Chapter II: Naturalistic Ethics.

§ 32.

Whatever be the degree of Mr Spencer’s own guilt, what has just been said will serve to illustrate the kind of fallacy which is constantly committed by those who profess to base Ethics on Evolution. But we must hasten to add that the view which Mr Spencer elsewhere most emphatically recommends is an utterly different one. It will be useful briefly to deal with this, in order that no injustice may be done to Mr Spencer. The discussion will be instructive partly from the lack of clearness, which Mr Spencer displays, as to the relation of this view to the evolutionistic one just described; and partly because there is reason to suspect that in this view also he is influenced by the naturalistic fallacy. (§ 32 ¶ 1)

We have seen that, at the end of his second chapter, Mr Spencer seems to announce that he has already proved certain characteristics of conduct to be a measure of its ethical value. He seems to think that he has proved this merely by considering the evolution of conduct; and he has certainly not given any such proof, unless we are to understand that more evolved is a mere synonym for ethically better. He now promises merely to confirm this certain conclusion by shewing that it harmonizes with the leading moral ideas men have otherwise reached. But, when we turn to his third chapter, we find that what he actually does is something quite different. He here asserts that to establish the conclusion Conduct is better in proportion as it is more evolved an entirely new proof is necessary. That conclusion will be false, unless a certain proposition, of which we have heard nothing so far, is true—unless it is true that life is pleasant on the whole. And the ethical proposition, for which he claims the support of the leading moral ideas of mankind, turns out to be that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling (§ 10). Here, then, Mr Spencer appears, not as an Evolutionist, but as a Hedonist, in Ethics. No conduct is better, because it is more evolved. Degree of evolution can at most be a criterion of ethical value; and it will only be that, if we can prove the extremely difficult generalisation that the more evolved is always, on the whole, the pleasanter. It is plain that Mr Spencer here rejects the naturalistic identification of better with more evolved; but it is possible that he is influenced by another naturalistic identification—that of good with pleasant. It is possible that Mr Spencer is a naturalistic Hedonist. (§ 32 ¶ 2)