced—an important and a relatively-difficult matter. What is the ethical warrant for governmental authority? To what ends may it be legitimately exercised? How far may it rightly be carried? Up to what point is the citizen bound to recognise the collective decisions of other citizens, and beyond what point may he properly refuse to obey them1 ?”
This passage certainly starts in the key of Absolute Ethics; we are “among perfect individuals”; but seemingly at the mention of the state it passes into some Relative mode. If we are still dealing with perfect individuals, and the questions which we are asked are “relatively-difficult,” the other questions of Ethics must indeed be superlatively easy. What is the ethical warrant for governmental authority? None; for no perfect individual will coerce his equally perfect neighbour. As to obedience and disobedience, the only doubt is which of these two words is the more inappropriate when we speak of the relations between fully-evolved men. Of course, therefore, these questions are questions of Relative Ethics; one of the factors they involve is the infliction of pain, and of this Absolute Ethics has nothing to say. “The law of absolute right can take no cognisance of pain, save the cognisance implied by negation2 .”
Again, in the “prospects” which Mr Spencer takes at the end of each section of his Sociology, he seems to contemplate as the final condition of humanity a condition which neither he nor others would call absolutely perfect. Thus he raises the question—What is to be the ultimate political régime3 ?” He thinks that it will not be the same in all communities, and then speculates as to the future of the British Constitution, and ends by saying that “neither these nor any other speculations concerning ultimate political forms can, however, be regarded as anything more than tentative.” In the immediately preceding sentence he says that “municipal and kindred governments may be expected to exercise legislative and administrative powers subject to no greater control by the central government than is needful for the concord of the whole community.” The age of ultimate political forms during which mayors and aldermen (in their ultimate form) exercise legislative powers under the control of the central government is not, I take it, the final epoch of equilibrium in which there will be no “scope for further mental culture and moral progress”; it is at best a penultimate age. So again, when “somewhat more definitely and with somewhat greater positiveness,” Mr Spencer infers the political functions which will be carried on by those ultimate political structures, and predicts that citizens whose natures have through many generations of voluntary co-operation and accompanying regard for one another’s claims, been moulded into the appropriate form, will entirely agree to maintain such political institutions as may continue needful, and then mentions among such institutions “the agency for adjudicating in complex cases where the equitable course is not manifest, and for such legislative and administrative purposes as may prove needful for effecting an equitable division of all natural advantages1 “—when Mr Spencer speaks thus, he has not before him the ideal of Absolute Ethics, but some preparatory millenium during which adjudication and legislation will still be necessary. Adjudication implies conflict. So legislation also implies an imperfect adaptation of man to circumstances; for even if it be said that all the citizens will of their own free-will and without fear of punishment obey every law when made, the dilemma must yet be met: either the laws will bid them do only such things as they would have done if no laws had been made, or the laws will in some instances bid them do other things; in the former case the laws are futile; in the latter either the laws are pernicious, or the citizens are not yet perfect. In the ultimate state there will be no place for command, place only for counsel or advice, for arguments which will convince the reason, not coerce the will of the citizen; and in this sense must be understood the saying that, “however great the degree of evolution reached by an industrial society, it cannot abolish the distinction between the superior and the inferior—the regulators and the regulated1 .” The final form of regulation is advice.
