Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/July 1884/The Morality of Happiness VI




IT will perhaps be sufficient, in response to numerous inquiries addressed to me respecting the supposed religious bearing of these papers, to remark that they are not intended to have any religious bearing whatsoever. I am simply inquiring what are the rules of conduct suggested when each person takes as his guiding principle the increase of the happiness of those around, an expression which must be taken as including himself in the same somewhat Hibernian sense in which Milton included Adam among "those since born, his sons." I may add that nearly all the letters addressed to me have been interesting, and some have been singularly well-reasoned—all utterly unlike the rather spiteful and very silly letters I referred to in a foot-note to my last paper. Yet I can not suffer the religious element to be imported into the subject—no matter how courteously or kindly the thing may be done. I have just the same objection to see the question of the evolution of conduct considered from that side, which the student of astronomy or geology has against dealing with the objections and difficulties raised by those who seem always to suspect that under the teachings of God's work, the universe, there may lie some grievous deceptions if not some monstrous falsehoods. If my reasoning is bad, it can be met and overcome on its own ground.

I may, however, make this general remark with regard to all systems of morality whatsoever, including those which have come before men in company with religious teachings. Without a single exception every one of these systems includes—and professes to include—features suitable to the special time and the special place when and where it was propounded. How much of any system may thus be regarded as local or temporary or both may be a moot point; but that some of each system is of that sort is absolutely certain. "Because of the hardness" of men's hearts the Mosaic system, for instance, had certain rules; and, because of the weakness of their hearts (who can doubt it?), the system which replaced that of Moses had certain other rules. The same is true of every system of conduct ever propounded. We may believe the rule sound and good in its own time and place, "Whosoever shall smite you on the right cheek turn to him the other also," and "If any man will sue thee at the law and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also." A man may believe these rules to be more than sound and good, to be of divine origin—yet recognize that in our own time, and here, in Europe or America, the rules would work ill. He who so taught recognized in the same way that other rules which had been good in their time had lost their virtue with changing manners. He knew where it is written, "Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," and so on; yet he only quoted these Scripture teachings to correct them—"But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever," etc. When he thus corrected what was "said by them of old time," he did not show disrespect—whatever the Scribes and Pharisees tried to make out—for the teachers of old time, whose words he read and expounded. He knew that "old times were changed," and therefore old manners and morals gone. He said, "Suffer little children to come unto me," and loved them, not teaching—as had seemed more convenient and was (let us believe) better, in earlier days—that the child would be spoiled unless diligently belabored with the rod.

These times and the races and the nations now most prominent on the earth are even more unlike the community in Palestine nineteen centuries ago, than that community was unlike the Jewish people in the days of the more ancient lawgiver. The opponents of evolution may prefer to believe that the human race has been stereotyped; but facts are a little against them. And even if we admitted the imagined fixedness of the human race for nineteen centuries, they would still have to explain the contradiction between two systems for both of which they find the same authority. Of course, there is no real or at least no necessary contradiction. Grant the human race to be what we know it to be, a constantly developing family, and the contradiction vanishes—we simply learn that what is best for one time is not best for another, even among one and the same people; how much more, then, must the best rules of conduct vary when different peoples as well as different times are considered!

All this, however, is a disgression, which should have been unnecessary, but has in a sense been forced on me by the misapprehensions of many well-meaning critics (and a few who are not well-meaning at all, but of the Honeythunder order, teaching the law of love by reviling and worse).

The duty which each man owes to himself in regard to the maintenance of his health, the development of his powers, and so forth, which becomes a duty to others when regarded with reference to those more immediately around him or dependent upon him, and is still manifestly a duty in relation to others where the advancement of the general well-being, so far as he can influence it, is considered, has another aspect when considered in reference to those classes (D and E)[1] whose encouragement or increase would be injurious to the body social. It is not only essential to the evolution of conduct in the right direction that those who may be classed as "men of good will "[2] should increase relatively in number and influence, but also that those who are either absolutely men of ill-will, or are so far not of good-will that they disregard the well-being of others, should be checked and discouraged.

This requirement for the evolution of the more altruistic kind of conduct involves in many cases—as a duty—conduct of a kind which the few real members of Class A and the many members of Class C who speak of themselves as belonging to Class A—regard as self-assertive. It becomes a duty, when the matter is viewed in this light, to assert just rights and resist wrongful claims. For, every act of carelessness or self-neglect in such matters tends to the encouragement of the less valuable or noxious classes which profit by it. It may be that to uphold just claims or resist wrong-doing may be less comfortable than to give way. In such a case the duty becomes an altruistic one, however egoistic the action based on the consideration of such duty may appear. But in a number of cases the claim upheld may be well worth upholding in itself, the wrong resisted may involve gross injury. In such a case the care of a personal right or the resistance of a wrong is, in itself, egoistic. Yet may it well be that the person concerned may esteem it better to give up the claim or to yield to the wrong, until he recognizes that the idea of self-sacrifice, however beautiful in itself, may involve a far-reaching wrong to the better members of the body social.

We touch here on considerations which are in question every day, almost every hour, of our lives.

