Herbert Spencer.

Justice: being part IV of The principles of ethics online

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subsequently stated, is regarded as expressing the primary
condition which must be fulfilled before the gi^eatest happiness
can be achieved by similar beings living in proximity. Kant
enunciates an a priori requirement, contemplated as iire-
spective of beneficial ends ; whereas I have enunciated this
a priori requirement as one which, under the circumstances
necessitated by the social state, must b^ conformed to for
achievement of beneficial ends.

The noteworthy distinction between the forms in which the
conception is presented is this. Though (on p. oG) Kant, by


saying that " there is only one innate rip:ht, the birthright of
freedom," clearly recognizes the positive element in the concep-
tion of justice ; yet, in the passages quoted above, the right of
the individual to freedom is repi-esented as emerging by implica-
tion fi-om the wrongfulness of acts which aggress upon this
freedom. The negative element, or obligation to respect limits,
is the dominant idea ; whereas in my own case the positive
element — the right to freedom of action — is represented as
primary ; while the negative element, resulting from the
limitations imposed by the pi*esence of others, is represented as
secondary. This distinction may not be without its significance ;
for the putting of obligation in the foreground seems natural to
a social state in which political restraints are strong, while the
putting of claims in the foreground seems natural to a social
state in which there is a greater assertion of individualitj.



The cotirse of Nature, "red in tooth and claw," lias been, on
a higlier plane, the course of civilization. Through " blood and
iron" small clusters of men have been consolidated into larger
ones, and these again into still larger ones, until nations have
been formed. This process, carried on everywhere and always
by brute force, has resulted in a history of wrongs upon wrongs :
savage tribes have been slowly welded together hj savage
means. We could not, if we tried, trace back the acts of
unscrupulous violence committed dui'ing these thousands of
years; and could we trace them back we could not rectify their
evil results.

Land-ownership was established during this process ; and if
the genesis of land-ownership was full of iniquities, they were
iniquities committed not by the ancestors of any one class
of existing men but by the ancestors of all existing men. The
remote forefathers of living Englishmen were robbers, who stole
the lands of men who were themselves robbers, who behaved iu
like manner to the robbers who preceded them. The usur-
pation by the Normans, here complete and there partial, was of
lands which, centuries before, had been seized, some by piratical
Danes and Norsemen, and some at an earlier time by hordes of
invading Frisians or old English. And then the Celtic owners,
expelled or enslaved by these, had in bygone ages themselves
expropriated the peoples who lived in the underground houses
here and there still traceable. What would hajDpen if we tried
to restore lands inequitably taken — if Normans had to give
them back to Danes and Norse and Frisians, and these again to
Celts, and these again to the men who lived in caves and used
flint implements ? The only imaginable form of the transaction
would be a restoration of Great Britain bodily to the Welsh
and the Highlandex's ; and if the Welsh and the Highlanders


did not make a kindred restoration, it conld only bo on the
ground that, having not only taken the land of the aborigines
but killed them, they had thus justified their ownership !

The wish now expressed by man 3 that land-ownership should
be conformed to the requirements of pure equity, is in itself
commendable ; and is in some men prompted by conscientious
feeling. One would, however, like to hear from such the
demand that not only here but in the various regions we are
peopling, the requirements of pure equity shouUl be conformed
to. As it is, the indignation against wrongful appropriations
of land, made in the past at home, is not accompanied by any
indignation against the more wrongful appropriations made
at present abroad. Alike as holders of the predominant political
power and as furnishing the rank and file of our armies, the
masses of the people are responsible for those nefarious doings
all over the world whicb end in the seizing of new territories
and expropriation of their inhabitants. The filibustering expe-
ditions of the old English are repeated, on a vastly larger scale,
in the filibustering expeditions of the new English. Yet those
who execrate ancient usurpations utter no word of protest
against these far greater modern usurpations — nay, ai'e aiders
and abettors in them. Remaining as they do passive and silent
while there is going on this universal land-grabbing which their
votes could stop ; and supplying as they do the soldiers who
effect it ; they are responsible for it. By deputy they are
committing in this matter grosser and more numerous injustices
than were committed against their forefathers.