No one will blame Mr Spencer for failing in his Political Institutions to describe that ideal state which is the subject-matter of Absolute Ethics. But even when in the Data he is dealing expressly with Absolute Ethics he sometimes writes as though he had not firmly grasped this ideal state. As is well known, he classifies the duties of one individual towards other individuals thus: he first distinguishes Justice from Beneficence, and then divides Beneficence into Positive and Negative. This may be a sound classification in Moral Therapeutics, and conceivably, though in a somewhat non-natural sense, it may be applied to the conduct of the fully-evolved man in the fully-evolved society. Duty in our sense of the word there will be none, for every man will always do his duty. Still, conceivably we may be able to classify the social actions of fully-evolved men as just, positively beneficent, negatively beneficent. But then on one of the last pages of the Data of Ethics we are told that “under ideal circumstances” Negative Beneficence “has but a nominal existence.” The reason given is as follows:—“In the conduct of the ideal man among ideal men, that self-regulation which has for its motive to avoid giving pain practically disappears. No one having feelings which prompt acts that disagreeably affect others, there can exist no code of restraints referring to this division of conduct1 .” Here Mr Spencer seems to be gliding into the opinion that Absolute Ethics is a code of restraints for ideal men in the ideal society. Let us be fair, then, and treat Justice in the same way as we treat Negative Beneficence. Under ideal conditions Justice also must have “but a nominal existence,” whatever that may mean, for surely among ideal men the regulation, whether imposed on the individual by society or on a man by himself, which has for its object to prevent unjust action “practically,” not to say theoretically, “disappears.” No one is to have feelings which prompt acts that disagreeably affect others, and therefore surely there can exist no code of restraints which will coerce the ideal man into justice. We must not play fast and loose with the conditions of our ideal state.
Mr Spencer, however, is not going to let Justice escape with a nominal existence, for is there not the law of equal liberty, and is not this law a law of Absolute Ethics? Very well, but that law is not an ideal code of restraints which are enforced by any forum, external or internal, against the ideal man, the promptings of whose nature are in perfect harmony with his environment. It can only be a formula which states in general terms what will be the conduct, or some part of the conduct of ideal men towards each other. What shape, then, does this formula take?
Now I understand Mr Spencer to be still of opinion that the maxim of Justice is as follows:—Every man has the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man1 . The maxim has a negative side:—No man may claim to exercise any liberty which is incompatible with the exercise of the like liberty by every other man. This maxim is perfectly intelligible when applied, as it is in Social Statics, to the actions of us imperfect men, though to the mode in which Mr Spencer applies it some objections might perhaps be taken. So applied it is a test whereby we may judge of the rightfulness of any law or other interference with the liberty of the individual. Every individual is to enjoy equal freedom. If I may be allowed the phrase, the objective freedom of one is to be the same as that of any other. A law does not sin against this supreme rule merely because it is felt as more oppressive by one than by another. To respectable members of society a law against theft is no curtailment of subjective freedom, but there are disreputable members who do feel it to be a restraint on their liberty. The law, however, in this case allows to the vagabond the same sphere of objective freedom that it allows to the man who would never dream of taking his neighbour’s goods. Such at least seems to be Mr Spencer’s view, for he thinks that the maxim of equal liberty allows or even demands the existence of proprietary rights.
But now this maxim is to be transfigured into a formula expressing the conduct of ideal men. How can this be done? Mr Spencer is not of the number of those who believe that in the Golden Age all men will be equal, in the sense that they will all be able to do and think and feel the same things. Quite the contrary: society becomes ever more heterogeneous, and in the ultimate form of society the limit of heterogeneity is reached. There will be more difference between the powers bodily and mental of the ultimate philosopher and the ultimate coal-heaver than there is between the powers of their present half-evolved antitypes. Men will neither do the same things nor be able to do the same things; the division of labour and the accompanying specialisation of abilities will have touched their utmost bounds. Not in this direction may we look for equality. But may it not be that though the activities of men will not be equal, yet they will enjoy equal spheres of action? Such language is perfectly intelligible when used of such men and such societies as at present exist; for when we say that a man is at liberty to do many things that he does not want to do, for instance, that every man is free to construct a system of philosophy, or to speak his mind, or to buy whatever is offered for sale, we have before our minds the fact that there are many things which a man may wish to do, and which but for legal or social coercion he would do, but which he is restrained from doing by restraint which he feels as restraint. He is restrained because he is not in complete harmony with the environing society; there is not yet a “complete equilibrium between man’s desires and the conduct necessitated by surrounding conditions.” But when it has become impossible for any man to have any wish that society will not gladly see him fulfil, can it in any sense whatever be said of him that he is free to do anything save what he actually does? Such an assertion seems to me simply impossible. If ideal men were to be equal in all their faculties and capacities, then it would be possible to say that every one of them would have an equal sphere of action, but as they are to be unequal and yet are not to be prevented either by social pressure or by moral self-coercion from doing anything that they wish to do, their spheres of action, if that phrase be at all appropriate, will be unequal. There can be no “freedom of speech” where no one is ever tempted to say anything that will give pain to his neighbour. There can be no “freedom of contract” where no one dreams of entering into any agreements save those which the whole society will admit to be advantageous to it and to every member of it. The inference that I draw from this is that Mr Spencer’s ideal code, “formulating the behaviour of the completely-adapted man in the completely-evolved society,” should have nothing to say about equal liberty, but meanwhile we must be on our guard, and when we ask for “a straight man” see that we get him.
