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seems highly questionable, for reasons partly indicated, it is
frankly to be admitted that Mr. Spencer is not alone in failing
to recognise, or refusing to admit, this line of demarcation
between the descriptive and explanatory sciences, on the one
hand, and the normative sciences, on the other. Let us, then,
consider his ' physical view ' of Ethics. This, as the author
explains, means considering conduct " as a set of combined
motions ". And he says : '' Taking the evolution point of
view, and remembering that while an aggregate evolves, not
only the matter composing it, but also the motion of that
matter, passes from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a
definite coherent heterogeneity, we have now to ask whether
conduct as it rises to its higher forms, displays in increasing
degrees these characters ; and whether it does not display
them in the greatest degree when it reaches that highest form
which we call moral " } The author argues that this is the
case. From the lower animals up to man, there may be ob-
served an increasing degree of the coherence of motions.
And the same thing is equally manifest, as we trace the con-
dition of man from a savage state to the highest modern
civilisation. All this, observe, is the coherence of physical
motions, considered strictly as such — an abstraction, to realise
the exact import of which is a considerable intellectual feat

1 See ch. v., § 24.



Herbert Spencer, 301

(The present writer must acknowledge that he has never
accomphshed it, to his complete satisfaction.) Mr. Spencer
adds : " Now mark that a greater coherence among its com-
ponent motions, broadly distinguishes the conduct we call
moral from the conduct we call immoral. The application
of the word dissolute to the last, and of the word self-
restrained to the first, implies this. ... In proportion as the
conduct is what we call moral, it exhibits comparatively
settled connections between antecedents and consequents.
. . . Contrariwise, in the conduct of one whose principles are
not high, the sequences of motions are doubtful." ^

Frankly speaking, this seems to me one of the most un-
helpful abstractions ever made in the name of Ethics. From
the proposition that the ' coherence ' of physical motions
increases, as we ascend from the lower to the higher mani-
festations of life, we are led on to the very different proposi-
tion that, the more moral conduct is, the greater will be this
coherence of the motions involved. This last proposition seems
more than doubtful. Some forms of dissipation, particularly
drunkenness, might appear to bear out the statement ; but
how about a life more or less deliberately devoted to crime }
Certainly there is greater coherence in the manipulations of
the counterfeiter and the expert safe-opener than most moral
men, not manually expert, could ever lay claim to. And as
for the possibility of predicting conduct (whether considered
as a mere series of physical motions or otherwise), what con-
duct could be easier to predict than that of a man hopelessly
given over to a particular vice } Almost precisely the same
criticisms apply to the author's contention, that increasingly
moral conduct implies an increasingly ' definite ' set of physi-
cal motions. It is not to the point to urge that " the con-
scientious man is exact in all his transactions ". The de-
faulting bank clerk, who falsifies his accounts, in order to con-
ceal his own crime, has to be as exact as if he were keeping
the books properly ; and generally he needs to be more,.

^ See ch. v., § 25.



302 History of Utilitarianism.

rather than less, expert than the honest man. But this exact-
ness, or expertness — do they, as appHed to a series of physical
motions, considered merely as such, really mean anything at
all ? More plausible is the final argument, which goes to
show that the highest morality implies an increasing ' hetero-
geneity ' of motions. But what a ridiculously unsafe criterion
this would be, by which to distinguish moral from immoral
conduct !

