The Doctrine of Expediency
by Herbert Spencer
[Exerpted from the Introduction to "Social Statics" by Herbert Spencer, originally written in 1851.]
"GIVE us a guide," cry men to the philosopher. "We would escape from these miseries in which we are entangled. A better state is ever present to our imaginations, and we yearn after it; but all our efforts to realize it are fruitless. We are weary of perpetual failures; tell us by what rule we may attain our desire."
"Whatever is expedient is right;" is one of the last of the many replies to this appeal.
"True," rejoin some of the applicants. "With the Deity right and expedient are doubtless convertible terms. For us, however, there remains the question—which is the antecedent, and which is the consequent? Granting your assumption that right is the unknown quantity and expediency the known one, your formula may be serviceable. But we deny your premises; a painful experience has proved the two to be equally indeterminate. Nay, we begin to suspect that the right is the more easily ascertained of the two; and that your maxim would be better if transposed into—whatever is right is expedient."
"Let your rule be, the greatest happiness to the greatest number," interposes another authority."
"That, like the other, is no rule at all," it is replied; "but rather an enunciation of the problem to be solved. It is your 'greatest happiness' of which we have been so long and so fruitlessly in search; albeit we never gave it a name. You tell us nothing new; you merely give words to our want. What you call an answer, is simply our own question turned the right side up. If this is your philosophy it is surely empty, for it merely echoes the interrogation."
"Have a little patience," returns the moralist, "and I will give you my opinion as to the mode of securing this greatest happiness to the greatest number."
"There again," exclaim the objectors, "you mistake our requirement. We want something else than opinions. We have had enough of them. Every futile scheme for the general good has been based on opinion; and we have no guarantee that your plan will not add one to the list of failures. Have you discovered a means of forming an infallible judgment? If not, you are, for aught we can perceive, as much in the dark as ourselves. True, you have obtained a clearer view of the end to be arrived at; but concerning the route leading to it, your offer of an opinion proves that you know nothing more certain than we do. We demur to your maxim because it is not what we wanted—a guide; because it dictates no sure mode of securing the desideratum; because it puts no veto upon a mistaken policy; because it permits all actions—bad, as readily as good—provided only the actors believe them conducive to the prescribed end. Your doctrines of 'expediency' or 'utility' or 'general good' or 'greatest happiness to the greatest number' afford not a solitary command of a practical character. Let but rulers think, or profess to think, that their measures will benefit the community, and your philosophy stands mute in the presence of the most egregious folly, or the blackest misconduct. This will not do for us. We seek a system that can return a definite answer when we ask—'Is this act good?' and not like yours, reply—'Yes, if it will benefit you.' If you can show us such an one—if you can give us an axiom from which we may develope successive propositions until we have with mathematical certainty solved all our difficulties—we will thank you. If not, we must go elsewhere."
In his defence, our philosopher submits that such expectations are unreasonable. He doubts the possibility of a strictly scientific morality. Moreover he maintains that his system is sufficient for all practical purposes. He has definitely pointed out the goal to be attained. He has surveyed the tract lying between us and it. He believes he has discovered the best route. And finally he has volunteered as pioneer. Having done this, he claims to have performed all that can be expected of him, and deprecates the opposition of these critics as factious, and their objections as frivolous. Let us examine this position somewhat more closely.
Assuming it to be in other respects satisfactory, a rule, principle, or axiom, is valuable only in so far as the words in which it is expressed have a definite meaning. The terms used must be universally accepted in the same sense, otherwise the proposition will be liable to such various constructions, as to lose all claim to the title—a rule. We must therefore take it for granted that when he announced "the greatest happiness to the greatest number" as the canon of social morality, its originator supposed mankind to be unanimous in their definition of "greatest happiness."