Of course it may be true that, in a society such as our own, to enforce the law of equal liberty is the best means of hastening the advent of the happy time when man will be fully evolved and “true self-love and social be the same.” Still, this is a matter which requires to be proved, and cannot be proved by the meaningless assertion that this law will be enforced in, or hold good of, a society fully evolved. For instance, if we be discussing freedom of speech, it is quite possible to maintain that perfect adaptation may most readily be produced rather by a rigorous suppression of all speech which can possibly give pain than by granting a wide liberty to those who have unfavourable opinions of their neighbours. This assertion may be very untrue; still it cannot be met by saying that in the ideal state there will be unbounded liberty of speech, any more than it can be met by any other phrase that has no meaning.
Whether Mr Spencer still adheres to the “first principle” of Social Statics—the law of equal liberty—as an accurate and sufficient formula of Justice, is perhaps not quite certain, and since my own opinion is that from that formula it is impossible without a liberal use of quasi-legal fictions to deduce any code of conduct whatever, I would gladly believe in its abandonment. Still, it is quite plain that the Golden Age is to be the reign of Justice. Saturn returns to us and brings back the freedom of contract which our politicians have banished to his planet. Also, it is still plain to Mr Spencer that Justice is (in some sense or other) Equality. For this identification he argues in his last work as in his first. Therefore I may be allowed to point out that the objection here taken to the law of equal liberty as a description of the relations which will exist between fully-evolved men applies also to any theory which finds equality in those relations. Society will be more heterogeneous than it is at present. There will be greater inequality between the faculties and capacities of different men than there is at present. Every faculty, every capacity will be fully exercised and satisfied. Therefore men will not have equal spheres of action; for if every faculty be fully exercised its sphere of action will be completely filled by its action.
I can well understand, though not altogether agree with, Mr Spencer when in Social Statics he writes thus:—“This sphere of existence into which we are thrown not affording room for the unrestrained activity of all, and yet all possessing in virtue of their constitutions similar claims to such unrestrained activity, there is no course but to apportion out the unavoidable restraint equally. Wherefore we arrive at the general proposition, that every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of the like liberty by every other man1 .” This is a piece of Relative Ethics, of Moral Pathology. The sphere of existence does not afford room for the unrestrained activity of all, because we are not yet fully adapted to our environment. But I cannot understand Mr Spencer when in the Data he writes thus:—“This division of Ethics” [the division which deals with Justice] “considered under its absolute form has to define the equitable relations among perfect individuals who limit one another’s spheres of action by co-existing, and who achieve their ends by co-operation1 .” Of course the word equitable as here used does not imply that the relations among perfect individuals could possibly be other than they ought to be, that they could possibly be inequitable or iniquitous. But Mr Spencer certainly does mean that in some form or another equality (“equity or equalness2 “) is to be found in them. But how? Again, when it is said that these perfect individuals “limit one another’s spheres of action by co-existing,” these words must be used in a queer sense. There will be no coercion, no restraint, no pain inflicted by one on another, no “fear of the visible ruler, the invisible ruler, or of society at large,” finally no self-coercion, for “that element of the moral consciousness which is expressed by the word obligation” will have disappeared. In short, a man’s sphere of action will be limited only by his own spontaneous wishes and his physical constitution. There can be no talk of “the sphere of existence into which we are thrown not affording room for the unrestrained activity of all”; for it is just the essence of the sphere of existence into which we shall have grown that it does give every one room to fulfil his every desire.
