Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/August 1884/The Morality of Happiness VII




I ENTER now on a portion of my subject where I shall seem less at issue with those who repeat with their lips, and fancy they hold in their hearts (though they never think of following in their lives), certain rules of conduct in which due care of self is treated as objectionable and evil is spoken of as not to be resisted but encouraged. I shall still be at issue with those who assert, apparently without thinking—certainly without alleging any reasons—that conduct and duty are not matters for scientific discussion at all, that they have no scientific aspect, and that such considerations as the progress and improvement of life, the increase of the fullness and happiness of life, and so forth, have no bearing whatever, and should have none, on our opinion as to what is right or wrong. But we may very well afford to disregard objections having so little relation to actual facts. Every one really guides his conduct in large part by such considerations as many thus allege to have no proper bearing on conduct; nor can any one draw a line beyond which such considerations must not operate: when any one has tried to do so, and perhaps imagines he has succeeded, then I shall simply meet his objection with the remark that he need consider what I have said and what I may hereafter say as only applying to such parts of conduct as he has admitted to be within the range of scientific discussion.

Let us take, now, the doctrine that while due care of self comes to each man, and indeed to every creature having life, as essentially first, yet due care of others—though second to due care of self—is as absolutely essential. The two are interdependent—and that to such degree that neither can exist without the other. The great difference in the treatment which science has to extend to the two forms of duty—the egoistic and the altruistic—resides in this, that whereas in insisting on egoistic duties science is really insisting on what every normally-constituted man is already apt to attend to, in insisting on altruistic duties science is insisting on duties woefully neglected, despite the fervor with which they are verbally enjoined. Many reject egoistic duties in words, who look so carefully after their own interests in action that those who inculcate due care of self as a duty are ashamed to have to admit such utter selfishness as among the results (the wholesome fruits, as it were) of the process of development which conduct, like all things else, has undergone, is undergoing, and will ever continue to undergo. The truth is, that the careful study of what may be rightly sought and claimed for self is no unworthy preparation for due thought and care of others.[1]

Let us briefly trace the development of altruism.

In many of the lower forms of animal life, the acts which tend to race-maintenance are altruistic. The parent is sacrificed wholly or partially in the production of progeny. Nor even in the higher forms of life does this form of sacrifice disappear, though the very beginning of new existences may involve egoistic rather than altruistic relations. Unconsciously at first, but consciously afterward, and later still by definite actions to that end directed, the mother of each new member of even the human race divine sacrifices herself for her offspring. We may be said to imbibe altruism with our mothers' milk. Every act by which in babyhood our life was fostered was a practical exemplification of the doctrine that care of others is essential to the maintenance and progress of the race. To altruism each one of us owes life itself, and the human race owes its existence as certainly to altruism, though such altruism was secondary to egoism in its influence.

And note here, in passing, how development of conduct is related to this early altruistic care of the individual life. As certainly as a want of due care of self leads to the diminution of altruism, by causing those who are not duly egoistic to disappear from the scene of life and leave no successors or few, so does want of due care of others, in the nourishment and rearing of offspring, lead inevitably to the diminution and eventual disappearance of types not sufficiently altruistic. The careless, unloving mother is unconsciously doing her part in eliminating selfishness from the world (the process, however slow, is a sure one), for the child she neglects shares her nature, and must thrive less than a child of happier nature nursed and cared for by a more loving mother. In whatever degree individual instances may seem to tell against this process of evolution, in the average of many cases and through many generations the law must certainly tell.

Nor is this law limited to the influence of the parent who has most to do with the earlier years of life. Throughout childhood and in greater or less degree to the hour and even beyond the hour when each man and each woman begins to take part in the duties of life, and in most cases in the actual struggle for life, development depends on cares which will be well bestowed by unselfish parents, and so tend to increase the amount and fullness of unselfish life, while the selfish will neglect them, and so unconsciously help to eliminate (in the long run) the more selfish natures. It must be so if there is any truth in the doctrine of heredity, and the doctrine is not only true but is universally recognized: it is scarcely more clearly and certainly recognized now than it was by those who in old times made the pregnant proverb, full of old-world wisdom and experience, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Fathers and mothers who are selfish by nature rear with less care offspring who as certainly inherit their nature as the young of beasts of prey inherit the carnivorous tastes of those to whom they owe their lives. Hence, fortunately for the race—seeing how many egoistic tendencies are apt to be fostered in the struggle for life—a constant tendency to the elimination of the more selfish natures.