This was a most unfortunate assumption, for no fact is more palpable than that the standard of happiness is infinitely variable. In all ages—amongst every people—by each class—do we find different notions of it entertained. To the wandering gipsy a home is tiresome; whilst a Swiss is miserable without one. Progress is necessary to the well-being of the Anglo-Saxons; on the other hand the Esquimaux are content in their squalid poverty, have no latent wants, and are still what they were in the days of Tacitus. An Irishman delights in a row; a Chinese in pageantry and ceremonies; and the usually apathetic Javan gets vociferously enthusiastic over a cock-fight. The heaven of the Hebrew is "a city of gold and precious stones, with a supernatural abundance of corn and wine;" that of the Turk—a harem peopled by houris; that of the American Indian—a "happy hunting ground;" in the Norse paradise there were to be daily battles with magical healing of wounds; whilst the Australian hopes that after death he shall "jump up a white fellow, and have plenty of sixpences." Descending to individual instances, we find Louis XVI. interpreting "greatest happiness" to mean—making locks; instead of which his successor read—making empires. It was seemingly the opinion of Lycurgus that perfect physical development was the chief essential to human felicity; Plotinus, on the contrary, was so purely ideal in his aspirations as to be ashamed of his body. Indeed the many contradictory answers given by Grecian thinkers to the question—What constitutes happiness? have given occasion to comparisons that have now become trite. Nor has greater unanimity been shown amongst ourselves. To a miserly Elwes the hoarding of money was the only enjoyment of life; but Day, the philanthropic author of "Sandford and Merton," could find no pleasurable employment save in its distribution. Rural quietude, books, and a friend, are the wants of the poet; a tuft-hunter longs rather for a large circle of titled acquaintance, a box at the Opera, and the freedom of Almack's. The ambitions of the tradesman and the artist are anything but alike; and could we compare the air castles of the ploughman and the philosopher, we should find them of widely-different orders of architecture.
Generalizing such facts, we see that the standard of "greatest happiness" possesses as little fixity as the other exponents of human nature. Between nations the differences of opinion are conspicuous enough. On contrasting the Hebrew patriarchs with their existing descendants, we observe that even in the same race the beau ideal of existence changes. The members of each community disagree upon the question. Neither, if we compare the wishes of the gluttonous school-boy with those of the earth-scorning transcendentalist into whom he may afterwards grow, do we find any constancy in the individual. So we may say, not only that every epoch and every people has its peculiar conceptions of happiness, but that no two men have like conceptions; and further, that in each man the conception is not the same at any two periods of life.
The rationale of this is simple enough. Happiness signifies a gratified state of all the faculties. The gratification of a faculty is produced by its exercise. To be agreeable that exercise must be proportionate to the power of the faculty; if it is insufficient discontent arises, and its excess produces weariness. Hence, to have complete felicity is to have all the faculties exerted in the ratio of their several developments; and an ideal arrangement of circumstances calculated to secure this constitutes the standard of "greatest happiness;" but the minds of no two individuals contain the same combination of elements. Duplicate men are not to be found. There is in each a different balance of desires. Therefore the conditions adapted for the highest enjoyment of one, would not perfectly compass the same end for any other. And consequently the notion of happiness must vary with the disposition and character; that is, must vary indefinitely.
Whereby we are also led to the inevitable conclusion that a true conception of what human life should be, is possible only to the ideal man. We may make approximate estimates, but he only in whom the component feelings exist in their normal proportions is capable of a perfect aspiration. And as the world yet contains none such, it follows that a specific idea of "greatest happiness" is for the present unattainable. It is not then to be wondered at, if Paleys and Benthams make vain attempts at a definition. The question involves one of those mysteries which men are ever trying to penetrate and ever failing. It is the insoluble riddle which Care, Sphinx-like, puts to each new comer, and in default of answer devours him. And as yet there is no Œdipus, nor any sign of one.
