Chapter II: Naturalistic Ethics.

§ 33.

Let us examine Mr Spencer’s own words. He begins this third chapter by an attempt to shew that we call good the acts conducive to life, in self or others, and bad those which directly or indirectly tend towards death, special or general (§ 9). And then he asks: Is there any assumption made in so calling them? Yes; he answers, an assumption of extreme significance has been made—an assumption underlying all moral estimates. The question to be definitely raised and answered before entering on any ethical discussion, is the question of late much agitated—Is life worth living? Shall we take the pessimist view? or shall we take the optimist view?… On the answer to this question depends every decision concerning the goodness or badness of conduct. But Mr Spencer does not immediately proceed to give the answer. Instead of this, he asks another question: But now, have these irreconcilable opinions [pessimist and optimist] anything in common? And this question he immediately answers by the statement: Yes, there is one postulate in which pessimists and optimists agree. Both their arguments assume it to be self-evident that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling (§ 10). It is to the defence of this statement that the rest of the chapter is devoted; and at the end Mr Spencer formulates his conclusion in the following words: No school can avoid taking for the ultimate moral aim a desirable state of feeling called by whatever name—gratification, enjoyment, happiness. Pleasure somewhere, at some time, to some being or beings, is an inexpugnable element of the conception (§ 16 ad fin.). (§ 33 ¶ 1)

Now in all this, there are two points to which I wish to call attention. The first is that Mr Spencer does not, after all, tell us clearly what he takes to be the relation of Pleasure and Evolution in ethical theory. Obviously he should mean that pleasure is the only intrinsically desirable thing; that other good things are good only in the sense that they are means to its existence. Nothing but this can properly be meant by asserting it to be the ultimate moral aim, or, as he subsequently says (§ 62ad fin.), the ultimately supreme end. And, if this were so, it would follow that the more evolved conduct was better than the less evolved, only because, and in proportion as, it gave more pleasure. But Mr Spencer tells us that two conditions are, taken together, sufficient to prove the more evolved conduct better: (1) That it should tend to produce more life; (2) That life should be worth living or contain a balance of pleasure. And the point I wish to emphasise is that if these conditions are sufficient, then pleasure cannot be the sole good. For though to produce more life is, if the second of Mr Spencer’s propositions be correct, one way of producing more pleasure, it is not the only way. It is quite possible that a small quantity of life, which was more intensely and uniformly present, should give a greater quantity of pleasure than the greatest possible quantity of life that was only just worth living. And in that case, on the hedonistic supposition that pleasure is the only thing worth having, we should have to prefer the smaller quantity of life and therefore, according to Mr Spencer, the less evolved conduct. Accordingly, if Mr Spencer is a true Hedonist, the fact that life gives a balance of pleasure is not, as he seems to think, sufficient to prove that the more evolved conduct is the better. If Mr Spencer means us to understand that it is sufficient, then his view about pleasure can only be, not that it is the sole good or ultimately supreme end, but that a balance of it is a necessary constituent of the supreme end. In short, Mr Spencer seems to maintain that more life is decidedly better than less, if only it give a balance of pleasure: and that contention is inconsistent with the position that pleasure is the ultimate moral aim. Mr Spencer implies that of two quantities of life, which gave an equal amount of pleasure, the larger would nevertheless be preferable to the less. And if this be so, then he must maintain that quantity of life or degree of evolution is itself an ultimate condition of value. He leaves us, therefore, in doubt whether he is not still retaining the Evolutionistic proposition, that the more evolved is better, simply because it is more evolved, alongside the Hedonistic proposition, that the more pleasant is better, simply because it is more pleasant. (§ 33 ¶ 2)

But the second question which we have to ask is: What reasons has Mr Spencer for assigning to pleasure the position which he does assign to it? He tells us, we saw, that the arguments both of pessimists and of optimists assume it to be self-evident that life is good or bad, according as it does, or does not, bring a surplus of agreeable feeling; and he betters this later by telling us that since avowed or implied pessimists, and optimists of one or other shade, taken together constitute all men, it results that this postulate is universally accepted (§ 16). That these statements are absolutely false is, of course, quite obvious: but why does Mr Spencer think them true? and, what is more important (a question which Mr Spencer does not distinguish too clearly from the last), why does he think the postulate itself to be true? Mr Spencer himself tells us his proof is that reversing the application of the words good and bad—applying the word good to conduct, the aggregate results of which are painful, and the word bad to conduct, of which the aggregate results are pleasurable—creates absurdities (§ 16). He does not say whether this is because it is absurd to think that the quality, which we mean by the word good, really applies to what is painful. Even, however, if we assume him to mean this, and if we assume that absurdities are thus created, it is plain he would only prove that what is painful is properly thought to be so far bad, and what is pleasant to be so far good: it would not prove at all that pleasure is the supreme end. There is, however, reason to think that part of what Mr Spencer means is the naturalistic fallacy: that he imagines pleasant or productive of pleasure is the very meaning of the word good, and that the absurdity is due to this. It is at all events certain that he does not distinguish this possible meaning from that which would admit that good denotes an unique indefinable quality. The doctrine of naturalistic Hedonism is, indeed, quite strictly implied in his statement that virtue cannot be defined otherwise than in terms of happiness (§ 13); and, though, as I remarked above, we cannot insist upon Mr Spencer’s words as a certain clue to any definite meaning, that is only because he generally expresses by them several inconsistent alternatives—the naturalistic fallacy being, in this case, one such alternative. It is certainly impossible to find any further reasons given by Mr Spencer for his conviction that pleasure both is the supreme end, and is universally admitted to be so. He seems to assume throughout that we must mean by good conduct what is productive of pleasure, and by bad what is productive of pain. So far, then, as he is a Hedonist, he would seem to be a naturalistic Hedonist. (§ 33 ¶ 3)

So much for Mr Spencer. It is, of course, quite possible that his treatment of Ethics contains many interesting and instructive remarks. It would seem, indeed, that Mr Spencer’s main view, that of which he is most clearly and most often conscious, is that pleasure is the sole good, and that to consider the direction of evolution is by far the best criterion of the way in which we shall get most of it; and this theory, if he could establish that amount of pleasure is always in direct proportion to amount of evolution and also that it was plain what conduct was more evolved, would be a very valuable contribution to the science of Sociology; it would even, if pleasure were the sole good, be a valuable contribution to Ethics. But the above discussion should have made it plain that, if what we want from an ethical philosopher is a scientific and systematic Ethics, not merely an Ethics professedly based on science; if what we want is a clear discussion of the fundamental principles of Ethics, and a statement of the ultimate reasons why one way of acting should be considered better than another—then Mr Spencer’s Data of Ethics is immeasurably far from satisfying these demands. (§ 33 ¶ 4)