Immediately before the passage just quoted, which speaks of the department of Ethics concerned with Justice as having to define the equitable relations among perfect individuals, we may read the following:—“Though having to recognise differences among individuals due to age, sex or other cause, we cannot regard the members of a society as absolutely equal, and therefore cannot deal with problems growing out of their relations with that precision which absolute equality might make possible; yet, considering them as approximately equal in virtue of their common human nature, and dealing with questions of equity on this supposition, we may reach conclusions of a sufficiently-definite kind1 .” I have quoted this passage because I may have spoken too hastily in saying that Mr Spencer is not of the number of those who believe that in the Golden Age all men will be equal. If, however, the words just cited describe the problems with which Absolute Ethics must deal, then he does seem to think for the moment that completely-adapted men in the completely-evolved society will be so much alike in their powers and wishes that Absolute Ethics may ignore the differences between them and yet obtain “conclusions of a sufficiently-definite kind.” Sufficiently definite doubtless, but also one would think sufficiently untrue. Surely in this procedure our strictly scientific Ethics would be substituting the perfectly homogeneous for the superlatively heterogeneous, the least stable for the most stable, the crooked for the straight. I do not think that this is really Mr Spencer’s meaning; rather he is thinking not of what men will do but of what they will not be restrained from doing by legal or social pressure. But I can only repeat that such pressure, these men being completely-adapted men in a completely-evolved society, is out of the question.
Similar difficulties are occasioned by what is said concerning Positive Beneficence1 . We have already seen that the ultimate state of man will still afford opportunities for self-sacrifice though these opportunities will be rare. Flood, fire and wreck, accidents, diseases and misfortunes in general, are to be ours to the last, and will give us now and then a chance for an heroic act. This may be the ultimate state, but seemingly it should not, cannot be the ideal state. The geometrician would not put up with a straight line which on “extraordinary occasions” fell into crookedness. Self-sacrifice implies crookedness somewhere. Either he who offers the sacrifice ought to feel it no sacrifice, or he for whose sake it is made ought not to need the sacrifice. It is, as I think, Mr Spencer’s opinion that Absolute Ethics has no place for self-abnegation. This could hardly be otherwise. It will be so even in the relation of parent to child. The ideal parent will not be called on to give up any pleasure for the sake of the ideal child. In doing for the child all that the child wishes the parent will find pleasure. Whether the day will ever come when the promptings of an inherited experience will teach the weaned child to leave your cockatrice alone, may perchance be doubted, but failing this adaptation of children to their environment, the adaptation of parents to children will probably insure as literal a fulfilment of prophecy as a judicious interpreter should desire. But though self-sacrifice can have in Absolute Ethics no place at all, Mr Spencer apparently thinks that there may be a place for Positive Beneficence. He says:—“Of positive beneficence under its absolute form nothing more specific can be said than that it must become co-extensive with whatever sphere remains for it; aiding to complete the life of each as a recipient of services and to exalt the life of each as a renderer of services. As with a developed humanity the desire for it by every one will so increase, and the sphere for exercise of it so decrease, as to involve an altruistic competition, analogous to the existing egoistic competition, it may be that Absolute Ethics will eventually include what we before called a higher equity, prescribing the mutual limitations of altruistic activities1 .” This last sentence has its difficulties, for an ideal code formulating the relations of perfect men begins to grow more perfect before our very eyes. It is perhaps to include eventually what it does