The ' physical view ' of morality, then, turns out to be not
only highly abstract, but extremely fanciful. We now pass
on to the ' biological view '. From the standpoint of biology,
the perfectly moral man is one in whom the physiological
functions of all kinds are duly fulfilled. Either defect or ex-
cess in the performance of function results in a lowering of
life for the time being. Hence the performance of every
function is, in a sense, a moral obligation. The author hastens
to remark that this principle, viz., that the performance of
every function is a duty, strictly applies to ideal humanity
only, not to humanity as now existing. At present, the per-
formance of every function by each would involve interference
of one individual with another ; ^ but when man is completely
evolved, this will not be the case. Another important result
of such complete evolution will be, that immediate pleasures
and pains, accompanying the exercise of our various functions,
will be safe guides of conduct, as of course they are not now —
though it is universally true that every pleasure increases
vitality for the time being, while every pain decreases vitality.
While freely admitting that, as we are at present constituted,
pleasures are not always connected with actions which should
be performed, nor pains with actions which should be avoided,
Mr. Spencer says : " Along with complete adjustment of
humanity to the social state, will go recognition of the truths
that actions are completely right only when, besides being
conducive to future happiness, special and general, they are
immediately pleasurable, and that painfulness, not only ulti-

^ I.e., ' injustice,' which, as will be rcmeinbered, is tlie cardinal sin, according
to Mr. Spencer,



Herbert Spencer. 303

mate but proximate, is the concomitant of actions which are
wrong "}

It cannot be denied that the ' biological view ' of morality
possesses at least one very important advantage over the
' physical view,' viz., the propositions involved are sufficiently
definite to admit of clear comprehension. Let us begin by
examining the first, that complete or ideal morality means,
among other things, the due performance of all physiological
functions. There is, undoubtedly, an important element of
truth in this statement. Complete mental health, so desirable
for the moral life, is hardly possible without a fair degree of
physical health ; and this, of course, implies the due perform-
ance of at least many physiological functions. That the
moral agent should have a conscientious regard for his health,
even under existing conditions, goes without question. But
it is only too evident that, as things are now, the teachings
of biology (or rather, of hygiene) and those of Ethics by no
means necessarily coincide. And one must carefully observe
that this is not all. Strictly moral considerations apart, every
man who fills a real place in society, no matter how humble,
often finds himself obliged to work when it is undoubtedly
more or less detrimental to his health ; and those whose ser-
vices are at all indispensable to their fellow-men, particularly
at critical times, not infrequently have to take considerable
personal risks. It should be noted that one does not here
refer to cases of unnecessary hardship. The difficulty is, that
each has, or should have, his own work, which no other can
perform equally well — at least, without some slight prepara-
tion. Moreover, that all-round physical development here im-
plied, which is so desirable in itself, is practically impossible
for those who have to devote themselves constantly to any
specialised form of labour, whether physical, or mental, or
both.

Such considerations may seem irrelevant, as they plainly
refer to existing conditions, while Mr. Spencer claims only

' vSee ch. vi., § 39.



304 History of Utilitarianism.

that the due performance of all physiological functions will be
a moral duty in the ideal, or completely evolved, society. But
why is it that a perfectly normal physical life — implying, as
Mr. Spencer would say, ' the due performance of all physio-
logical functions ' — is impossible for the great majority at the
present time ? The principal reason would seem to be that
very tendency toward specialisation of physical and mental
activities, which is the most characteristic feature of modern
civilisation. How far specialisation should go, is, of course,
a perfectly fair, and indeed a very serious, question ; but is
it conceivable that future generations will succeed in doing
away with specialisation, either altogether or in any large
measure ? If not, Mr. Spencer's physiological ideal will hardly
be attainable even in a society ' completely evolved ' — what-
ever that may mean.

So far, as will be remembered, we have left out of account
strictly moral considerations. When we take the point of
view of Ethics proper, it becomes evident that a necessary
result of increasing specialisation has been a great increase in
the complexity of human relations — including, of course,
moral relations. More and more it has become morally re-
prehensible, even if not socially impossible, for a man to ' live
unto himself alone, or die unto himself alone '. Will this
complexity of human relations decrease as social evolution
approaches its goal — granting that there is any definite, and
therefore stationary, goal } If not, we shall apparently have
to remain to the end ' members of one body,' whether one take
this as the language of Christian theology or that of the most
recent Evolutional Ethics, with its fundamental conception of
society as an organism. Hence, from the strictly ethical point
of view, it would seem still more improbable, that the in-
dividual member of the society of the future will necessarily
have either the duty or the privilege of duly performing-
all physiological functions.

