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Having proclaimed this doctrine, Spencer seems rather acutely and unphilosophically conscious of opposition to it and immediately falls to work to demolish all other systems of ethics and all other possible tests of the virtuousness of human actions. He disposes, in quick succession, of the theory that perfection, or an ideal completeness of nature, can be a notion from which a system of moral guidance can be evolved; of the theory that excellence of action can be the standard of morals; of the intuitional theory; and of the supposition that blessedness in the results of actions can be a sufficient guide. The theologians, the legalists, the intuitionists and the utilitarians are all summarily despatched. Plato and Jonathan Edwards, Aristotle, Hobbes, and the Christian religion, all lie bleeding on the field together, and out of the smoke of battle gloriously emerges the philosophy that "virtue is to be defined in terms of happiness." Observations are to be made; it is to be determined what actions necessarily conduce to happiness; a philosophy is to be made out of these observations and the experiences of men, and this philosophy is to be the moral sense, and is the moral sense of man. Let Spencer, on this point, be his own interpreter. We quote from his letter to John Stuart Mill:
"Perhaps an analogy will most clearly show my meaning. During its early stages, planetary Astronomy consisted of nothing more than accumulated observations respecting the positions and notions of the sun and planets; from which accumulated observations it came by and by to be empirically predicted with an approach to truth that certain of the heavenly bodies would have certain positions at certain times. But the modern science of planetary Astronomy consists of deductions from the law of gravitation-deductions showing why the celestial bodies necessarily occupy certain places at certain times. Now the kind of relation which thus exists between ancient and modern Astronomy, is analogous to the kind of relation which, I conceive, exists between the ExpediencyMorality and Moral Science properly so called."
This is the highest point reached by Spencer's Ethics. The ingredients of his moral standard are, 1. The experiences
which show what actions have promoted general felicity. 2. The philosophy which shows why such actions necessarily produce felicity. Spencer does, indeed, explain that certain fundamental moral intuitions have been and are developing in the race, as the product of the accumulated experiences of countless generations. But by this he only means that there arises in the mind the abstract idea of moral, just as there arises the abstract idea of color. He does not mean that there is a moral se.se, a conscience, which impels men to do the actions which it approves as right, or to abstain from actions which it condemns as wrong. He appears to mean that from accumu lated experiences, the notion arises of a distinction in actions; some actions tending to happiness and others not tending to it, and the separation of the one kind of actions from the other, becomes to our thought habitual and automatic. In the same way that man gains the abstract notion of color, he gains the abstract notion, moral.
Let us see, then, if this philosophy really gives us a moral sense, or a system of ethics. Let us put together all the dif ferent elements which Spencer professes to obtain by evolution, and then let us see if they make up a serviceable conscience. The elements are these, experience, philosophy, habitual, or automatic action, an abstract idea. We have been under the necessity of giving a description of his so-called ethical system, and of collating all these, its constituent parts, from different chapters of his book, inasmuch as it is necessary to look at his system as a whole, in order to do it justice; and we have observed that among those who have written upon The Data of Ethics, the majority have taken up some one part of the system of Spencer, against which they have directed their objections, ignoring other elements which go to make up his system as a whole.
But, taking all these elements together, they do not, in our opinion, make an adequate moral system. We deny, in fact, that they make a moral system at all. There is everything here except a system of ethics. Spencer does not reach a moral sense. His history of evolution does not lead up to a
conscience. The only satisfaction he can give us, is the assurance that there is no such thing to be reached. We hear about the adaptation of acts to ends; about the production of general happiness being an end which makes the acts leading to it commendable; we hear about experience, and about philosophizing in regard to experience; we hear about an abstraction which man gains just as he gains an abstract idea of color; we have accumulated experiences of many generations assumed and called an intuition. But where, in all this, does ethics come in? We have everything but that. We have the play of Hamlet, but where is Hamlet?
