Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/June 1890/Editor's Table
DOES MR. SPENCER INCULCATE SELFISHNESS?
WE print in our present number a letter from President David J. Hill, of the Baptist University of Rochester, in which an attempt is made to justify the statement contained in his book on the Social Influence of Christianity, and reproduced, with the sanction of Bishop Vincent, in The Chautauquan, that Mr. Spencer "advises us to follow our own self-interest, without concern for others, with the assurance that all will thus be happier, because more independent." If such a statement could be justified, President Hill would doubtless be highly qualified to perform the task. He has a high respect, he tells us, for Mr. Spencer's "ability as a thinker and sincerity as a man"; and we may presume that this high opinion has not been formed without adequate study of Mr. Spencer's works—such a study as would give ample command of illustrative passages in such a discussion as the present. The question now is: Has President Hill proved his case? Has he justified the damaging remark made by him in regard to Mr. Spencer's ethical system? We venture to say that he has not done so, but, on the contrary, has signally failed in his attempt. The reason is, that the facts are against him. Whether he is fully aware how much the facts are against him is a question we do not undertake to decide; but it us to us hardly probable that he would even try to maintain his present position if thoroughly informed on the point at issue.
Dr. Hill tells us that, in the lecture in which the passage challenged by us occurred, he was drawing attention to the two hurtful extremes of undiscriminating charity and complete egoism, as represented by Herbert Spencer; and that it was thus that he came to say that "some counselors, like Herbert Spencer, advise us to follow our own self-interest without concern for others, with the assurance that all will be thus happier because more independent." The intention to make Mr. Spencer the representative of a more or less repulsive moral doctrine is thus avowed. What, then, is the proof that Mr. Spencer advocates any such doctrine? Dr. Hill points us to a passage in which Mr. Spencer uses some of the words employed to summarize his teaching. But, in the passage in question (Data of Ethics, page 227), Mr. Spencer is not giving any counsel; he is simply making two suppositions and drawing a conclusion from each. These are his words: "Suppose that each citizen pursues his own happiness independently, not to the detriment of others, but without active concern for others; then their united happiness constitutes a certain sum—a certain general happiness. Now suppose that each, instead of making his own happiness the object of pursuit, makes the happiness of others the object of pursuit; then again there results a certain sum of happiness." He goes on to show that it is impossible any general gain could result from the neglect of one's own happiness in the pursuit of that of others. What proof is there here that he would not wish us to interest ourselves in the welfare of our neighbors? The whole drift of the chapter (entitled Trial and Compromise) in which the above passage is found is to show that absolute egoism and absolute altruism alike defeat the ends in view: the absolutely egoistic man fails to make himself happy, and the absolutely altruistic man fails to make others happy; therefore, some compromise between the two principles is necessary. Not to go any further than this we find Mr. Spencer's position sufficiently defined. He does not stand, as Dr. Hill would have his readers believe, for "the emphasis of egoism": what he emphasizes, and that over and over again, is the necessity for a due blending of egoism and altruism.
But Dr. Hill has other proofs. He quotes Mr. Spencer as saying that there is "a permanent supremacy of egoism over altruism." True; and how does Mr. Spencer explain the words? Let us quote: "The acts by which each maintains his own life must, speaking generally, precede in imperativeness all other acts of which he is capable. . . . The acts required for continued self-preservation, including the enjoyment of benefits achieved by such acts, are the first requisites to universal welfare. Unless each duly cares for himself, his care for all others is ended by death; and if each thus dies, there remain no others to be cared for." Then follow the words which Dr. Hill relies on to help his case: "This permanent supremacy of egoism over altruism is further made manifest," etc. Now, here we have it fully explained that by "supremacy" is meant priority in time and precedence in biological importance. How is this to be twisted into an exhortation "to follow our own self-interest, without concern for others"?
