OLD-FASHIONED ETHICS AND COMMON-SENSE METAPHYSICS
With Some of Their Applications
WILLIAM THOMAS THORNTON
Author of a Treatise 'On Labour'
London Macmillan and Co. 1873
All rights reserved
'I entirely agree with you as to the ill tendency of the affected doubts of some philosophers and the fantastical conceits of others. I am even so far gone of late in this way of thinking, that I have quitted several of the sublime notions I had got in their schools for vulgar opinions. And I give it you on my word, that since this revolt from metaphysical notions to the plain dictates of nature and common sense, I find my understanding strangely enlightened, so that I can now easily comprehend a great many things which before were all mystery and riddle.'—BERKELEY'S HYLAS AND PHILONOUS.
The book was all but finished, and only the Preface remained, over which I was hesitating, apprehensive equally of putting into it too much and too little, when one of the most frequent 'companions of my solitude' came to my aid, shewing me, in fragments, a preface already nearly written, and needing only a little piecing to become forthwith presentable. Here it is.
'In these sick days, in a world such as ours, richer than usual in Truths grown obsolete, what can the fool think but that it is all a Den of Lies wherein whoso will not speak and act Lies must stand idle and despair?' Whereby it happens that for the artist who would fain minister medicinally to the relief of folly, 'the publishing of a Work of Art,' designed, like this, to redeem Truth from premature obsolescence, 'becomes almost a necessity.' For, albeit, 'in the heart of the speaker there ought to be some kind of gospel tidings burning until it be uttered, so that otherwise it were better for him that he altogether held his peace,' still, than to have fire burning within, and not to put it forth, not many worse things are readily imaginable.
'Has the word Duty no meaning? Is what we call Duty no divine messenger and guide, but a false, earthly fantasm, made up of Desire and Fear?' In that' Logic-mill of thine' hast thou 'an earthly mechanism for the Godlike itself, and for grinding out Virtue from the husks of Pleasure? I tell thee, Nay! Otherwise, not on Morality, but on Cookery, let us build our stronghold. There, brandishing our frying-pan as censer, let us offer up sweet incense to the Devil, and live at ease on the fat things he has provided for his elect,' seeing that 'with stupidity and sound digestion, man may front much.'
Or, 'is there no God? or, at best, an absentee God, sitting idle ever since the first Sabbath, at the outside of His universe, and seeing it go?' Know that for man's well-being, whatever else be needed, 'Faith is one thing needful.' Mark, 'how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheerfully endure the shame and the cross; how, without it, worldlings puke up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury.' Of how much else, 'for a pure moral nature, is not the loss of Religious Belief the loss?' 'All wounds, the crush of long-continued Destitution, the stab of false Friendship and of false Love, all wounds in the so genial heart would have healed again had not the life-warmth of Faith been withdrawn.' But this once lost, how recoverable? how, rather, ever acquirable? 'First must the dead Letter of Religion own itself dead, and drop piecemeal into dust, if the living Spirit of Religion, freed from this, its charnel house, is to arise on us, new born of Heaven, and with new healing under its wings.'
Beside these burning words of Mr. Carlyle any additional words of mine would stand only as superfluous foils, and are, therefore, considerately pretermitted.
CADOGAN PLACE: December 1872.
I. ANTI-UTILITARIANISM 1
II. HISTORY'S SCIENTIFIC PRETENSIONS 84
III. DAVID HUME AS A METAPHYSICIAN 113
IV. HUXLEYISM 158
V. RECENT PHASES OF SCIENTIFIC ATHEISM 199
VI. LIMITS OF DEMONSTRABLE THEISM 266
Having, by the heading of this essay, announced that it is intended to be partly controversial, I can scarcely begin better than by furnishing the reader with the means of judging whether I myself correctly apprehend the doctrine which I am about to criticise. If, then, I were myself an Utilitarian, and, for the sake either of vindicating my own belief, or of making converts of other people, had undertaken to explain what Utilitarianism is, I should set about the task somewhat in this wise:—
The sole use and sole object of existence is enjoyment or pleasure, which two words will here be treated as synonymous; happiness, also, though not quite identical in meaning, being occasionally substituted for them. Enjoyment, it must be observed, is of very various kinds, measures, and degrees. It may be sensual, or emotional, or imaginative, or intellectual, or moral. It may be momentary or eternal; intoxicating delight or sober satisfaction. It may be unmixed and undisturbed, in which case, however short of duration or coarse in quality, it may in strictness be called happiness; or it may be troubled and alloyed, although of a flavour which would be exquisite if pure, and if there were nothing to interfere with the perception of it. Understood, however, in a sufficiently comprehensive sense, enjoyment or pleasure may be clearly perceived to be the sole object of existence. The whole value of life plainly consists of the enjoyment, present or future, which life affords, or is capable of affording or securing. Now, the excellence of all rules depends on their conduciveness to the object they have in view. The excellence of all rules of life must, therefore, depend on their conduciveness to the sole object which life has in view, viz., enjoyment. But the excellence of rules of life, or of conduct or modes of acting, would seem to be but another name for their morality, and the morality of actions obviously depends on their conformity to moral rules. Whence, if so much be admitted, it necessarily follows that the test of the morality of actions is their conduciveness to enjoyment.