To this may be added the consideration that the ill-reared and unduly egoistic are less likely than those of more generous and altruistic nature to be found pleasing by those of the opposite sex, less likely therefore to marry, so that (speaking always of the average not of individual cases) there is yet another factor opposing the increase in number of the unduly egoistic.

Thus do we recognize on the one hand that within families a due degree of altruism is essential to the development of life and life's fullness, while on the other hand undue egoism tends directly in more ways than one to diminish happiness.

The best proof that such influence is exerted is found in the circumstance that in every advancing community the young are cared for with constantly-increasing care. Among savage races offspring receive few altruistic attentions. They are not reared in the full sense of the word. Almost from the beginning of their lives they have to take part in the struggle for life. In civilized communities they are cared for during many years, and they are better, more thoroughly, and more wisely, cared for, the more such communities advance. All this indicates and enables us to measure the development of altruism, so far as the family is concerned.

And that care of others in this case (i.e., within the family) is not only essential to the development of life and its fullness, but also to the happiness of self, will be clear if we consider the matter with the least attention. For the altruistic nature shown in the care of children is inherited by children and developed in them by such care. Hence, as Mr. Spencer well notes, there results such conduct on the part of children as "makes parenthood a blessing." Of the parent of children inheriting such natures and so reared, it may be said that, even in our days (to which the saying of the Hebrew Psalmist was not, I suppose, intended originally to apply), the man is blessed that hath his quiver full of them.[2] On the contrary, where the parents and therefore probably the children are of selfish nature, and the example set the children is unduly egoistic, parenthood is no blessing, and may well become a source of misery. What happens in this case? asks the philosopher whose treatment of the scientific aspect of duty we are following. "First the domestic irritations must be relatively great; for the actions of selfish children to one another and to their parents cause daily aggressions and squabbles. Second, when adult, such children are more likely than others to dissatisfy employers, alienate friends, and compromise the family by misbehavior, or even by crime. Third, beyond the sorrows thus brought on them, the parents of such children have eventually to bear the sorrows of neglected old age. The cruelty shown in extreme degrees by savages who leave the decrepit to starve is shown in a measure by all unsympathetic sons and daughters to their unsympathetic fathers and mothers; and these, in their latter days, suffer from transmitted callousness in proportion as they have been callous in the treatment of those around. Browning's versified story 'Halbert and Hob' typifies this truth."

We turn next from altruism in the family to altruism as an essential part of social conduct.

The relations within a family present on a small scale a picture of the relations among the members of a race or nation, as these in turn present a miniature of the relations between the different races and nations which form the human family. As men rise in the scale of being, they pass from the sense of duty within the family to the sense of duty between man and man throughout society, and thence—though as yet this development is very limited—to the sense of right between different races and nations. We have seen that undue care of self is self-injurious and eventually must be self-destructive in the family. There is a corresponding law for undue care of self in social relations, as there is (however persistently at present the vast majority of men overlook or fail to see the fact) for undue regard of self among the nations. We may mistakenly regard undue care of self in the body social as cleverness, aptitude for business, and so on; and we may mistakenly regard national selfishness as patriotism: but the process of evolution is as certainly working toward the elimination of one as of the other form of undue egoism.

The main condition of social welfare and of social progress is that the union which society implies shall work for the benefit of those associated. If the balance of effects resulting from association be evil, the body social must inevitably dissolve in the long run.

Now, by laws of greater or less severity the members of a race or nation may be compelled to recognize each others' claims. Or such recognition may be assured by the fear of retaliation if the claims of others are neglected. In such cases, however, the gain to each, or the egoistic advantage of association, is small. Enforced recognition of altruistic rights is in itself disagreeable. The more disagreeable it is the oftener will cases arise where the laws have to be called into operation (and their operation is by our supposition painful), or where retaliatory action is aroused, with waste of energy and disagreeable effects on either side. A society so restrained is held together by but weak bands, and is ill fitted to support itself against external enemies. Internal co-operation for the benefit of the community can not be active under such circumstances. The products of labor are insecure. Moreover, whatever has to be done in the way of self-protection or of the safeguarding of property is so much withdrawn from the advancement of the general interests of the body social.

