Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/The Morality of Happiness III

643337Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 February 1884 — The Morality of Happiness III1884Thomas Campbell Foster




IN its scientific aspect, then, as indicated by processes of evolution, conduct is good in proportion as it tends to increase the quantity and the fullness of life, bad in proportion as it exerts a contrary influence. Conduct may tend to increase life in its fullness directly or indirectly, proximately or remotely; and again conduct may in one aspect increase, while in another aspect it may diminish, the fullness and quantity of life: but our definition of good and bad conduct is not affected by such considerations. Just as a knife may be a good knife for cutting bread, and a bad knife for cutting wood, just as a business transaction may be good in relation to some immediate purpose, yet bad when remoter effects are considered, so can we truly apply to conduct the terms good and bad in reference to one set of considerations, even though we may have to invert the terms when conduct is considered in reference to another set of considerations. But always, in its scientific aspect, conduct is to be regarded as good where it increases life or the fullness of life, and bad where it tends the contrary way.

When we separate conduct ethically indifferent from conduct in its strict ethical aspect, it is convenient to substitute for the words good and bad the words right and wrong. But the change is slighter than at first sight it appears. Indeed, the more carefully the question of rightness or wrongness—the question of duty—is considered, the more thoroughly does the kind of conduct judged to be morally indifferent merge into that which we regard as praiseworthy or censurable.

Taking first those parts of conduct which relate directly to the quantity or to the fullness of individual life, we find that while the terms good and bad are freely applied to them, and even the terms right and wrong, they are, for the most part, regarded as morally indifferent. When we say you ought to do this or to refrain from that, the idea of duty is often not really present, so long as the act in question relates to a man's own life or its fullness. Even when we use words of praise or censure in relation to such acts, they do not imply that a moral obligation has been discharged or neglected. The reason doubtless is that, as a rule, men need little encouragement to look after those parts of their conduct which affect themselves and their own interests. For it may be observed that where it is likely there may be want of due care or wisdom in such matters, there we find distinct exceptions to the general rule just indicated. So far as quantity and fullness of life are concerned, the man who crosses a crowded thoroughfare carelessly, he who neglects his business, and he who wears insufficient or unsuitable clothes in cold and wet weather, act with as little propriety in their adjustments as is shown by the man who steadily drinks intoxicating liquors. But while none preach such duties as caution in street-crossing, prudence and energy in business, and care about clothing, at least as duties morally obligatory, quite a number of persons preach against steady and heavy drinking as against a moral offense. The Bible, indeed, does not, though it has many a word of advice against wine-bibbing; yet even in the Bible we find evidence of the early existence of total abstainers, and it is altogether unlikely that those ancient Blue-Ribbonists omitted to recognize sinfulness in all who did not share their views and follow their practices. Here we find evidence of the law of moral philosophy that a system of ethics, with recognition of moral rightness and wrongness, only begins to be formed where the best conduct (so far as fullness of life is concerned) runs the chance, for whatever reason, of being neglected, and inferior conduct followed. In this case, the best conduct is apt to be neglected because the increased fullness of life to which it conduces is more remote than the temporary increase of life fullness to which inferior conduct tends.

Yet, speaking generally, it may be said that, as Mr. Herbert Spencer puts it: "The ethical judgments we pass on self-regarding acts are ordinarily little emphasized; partly because the promptings of the self-regarding desires, generally strong enough, do not need moral enforcement, and partly because the promptings of the other self-regarding desires, less strong, and often overridden, do need moral enforcement."

When we turn to the life-regarding actions of the second class, those which relate to the rearing of offspring, we no longer find the words good and bad, right and wrong, used with doubtful meaning. Here the question of duty is clearly recognized. The conduct of parents, who, by neglecting to provide for their children's wants in infancy, diminish their chances of full and active life, or of life itself, is called bad and wrong not solely or chiefly because it is not favorable to the increase of life, but as open to moral censure. In like manner, men blame as really wrong, not merely unwise or ill-adjusted, such conduct as tends to make the physical and mental training of children imperfect or inadequate.

Still clearer, however, is the use of the words right and wrong as applied to conduct by which men influence in various ways the lives of their fellows. Here the adjustments suitable for increasing the fullness of individual life, or for fostering the lives of offspring (alike in quantity and fullness), are often inconsistent with the corresponding adjustments of others. The development by evolution of conduct tending to the advancement of individual lives or lives of offspring would of itself tend constantly to acts inconsistent with the well-being or even with the existence of others, were it not for the development (also brought about, as we have seen, by processes of evolution) of conduct tending to the increase of the quantity and fullness of life in the community. But there arises a constant conflict between tendencies to opposite lines of conduct. It is so essential for the welfare of the community that tendencies to advance the life interests of self and children should be in due subordination (which is not the same thing, be it noticed, as complete subordination) to tendencies leading to the furtherance of the fullness of life in others, that rules of conduct toward others than self or children have to be emphatic and peremptory in tone. Hence it is, as Mr. Spencer justly remarks, that the words good and bad have come to be specially associated with acts which (respectively) further the complete living of others and acts which obstruct their complete living.