not include now. Once more we must ask, whether perfect men will need, will be able to conceive, a code prescribing what they are to do, and placing them under an obligation to do it. And even this scheme of the higher equity which Absolute Ethics may eventually formulate is not apparently the ultimate state; it is not even the penultimate. For a time there may be an all too brisk competition among wealthy pleasure-hunters for the few remaining chances of an exquisite altruistic gratification, and the higher equity may be needed to prevent philanthropic jobbers from engrossing the occasions of beneficence or forming a “ring” to “corner” all those that are in misery and distress. But as adaptation goes on, the acceptance of a benefit will become very rare, and “altruistic competition, first reaching a compromise under which each restrains himself from taking an undue share of altruistic satisfactions, eventually rises to a conciliation under which each takes care that others shall have their opportunities for altruistic satisfaction1 .” Eventually perhaps Absolute Ethics will formulate first the compromise and then the conciliation, and yet it would seem as if men would not be quite perfect, for this “taking care” implies some self-restraint, some sense of obligation. What then does Absolute Ethics say now about Positive Beneficence? The perfect man will by the same course of conduct secure both his own greatest happiness and the greatest happiness of all. “The moral conduct will be the natural conduct2 ,” or rather morality will be a thing of the past. But we have excluded Negative Beneficence from our ideal code on the ground that “no one having any feelings which prompt acts that disagreeably affect others, there can exist no code of restraints referring to this division of conduct.” Is there then to be even eventually and in the ideal state a code of restraints referring to the division of conduct called Positive Beneficence? If so, are men yet perfect in this ideal state? Seemingly beyond the higher equity there lies the compromise, and beyond the compromise the conciliation, and beyond the conciliation of each man with competing philanthropists must lie the conciliation of each man with himself. “That element in the moral consciousness which is expressed by the word obligation, will disappear,” and the natural conduct will be—well it will be the natural conduct.
Possibly to a perception of this consequence we must attribute Mr Spencer’s apparent reluctance to admit that the ideal of perfect adaptation can ever be reached. We must not have our “straight man” all too straight, or there will be no place for any theory of Justice or Equality. The seer must keep his telescope just a little dusty, in order that the outlook may not be too blank for intelligible description. The sinless innocence of the jelly-fish or the angel is not a good material whereof to fashion the citizens of an instructive model commonwealth, without some admixture of sinful human nature, and “latent ideas” of nonconformity. Whether this has weighed with Mr Spencer, or whether there is something in the doctrine of rhythmic motion that prevents our accepting really perfect social equilibrium even as an ideal, it is not for me to guess, but I think it clear that Mr Spencer should deal with Positive Beneficence and with Justice or Equality as he has already dealt with Negative Beneficence, and say that under ideal circumstances they can have only a nominal existence, which is, humanly speaking, no existence at all.
Data of Ethics, Preface.
Social Statics, Preface to American edition of 1864, adopted in Preface to stereotyped edition of 1868.
Data of Ethics, § 105.
Social Statics, c. I, § 3; Data, § 105.
Ch. I, § 3.
First Principles, § 181.
ibid., § 182.
ibid., § 175.
Social Statics, c. 2, § 4.
Data, § 96.
ibid., § 67.
Data, § 96.
Data, § 4, 8.
Data, c. 7.
ibid., § 46.
Data, § 46.
ibid., § 47.
Social Statics, c. I, § 3, cited and defended in Data, § 105.
Critiques and Addresses, I.
Essays, Third Series, v.
Data, § 109.
Data, § 109.
ibid., § 101.
Political Institutions, § 577.
Political Institutions, § 579.
Political Institutions, § 578.
Political Institutions, § 110.
Social Statics, c. 4, § 3; c. 6, § I.
Social Statics, c. 4, § 3.
Data, § 60.
Data, § 109.
Data, § 96, 110.
Data, § 110.
Data, § 97.
ibid., § 47.