But the enjoyment thus referred to is not that of the agent alone, for if it were, no action whatever could possibly be immoral. Whatever any one does, he does either because to do it gives him or promises him pleasure, or because he believes that the not doing it would subject him to more pain than he will suffer from doing it. Besides, one person's enjoyment may be obtained at the expense of other people's suffering, so that an act in which the actor takes pleasure may destroy or prevent more pleasure altogether than it creates. The enjoyment or happiness, therefore, which Utilitarianism regards, is not individual, but general happiness; not that of one or of a few, but of the many, nor even of the many only. It is often declared to be the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but it may with more accuracy be described as the largest aggregate of happiness attainable by any or by all concerned. Again, an action which, in some particular instance, causes more pleasure than pain to those affected by it, may yet belong to a class of actions which, in the generality of cases, causes more pain than pleasure, and may thus involve a violation of a moral rule, and, consequently, be itself immoral. Wherefore the enjoyment which Utilitarianism adopts as its moral test is not simply the greatest sum of enjoyment for all concerned, but that greatest sum in the greatest number of cases. In its widest signification it is the greatest happiness of society at large and in the long run. From these premises a decisive criterion of right and wrong may be deduced. Every action belonging to a class calculated to promote the permanent happiness of society is right. Every action belonging to a class opposed to the permanent happiness of society is wrong.
In the foregoing exposition I have, I trust, evinced a sincere desire to give Utilitarianism its full due, and I shall at least be admitted to have shown myself entirely free from most of those more vulgar misconceptions of its nature which have given its professors such just offence. Many of its assailants have not scrupled to stigmatise as worthy only of swine a doctrine which represents life as having no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit than pleasure. To these, however, it has, by the great apostle of Utilitarianism, been triumphantly replied that it is really they themselves who insult human nature by using language that assumes human beings to be capable of no higher pleasures than those of which swine are capable; and that, moreover, if the assumption were correct, and if the capacities of men and of swine were identical, whatever rule of life were good enough for the latter would likewise be good enough for the former. But I am not an assailant of this description. Inasmuch as there undeniably are very many and very various kinds of pleasure, I of course allow Utilitarianism credit for common sense enough to acknowledge that those kinds are most worthy of pursuit which, from whatever cause, possess most value—that those which are most precious are those most to be prized. But whoever allows thus much will have no alternative but to concede a great deal more. The most precious of pleasures is that which arises from the practice of virtue, as may be proved conclusively in the only way of which the case admits, viz., by reference to the fact that, whoever is equally acquainted with that and with other pleasures, deliberately prefers it to all the rest, will, if necessary, forego all others for its sake, and values no others obtainable only at its expense. By necessary implication it follows that, as being more valuable than any other, the pleasure arising from the practice of virtue must be that which Utilitarianism recommends above all others as an object of pursuit. But the pursuit of this particular pleasure and the practice of virtue are synonymous terms. What, therefore, Utilitarianism above all other things recommends and insists upon is the practice of virtue. Now, the practice of virtue commonly involves subordination of one's own interest to that of other people; indeed, virtue would not be virtue in the utilitarian sense of the word unless it did involve such subordination. Wherefore the pleasure arising from the practice of virtue, the pleasure which occupies the highest place on the utilitarian scale, and that which Utilitarianism exhorts its disciples chiefly to seek after, is nothing else than the pleasure derived from attending to other people's pleasure instead of to our own.
Nor is this all. In order adequately to appreciate the loftiness of utilitarian teaching, and its utter exemption from the sordidness with which it is ignorantly charged, we must devote a few moments to examination of those distinctive peculiarities of different kinds of pleasure which entitle them to different places in our esteem.
All pleasures may be arranged under five heads, and in regularly ascending series, as follows:—
1. Sensual pleasures:—To wit, those of eating and drinking, and whatever others are altogether of the flesh, fleshly.
2. Emotional, by which are to be understood agreeable moods of the mind, such as, irrespectively of any agreeable idea brought forward simultaneously by association, are produced by music ('for,' as Milton says, 'eloquence the soul, song charms the sense'), by beauty of form or colour, by genial sunshine, by balmy or invigorating air.