Spencer begins with intelligent action, the adaptation of acts to ends. He shows intelligence subjected to a process which he calls evolution, but which is really education. Intelligence is taught to regard its own experience; to accumulate a vast number of experiences; to group them, classify them in a manner thoroughly scientific; to philosophize about them and proclaim rules of action. We have intelligence taught to act in a certain way habitually and automatically, to gain abstract ideas of things. All this is very beautiful and interesting. We are led over a winding path. There are many very pretty things to be seen by the wayside. There are many opportunities to go a little out of our way to give some moralist a "punching." There is plenty of diversion of various kinds. There is a good deal of stimulation of our curiosity to see what evolution will be up to next. We take delightful excursions into the fields of physics, biology, psychology, sociology; but the issue of all this is disappointing. We come out just about where we entered in. We started with intelligent action and we end with intelligent action. Nothing more. We have intelligent action trained, experienced, made habitual, taught to form abstract notions, but remaining simply intelligent action at the last. We have gone a long way without making any progress, without getting anywhere. And our conductor meanwhile is saying, "My dear friends, I am doing all this to convince you that there is nowhere in particular to go. The only thing you can do is to call the place you arrive at by a new name."
Spencer uses the words ethics, moral, good, bad, virtuous, vicious, quite as freely as a man would use them, if he were producing a system of ethics. But he has no intellectual right to them. When he speaks of moral action the thing which he thus names is intelligent action, and nothing else. When he uses the words good, virtuous, he means politic, or wise. And when he speaks of actions as bad, vicious, immoral, we are to understand that they are actions not intelligently adapted to certain ends. In the instances brought forward to illustrate the possible working of his system, Spencer omits invariably the moral consideration. The name he uses, but the thing itself is absent. He says: "Those who reprobate the adulterer on moral grounds, have their minds filled, not with ideas of an action for damages, or of future punishment following the breach of a commandment, or of loss of reputation; but they are occupied with ideas of unhappiness entailed on the aggrieved wile, or husband, the damaged lives of children, and the diffused mischiefs which go along with disregard of the marriage tie."
It is true that "those who reprobate the adulterer on moral grounds," may think of these things, (just as they may think of "an action for damages," or of future punishment following the breach of a commandment, or of loss of reputation,") but these are not moral grounds. The thought of the unhappiness entailed on the aggrieved wife, or husband, is no more moral ground than the thought of an action for damages and of future punishment. It may be a more important consideration, having reference to a more certain consequence, but it is no more a moral consideration than the others. We are at a loss to understand how Herbert Spencer, or any other thinking man, can make the contemplation of the unhappiness of an aggrieved wife, or husband, any more a moral consideration than the other consequences of adultery, an action at law for damages, or the future punishment of the adulterer. Those who reprobate the adulterer on moral grounds may think, at the same time, of a great many things. But the moral ground is the conviction that the adultery is wrong, not
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simply in regard to any of its consequences, but in the nature of it. We do not propose to account for this conviction. To do this would be to make a moral system of our own. The conviction exists. It was Spencer's business to account for it, and he has not done it. He has ignored it. We are not attempting to construct an ethical system for ourselves. We . are examining Herbert Spencer's attempt, and this attempt falls short of success. It produces a system, but the system is not ethical. It is philosophical. It deals with human action and proposes certain rules of action. But about the only thing it does not deal with, is morality.
Thus we see that Spencer does not really succeed in giving us an ethical system. It remains to be considered whether the system, such as it is, can ever adequately take the place of, or be a serviceable or practicable substitute for, a complete ethical system. Can we safely disregard our convictions as to the nature of actions, and be both efficiently and sufficiently guided by the consideration of their consequences? According to Mr. Spencer we can. According to his system, we have only to consider whether the proposed action makes for general happiness. If it does, it is efficiently and sufficiently moral.
In giving us this standard, Mr. Spencer raises an insuperable difficulty at the start. The standard is not a serviceable and practicable one. The judgment is separated too widely from the emergency. The necessity for action is imminent. A man at my side upon a scaffold loses his balance. Shall I rescue him, or let him fall? There is no time to ask whether he is not a sot and whether it may not be for the general happiness to let nature have her own way with him and break his neck. The judgment and the action must be instantaneous. Or, I am in a bank with a cashier and there is money exposed. The cashier turns his back for a single instant. I have no time to debate the question whether I cannot take the money and so use it that it shall advance the general happiness in a much more satisfactory way than it is likely to do if I leave it alone. I must decide in an instant. There is no time to