Morality has always been a controversial topic among philosophers, scholars and other writers and thinkers. It is a vague area of study and is subject to too many theories, explanations and debates. This is the irony of the subject because morality is supposed to be inherent in men and nature, thus knowledge of what morality is should be natural to man. However, it may be argued that the subject of morality is subject to too many debates because man and nature, to which it is inherent, is too complicated that it also becomes a complicated subject.
Herbert Spencer, in his book Social Statics attempted to define and expound on morality and its related concepts. In his book, he agreed that “the moral law must be the law of the perfect man” (Ch. 1, sec. 2). However, this does not put an end to the question of what is morality. He proposed two definitions. First is that “morality is a code of rules for the behaviour of man as he is—a code which recognises existing defects of character, and allows for them”; and second, it may be “a code of rules for the regulation of conduct amongst men as they should be . ” (Ch. 1, sec. 2) However, this brings us another problem of definition.
What is “perfection”? In its ordinary sense, perfection is often interpreted as the absence of defects. Therefore, under this ordinary sense, the first definition cannot be correct because it recognizes the presence and acceptance of defects, which is incompatible with moral law as the law of the perfect man. If morality is not in accord with the first definition, then it follows that the second definition must be correct. At this point, it is useful to note Spencer’s definition of evil. “Evil” is an indispensable subject of inquiry in all discussions of morality. It is against “what is evil” that “what is moral” is always contrasted.
In his work, Spencer showed a propensity to regard the nature of man as good. According to him, “[a]ll evil results from the non-adaptation of constitution to conditions. ” Evil exists “because the harmony between its organization and its circumstances has been destroyed…” and because there is “…want of congruity between the faculties and their spheres of action. ” (Chapter 2 section 1) These show that man is originally good in its natural state. It is only when there is disruption in the natural harmony that evil exists. Spencer also claimed that “evil is not permanent” (Ch. 2, sec. 2).
Man has a certain adaptability that causes evil to disappear when it exists. This brings us back to the issue of the definition of morality. If this is the case—that evil tends to disappear because of man’s adaptability—then, it follows that the first definition discussed above is the correct what. Morality is a code of conduct for man as he is. It is not the second definition which focuses on what man should be. This is because evil is a temporary state. Whatever imperfection exists disappears through time. There is no need for the determination of what should be because man will naturally gear toward perfection.
When man is in a state of disharmony, he is not exactly what man is, because that is not his nature. He is just in a temporary state of being imperfect. However, this interpretation will bring us to an absurd situation because it has already been argued at the beginning that the first definition is wrong. To this problem, Spencer proposed a solution by altering the definition of “perfect”. He created the concept of “ideal humanity”. Through this, Spencer placed a limit on perfection. “Ideal” presupposes a maximum level of goodness, but below the point where there is absence of defects.
On the subjects of evil, his discussion on the effect of the influences around man on man should not be neglected. He again made three propositions on how these effects may be explained. First, “human being is wholly unaltered by the influences that are brought to bear upon him. ” Second, “he perpetually tends to become more and more unfitted to those circumstances. ” Third, “he tends to become fitted to them. ” He explained that the first and the second are not true for being absurd. Therefore, his conclusion is that the third is true because “we are compelled to admit the remaining one” (Ch. 2, sec. 2).
However, he failed to explain why the third one is not absurd. Choosing the third one by cancellation of the other choices is a too simplistic manner of identifying the correct explanation. While this may be easily explained by the concept of adaptability, it fails to take account the possibility of the influences that are made on man to be evil. If the influences are evil and man become fitted to them, does this mean that man also become evil? Does this means a lowering of the standard of perfection and of the determination of ideal humanity? A man can only be ideal to a limited extent when placed in an environment that is evil.
If this is the case, the continued lowering of standards can possibly lead into a point where there is no more line separating evil from ideal. The last point of inquiry is the subject of “greatest happiness”. according to Spencer, “[i]n this social state the ‘sphere of activity of each individual being limited by the spheres of activity of other individuals, it follows that the men who are to realize this greatest sum of happiness, must be men of whom each can obtain complete happiness within his own sphere of activity, without diminishing the spheres of activity required for the acquisition of happiness by others” (Ch. 3, sec. 2).
This again poses a problem as regards definition. What is the meaning of “greatest”? Ordinarily, greatest the maximum or the most supreme end possible, without regard to the possible effects on other people. However, this is not the meaning used by Spencer in his work. Greatest, as Spencer used the term, is limited by the happiness of others. Included in it are the elements of self-sacrifice, being noble, and responsibility. He further added that greatest happiness is conditioned on “justice”. (Ch. 3, sec. 2)
However, justice and happiness are two very relative terms, the existence of which differs largely based on how man perceives them. What an ordinary man perceives as just is not always what can give him happiness. On the contrary, what is perceived by man as that which will give him the happiness may not be always just. Therefore, to identify and achieve the greatest happiness will require a great deal of knowledge and sensitivity on the part of man as regards what is required and desired by other people.