3. Imaginative, or pleasures derived from the contemplation of mental pictures.
4. Intellectual, or those consequent on exercise of the reasoning powers.
5. Moral, or those which are alluded to when virtue is spoken of as being its own reward.
That of these several kinds, each of the last four is preferable to any preceding it on the list will, it is to be hoped, be allowed to pass as an unquestioned truth, for to any one perverse enough to deny it, the only answer that can be made is an appeal to observation in proof that all persons who are equally acquainted with the several kinds do exhibit the preferences indicated. Neither, so far as the two kinds first-named alone are concerned, is it possible to go much more deeply into the reasons why emotional pleasures are to be preferred to sensual, than by pointing to the fact that all competent judges of both are observed to like the former best. If all those who are endowed with equal sensitiveness of ear and of palate prefer music to feasting, and would any day give up a dinner at Francatelli's for the sake of hearing a rejuvenescent Persiani as Zerlina, or Patti as Dinorah, the one thing presumable is, that all such persons derive more enjoyment from perfect melody than from perfect cookery, and little else remains to be said on the subject. The same ultimate fact need not, however, limit our inquiry as to the preferableness of imaginative or intellectual to emotional pleasures, and of moral to any of the other three. This admits of, and demands, a more subtle explanation, from which we may learn, not merely that certain preferences are shown, but also why they are shown. The preferences in question are demonstrably not due to the greater poignancy of the pleasures preferred. It is simply not true that the keenest of imaginative pleasures is keener than the keenest of emotional, and still less that the keenest of intellectual is so. The very reverse is the truth. The supremest delight attainable in fancy's most romantic flight is, I suspect, faint in comparison with the sort of ecstasy into which a child of freshly-strung nerves is sometimes thrown by the mere brilliance or balminess of a summer's day, and with which even we, dulled adults, provided we be in the right humour, and that all things are in a concatenation accordingly, are now and then momentarily affected while listening to the wood-notes wild of a nightingale, or a Jenny Lind, or while gazing on star-lit sky or moon-lit sea, or on the snowy or dolomite peaks of a mountain range fulgent with the violet and purple glories of the setting sun. And yet the choicest snatches of such beatitude with which—at least, after the fine edge of our susceptibilities has been worn away by the world's friction—we creatures of coarse human mould are ever indulged, are but poor in comparison with the rich abundance of the same in which some more delicately-constituted organisms habitually revel. If we would understand of what development emotional delight is capable, we should watch the skylark. As that 'blithe spirit' now at heaven's gate 'poureth its full heart,' and anon can
Scarce get out his notes for joy, But shakes his song together as he nears His happy home, the ground,
what poet but must needs confess with Shelley, that in his most rapturous dream, his transport never came nigh the bird's? And yet what poet would change conditions with the lark? Nay, what student or philosopher would? albeit the utmost gratification ever earned by either of these in the prosecution of his special calling—in acquiring knowledge, in solving knotty problems, or in scaling the heights of abstract contemplation—is probably as inferior in keenness of zest to that which the poet knows, as the best prose is inferior in charm to the best poetry. It may even be that both poet and philosopher owe, on the whole, more unhappiness than happiness—the one to his superior sensibility, the other to his superior enlightenment, and yet neither would exchange his own lesser happiness for the greater happiness of the lark. Why would he not? It is no sufficient answer to say that in the lark's happiness there are few, if any, imaginative or intellectual ingredients; that it is almost utterly unideal, almost purely emotional, exactly the same in kind, and only higher in degree, than the glee of puppies or kittens at play. The question recurs as forcibly as ever, why—seeing that enjoyment is the one thing desirable, the only thing either valuable in itself, or that gives value to other things—why is it that no intelligent man would accept, in lieu of his own, another mode of existence, in which, although debarred from the joys of thought and fancy, he nevertheless has reason to believe that the share of enjoyment falling to his lot would be greater, both in quantity and sapidity, than it is at present? The following seems to me to be the explanation of the mystery.
It might be too much to say that nothing can please a person who is not pleased with himself, but it is at any rate clear that nothing can greatly please him which interferes with his self-satisfaction. Now imaginative and intellectual enjoyment, each of them, involves the exercise of a special and superior faculty, mere consciousness of the possession of which helps to make the possessor satisfied with himself. It exalts what Mr. Mill aptly terms his sense of dignity, a sense possessed in some form or other by every human being, and one so essential to that self-satisfaction without which all pleasure would be tasteless, that nothing which conflicts with it can be an object of serious desire. In virtue of this special faculty, the most wretched of men holds himself to be superior to the most joyous of larks. To divest himself of it would be to lower himself towards the level of the bird, and to commit such an act of self-degradation would occasion to him an amount of pain which he is not disposed to incur for the sake of any amount of pleasure obtainable at its expense. It is, then, the fear of pain which prevents his wishing to be turned into a lark. He is not ignorant that he would be happier for the metamorphosis, but he dreads the pain that must precede the increase of happiness, more than he desires the increase of happiness that would follow the pain.
The force of these considerations will be equally, or more apparent, on their being applied to analysis of moral pleasures. That these are the most truly precious of all pleasures, is proved by their being habitually more highly prized than any others by all who are qualified to make the comparison. But why are they so prized? Not, as I am constrained, however reluctantly, to admit, on account of their greater keenness as pleasures. It would be at best but well-meaning cant to pretend that the self-approval, the sympathetic participation in other people's augmented welfare, the grateful consciousness of having done that which is pleasing in our Heavenly Father's sight, together with whatever else helps to compose the internal reward of virtue, constitute a sum total of delight nearly as exquisite as that which may be obtained in a variety of other ways. The mere circumstance of there being invariably included in a just or generous action more or less of self-denial, self-restraint, or self-sacrifice, must always sober down the gratification by which virtue is rewarded, and make it appear tame beside the delirium of gladness caused by many things with which virtue has nothing to do. We will charitably suppose that the occupant of a dukedom, who should secretly light upon conclusive proof that it was not his by right, would at once abandon it to the legal heir, and we need not doubt that he would subsequently be, on the whole, well content to have so acted, but we cannot suppose that he would make the surrender with anything like the elation with which he entered on the estate and title. If there were really no pleasure equal to that with which virtue recompenses its votaries, the performance of a virtuous act would always make a man happier than previously; moreover, the greater the virtue, the greater would be the consequent pleasure. But any one may see that an act of the most exalted virtue, far from increasing, often utterly destroys the agent's happiness. Imagine an affectionate father, some second Brutus or second Fitzstephen of Galway, constrained by overwhelming sense of duty to sentence a beloved son to death, or a bankrupt beggaring himself and his family by honestly making over to his creditors property with which he might have safely absconded. Plainly, such virtuous achievement, far from adding to the happiness of its author, has plunged him in an abyss of misery, his only comfort being that in the lowest deep there is, as we shall presently see, a lower deep still. Far from being happier than he was before acting as he has done, he would be much happier if, being vicious instead of virtuous, he had not felt bound so to act. Unquestionably, what either upright judge or honest bankrupt has incurred—the one by becoming a saticide, the other by making himself a beggar—is pure and simple pain, unmitigated by one particle of positive pleasure. Yet it is at the same time certain that the virtue of each has in some form or other given full compensation for the pain it has occasioned, for not only was that pain deliberately incurred in lieu of the pleasure which it has supplanted, but restoration of the pleasure would now be refused, if reversal of the virtuous conduct were made a condition of the restoration. In what, then, does the compensation consist? In nothing else than this, in judge or bankrupt having been saved from pain still greater than that which he is actually suffering. Wretched as he is, infinitely more wretched than he was before there was any call upon him to act as he has done, he is less wretched than he would be if, recognising the obligation so to act, he had not so acted. He has escaped the stings of conscience, the sense of having wronged his neighbour and offended his God; he has escaped, in short, self-condemnation—a torment so intolerable to those so constituted as to be susceptible of it, that hell itself has been known to be, in imagination at least, preferred to it. Mr. Mill's splendid outburst that, rather than worship a fiend that could send him to hell for refusing, he would go to hell as he was bid, will doubtless occur to every reader.
