Here we are asked to recognize the reductio ad absurdum of Mr. Spencer's whole system of ethics. For our own part, we wholly fail to see where the absurdity comes in. If what we are in search of is a type to which all actions might advantageously conform, where, we ask, shall a better be found than this? What would the condition of society be if all the actions of men conformed to this type, blessing alike the doers and those toward whom the actions were directed? There is but one answer: it would be perfect. The end of all ethical self-discipline, the end of all social adjustments, is precisely to bring things as nearly as possible to this consummation. The good man, in the highest sense of the word, is he who loves his neighbor as himself; in other words, who desires that his action shall benefit his neighbor equally with himself, and not one neighbor only, but all neighbors, and who, therefore, regulates his actions with a view to universal utility. And in all social reforms what is it that we desire to bring about but this—that one man's gain shall not be another man's loss, but that the gain of one shall be the gain of all?
Mr. Smith places in contrast with the typical action chosen by Mr. Spencer the case of an Italian physician who courted the infection of a deadly plague in order that he might, for the benefit of his stricken fellow-citizens, the better understand and describe its symptoms and development. But is that the type to which we should wish all human actions to conform? That there should be such actions, we must, in the first place, have plagues; and in order that we may have plagues we must have ignorance and filth. Would it really be worth while to order these things, to the end that one Italian physician might, by an act of sublime self-sacrifice, shed one ray of light athwart the general gloom?
Mr. Smith says that, according to Mr. Spencer, "the action of the Italian physician. . . is ethically inferior to that of a Caffre woman suckling her child." This, however, is misleading. Though Mr. Smith speaks of actions, the contrast which his words suggest is between motives. When we want to estimate the quality of an action in relation solely to the doer, motive is everything; but, when we desire to estimate its intrinsic value as a link in the net-work of human activity, motive must be left out of sight. The motives of the Inquisitors were, we may presume, good, but their deeds were diabolical. The motive in this case was of the highest possible order; but, when the act was completed, a noble life had been sacrificed. How can an act which inwraps so much of irreparable loss be classed as perfect?