Dr. Hill further asserts Mr. Spencer's teaching to be that "each creature shall take the benefits and evils of its own nature, be they those derived from ancestry or those due to self-produced modifications." This is not quite correctly put, though the error is probably not intentional on Dr. Hill's part. Mr. Spencer does not say that "each creature shall," etc., but that there is a law in nature, which, however it maybe qualified, can not be essentially changed, that "each creature shall," etc. The distinction is not without importance; as quoted by Dr. Hill, Mr. Spencer seems to be laying down a law in the spirit of a legislator, whereas he is only announcing a law in the tone of a discoverer. Now, if Dr. Hill does not believe there is any such law as Mr. Spencer announces and formulates, let him say so; the controversy will then turn on the interpretation to be given to the history of mankind. But, again, let Mr. Spencer explain himself: "Any arrangements which in a considerable degree prevent superiority from profiting by the rewards of superiority, or shield inferiority from the evils it entails—any arrangements which tend to make it as well to be inferior as to be superior—are arrangements diametrically opposed to the progress of organization and the reaching of a higher life." Is this true or not? Again, is it true, or not true, that "general happiness is to be achieved mainly through the adequate pursuit of their own happiness by individuals; while, reciprocally, the happinesses of individuals are to be achieved in part by their pursuit of the general happiness"? We say it is true; but we do not agree with Dr. Hill, who says that "the center of concern for each one is here his own happiness, with only so much regard for the happiness of others as is likely to reflect happiness." Mr. Spencer is not discussing "the center of concern," but the best conditions for the production of general happiness; and his position can only be traversed by showing that the conditions he asserts to be the best are not the best. Unless this can be done, what is the use of talking about "the center of concern"? It will be observed by the careful reader that what Mr. Spencer postulates in the first half of the above sentence is adequate pursuit of one's own happiness. The word is well and happily chosen, and gives the key, we may say, to the whole thought of the writer on the point involved. The adequate pursuit of one's own happiness is one thing; the inordinate or selfish pursuit of it is quite another.
Dr. Hill quotes a passage from Social Statics, and draws from it the conclusion that Mr. Spencer "shows no concern for those who need our charity because they can not help themselves." The conclusion is not justified, in our opinion, by the text. On the contrary, the whole passage is expressive of sympathy with suffering, and there is nothing in Mr. Spencer's system to check the relief of suffering except where to do so would be to entail greater subsequent suffering. Quoting from Mr. Spencer a passage in which he says, "Without wishing to restrain philanthropic action, but quite contrariwise," etc., Dr. Hill comments on it as follows: "I understand by this that Mr. Spencer has no wish to restrain philanthropy; but he does not claim any wish to promote charity." We certainly do not so understand the words "quite contrariwise"; we think they do imply a desire on Mr. Spencer's part to promote any charity that will be truly philanthropic and not hurtful in its effects. "As he views it," says Dr. Hill, "true philanthropy is best expressed by non-interference." Mr. Spencer has never said anything to justify this remark; but he has said that non-interference is better than a good deal of the interference that calls itself charitable. Dr. Hill tells us in conclusion that he is aware that his words—those referred to by us last month—"can be so interpreted as to represent Mr. Spencer as indifferent to human beings other than himself; but that," he adds, "is not my meaning." If Dr. Hill was aware, when he penned the words in question, that they could be so interpreted, he should in common fairness have guarded against such a misapprehension. If, on the other hand, he has only now become aware that they are open to a wrong interpretation, he should hasten to say that he should not have used such words.