This, however, is all. In both the supposed cases, as in every one in which virtue consists of compliance with a painful duty, the pleasure arising from the practice of virtue cannot in strictness be called pleasure at all. At best it is but a partial negation of pain; more properly, indeed, the substitution of one pain for another more acute. Yet this mere negation, this ethereal inanity, is pronounced by Utilitarianism to be preferable to aught that can come into competition with it. Truly it is somewhat hard upon those who attend to such teaching, to be reproached with their grossness of taste and likened to hogs, for no better reason than their predilection for the lightest of all conceivable diets. Still harder will this seem, when we recollect that Utilitarians are exhorted to be virtuous, less for their own than for other people's sakes. If, indeed, virtue were practised by all mankind, the utilitarian idea of the greatest possible happiness, or, at least, of the greatest possible exemption from unhappiness, would be universally realised. Still, it is in order that they may afford pleasure to the community at large, rather than that they may obtain it for themselves; it is that they may save, not so much themselves, as the community, from pain, that individual Utilitarians are charged to be virtuous. Among those pleasures, whether positive or negative, which it is allowable to them to seek for themselves, the first place is assigned to the pleasure arising from the sense of giving pleasure to others. Thus, not only is it the purest of pleasures that Utilitarianism chiefly recommends for pursuit: even that pleasure is to be pursued only from the purest and most disinterested motives.
All this I frankly acknowledge; and I own, too, that, far from deserving to be stigmatised as irreligious, Utilitarianism is literally nothing else than an amplification of one moiety of Christianity; that it not adopts merely, but expands, 'the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth,' exhorting us to love our neighbour, not simply as well, but better than ourselves; to do for others, not simply what we would have them do for us, but much more than we could have the face to ask them to do; not merely not to pursue our interests at the expense of theirs, but to regard as our own chief interest the promotion of theirs. That on account of these exhortations Utilitarianism is godless can be supposed by those only who suppose that love to one's neighbour is contrary to the will of God. By those who believe that works are the best signs of faith, and that love to God is best evinced by doing good to man, Utilitarianism might rather seem to be but another name for practical religion.
So I say in all sincerity, though not without some misgiving, as while so speaking I involuntarily bethink myself of Balaam, son of Beor, who having been called forth to curse, caught himself blessing altogether. Mine eyes, too, have been opened to the good of that which I was purposed to condemn, and behold I have as yet done nothing but eulogise. No warmest partisan of Utilitarianism, not Mr. Mill himself, ever spoke more highly of it than I have just been doing. What censures, then, can I have in reserve to countervail such praises? What grounds of quarrel can I have with a system of ethics which I have described as ever seeking the noblest ends from the purest motives; whose precepts I own to be as elevating as its aims are exalted? On reflection, I am reassured by recollecting several, which I proceed to bring forward one at a time, beginning with a sin enormous enough to cover any multitude of merits.
My first charge against Utilitarianism is that it is not true. I do not say that there is no truth in it. That I have found much to admire in its premises has been frankly avowed; and in one, at least, of the leading deductions from those premises I partially concur. I admit that acts utterly without utility must likewise be utterly without worth; that conduct which subserves the enjoyment neither of oneself nor of any one else, cannot, except in a very restricted sense, be termed right; that conduct which interferes with the enjoyment both of oneself and of all others, which injuring oneself injures others also, and benefits no one, cannot be otherwise than wrong; that purely objectless asceticism which has not even self-discipline in view, is not virtue, but folly; that misdirected charity which, engendering improvidence, creates more distress than it relieves, is not virtue, but criminal weakness. But though admitting that there can be no virtue without utility, I do not admit either that virtue must be absent unless utility preponderate, or that if utility preponderate virtue must be present. I deny that any amount of utility can of itself constitute virtue. I deny that whatever adds to the general happiness must be right. Equally do I deny that whatever diminishes the general happiness or prevents its increasing must be wrong. An action, be it observed, may be right in three different senses. It may be right as being meritorious, and deserving of commendation. It may be right as being that which one is bound to do, for the doing of which, therefore, one deserves no praise, and for neglecting to do which one would justly incur blame. It may be right simply as not being wrong—as being allowable—something which one has a right to do, though to refrain from doing it might perhaps be praiseworthy. There will be little difficulty in adducing examples of conduct which, though calculated to diminish the sum total of happiness, would be right in the first of these senses. Nothing can be easier than to multiply examples of such conduct that would be right in the third sense. I proceed to cite cases which will answer both these purposes, and likewise the converse one of showing that conduct calculated to increase the general happiness may nevertheless be wrong.