That the masses of landless men should regard private land-
ownership as having been wrongfully established, is natural ;
and, as we have seen, they are not without warrant. But if we
entertain the thought of rectification, there arises in the first
place the question — which are the wronged and which are the
wrongers ? Passing over tlie primary fact that the ancestors
of existing Englishmen, landed and landless, were, as a body,
men who took the land by violence from previous owners ; and
thinking only of the force and fraud by which certain of these
ancestors obtained possession of the land while others of
them lost possession ; the preliminary question is — Which are
the descendants of the one and of the other ? It is tacitly
assumed that those who now own lands are the posterity of the
usurpers, and that those who now have no lands are the posterity
of those whose lands were usurped. But this is far from being
the case. The fact that among the nobility there are very few
•whose titles go back to the days when the last usurpations took
place, and none to the days when there took place the original
usurpations ; joined with the fact that among existing land-
owners there are many whose names imply artizan-ancestors;


slio-vr tliat -vre liave not now to deal wifh descendants of thorn
■who unjustly appropriated the h\nd. While, conversely, the
numbers of the landless T\-hose names prove that their fore-
fathers belono-ed to the hiahcr ranks (numbers ^vhich must be
doubled to take account of iuter-marriages with female descen-
dants) show that among those who are now without land, many
inherit the blood of the land-usurpers. Hence, that bitter
feeling towards the landed which contemplation of the past
generates in many of the landless, is in great measure mis-
placed. They are themselves to a considerable extent descen-
dants of the sinners ; while these they scoavI at are to a con-
sidera,ble extent descendants of the siuned-against.

But granting all that is said about past inequities, and leaving
aside all other obstacles in the way of an equitable re-arrange-
ment, there is an obstacle which seems to have been overlooked.
Even supposing that the English as a race gained posses.sion of
the land equitably, which they did not; and even supposing
that existing land-owners are the posterity of those who spoiled
their fellows, which in large part they are not ; and even sup-
posing that the existing landless are the posterity of the
despoiled, which in large part they are not; there would, still
have to be recognized a transaction that goes far to prevent
rectification of injustices. If we are to go back upon the past
at all, we must go back upon the past wholly, and take account
not only of that which the people at large have lost by priTato
appropriation of land, but also that which they have received in
the form of a share of the returns — we must take account, that
is, of Poor-Law relief. Mr. T. Mackay, author of The English
Poor, has kindly furnished me with the following memoranda,
showing something like the total amount of this since the 43rd
Elizabeth (1601) in England and Wales.

Sir G. Nicholls [History of Poor Law, appendix to Vol. II] ventures no
es-timate till 1688. At that date he puts the poor rate at nearly £700,000
a year. Till the beginning of this century the amounts are based more or
less on estimate.

1601-1630. say 3 millions.

1631-1700. [1688 Nicholls puts at 700,000.] 30

1701-1720. [1701 Kicholls puts at 900,000.] 20

1721-1760, [1760 Nicholls savs 1^ milhons.] 40

1761-1775. [1775 put at IJ mihions.] 22

1776-1800. [I78i 2 millious.] 50

1801-1812. [1803 4 millions ; 1813 6 millions.] G5 „

1813-1840. [based on exact figures given bv Sir G.

Nicholls.] 170 „

1841-1890. [based on Mulb all's Diet, of Statistics

and Statistical Abstract.] 334 „

734 milhons.
The above represents the amount expended in relief of the poor.


Under the goneml term "poor-rate," moneys have always
been collected for otlier purposes — county, borough, police rates,
&c. The following table shows the annual amounts of these in
connexion with the annual amounts expended on the poor.

Sir G.


Total levied.

In 1803. 5.348.000

„ 1813. 8.640.841

„ 1853. 6.522.412

Total spent.
Statistical J „ 1875. 12.G94.208

abstract. 1 „ 1889. 15.970.126

Expended on






Other pui-poscs


1.271.000 ?

1.990.735 ?

1.583.341 ?

Sum spent.

In addition, therefore, to sums set out in the first table, there is a further
sum, rising during the century from IJ to 7^ millions per annum ' for
other purposes.'

Mulhall on -whom I relied for figures between 1853 and 1875 does not give
" other expenditure."

Of course of the £734,000,000 given to the poorer members
of the landless class during three centuries, a part has arisen
from rates on houses; only such portion of which as is chargeable
against ground rents, being rightly included in the sura the land
has contributed. From a land-owner, who is at the same time
a Queon's Counsel, frequently employed professionally to arbi-
trate in questions of local taxation, I have received the opinion
that if, out of the total sum received by the poor, £500,000,000
is credited to the land, this will be an nnder-estimate. Thus
even if we ignore the fact that this amount, gradually con-
tributed, would, if otherv\ise gradually invested, have yielded
in returns of one or other kind a far larger sum, it is manifest
that against the claim of the landless may be set off a large claim
of the landed — perhaps a larger claim.

