Herbert Spencer: Principles of Ethics

AS early as 1842 Spencer indicated what he conceived to be certain general principles of right and wrong in political conduct, and from that time onwards his ultimate purpose was to find a scientific basis for the principles of right and wrong in conduct at large. He felt this to be an undertaking of pressing urgency, and this purpose was carried into effect with the Principles of Ethics, the first part of which was published in 1879 under the title of The Data of Ethics, and the concluding parts in 1893, the entire work having thus occupied Spencer's attention for a period of fifty years.


WHAT constitutes advance in the evolution of conduct as we trace it up from the lowest types of living creatures to the highest? It is the more numerous and better adjustment of acts to ends; for this not only furthers prolongation of life, but it also furthers increased amount of life. We must also recognize those adjustments which have for their final purpose the life of the species. It is an error to suppose, however, that either of these kinds of conduct can assume its highest form without its highest form being assumed by a third kind of conduct yet to be named. For beyond so behaving that each achieves his end without preventing others from achieving their ends, the members of a society may give mutual help in the achievement of ends, and thus their conduct may assume a yet higher phase of evolution.

The conduct to which we apply the name 'good' is the relatively more evolved conduct, and 'bad' is the name we apply to conduct which is relatively less evolved. We regard as good the conduct furthering self-preservation, and as bad the conduct tending to self-destruction. Parental conduct is called good or bad as it increases or decreases the power of perpetuating the species by fostering progeny. And the form of conduct is most emphatically termed good which is such that life may be completed in each and in his offspring, not only without preventing completion of it in others, but with furtherance of it in others. Conduct called good rises to the conduct conceived as best when it simultaneously achieves the greatest totality of life in self, in offspring and in fellow-men.

Analysis of the standards of the different moral schools shows that every one of them, whether perfection of nature is the assigned proper end of life, or virtuousness of action, or rectitude of motive, derives its authority from this postulate as its ultimate standard, that life is good or bad according as it does or does not bring a surplus of agreeable feeling. The implication common to their antagonist views is that conduct should conduce to preservation of the individual, of the family and of the society, only supposing that life brings more happiness than misery.

Let us consider them separately.

Perfection is synonymous with goodness in its highest degree, and hence to define good conduct in terms of perfection is to define good conduct in terms of itself.

Pass we now to the views of those moralists who make virtuousness of action the standard. If virtue is primordial and independent, no reason can be given why there should be any correspondence between virtuous conduct and conduct that is pleasure-giving in its total effects on self, on others, or on both; and if there is not a necessary correspondence, it is conceivable that the conduct classed as virtuous should be pain-giving in its total effects. Which is impossible; for examination will show that the conception of virtue cannot be separated from the conception of happiness-producing conduct.


IT is curious to see how views of life and conduct which originated with those who propitiated deified ancestors by self-tortures enter even still into the ethical theories of many persons who have years since cast away the theology of the past, and suppose themselves to be no longer influenced by it.

In the writings of one who rejects dogmatic Christianity together with the Hebrew cult which preceded it, a career of conquest costing tens of thousands of lives is narrated with a sympathy comparable to the rejoicing which the Hebrew traditions show us over destruction of enemies in the name of God. Along with the worship of the strong man, along with this yearning for a form of society in which the supremacy of the few is unrestrained, and the virtue of the many consists in obedience to them, we naturally find repudiation of the ethical theory which takes the greatest happiness as the end of conduct.

We not unnaturally find this utilitarian philosophy designated by the contemptuous title of 'pig-philosophy.' And then, serving to show what comprehension there has been of the philosophy so nicknamed, we are told that not happiness but blessedness must be the end. Obviously, the implication is that blessedness is not a kind of happiness. And this implication at once suggests the question--What mode of feeling is it? If it is a state of consciousness at all, it is necessarily one of three states--painful, indifferent, or pleasurable. Does it leave the possessor at the zero point of sentiency? Then it leaves him just as he would be if he had not got it. Does it not leave him at zero point? Then it must leave him above zero or below zero.

Each of these possibilities may be conceived under two forms. That to which the term 'blessedness' is applied may be a particular state of consciousness--one among the many states that occur, and on this supposition we have to recognize it as a pleasurable state, an indifferent state, or a painful state. Otherwise blessedness is a word not applicable to a particular state of consciousness, but characterises the aggregate of its states; and in this case the average of the aggregate is to be conceived as one in which the pleasurable predominates, or one in which the painful predominates, or one in which pleasures and pains exactly cancel one another.

What, now, shall we say of one who is for the time being blessed in performing a work of mercy? Is his mental state pleasurable? If so, blessedness is a particular form of happiness. Is the state indifferent or painful? In that case the blessed man is so devoid of sympathy that relieving another from pain either leaves him wholly unmoved, or gives him an unpleasant emotion. So that if blessedness is a particular mode of consciousness temporarily existing as a concomitant of each kind of beneficent action, those who deny that it is a pleasure, or constituent of happiness, confess themselves either not pleased by the welfare of others, or displeased by it.

Otherwise understood, blessedness must refer to the totality of feelings experienced during the life of one who occupies himself with the actions the word connotes. This also presents the three possibilities--surplus of pleasure, surplus of pains, equality of the two. If the pleasurable states are in excess, then the blessed life can be distinguished from any other pleasurable life only by the relative amount or the quality of its pleasures; it is a life which makes happiness of a certain kind and degree its end; and the assumption that blessedness is not a form of happiness lapses. If the blessed life is one in which the pleasures and pains received balance one another, or if it is one in which the pleasures are outbalanced by the pains, then the blessed life has the character which the pessimist alleges of life at large. Annihilation is best, he will argue; since if an average that is indifferent is the outcome of the blessed life, annihilation at once achieves it. And if a surplus of suffering is the outcome of this highest kind of life called blessed, still more should life in general be ended.

In conclusion, we may say that no school can avoid taking for the ultimate moral aim a desirable state of feeling called by whatever name--gratification, enjoyment, happiness. Pleasure somewhere, at some time, to some being or beings, is an inexpugnable element of the conception.

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