When the Grecian chiefs, assembled at Aulis, were waiting for a fair wind to convey them to Ilium, they were, we are told, warned by what was to them as a voice from heaven, that their enterprise would make no progress unless Agamemnon's daughter were sacrificed to Diana. In order to place the details of the story in a light as little favourable as possible to my argument, we will deviate somewhat from the accepted version, and will suppose that the arrested enterprise was one of even greater pith and moment than tradition ascribes to it. We will suppose that upon its successful prosecution depended the national existence of Greece; that its failure would have involved the extermination of one-half of the people, and the slavery of the other half. We will suppose, too, that of all this Iphigenia was as firmly persuaded as every one else. In these circumstances, had her countrymen a right to insist on her immolation? If so, on what was that right founded? Is it sufficient to say in reply that her death was essential to the national happiness, to the extent even of being indispensable to prevent that happiness from being converted into national woe? Manifestly, according to the hypothesis, it was expedient for all concerned, with the single exception of herself, that she should die; but were the others thereby entitled to take her life? Did the fact of its being for their advantage to do this warrant their doing it? Simply because it was their interest, was it also their right? Right, we must recollect, invariably implies corresponding duty. Right, it is clear, can never be rightfully resisted. If it be the right of certain persons to do a certain thing, it must be the duty of all other persons to let that thing be done. Where there is no such duty, there can be no such right. Wherefore, if the 'stern, black-bearded kings, with wolfish eyes,' who sate 'waiting to see her die,' had a right to kill Iphigenia, it must have been Iphigenia's duty to let herself be killed. Was this then her duty? 'Duty,' as I have elsewhere observed, 'signifies something due, a debt, indebtedness, and a debt cannot have been incurred for nothing, or without some antecedent step on the part either of debtor or creditor.' But it is not pretended that in any way whatever, by any antecedent act of hers or theirs, Iphigenia had incurred or had been subjected to a debt to her countrymen which could be paid off only with her life. It could not, then, be incumbent on her to let her life be taken in payment. If it had been in her power to burst her bonds, and break through the wolves in human shape that girdled her in, she would have been guilty of no wrong by escaping. But if not, then, however meritorious it might have been on her part to consent to die for her countrymen, it was not her duty so to die, nor, consequently, had they a right to put her to death. She would have been at least negatively right in refusing to die, while they were guilty of a very positive and a very grievous wrong in killing her, notwithstanding that both she and they were perfectly agreed that for her to be killed would be for the incalculably greater happiness of a greater number, exceeding the lesser number in the proportion of several hundreds of thousands to one.
It is true that throughout this affair every one concerned was labouring under a gross delusion—that there was no real use in putting Iphigenia to death, and that nothing but superstition made anybody suppose there was. I do not think the case is one less to our purpose on that account, for Utilitarians, like other fallible mortals, are liable to deceive themselves. They never can be quite secure of the genuineness of the utility on which they rely, and in default of positive knowledge they will always be reduced to act, as the Grecian chiefs did, according to the best of their convictions. Nevertheless, for the satisfaction of those who distrust romance and insist upon reality, we will leave fable for fact, and take as our next illustration an incident that may any day occur.
Imagine three shipwrecked mariners to have leapt from their sinking vessel into a cockboat scarce big enough to hold them, and the two slimmer of the three to have presently discovered that there was little or no chance of either of them reaching land unless their over-weighted craft were lightened of their comparatively corpulent companion. Next, imagine yourself in the fat sailor's place, and then consider whether you would feel it incumbent on you to submit quietly to be drowned in order that the residuum of happiness might be greater than if either you all three went to the bottom, or than if you alone were saved. Would you not, far from recognising any such moral obligation, hold yourself morally justified in throwing the other two overboard, if you were strong enough, and if need were, to prevent their similarly ousting you? But if it were not your duty to allow yourself to be cast into the sea, the others could have no right to cast you out; so that, if they did cast you out, they would clearly be doing not right but wrong. And yet, as clearly, their wrong-doing would have conduced to the greater happiness of the greater number, inasmuch as, while only one life could otherwise have been saved, it would save two, and inasmuch as, coeteris paribus, two persons would necessarily derive twice as much enjoyment from continued existence as one would. Moreover, their wrong-doing would be of a kind calculated always to produce similarly useful results. It cannot, I suppose, be denied that a rule to the effect that whenever forfeiture of one life would save two, one life should be sacrificed, would—not exceptionally only, but at large and in the long run—conduce to the saving of life, and therefore to the conservation of happiness connected with life.
The foregoing cases are no doubt both of them extreme, involving exaction of the largest possible private sacrifice for the general good; but in all cases of the kind, whether the exaction be small or great, the same governing principle equally applies. If you, a foot-sore, homeward-bound pedestrian, on a sweltering July day, were to see your next-door neighbour driving in the same direction in solitary state, would you have a right to stop his carriage and force yourself in? Nay, even though you had just before fallen down and broken your leg, would the compassionating by-standers be justified in forcing him to take you in? Or, again, if you were outside a coach during a pelting shower, and saw a fellow-passenger with a spare umbrella between his legs, while an unprotected female close beside was being drenched with the rain, would you have a right to wrest the second umbrella from him, and hold it over her? That, very likely, is what you would do in the circumstances, and few would be disposed greatly to blame the indignant ebullition. Still, unless you are a disciple of Proudhon, you will scarcely pretend that you can have a right to take possession of another's carriage or umbrella against the owner's will. You can scarcely suppose that it is not for him but for you to decide what use shall be made of articles belonging not to you but to him. Yet there can be no doubt that the happiness of society would be vastly promoted if everyone felt himself under an irresistible obligation to assist his neighbour whenever he could do so with little or no inconvenience to himself, or, consequently, if external force were always at hand to constrain anyone so to assist who was unwilling to do so of his own accord.