We must now examine the second principal thesis which
Mr. Spencer defends in this chapter on the ' biological view '
of morality. This, as will be remembered, is : that pleasures



Herbo't Spencer. 305

and pains will finally become so adjusted to the performance
of special functions, that each will exactly correspond to acts
to be performed or avoided. This may seem like trenching on
the field of psychology ; but the author urges that this im-
mediate connection between feeling and function must be
considered here, since it has played such an important part
in organic evolution. Among the lower animals, indeed, a
fair degree of adaptation such as that described must be as-
sumed, since without it a given animal species would tend to
become extinct. Through the different stages of human civ-
ilisation, however, it must be confessed that this adjustment
has been far from perfect. This has been mainly due to the
necessity of a continuous partial readjustment to continually
changing conditions of life. But when the final stage of
evolution is reached, the adjustment will be perfect ; and
hence the immediate pleasures and pains accompanying func-
tions will be a safe indication as to whether they are to be
performed or avoided. In fact, as Mr. Spencer explicitly says,
in the passage previously quoted, actions will then be com-
pletely moral, only if they are immediately pleasurable to the
agent, as well as calculated to bring future pleasures to himself
and others.

This very argument for what Mr. Spencer would call com-
plete ' asstho-physiological ' adaptation in the future, tends to
bring out in strong relief the difficulties of his conception of
the perfectly evolved society. These we shall have to touch
upon almost immediately ; but it seems necessary to pause
a moment, in order to note another example of the habit which
the author has of running one principle into another. The
only excuse, as he himself admits, for introducing psychical
phenomena at this point, is that the immediate connections
between pleasures and pains and the performance of particu-
lar physiological functions play a very important part in
organic evolution itself. Now, after arguing that this kind
of adjustment will become perfect in the completely evolved
condition of man, he draws, as a sort of corollary, the ethical
conclusion that when such perfect adjustment obtains, moral

20



3o6 History of UtilitarianiSDi.

actions will be immediately pleasurable to the agent, as well
as ultimately pleasant in their effects on the agent and others.
This is a radically different principle, involving the whole
moral nature of the completely evolved man, for it is too
plain to admit of argument, that the rightness or wrongness
of a moral action of any consequence involves very different,
and generally much more complicated, considerations than
does the due performance of any particular physiological
function, considered as such. Otherwise expressed : granting
that immediate pleasures and pains, connected with the per-
formance of physiological functions, should become even in-
fallible hygienic guides for the individual, they would not
necessarily, or even conceivably, be therefore trustworthy
guides to the complete satisfaction of the agent himself,
according to any recognised form of Egoism ; and they would
wholly leave out of account the moral relations of the agent
to others. It is disconcerting to find such inadvertencies in a
* scientific ' treatment of Ethics.

Let us now pass on to our delayed examination of the
general difficulties involved in Mr. Spencer's conception of an
ideal, or completely evolved, society. Such an examination
seems necessary here, for this is the first time in the Data
of Ethics that he has allowed himself to base an important
argument on the assumed certainty of an ideal society in the
remote future ; and the question immediately arises, whether
his conception of the ideal society has become more definite
since the publication of Social Statics. There is nothing,
in the present volume, at any rate, to indicate this. The ideal
society is still regarded merely as a society composed of
individuals completely adjusted to their environment. In our
examination of Social Statics, we saw that this conception of
the complete adjustment of man to his environment involved
serious difficulties, of which the author took no account.
Roughly speaking, these were : that man is constantly, and
in many cases materially, changing even his physical
environment ; and, secondly, that what we may call the
' psychical ' environment of any group, whether larger or



Herbert Spencer. 307

smaller, is subject to still greater modificatioil. In short, we
saw that while, for organic evolution, the environment is
relatively stationary, and not too complex for fairly adequate
comprehension, the total (physical and ' psychical ') environ-
ment to which the completely evolved man is to become
perfectly adapted, is so largely a matter of his own creation —
so constantly changing, and by no means necessarily always
in the direction of improvement ^ — that the perfect adaptation
or adjustment predicted is difficult even to conceive.