Up to this point we have been examining what Dr. Hill offers as his proofs that Herbert Spencer advises us "to follow our own interest without concern for others"; it remains now to glance at a few of the numerous passages which show in the most positive and conclusive manner that Herbert Spencer holds no such principle as that imputed to him, but, on the contrary, earnestly desires that we should concern ourselves for one another, and that sympathy should govern in all human relations. It is very singular indeed that these passages should have missed, if they did miss, Dr. Hill's scrutiny; and more singular still, if he was cognizant of them, that he should not have considered that any of them had a bearing on the question at issue. We must devote the remainder of our space mainly to quotations. To show what he understands by moral motives, Mr. Spencer says (Data of Ethics, page 121): "The man who is moved by a moral feeling to help another in difficulty, does not picture to himself any reward here or hereafter, but pictures only the better condition he is trying to bring about. One who is morally prompted to fight against a social evil has neither material benefit nor popular applause before his mind; but only the mischiefs he seeks to remove, and the increased well-being which will follow their removal." Then take the following as indicating his ideal of social life: "A society is conceivable formed of men living perfectly inoffensive lives, scrupulously fulfilling their contracts, and efficiently rearing their offspring, who yet, yielding to one another no advantages beyond those agreed upon, fall short of that highest degree of life which the gratuitous rendering of services makes possible. . .. The limit of evolution of conduct is consequently not reached until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others" (Data of Ethics, page 147). "Sympathy is the root of both justice and benevolence" (do., page 148).
Any one wishing to know what scope Mr. Spencer allowed to the altruistic principle would naturally turn to the chapter in his Data of Ethics entitled Altruism versus Egoism. Dr. Hill did net find it in the interest of his argument to make any quotations from that chapter; we must, therefore, be allowed to produce a few: "That any one should have formulated his experience by saying that the conditions to success are a hard heart and a good digestion is marvelous, considering the many proofs that success, even of a material kind, greatly depending as it does on the good offices of others, is furthered by whatever creates good-will in others. The contrast between the prosperity of those who to but moderate abilities join natures which beget friendships by their kindliness, and the adversity of those who, though possessed of superior faculties and greater acquirements, arouse dislike by their hardness or indifference, should force upon all the truth that egoistic enjoyments are aided by altruistic actions. This increase of personal benefit achieved by benefiting others is but partly achieved where a selfish motive prompts the seemingly unselfish act; it is fully achieved only when-the act is really unselfish. . . . Those (services) which bring more than equivalents are those not prompted by any thoughts of equivalents. For obviously it is the spontaneous outflow of good nature, not in the larger acts of life only, but in all its details, w r hich generates in those around the attachments prompting unstinted benevolence" (page 211). Not bad for a man who is credited in an article written by a college president, and selected by a bishop for the reading of young people whose opinions are in course of formation, with advising us "to follow our own interest without concern for others"! Not so bad this either: "If we contrast early poetry, occupied mainly with war and gratifying the savage instincts by descriptions of bloody victories with the poetry of modern times, in which the sanguinary forms but a small part, while a large part, dealing with the gentler affections, enlists the feelings of readers on behalf of the weak, we are shown that, with the development of a more altruistic nature, there has been opened a sphere of enjoyment inaccessible to the callous egoism of barbarous times" (page 215). We have marked many other passages for quotation, not in the Data of Ethics alone, but in other works of Mr. Spencer's as well, but our limits forbid the use of them. Enough has been produced, however, to prove to any unprejudiced reader that the accusation brought against Mr. Spencer of counseling selfishness is, as we said before, "absolutely without foundation," and does signal injustice to a man the whole of whose philosophy is so strongly inspired by a social motive. In the matter of moral science many people are to-day in the position in which men in general were some generations ago in relation to physical science. Just as the alchemists of a former time were bent on achieving the transmutation of metals, and the astrologists on reading in the stars the destinies of individuals and of states; and just as these precursors of the scientific workers of our time would have been greatly discouraged and would perhaps have abandoned their labors if persuaded that their methods were vain and their hopes visionary and unrealizable; so, if we may be allowed to say so, the pre-scientific or anti-scientific moralists of our own time are disposed to spurn any ethical system that is not transcendental in its character and does not nourish boundless hopes. Truth, however, is making its way in the world; and gradually all intelligent men will be led to see that better, wider, and more permanent results can be achieved by working on the moral lines laid down by science, than by striving, with the older philosophies and theologies, to scale the heaven of an unattainable virtue. Let us hope that the present discussion may have a little influence in this direction.