So much in proof that among things of the highest and most extensive utility there are several which it would be decidedly the reverse of right to do, and several others which it would be perfectly right to leave undone. I proceed to show that there are many other things not simply not of preponderating utility, but calculated, on the contrary, to do more harm than good, to destroy more happiness than they are capable of creating, which, nevertheless, it would be not simply allowable to do, but the doing of which would be highly meritorious, acts possibly of the most exalted virtue.
Let no one distrust the doctrine of development by reason of its supposed extravagance of pretension who has not duly considered to what a sublime of moral beauty the united hideousness and absurdity of Calvinism may give birth. In that Puritan society of New England of which Mrs. Beecher Stowe has given so singularly interesting an account in her 'Minister's Wooing,' and among whose members it was an universal article of belief that the bulk of mankind are created for the express purpose of being consigned to everlasting flames, there are said to have been not a few enthusiasts in whom a self-concentrating creed begat the very quintessence of self-devotion. 'As a gallant soldier renounces life and personal aims in the cause of his king and country, and holds himself ready to be drafted for a forlorn hope, to be shot down, or help to make a bridge of his mangled body, over which the more fortunate shall pass to victory and glory,' so among the early descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers many an one 'regarded himself as devoted to the King Eternal, ready in his hands to be used to illustrate and build up an eternal commonwealth, either by being sacrificed as a lost spirit, or glorified as a redeemed one; ready to throw, not merely his mortal life, but his immortality even, into the forlorn hope, to bridge, with a never-dying soul, the chasm over which white-robed victors should pass to a commonwealth of glory and splendour, whose vastness should dwarf the misery of all the lost to an infinitesimal.' And while by many the idea of suffering everlasting pains for the glory of God, and the good of being in general, was thus contemplated with equanimity, there were some few for whom the idea of so suffering for the good of others dearer than themselves would have been greeted with positive exultation. 'And don't I care for your soul, James?' exclaims Mary Scudder to her lover. 'If I could take my hopes of heaven out of my own heart and give them to you, I would. Dr. H. preached last Sunday on the text, "I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen," and he went on to show how we must be willing to give up even our own salvation, if necessary, for the good of others. People said it was a hard doctrine, but I could feel my way through it. Yes, I would give my soul for yours. I wish I could.' Now we must on no account permit admiration of Miss Scudder's transcendent generosity in desiring to make this exchange blind us to the fatal effect on social happiness which, if such exchange were possible, the prevalence of a disposition to make it could not fail to have. If Calvinism were true instead of blasphemous, if God were really the Moloch it represents Him, and if, moreover, Moloch were indifferent as to which of his offspring were cast into the fire, caring only that the prescribed number of victims should be forthcoming in full tale, nothing can be conceived more likely to prove an encouragement to evil-doers, and a terror to them that did well, than observation that well-doing not infrequently led to eternal misery, and evil-doing to eternal bliss. Again, if in China, where criminals under sentence of death are permitted, if they can, by purchase or otherwise, to procure substitutes to die in their stead, a son were to propose to die for a parent base enough to take advantage of the offer, could any arrangement be more plainly repugnant to the common-weal than that by which society would thus lose one of its noblest, instead of getting rid of one of its vilest members? Or, when in England, a thrifty son, by consenting to cut the entail of an estate to which he is heir-apparent, enables a prodigal father to consume in riotous living substance which would otherwise have eventually become his, is he not clearly taking the worse course for the public by permitting the property to be wasted, instead of causing it to be husbanded?
Beyond all question, American Puritan, Chinese or English devotee to filial affection, would thus, each in her or his degree, have, in the circumstances supposed, acted in a manner opposed to the general interest, and would therefore be condemned by Utilitarianism as having acted immorally. Nor could this verdict be gainsaid if utility and morality were, as Utilitarianism assumes them to be, one and the same thing. Clearly, that the just should suffer for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, is diametrically opposed to the welfare of society; wherefore, according to utilitarian principles, by consenting so to suffer, the just becomes unjust, the innocent renders himself guilty. But can there be a better proof that utilitarian principles are unsound than that this should be a legitimate deduction from them? Can there be better proof that utility and morality are not identical, but two absolutely distinct things? Plainly, there can be no meritorious or commendable immorality; neither can there be any virtue which is not meritorious and commendable. Is there, then, no merit, nothing commendable, in accepting ruin or in volunteering to die temporarily, or to perish everlastingly, in order to save a fellow-creature from ruin, or death, or perdition? Does not such conduct, considered independently and without reference either to its utility or its hurtfulness, command our instantaneous and enthusiastic admiration? But how, being so admirable, can it be immoral? how other than virtuous? What else is it, indeed, but the very perfection of that purest virtue which, content to be its own reward, deliberately cuts itself off from all other recompense? Without changing the immemorial meaning of the most familiar words, there is no avoiding the obvious answers to these questions. If virtue and morality, right and wrong, are to continue to mean anything like that which, except by Utilitarians, has always been considered to be their only meaning, it is not simply not wrong, it is not simply right, it is among the highest achievements of virtue and morality to sacrifice your own in order to secure another's happiness, and the disinterestedness, and therefore the virtue, is surely the greater, rather than less, if you sacrifice more happiness of your own than you secure to another. So much follows necessarily from what has been said, and something more besides. It follows further that Utilitarianism is not less in error in declaring that actions calculated to diminish the total sum of happiness must necessarily be wrong, cannot possibly be allowable, still less meritorious, than it had previously been shown to be in declaring that actions calculated to augment the sum total of happiness must necessarily be meritorious.