We have only to consider the condition of any European country, our own included, in the good old times which so many ignorant persons regret as a sort of golden age, to see how unsatisfactory must be the state of a nation in which only a stern code of laws, or the dread of retaliation, protects each against the undue egoism of his fellows. Internal wrong-doing and the necessity for constant struggle to resist such wrong-doing made each nation unstable. Our good old England was invaded and conquered over and over again in consequence of instability so produced. From long before the invasions by Saxon hordes under pirate chieftains to long after the invasion by Normans under the bastard descendant of the pirate chief Rollo, England was made wretched and miserable by constant contests, having their origin invariably in that undue egoism which we now call rapine and plunder. None—not even the most powerful—were secure. The castles we find so picturesque and romantic, the battles which seem glorious, the chivalry in which we see so much splendor, all tell us of a state of barbarism, of abject misery for the majority, of magnificent discomfort for the powerful. In the unsafety of those days, however, resided the certainty that the undue egoism of "the good old times" would by a natural process of evolution be eliminated. It is not yet fully eliminated; probably centuries will elapse before it is even in great part got rid of; but it is manifestly much reduced. We still have laws to protect us against wrong-doing, but the worst wrong-doers—those who of yore were the principal component parts of the body politic—no longer exist in the same way as of old. A much larger proportion of the social body recognize regard for others as a duty; no inconsiderable proportion recognize it as a pleasure; and, what is of more importance still, men recognize the advantage of encouraging these changed tendencies.

These changes have come on so gradually that few consider how important they really are. It is not too much to say that a large proportion of the Englishmen of our day would find life not worth living if the old state of things were restored; if, for instance, life and property and reputation became as insecure now as in the days of the Plantagenets, the Tudors, or even the Stuarts.

And here it may be noticed that those who neglect the consideration that they form part of the social body and refrain from the taking due part in maintaining a healthy social state suffer from the defective arrangements which they permit to remain uncorrected. We see this in very marked degree in America, though it can be recognized clearly—far too clearly—in our own country. There the best men keep out of politics for a reason which rightly understood should make all the best men take most anxious interest in politics. Because in America offices are too often filled by mere adventurers, because bribery and corruption are rife, and because fraudulent conduct is common among politicians, therefore should it be held the duty of every right-minded American to do his best to enforce the wholesome changes so obviously required—as they might be enforced if so many of the best Americans were duly altruistic. But as a matter of fact the very circumstance which should arouse all the best in America to vigorous action is made the chief reason for withdrawing from public duties.

In our own country the same undue egoism shows itself in another and a scarcely less mischievous form. The individual members of the community find relief in the thought that social duties may be handed over to government. It seems easier to talk laws into existence for getting things done than to do them. The laws are easily passed, but the doing of what is necessary passes in a great number of cases into the hands of men not nearly so much interested in the doing of it as those who passed the laws appointing them to the work—nay, often by the very nature of the laws so passed, interested rather in delaying than in pushing on the work.

As Mr. Spencer well puts it, the man who thus shirks the duties which he owes to the community of which he forms part, who plumes himself on his wisdom in minding his own business, "is blind to the fact that his own business is made possible only by maintenance of a healthy social state, and that he loses all round by defective governmental arrangements. When there are many like minded with himself—when, as a consequence, offices come to be filled by political adventurers, and opinion is swayed by demagogues—when bribery vitiates the administration of the law and makes fraudulent state transactions habitual; heavy penalties fall on the community at large, and among others on those who have thus done everything for self and nothing for society. Their investments are insecure; recovery of their debts is difficult; and even their lives are less safe than they would otherwise have been. So that on such altruistic actions as are implied, firstly in being just, secondly in seeing justice done between others, and thirdly in upholding and improving the agencies by which justice is administered, depend, in large measure, the egoistic satisfactions of each."

Apart from dangers directly affecting life and property, those resulting from undue egoism in business relations show the necessity of just altruism for the welfare and happiness of the social body. Not only is it well for each to recognize the rights of others, but each is interested in securing due recognition of altruistic rights by his fellows. The evils resulting from business frauds affect the welfare of the community. To quote the illustrative cases cited by Mr. Spencer, "The larger the number of a shopkeeper's bills left unpaid by some customers, the higher must be the prices which other customers pay; the more manufacturers lose by defective raw materials or by carelessness of workmen, the more must they charge for their fabrics to buyers. The less trustworthy people are, the higher rises the rate of interest, the larger becomes the amount of capital hoarded, the greater are the impediments to industry; the further traders and people in general go beyond their means, and hypothecate the property of others in speculation, the more serious are those commercial panics which bring disasters on multitudes and injuriously affect all."—Knowledge.

  1. Even the doctrine so many preach but so few practice, "Care for others as for self," would be somewhat unsatisfactory if our care of self was insufficient; it ought, then, to run, "Neglect the rights of others as you are careless of your own."
  2. So only that it be not so full as to give the little arrows but a narrow space to turn in; for so can not the young idea be daily taught to shoot.