Now in the Data of Ethics, where, of course, the author
attempts to do justice to both the ' dynamic ' and the ' static '
view of morality, these difficulties, so far from diminishing,
become considerably accentuated. We have seen that Mr.
Spencer admits, with his usual candour, that the adjustment
of immediate pleasures and pains to the performance of parti-
cular physiological functions is less reliable in man than in
the lower animals, and less reliable in a high civihsation, up to
the present, than in the original savage condition of man ;
and he suggests what is doubtless the true explanation, that
the continually changing conditions of life have necessitated
continuous partial readjustment. This, observe, is considering
the matter from what Mr. Spencer, at any rate, would call the
merely biological point of view. The ' changing conditions
of life ' referred to are not modifications in his environment
produced by man himself, but the changmg conditions in-
volved in the development of humanity from a savage, and
therefore wholly militant, condition to a completely civilised,
and therefore wholly industrial, condition, through the rather
complicated transitional condition of militant-industrialism
in which we find ourselves at present. The fact that all this
involves a good deal that is peculiar to Mr. Spencer's socio-
logical views, may be neglected for the present. But what
we must insist upon observing is, that perfect adjustment
(whether of the particular kind which we have been consider-
ing, or any other) has hitherto been impossible, on the author's

^ Cf. periods of decadence in history. But Mr. Spencer despises the ' gossip '
of history.



3o8 History of Utilitarianism,

own showing, because society as a whole has never — crystal-
lised. One must be pardoned for the physical comparison,
since no other would exactly express the sinister meaning.
The actual attainment of a stationary goal, no matter how
many aeons ahead, would mean, not highest life, but death —
this from the point of view of sociology, but much more from
the point of view of Ethics.

This is the really fatal objection ; but, leaving out of view
all such difficulties, however unsurmountable, and assuming
for the moment that the complete adaptation of man to his
environment is no more difficult to conceive than a correspond-
ingly perfect adaptation of a given animal species to its
merely physical environment, the very serious question re-
mains : By what ' factors of evolution ' is such complete
adjustment to be effected .-' Natural selection, which plays
such an important — even if not, as some have claimed, a
nearly all-important — part in organic evolution proper, is
largely done away with in civilised human society. The ' un-
fit ' are not allowed to be eliminated by the simple, if ruthless,
methods of nature, owing to our deeply-rooted conviction of
the sanctity of human life. We shall, indeed, find that Mr.
Spencer's later interpretation of the principle of Justice makes
it largely consist in letting the individual take the natural
consequences of his actions ; but, as just pointed out, the all-
important consequence, elimination or death as the result
of ' unfitness,' is not permitted. The possibility of the perfect
adaptation of man to his environment, therefore, would seem
to depend almost entirely upon the * inheritance of acquired
characteristics '. If the increment of adaptation to environ-
ment, which has taken place in the individual (in this case,
the human) organism, as a result of its life-experience, can be
transmitted in part to offspring, then a constant progress in
the direction of complete adaptation may conceivably go on
without the operation of natural selection ; otherwise, appar-
ently not

So far as the present writer is aware, this ' factor ' of evolu-
tion (' inheritance of acquired characteristics ') had hardly



Herbert Spencer. 309

been called in serious question at the time when the Data of
Ethics was published (1879), though there had, of course, been
the greatest diversity of opinion as to its relative importance.
One would be far from assuming that Weismann has entirely
proved the non-inheritance of acquired characteristics ; but,
so far as an outsider can judge of the results of this highly
technical controversy, they have at least gone to show that
this principle must be employed with very much greater
caution than has been customary hitherto. To have an ethical
postulate of the last importance for his system practically
depend upon a biological principle by no means universally
recognised, is certainly an unfortunate predicament for one
who would found a ' scientific ' Ethics.