There is but one way in which Utilitarianism can even temporarily rebut the charge of fallacy, of which otherwise it must here stand convicted, and that is by renouncing all claim to be a new system of ethics, and not pretending to be more than a new system of nomenclature. And even so, it could not help contradicting, and thereby refuting itself. That nothing is right but what is of preponderating utility; that whatever is of preponderating utility is right; these are propositions perfectly intelligible, indeed, but which will be found to be tenable only on condition that the very same things may be both right and wrong. The confusion, thrice confounded, inseparable from the substitution of such novel definitions for those which had previously been universally in vogue, is but the smaller of two evils which must thence arise. It would be bad enough that the word 'right' could not be used without raising doubt whether what people had previously understood by the 'just' or the 'generous,' or only the 'expedient' were meant; but a still worse consequence would be that, even if no doubt of the sort were entertained, and if all men were agreed to take the word in none but its utilitarian sense, the landmarks of right and wrong would thereby be well nigh obliterated. Due credit has already been given to Utilitarianism for its exemplary zeal in inculcating the practice of virtue, but its merit in that respect is more than neutralised by its equally zealous inculcation of principles, according to which it is impossible to decide beforehand whether any particular practice will be virtuous or not.
This is my second charge against Utilitarianism. I maintain it to be a doctrine in most of its essentials erroneous; but I maintain, further, that, even if it were correct, instead of furnishing us with an infallible criterion of right and wrong, it would deprive us of the means of clearly distinguishing between right and wrong at all times at which the power of so distinguishing is of practical value. Bluntly enough, I have pronounced it to be false. With equal bluntness, I now add that, even if it were true, it would, all the same, be practically mischievous, and directly opposed to the very utility from which it takes its name. The argument in support of this charge shall now be stated.
According to utilitarian ethics, the morality of actions depends wholly and solely on their consequences. On this point the language of authority is distinct, emphatic, unanimous, and self-contradictory. 'Utilitarian moralists,' says the chief amongst them, 'have gone beyond all others in affirming that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of an action.... He who saves a fellow-creature from drowning does what is morally right, whether his motive be duty or the hope of being paid for his trouble.' Upon which I would observe, in passing, that to save a fellow-creature from drowning can be deemed to be necessarily right by none but uncompromising opponents of capital punishment. Most others will be disposed to doubt its having been a sufficient reason for commuting the sentence of death passed upon the murderer of Dhuleep Sing's gamekeeper, that, owing to physical malformation, hanging might perhaps have given him more than ordinary pain in the neck, or perhaps have prolonged the pleasure which, according to the select few qualified to speak from experience, is attendant on that mode of strangulation. Neither, without sacrificing his judgment to his feelings, could one of these doubters, if Rutherford had been sentenced to be drowned instead of hanged, have stretched out a hand to save the miscreant from the watery grave he so richly deserved. That there are no actions which by reason of their beneficial consequences are always and invariably moral, might be too much to affirm; but I have no hesitation in saying that there are thousands, the morality or immorality of which—their results remaining the same—depends absolutely on their motives. Thus, if two doctors—of whom, for distinction's sake, we will call one Smethurst and the other Smith—in attendance on patients afflicted with precisely the same disease, were by the administration of overdoses of strychnine each to kill his man, the only difference between them being that whereas one intended and expected to kill, the other hoped to cure—would the act of killing be equally immoral in both cases? Would it not in the one case be murder, in the other mere error of judgment; and would both be equally crimes, or would the latter be in any degree criminal? And if it had been Smethurst instead of Smith who committed the error of judgment—if the overdoses by which he had meant to kill had happened to cure—would his error of judgment have thereby been rendered moral, notwithstanding that his motive was murder?
The same great teacher, who so strenuously insists that the motive has nothing to do with the morality of an action, does indeed go on to say that it has 'much to do with the worth of the agent.' Here, however, I confess myself unable to follow him. That an act may possess morality independent of the agent, may be intelligible on the assumption that morality means simply utility, and nothing more; but how, even then, worth can be evinced by the performance of an immoral action, is beyond my comprehension, except upon the further assumption that there may be worth in immorality.
Waiving, however, these and all other objections, let us for the moment, and for the sake of argument, assume that morality and utility are really one and the same thing, that the right or wrong of an act depends entirely on its results, and then let us observe how utterly without rudder or compass to assist him in steering correctly will be the best-intentioned navigator of the ocean of life.
We can seldom, if ever, be quite sure what will be the result of our conduct. Meaning to cure, we may only too probably kill; meaning to kill, we may not impossibly cure. Until a thing is done, we cannot determine as to its utility; nor, consequently, in an utilitarian sense, as to the morality of doing it. We must trust implicitly to our skill in calculating events, and if that skill happen to fail us, our conduct may become culpable. With the most earnest desire to act righteously, we can only guess beforehand whether what we propose doing will turn out to be righteous, and can never be sure, therefore, that we are not going to do something wicked.