Consider home-life, for example. In nearly every home there are those who are disposed to take unfair advantage of the rest; and they are far better restrained by the quiet resistance of their attempts than in any other way—certainly far better than by yielding, continued till nothing but the anger roused by some attempt, more barefaced than the rest, moves to resistance. We see this especially exemplified in the families of careless parents—unselfish perhaps in a sense, but really negligent of their duties. It has been said for this reason that unselfish parents have commonly selfish children, which seems contrary to the law of heredity, but illustrates rather the natural influence of defective training. The fact really is, that the children of selfish parents are as a rule more selfish in character than those of the unselfish; they grow up to be as unpleasant in their ways as the children of careless, unwatchful parents; and their unpleasantness is more apt to be permanent. Yet the unchecked ways of children whose parents yield unwisely to them, illustrate well on a small scale (even though happily the mischief is often transient) how the assertion of just claims, and the restraint of wrong-doing, involve a form of egoism which must be regarded as a duty.

In life outside the family, we constantly find the duty of resisting evil presenting itself in apparently egoistic aspect. In hundreds of ways the members of Class C show their readiness to become members of Class D and members of class D to develop their unpleasant ways. The adoption of considerate habits and care for the just claims of others in all the multitudinous details of our daily life, constantly lead to attempts by the selfish and obnoxious to take advantage of what they regard as mere weakness of disposition. In such cases, while it is by no means desirable to give up ways which are in themselves essential to the well-being of the society of which we form part, we must—as a duty—resist the encroachments of objectionable persons—not the less that the matter insisted upon is one to which we attach importance, so that our firmness has its egoistic aspect. Men are but children of a larger growth, and there is no surer or better way of eliminating at least the grosser forms of selfishness than by so resisting unjust claims that they—simply fail. This is the appropriate punishment—akin to that which Mr. Spencer regards (most justly in my opinion) as the only proper form of punishment for children, viz., punishment which is the direct consequence of ill conduct. Of course, it will happen that mere resistance of a wrong may bring definite punishment—directly or indirectly—to the wrong-doer; but (apart from such cases, in which we have to ask whether justice may not need to be tempered with mercy) all I would insist on is that the selfish, grasping, oppressive members of the body social should be so resisted that, whenever it is possible, they fail of their unfair purpose.

The rule applies in small matters as well as great. Mr. Spencer himself notes (though it is when dealing with selfishness specifically) a case of not infrequent occurrence, and perhaps of a trifling enough kind—the acted falsehood of railway-passengers who, by dispersed coats, make a traveler believe that all the seats in a compartment are taken when they are not. Here the detection and resistance of an attempted wrong, contemptible as it is, may excite some sense of shame in the wrong-doers, though conceivably not (for such wrongdoers are of a shameless sort); but the defeat of their purpose will at the least involve disappointment and serve as a discouragement from such attempts in the future. Of course, a very zealous opponent of the obnoxious section of society might not be content with what I here advocate as the simple line of duty in such cases. He might (as an earnest opponent of evil did—rather harshly I think—the other day) take on himself to punish as well as to resist evil; and having been met with the customary falsehood as to some article deposited in a vacant seat, might pitch it out of the window, with the remark that he would be responsible to the real owner when he appeared. But this is going beyond the strict line of duty in such matters.

It will appear manifest, I think, on careful consideration of the matter by any one who notes, for a few days or even hours, the course of events around him in his family and in society, that he who neglects to defend his own rights against the encroachments of Class D as well as of Class E, and of Class C as well as of Class D, fails as clearly in his duty to the social body as the parent who overlooks selfish and unruly conduct in his children. And just as the children themselves whose training is thus neglected have really just reason, did they but know what is good for them, to complain of such mistaken kindness, so even the more selfish (all but the members of Class E) have no less reason than the unselfish, did they but know their own interests, to desire that considerate but firm and self-regardful conduct should prevail throughout the body social.

It has been shown that care of self necessarily precedes care of others, because we must ourselves live if we are to benefit others. It has been shown further that if there is to be progress and improvement in the race, the superior must profit by their superiority, and so develop in numbers and influence, while the inferior because inferior become less and less predominant in the community. Further, it has appeared that while a society improves as it becomes constituted more and more largely of the better sort, this improvement depends in large part on those qualities of the individual members of society which depend on due care of self. In like manner it appears that in a society whose members are not duly regardful of self, misery arises from the excess of self-denial which ends by making those who practice it burdens on the rest of the community. Lastly, we have seen that due care of self is desirable, and neglect of the just rights of self injurious to the social body, because that undue care of self which is properly called selfishness, and leads either to negative or positive forms of wrong-doing, thrives and multiplies in a community where the better sort allow evil and oppression to pass unchecked by the due assertion of self-rights.