The interesting chapter in which Mr. Spencer sets forth
his ' psychological view ' of morality need not detain us long.
In terms of his own psychological system, which it is wholly
unnecessary to criticise here, he traces briefly the develop-
ment of motives from the lowest, such as would appeal to
organisms barely endowed with sentiency, to the most com-
plex, re-representative, or ideal, that can appeal to the highly
civihsed man. This development from simple to complex,
from what we call ' lower ' to what we call ' higher ' motives,
manifestly implies an increasing degree of subordination of
present to future ends. " Hence," as the author says, " there
arises a certain presumption in favour of a motive which refers
to a remote good, in comparison with one which refers to a
proximate good." ^ But he very properly argues that this
presumption must not be transformed into an ascetic dogma.
The feelings, e.g., which prompt one to comply with the funda-
mental requirements of health, may, and often do, have as
high an authority as any. Moreover, one must admit that it
is quite possible to go too far in subordinating present to
future good.

The earliest regulation of human conduct, we are told, is
by means of three external controls, political, religious, and

^ See ch. vii., § 42.



3IO History of Utilitarianism.

social. These, for the most part, operate simultaneously,
leading men to subordinate proximate satisfactions to remote
satisfactions ; yet it must be observed that they do not con-
stitute the moral control proper, but are only preparatory to
it — " are controls within which the moral control evolves ".
Mr. Spencer says : " The restraints properly distinguished as
moral, are unlike these restraints out of which they evolve,
and with which they are long confounded, in this — they refer
not to the extrinsic effects of actions but to their in-
trinsic effects " y His meaning is made plain by the con-
text : motives truly moral cannot spring from a foresight
of rewards or punishments that may be expected at the
hands of the State, of one's fellow men, or even of a Divine
Being ; they are constituted by representations of conse-
quences which the acts naturally produce. He says : " These
representations are not all distinct, though some of such are
usually present ; but they form an assemblage of indistinct
representations accumulated by experience of the results of
like acts in the life of the individual, super-posed on a still more
indistinct but voluminous consciousness due to the inherited
effects of such experiences in progenitors : forming a feeling
that is at once massive and vague ".

In further justification of this view, he quotes a passage from
his well-known letter to J. S. Mill, a part of which may be
given here, as it indicates his later ^ attitude toward Intuition-
ism. " Just in the same way that I believe the intuition of
space, possessed by any living individual, to have arisen from
organised and consohdated experiences of all antecedent
individuals who bequeathed to him their slowly-developed
nervous organisations — just as I believe that this intuition,
requiring only to be made definite and complete by personal
experiences, has practically become a form of thought, ap-

^ See ch. vii., § 45.

2 Not necessarily his latest. His "Inductions of Ethics" (Part II. of the
Principles, published in 1892) seem to imply throughout an unconditional re-
jection of Intuitionism, which is rather more than is expressed by the passage
here quoted.



Herbert Spencer. 311

parently quite independent of experience ; so do i believe
that the experiences of utility organised and consolidated
through all past generations of the human race, have been
producing corresponding nervous modifications, which, by
continued transmission and accumulation, have become in us
certain faculties of moral intuition — certain emotions respond-
ing to right and wrong conduct, which have no apparent
basis in the individual experiences of utility." ^

So much for the origin of what are taken to be particular
moral intuitions. How does there arise the feeling of moral
obligation in general ? We are told : " The answer is that it
is an abstract sentiment generated in a manner analogous to
that in which abstract ideas are generated ".- All particular
moral feelings have in common complexity and re-representa-
tive character, being occupied with the future rather than the
present. Hence ^ the idea of ' authoritativeness ' has come
to be connected with them, and this idea is naturally carried
over, so as to form an essential moment of the abstract senti-
ment of duty. But, besides authoritativeness, there is the
further, and apparently more characteristic, element of ' co-
erciveness . This has arisen mainly as the result of the



Online LibraryErnest AlbeeA history of English utilitarianism → online text (page 28 of 39)