The allegation that these are hypercritical objections, and that for all practical purposes we agree sufficiently well as to what "greatest happiness" means, will possibly be made by some. It were easy to disprove this, but it is unnecessary, for there are plenty of questions practical enough to satisfy such cavillers, and about which men exhibit none of this pretended unanimity. For example:
— What is the ratio between the mental and bodily enjoyments constituting this "greatest happiness"? There is a point up to which increase of mental activity produces increase of happiness; but beyond which, it produces in the end more pain than pleasure. Where is that point? Some appear to think that intellectual culture and the gratifications deriveable from it can hardly be carried too far. Others again maintain that already amongst the educated classes mental excitements are taken in excess; and that were more time given to a proper fulfilment of the animal functions, a larger amount of enjoyment would be obtained. If "greatest happiness" is to be the rule, it becomes needful to decide which of these opinions is correct; and further to determine the exact boundary between the use and abuse of every faculty.
— Which is most truly an element in the desired felicity, content or aspiration? The generality assume, as a matter of course, that content is. They think it the chief essential to well-being. There are others, however, who hold that but for discontent we should have been still savages. It is in their eyes the greatest incentive to progress. Nay, they maintain that were content the order of the day, society would even now begin to decay. It is required to reconcile these contradictory theories.
— And this synonyme for "greatest happiness"—this "utility"—what shall be comprised under it? The million would confine it to the things which directly or indirectly minister to the bodily wants, and in the words of the adage "help to get something to put in the pot." Others there are who think mental improvement useful in itself, irrespective of so-called practical results, and would therefore teach astronomy, comparative anatomy, ethnology, and the like, together with logic and metaphysics. Unlike some of the Roman writers who held the practice of the fine arts to be absolutely vicious, there are now many who suppose utility to comprehend poetry, painting, sculpture, the decorative arts, and whatever aids the refinement of the taste. Whilst an extreme party maintains that music, dancing, the drama, and what are commonly called amusements, are equally worthy to be included. In place of all which discordance we ought to have agreement.
— Whether shall we adopt the theory of some that felicity means the greatest possible enjoyment of this life's pleasures, or that of others, that it consists in anticipating the pleasures of a life to come? And if we compromise the matter, and say it should combine both, how much of each shall go to its composition?
— Or what must we think of this wealth-seeking age of ours? Shall we consider the total absorption of time and energy in business—the servitude of the mind to the needs of the body—the spending of life in the accumulation of the means to live, as constituting "greatest happiness," and act accordingly? Or shall we legislate upon the assumption that this is to be regarded as the voracity of a larva assimilating material for the development of the future psyche?Similar unsettled questions might be indefinitely multiplied. Not only therefore is an agreement as to the meaning of "greatest happiness" theoretically impossible, but it is also manifest, that men are at issue upon all topics, which for their determination require defined notions of it.So that in directing us to this "greatest happiness to the greatest number," as the object towards which we should steer, our pilot "keeps the word of promise to our ear and breaks it to our hope." What he shows us through his telescope is a fata morgana, and not the promised land. The real haven of our hopes dips far down below the horizon and has yet been seen by none. It is beyond the ken of seer be he never so farsighted. Faith not sight must be our guide. We cannot do without a compass.
§ 3.Even were the fundamental proposition of the expediency system not thus vitiated by the indefiniteness of its terms, it would still be vulnerable. Granting for the sake of argument, that the desideratum, "greatest happiness," is duly comprehended, its identity and nature agreed upon by all, and the direction in which it lies satisfactorily settled, there yet remains the unwarranted assumption that it is possible for the self-guided human judgment to determine, with something like precision, by what methods it may be achieved. Experience daily proves that just the same uncertainty which exists respecting the specific ends to be obtained, exists likewise respecting the right mode of attaining them when supposed to be known. In their attempts to compass one after another the several items which go to make up the grand total, "greatest happiness," men have been anything but successful; their most promising measures having commonly turned out the greatest failures. Let us look at a few cases.
When it was enacted in Bavaria that no marriage should be allowed between parties without capital, unless certain authorities could "see a reasonable prospect of the parties being able to provide for their children," it was doubtless intended to advance the public weal by checking improvident unions, and redundant population; a purpose most politicians will consider praiseworthy, and a provision which many will think well adapted to secure it. Nevertheless this apparently sagacious measure has by no means answered its end; the fact being that in Munich, the capital of the kingdom, half the births are illegitimate!
