Spencer on Justice

Henry Sidgwick

in Essays on Ethics and Method

Published in print December 2000 | ISBN: 9780198250234
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191598432 | DOI:

Series: British Moral Philosophers

 Spencer on Justice

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In his writings on animal ethics, Spencer maintains that the ultimate end of human conduct as well as of animal conduct is the greatest length, breadth, and completeness of life; acts are good that are conducive to the preservation of offspring or the individual. In this article, Sidgwick considers Spencer's account of both ‘the law of sub‐human justice’ and ‘the law of human justice’. The former, which is recognized as being imperfect both in its general form and in its details, involves the dictum that each individual shall receive the benefits and evils of its own nature and consequent conduct. The latter – the law of human justice – is seen by Spencer as an extension of sub‐human justice, and yet, the application of the law is modified by the condition of gregariousness in a way only faintly indicated in lower species. It is not obvious, says Sidgwick, that Spencer's principle is actually just since it is not the common sense view that justice requires a man to suffer for failures that do not result from wilful wrongdoing or neglect. Despite this, Sidgwick finds some truth in Spencer's account of the origin of the sentiment of justice, which begins with an egoistic sentiment of justice (that is, an individual's resentment of interference with his pursuit of private ends), and then introduces a fear of similar resentment and retaliation by others to create an altruistic sentiment of justice.

Keywords: altruism; animal ethics; benefit; conduct; egoism; evil; justice; nature; Sidgwick; Herbert Spencer; ultimate end; wrongdoing

Chapter.  5886 words. 

Subjects: Moral Philosophy

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