But now it is worth remarking that the line of reasoning which has been followed does not in reality indicate changed conduct. It reconciles the actual conduct of the better sorts of men with rules derived from observed facts and laws in regard to the development of conduct, and would tend to reconcile their conduct with their words, if men in general would but recognize the folly and danger of a system by which they have one set of rules on their lips and another for their actual guidance. As Mr. Herbert Spencer well puts it, the general conclusion to which we have been led, "though at variance with nominally accepted beliefs, is not at variance with actually accepted beliefs; while opposed to the doctrine which men are taught should be acted upon, it is in harmony with the doctrine which they do act upon and dimly see must be acted upon.... The laborer looking for wages in return for work done, no less than the merchant who sells goods at a profit, the doctor who expects fees for advice, or the priest who calls the scene of his ministrations a 'living,' assumes as beyond question the truth that selfishness, carried to the extent of enforcing his claims and enjoying the returns his efforts bring, is not only legitimate but essential. Even persons who avow a contrary conviction prove by their acts that it is inoperative. Those who repeat with emphasis the maxim, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' do not render up what they possess so as to satisfy the desires of all as much as they satisfy their own desires. Nor do those whose extreme maxim is, 'Live for others,' differ appreciably from people around in their regards for personal welfare, or fail to appropriate their shares of life's pleasures. In short, that which is set forth above as the belief to which scientific ethics lead us, is that which men do really believe, as distinguished from that which they believe they believe—or pretend they believe."

Which is better?—to proclaim with our lips rules of conduct which none of us really follow, and to denounce those who show that the rules which the best-minded among us really strive to follow are such as tend most to improve the condition of the body social, or frankly to recognize the just and equitable rules of conduct which after all are the real guides of the actions of all well-meaning men? Is it well or wise to discredit these fair and proper rules by setting up others which seem more self-sacrificing, but which none except a few abnormally-minded persons of no influence (objects of ill-concealed contempt among those who applaud such rules) actually strive to follow—rules, moreover, which if widely followed would inevitably bring misery on the community? For my own part I believe that the system by which rules no sane man follows are set up as the real laws of conduct, works most serious mischief, by discouraging many from the attempt to be consistently fair and just to those around them as well as to themselves. Of what use, they feel (rather than consciously think), is any attempt to be merely just and considerate, when still we fall far short of the standard set up for our guidance? Apart from this lies the direct mischief to character which necessarily arises from the confident expression of acceptance of rules which every man (except the few abnormal creatures I have mentioned) knows well that he does not follow, has never attempted to follow, and never intends to follow. Many are led, through their honest unwillingness thus to falsify their words by their actions, into an error of the opposite kind; preferring rather to maintain rules of conduct which have a selfish aspect, while their actual conduct is unselfish, than to ape a degree of disinterestedness which they do not possess, and which would (they know) be mischievous if really possessed and acted upon by any large proportion of the community.[3]

But, lastly, let it be noticed that just care for self does not imply necessarily less care for others, but often more. As a mere matter of fact, men who carefully consider their own just claims are found to be more considerate, as a rule, of the claims of others, than those who assert that men ought not to be careful to consider what their just claims are. Horace long since, in his famous ode beginning "Justum ac tenacem propositi virum," drew attention to the connection commonly existing between justice and firm maintenance of what is due to self. Of course, there are men who are unduly regardful of self, not being content with the maintenance of their own rights, but willfully infringing the rights of others. Equally are there some who while negligent of their own rights are considerate of those of others. But these are the exceptions. As a rule one may recognize in due regard for self-rights the same principle which displays itself otherwise in care for the rights of others. Considering social as distinguished from individual opinions, assuredly Mr. Spencer is justified in what he says on the egoistic excesses which often accompany excessive altruism: "A society in which the most exalted principles of self-sacrifice for the benefit of neighbors are enunciated, may be a society in which unscrupulous sacrifice of alien fellow-creatures is not only tolerated but applauded. Along with professed anxiety to spread these exalted opinions among heathens, there may go the deliberate fastening of a quarrel upon them with a view to annexing their territory. Men who every Sunday have listened aprovingly to injunctions carrying the regard for other men to an impracticable extent, may yet hire themselves out to slay, at the word of command, any people in any part of the world, utterly indifferent to the right or wrong of the matter fought about. And as in these cases transcendent altruism in theory co-exists with brutal egoism in practice, so conversely a more qualified altruism may have for its concomitant a greatly moderated egoism. For, asserting the due claims of self is, by implication, drawing a limit beyond which the claims are undue; and is, by consequence, bringing into greater clearness the claims of others."

We have next to consider the duty of caring for others, as it presents itself in connection with the morality of happiness.—Knowledge.

  1. See "Popular Science Monthly" for May, p. 109.
  2. It may not be generally known outside the Roman Catholic community that the message rendered in the authorized version of the New Testament "Peace and goodwill toward men," is otherwise rendered "Peace to men of good-will." The revised version reads "Peace among men in whom He is well pleased," which would in effect be nearer the Roman version.
  3. It is, by-the-way, rather remarkable that in proportion to the apparent zeal with which some maintain the doctrine of universal love is the intensity of hate which they express and doubtless feel (being in this at least, let us hope, honest) for those who differ from them. If the Honeythunder School of Philanthropists act seemingly on the principle, "Curse your souls and bodies come here and be blessed," these seem to adopt as their rule, "Let us hate with all our might those who will not allow us to love every one better than ourselves."