Those too were admirable motives, and very cogent reasons, which led our government to establish an armed force on the coast of Africa for the suppression of the slave trade. What could be more essential to the "greatest happiness" than the annihilation of the abominable traffic? And how could forty ships of war, supported by an expenditure of £700,000 a year, fail to wholly or partially accomplish this? The results have, however, been anything but satisfactory. When the abolitionists of England advocated it, they little thought that such a measure instead of preventing would only "aggravate the horrors, without sensibly mitigating the extent of the traffic;" that it would generate fast-sailing slavers with decks one foot six inches apart, suffocation from close packing, miserable diseases, and a mortality of thirty-five per cent. They dreamed not that when hard pressed a slaver might throw a whole cargo of 500 negroes into the sea; nor that on a blockaded coast the disappointed chiefs would, as at Gallinas, put to death 200 men and women, and stick their heads on poles, along shore, in sight of the squadron1. In short, they never anticipated having to plead as they now do for the abandonment of coercion.
Again, how great and how self-evident to the artisan mind, were the promised advantages of that trades-union project, whereby master manufacturers were to be dispensed with! If a body of workmen formed themselves into a joint-stock manufacturing company, with elective directors, secretary, treasurer, superintendents, foremen, &c., for managing the concern, and an organization adapted to ensure an equitable division of profits amongst the members, it was clear that the enormous sums previously pocketed by the employers, would be shared amongst the employed to the great increase of their prosperity. Yet all past attempts to act out this very plausible theory have, somehow or other, ended in miserable failures.
Another illustration is afforded by the fate which befel that kindred plan recommended by Mr. Babbage in his "Economy of Manufactures," as likely to be to the benefit of the workmen and to the interest of the master; that namely, in which factory hands were to "unite together, and have an agent to purchase by wholesale those articles which are most in demand; as tea, sugar, bacon, &c., and to retail them at prices which will just repay the wholesale cost, together with the expenses of the agent who conducts their sale." After fourteen years' trial a concern, established in pursuance of this idea, was "abandoned with the joint consent of all parties;" Mr. Babbage confessing that the opinion he had expressed "on the advantage of such societies was very much modified," and illustrating by a series of curves "the quick rise and gradual decline" of the experimental association.
The Spitalfields weavers afford us another case in point. No doubt the temptation which led them to obtain the Act of 1773, fixing a minimum of wages, was a strong one; and the anticipations of greater comfort to be secured by its enforcement must have seemed reasonable enough to all. Unfortunately, however, the weavers did not consider the consequences of being interdicted from working at reduced rates; and little expected that before 1793, some 4000 looms would be brought to a stand in consequence of the trade going elsewhere.
To mitigate distress appearing needful for the production of the "greatest happiness," the English people have sanctioned upwards of one hundred acts in Parliament having this end in view, each of them arising out of the failure or incompleteness of previous legislation. Men are nevertheless still discontented with the Poor Laws, and we are seemingly as far as ever from their satisfactory settlement.
But why cite individual cases? Does not the experience of all nations testify to the futility of these empirical attempts at the acquisition of happiness? What is the statute-book but a record of such unhappy guesses? or history but a narrative of their unsuccessful issues? And what forwarder are we now? Is not our government as busy still as though the work of law-making commenced but yesterday? Has it made any apparent progress toward a final settlement of social arrangements? Does it not rather each year entangle itself still further in the web of legislation, confounding the already heterogeneous mass of enactments into still greater confusion? Nearly every parliamentary proceeding is a tacit confession of incompetency. There is scarcely a bill introduced but is entitled "An Act to amend an Act." The "Whereas" of almost every preamble heralds an account of the miscarriage of previous legislation. Alteration, explanation, and repeal, form the staple employment of every session. All our great agitations are for the abolition of institutions purporting to be for the public good. Witness those for the removal of the Test and Corporation Acts, for Catholic Emancipation, for the repeal of the Corn Laws; to which may now be added, that for the separation of Church and State. The history of one scheme is the history of all. First comes enactment, then probation, then failure; next an amendment and another failure; and, after many alternate tinkerings and abortive trials, arrives at length repeal, followed by the substitution of some fresh plan, doomed to run the same course, and share a like fate.