We approach now the heart of the matter. We have seen how conduct has been evolved in the various races of living creatures, from the lowest to man the highest. We have learned how closely related are men's ideas of good and bad to that which is the chief end of all conduct—the preservation and extension of life. And we have found that while the conception of rightness and wrongness is not very marked in relation to conduct affecting self-life, it becomes clear and obvious in relation to conduct affecting the life of offspring, and attains its greatest definiteness and as it were emphasis in its application to conduct affecting the lives of others. Where the rules determining right and wrong in regard to the life of self, of offspring, and of others, come into conflict, as they must until social relations become perfect, the right in regard to self mostly gives way to right in regard to offspring, and both usually give way to right in regard to the rest of humankind. But in Mr. Spencer's words (I quote them with emphasis, because he has been so preposterously and indeed wickedly charged with teaching a very different doctrine) "the conduct called good rises to the conduct conceived as best, when it fulfills all three classes of ends at the same time."

But now the vital question of all comes before us.

We conceive as good or bad such conduct as conduces or the reverse to life and the fullness of life, in self and others. But is conduct of the one kind really good or conduct of the other kind really bad? Though good or bad with reference to that particular end, and though held to be right or wrong because that end is actually in view among men, may not conduct be differently judged when the nature of that end is considered? In other words, the question comes before us, Is life worth living? We need not take either the optimist view, according to which life is very good, or the pessimist view, according to which it is very bad. But each one of us from his experience as regards his own life, and from his observation (often most misleading, however) on the lives of others, may be led to hold that on the whole life is good, or that on the whole it is bad. Of course, in the very theory of the evolution of conduct, or rather in the series of observed facts demonstrating the evolution of conduct, we see that life and the fullness of life are fought for throughout nature as if they were good. In the highest race the love of life in self, which assumes that the life of others also is good, has attained its highest expression. "Everything that a man has he will give for his life," is a rule established rather than shaken by exceptions and the attention directed to such exceptions. Yet the mere fact that life is fought for by all, and that the struggle for life has been so potent a factor in the development of life, does not in itself prove life to be an actual good. Death comes not alone. To creatures full of life death comes in company with pain and suffering. It may be these which move all living creatures to struggle for life, and not mere fear of death.

Now, to the question, Is life worth living? it would be impossible to give an answer that would suit all. Probably there have not been two human beings since the world was made who, could they express their precise opinion on this point, would give precisely the same answer. Many whose whole lives have been full of sorrow and trouble, who have had occasion many times to say that man was born to sorrow, would yet, even taking survey of their own sad lives, say—life is sweet. That many whose own lives have been bitter enough, think yet that life is sweet, is shown by this, that among them have been found those who have done most to foster the lives of others. But many of them would say that life is sweet, speaking even from their own experience of life. And on the other hand many who are held by those around them to have had little sorrow, who from childhood to old age have scarce ever known pain or suffering, who have had more than their fill of the pleasures of life, and have escaped the usual share of life's afflictions, would speak of life as dull and dreary if not bitter. It has been indeed from such men that the doubting cry has come, Is life worth living? Men of more varied experience would give other answers to that vain question. All answers, indeed must be as idle as the question itself. Yet most men would give the answer which says most for the pleasantness of life—that, as a whole, life is neither bitter nor sweet, neither sharp nor cloying, but that it "has all the charm in bitter-sweetness found."

We are not concerned, however, to inquire what is the true answer to the question, Is life worth living? Though it is clear that if life is not worth living the observed action of evolution has been unfortunate, and the resulting laws of conduct are a mistake, while the reverse must be held if on the whole life is well worth living, yet, so far as our subject of inquiry is concerned, it matters not which view we take. That which is common to both views is all we have to consider. The man who holds that life is worth living, so thinks because he believes that the pleasures of life on the whole outweigh its pains and sorrows. The man who holds that life is not worth living does so because he thinks that the pains and sorrows of life outweigh its pleasures. So much is true independently of all ideas as to what are the real pleasures or the real pains of life, or whether life here is most to be considered or chiefly a future life with pleasures or pains far greater in intensity and in duration than any known here.

"Where or what the chief pleasures or pains of life may be, when or how long endured, in no sort affects the conclusion that life is to be considered worth living or the reverse according as happiness outvies misery or misery happiness, and that therefore the Tightness or wrongness of conduct must be judged not by its direct action on life and the fullness of life but by its indirect influence in increasing or diminishing the totality of happiness. To quote again the words of the great teacher who is so often misquoted and so much misunderstood:

"There is no escape from the admission that in calling good the conduct which subserves life, and bad the conduct which hinders or destroys it, and in so implying that life is a blessing and not a curse, we are inevitably asserting that conduct is good or bad according as its total[1] effects are pleasurable or painful."—Knowledge,

  1. I have ventured to emphasize this word (though the emphasis is not necessary for the ordinarily attentive), simply because so many have either actually misunderstood Mr. Spencer's saying here, or else have pretended to do so. The word emphasized makes the saying not only true, but (as it was intended to be) obviously true. Mr. Spencer is here purposely stating a truism, or what ought to be a truism. No matter what a man's doctrine in religious matters may be, no matter what his views as to a future state, the saying above quoted is absolutely true. It is true in small matters as well as in great. By overlooking the word "total," or by treating the saying as though for the word "total" the word "immediate" might honestly be substituted, the saying expresses what Carlyle contemptuously called pig-philosophy; but Spencer's actual saying is about as remote from pig-philosophy as any teaching well could be. It inculcates a philosophy more truly regardful of self than the sheerest egoism, more justly and beneficently regardful of others than the purest altruism.