For now observe that the landless have not an equitable
claim to the land in its present state, — cleared, drained, fenced,
fertilized, and furnished with farm-buildings, &c., — but only to
the land in its primitive state, here stonj'- and there marshy,
covered with foi-est, gorse, heather, &c. : this only, it is, which
belongs to the community. Hence, therefore, the question
arises — What is the relation between the original "prairie
value " of the land, and the amount which the poorer among the
landless have received during these three centuries. Probably
the land-owners would contend that for the land in its primitive,
unsubdued state, furnishing nothing but wild animals and wild
fruits, £500,000,000 would be a high price.

-When, in Social Statics, published in 1850, I drew from the
law of equal freedom the corollary that the land could not
equitably be alienated from the community, and argued that,
after compensating its existing holders, it should be re-


appropriated bj tlie communify, I OTerlooTved fhe fores-oing
considerations. Moreover, I did not cloarlj see what wonld be
implied by the giving of compensation for all that valne which
the labour of ages has given to the land. While, as shown in
Chap. XL, I adhere to the inference originally drawn, that the
aggregate of men forming the commnnity are the supreme
owners of the land — an inference harmonizing with legal doc-
trine and daily acted upon in legislation — a fuller considera-
tion of the matter has led me to the conclusion that individual
ownership, subject to State-suzerainty, should be maintained. ■

Even were it possible to rectify the inequitable doings which
have gone on during past thousands of years, and by some
balancing of claims and counter-claims, past and present, to
make a re-arrangement equitable in the abstract, the resulting
state of things would be a less desirable one than the present.
Setting aside all financial objections to nationalization (which
of themselves negative the transaction, since, if equitably effected,
it would be a losing one), it suffices to remember the inferiority
of public administration to private administration, to see that
ownership by tlie State would work ill. Under the existing
system of ownership, those who manage the land, experience a
direct connexion between effort and benefit ; while, were it under
State-ownership, those who managed it would experience no
such direct connexion. The vices of officialism would inevitably
entail immense evils.



Some montlis after the first five cliapters of this volnma
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, thongh often challenged, has
never fully explained how, with his philosophy, he can take advantage of
the ordinary language and sentiment of mankind about duty. ... 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 recognise. 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 oufiht 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 laissez-faire which calmly looks on while men ruin them-
selves 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 neces-
sary processes."

As Mr. Davies forwarded to me a copy of The Guardian con-
taining his letter, my reply took the form of a letter addressed

272 ArPENDIX c.

to him, wLicTi appeared in The Guardian for Ang-ust 6. With
the exce[)tion. of an omitted part, relating to another matter, it
ran as follows : —

Fairfield, Pewscy, Wilts, July 24, 1800.
Dear Mr. Davies — The copy of the Guardian has ju=t 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 diSerences, you are both led to
the assumption that the idea of " duty" can have no other than a super-
natural origin.

This assumption implies that men's actions are determined only by re-
cognition of ultimate consequences, and that if recognition of ultimate con-
sequences 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 labour 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 sulHcient
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 con-
duct 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 irrita-
tion 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 feel'
ing 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 happuiess, 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 tliose
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.*— I am,
sincerely yours, tt o

"' '' Hekbert Spencer.

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 ]ettei% when published in The Guardian, there
appeared a rejoinder from Mr. Davies, which, omitting, as before,
a part concerning a ditlerent 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 retlectious which your letter sug-
gests to me.

* ♦ * * *

Most amply do I acknowledge the generous zeal for human welfare, the
indignation against oppression, shown by yourself and otliers who recognise
no supernatural sanction of morality. The Christianity of to-day owes much
to — has, I hope, really gained much from — your own humane ardour 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. I 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. Wliat I wish to know
is why, when the thought of duty comes in, a man should think himself
bjund 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

• In my letter as originally written, there followed two sentences which I omitted for
fear of provoking a controversy, lliiy ran thus:— "Even one of the religious i>npi'M
recognized the startling contravt hctwcfn the energy of those who do not profess Cliris-
tianity and the iiidiflercnce of who do. 1 way add that on going back some years
further you will find tliat a kindred contrast was implied by tlie constitution of th?
Jamaica Committee."


nature, you say, that makes the thoughtful parent good, that mal:es the
generous man sacrifice himself for the benefit of his fellowmen. 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 behaviour 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 tiring, nor how a man who knows that he acts only
for the gratification of his own desires can reasonably thi'ow 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 ques-
tions 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

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Online LibraryHerbert SpencerJustice: being part IV of The principles of ethics → online text (page 21 of 24)