The expediency-philosophy, however, ignores this world full of facts. Though men have so constantly been balked in their attempts to secure, by legislation, any desired constituent of that complex whole, "greatest happiness," it nevertheless continues to place confidence in the unaided judgment of the statesman. It asks no guide; it possesses no eclectic principle; it seeks no clue whereby the tangled web of social existence may be unravelled and its laws discovered. But, holding up to view the great desideratum, it assumes that after an inspection of the aggregate phenomena of national life, governments are qualified to concoct such measures as shall be "expedient." It considers the philosophy of humanity so easy, the constitution of the social organism so simple, the causes of a people's conduct so obvious, that a general examination can give to "collective wisdom," the insight requisite for law-making. It thinks that man's intellect is competent, first, to observe accurately the facts exhibited by associated human nature; to form just estimates of general and individual character, of the effects of religions, customs, superstitions, prejudices, of the mental tendencies of the age, of the probabilities of future events, &c., &c.; and then, grasping at once the multiplied phenomena of this ever-agitated, ever-changing sea of life, to derive from them that knowledge of their governing principles which shall enable him to say whether such and such measures will conduce to "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
If without any previous investigation of the properties of terrestrial matter, Newton had proceeded at once to study the dynamics of the universe, and after years spent with the telescope in ascertaining the distances, sizes, times of revolution, inclinations of axes, forms of orbits, perturbations, &c., of the celestial bodies, had set himself to tabulate this accumulated mass of observations, and to educe from them the fundamental laws of planetary and stellar equilibrium, he might have cogitated to all eternity without arriving at a result.
But absurd as such a method of research would have been, it would have been far less absurd, than is the attempt to find out the principles of public polity, by a direct examination of that wonderfully intricate combination—society. It needs excite no surprise when legislation, based upon the theories thus elaborated, fails. Rather would its success afford matter for extreme astonishment. Considering that men as yet so imperfectly understand man—the instrument by which, and the material on which, laws are to act—and that a complete knowledge of the unit—man, is but a first step to the comprehension of the mass—society, it seems obvious enough that to educe from the infinitely-ramified complications of universal humanity, a true philosophy of national life, and to found thereon a code of rules for the obtainment of "greatest happiness" is a task far beyond the ability of any finite mind.
Yet another fatal objection to the expediency-philosophy, is to be found in the fact, that it implies the eternity of government. It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last for ever. The institution marks a certain stage of civilization—is natural to a particular phase of human development. It is not essential but incidental. As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government; so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct. Already has it lost something of its importance. The time was when the history of a people was but the history of its government. It is otherwise now. The once universal despotism was but a manifestation of the extreme necessity of restraint. Feudalism, serfdom, slavery—all tyrannical institutions, are merely the most vigorous kinds of rule, springing out of, and necessary to, a bad state of man. The progress from these is in all cases the same—less government. Constitutional forms mean this. Political freedom means this. Democracy means this. In societies, associations, joint-stock companies, we have new agencies occupying fields filled in less advanced times and countries by the State. With us the legislature is dwarfed by newer and greater powers—is no longer master but slave. "Pressure from without" has come to be acknowledged as ultimate ruler. The triumph of the Anti-Corn-Law League is simply the most marked instance yet, of the new style of government—that of opinion, overcoming the old style—that of force. It bids fair to become a trite remark that the lawmaker is but the servant of the thinker. Daily is statecraft held in less repute. Even the Times can see that "the social changes thickening around us establish a truth sufficiently humiliating to legislative bodies," and that "the great stages of our progress are determined rather by the spontaneous workings of society, connected as they are with the progress of art and science, the operations of nature, and other such unpolitical causes, than by the proposition of a bill, the passing of an act, or any other event of politics or of state."2 Thus, as civilization advances, does government decay. To the bad it is essential; to the good, not. It is the check which national wickedness makes to itself and exists only to the same degree. Its continuance is proof of still-existing barbarism. What a cage is to the wild beast, law is to the selfish man. Restraint is for the savage, the rapacious, the violent; not for the just, the gentle, the benevolent. All necessity for external force implies a morbid state. Dungeons for the felon; a strait-jacket for the maniac; crutches for the lame; stays for the weak-backed; for the infirm of purpose a master; for the foolish a guide; but for the sound mind, in a sound body, none of these. Were there no thieves and murderers, prisons would be unnecessary. It is only because tyranny is yet rife in the world that we have armies. Barristers, judges, juries—all the instruments of law—exist, simply because knavery exists. Magisterial force is the sequence of social vice; and the policeman is but the complement of the criminal. Therefore it is that we call government "a necessary evil."
What then must be thought of a morality which chooses this probationary institution for its basis, builds a vast fabric of conclusions upon its assumed permanence, selects acts of parliament for its materials, and employs the statesman for its architect? The expediency-philosophy does this. It takes government into partnership—assigns to it entire control of its affairs—enjoins all to defer to its judgment—makes it in short the vital principle, the very soul of its system. When Paley teaches that "the interest of the whole society is binding upon every part of it," he implies the existence of some supreme power by which that "interest of the whole society" is to be determined. And elsewhere he more explicitly tells us, that for the attainment of a national advantage the private will of the subject is to give way; and that "the proof of this advantage lies with the legislature." Still more decisive is Bentham, when he says that "the happiness of the individuals of whom a community is composed, that is, their pleasures and their security, is the sole end which the legislator ought to have in view; the sole standard in conformity with which each individual ought, as far as depends upon the legislature, to be made to fashion his behaviour." These positions, be it remembered, are not voluntarily assumed; they are necessitated by the premises. If, as its propounder tells us, "expediency" means the benefit of the mass, not of the individual—of the future as much as of the present, it presupposes some one to judge of what will most conduce to that benefit. Upon the "utility" of this or that measure, the views are so various as to render an umpire essential. Whether protective duties, or established religions, or capital punishments, or poor laws, do or do not minister to the "general good," are questions concerning which there is such difference of opinion, that were nothing to be done till all agreed upon them, we might stand still to the end of time. If each man carried out, independently of a state power, his own notions of what would best secure "the greatest happiness of the greatest number," society would quickly lapse into confusion. Clearly, therefore, a morality established upon a maxim of which the practical interpretation is questionable, involves the existence of some authority whose decision respecting it shall be final—that is, a legislature. And without that authority, such a morality must ever remain inoperative.
See here then the predicament. A system of moral philosophy professes to be a code of correct rules for the control of human beings—fitted for the regulation of the best, as well as the worst members of the race—applicable, if true, to the guidance of humanity in its highest conceivable perfection. Government, however, is an institution originating in man's imperfection; an institution confessedly begotten by necessity out of evil; one which might be dispensed with were the world peopled with the unselfish, the conscientious, the philanthropic; one, in short, inconsistent with this same "highest conceivable perfection." How, then, can that be a true system of morality which adopts government as one of its premises?
Of the expediency-philosophy it must therefore be said, in the first place, that it can make no claim to a scientific character, seeing that its fundamental proposition is not an axiom, but simply an enunciation of the problem to be solved.
Further, that even supposing its fundamental proposition were an axiom, it would still be inadmissible, because expressed in terms possessing no fixed acceptation.
Moreover, were the expediency theory otherwise satisfactory, it would be still useless; since it requires nothing less than omniscience to carry it into practice.
And, waiving all other objections, we are yet compelled to reject a system, which, at the same time that it tacitly lays claim to perfection, takes imperfection for its basis.