Here I shall, of course, and very properly, be reminded that what Utilitarianism requires to be taken into account, are not merely the probable consequences of some proposed act, but the usual consequences of all acts of the same description; so that its disciples, instead of being left to their conjectures about the future, may be said to have all past experience to refer to. And undeniably Utilitarianism does require this; thereby, however, contradicting itself as, I just now hinted, it would presently be found doing. It does indeed declare those actions only to be moral which in the long run are conducive to, or at least not opposed to, the general happiness; but it also says that the morality of each particular action depends on its own particular consequences. So that the docile disciple who should do something which, though useful in the long run, happened to be otherwise in his particular case—who, for instance, should save the life of a fellow-creature of whom it would have been well for the world to be rid, would, to his disgust and bewilderment, find that while, with no desire but that of acting rightly, he had been obeying one utilitarian law, he had nevertheless been infringing another law of the same code, and thereby acting wrongly.
Overlooking, however, this incongruity of two equally authoritative rules, let us proceed to consider what dangerous latitude of interpretation is allowed to the followers of either of them. Those who believe that the merit or demerit of each separate action depends on that action's separate consequences, need seldom be at a loss for a pretext for committing the most heinous of crimes. A husband who, hating his wife, had his hate returned, and loving another woman, had his love returned, might plausibly reason thus within himself: The prescribed objects of life are the multiplication of happiness and the diminution of misery; here are three of us, all doomed to be miserable as long as we all three live; but the wretchedness of two of us might be at once converted into happiness, if the third were put out of the way. By some such logical process, Queen Mary and Bothwell may have satisfied themselves of the propriety of blowing up Darnley: Mr. and Mrs. Manning, as they sate at meat with their destined victim over his ready-made grave, may have argued themselves into self-approval of the crowning rite with which their hospitalities were to terminate: any scampish apprentice with designs upon his master's till, any burglar plotting an entry into a goldsmith's shop, may become convinced of his rectitude of purpose, and even take credit for public-spirited zeal, in seeking to appropriate to his own use part of another's wealth, which he may fairly suppose would be productive of more enjoyment if divided between two or more than if left in the hands of one, and that one already perhaps the possessor of more than he knows what to do with.
Precisely the same sophistry will not indeed suffice for those disciples who, adopting the alternative law of the utilitarian code, feel bound to attend to the consequences not of individual actions, but of classes of actions. The cleverest self-deceiver can scarcely bring himself to believe that, because it might suit his personal convenience to kill or steal, killing and stealing would not be prejudicial to society if generally practised. Still, it is only necessary to have, or to fancy one has, public instead of private objects in view, in order to be able to look with approbation, from an utilitarian point of view, on any amount of homicide or robbery. It was the very same Robespierre that, while as yet diocesan judge at Arras, felt constrained to abdicate because, 'behold, one day comes a culprit whose crime merits hanging, and strict-minded, strait-laced Max's conscience will not permit the dooming of any son of Adam to die,' who, shortly after, when sufficiently imbued with the utilitarian spirit, was fully prepared to wade through floods of slaughter towards the enthronisation of his principles—one of those principles evidently being that, if the decimation of mankind would conduce to the greater happiness of the residue, adding more to the happiness of the nine-tenths whom it spared than it took from the tenth whom it destroyed, the said decimation would be a duty incumbent on any one possessed of power to perpetrate it.
Nor are principles like these appealed to only by those who have recourse to them for the vindication of their own procedure. At those petits-soupers—bachelors' dinners is their modern English name, noctes coenaeque deum their ancient classical—for which some of our London clubs are deservedly celebrated, and with which the Garrick in especial is, in my mind, gratefully associated—at those choice gatherings of congenial spirits, conversation, changing from gay to grave, turns not unfrequently, among other lofty topics, on that which we are here discussing. Then, even at such divine symposium, one at least of the guests is pretty sure to take the part of devil's advocate, and to exercise his forensic skill in showing how easily interchangeable are the names of virtue and iniquity, crime and well-doing. September massacres then find, not their apologist, but their eulogist. Noyades of Carrier, fusilades of Collot d'Herbois, are cited as examples very suitable for imitation in adequate emergencies. Prussia's seizure, on behalf of Germany, of Schleswig and Holstein, on pretence of their being not Danish, but German, and her subsequent retention of them for herself on the plea of their having always been not German, but Danish, are applauded as acts perfectly consistent with each other and with the eternal fitness of things. And all this is urged in the best possible faith. Of the recited enormities, were not some, steps to the regeneration of France—others, to the unifaction of Germany? And what are myriads of lives in comparison with a regenerate—what violation of the most solemn engagements in comparison with a united, people? Did not the millions of Frenchmen who survived the Reign of Terror gain more than was lost by the thousands who were guillotined at Paris, or drowned at Nantes, or shot down at Lyons? Is not Germany likely to turn Kiel to far better account than Denmark ever did or could have done? and will not German ascendency be abundant compensation for Danish decadence? How culpably misplaced, then, were conscientious scruples that would have impeded the march of events in such directions! Ends need but to be great enough to justify any means. Let but the good promise to exceed the evil, and there is no evil which ought not to be done in order that good may come of it. Thus slightly qualified, the Satanic adage, 'Evil, be thou my good,' is, without more ado, accepted as the utilitarian watchword.
And what though it be only the most thorough-paced Utilitarians who go these extreme lengths? These lengths, extreme as they are, are legitimate deductions from tenets held in common by the most moderate and cautious as well as by the most reckless of the sect. Crime in the abstract is condemned not less vehemently by the latter than by the former; but by both equally it is condemned on account, not of its inherent vileness, but solely of its observed results. If the results were different, the agency to which they are due would be fitted with a different epithet. If a world could be conceived to be so organised, or, if this world of ours could be conceived to be so changed as that the practice of killing, stealing, or telling lies would be conducive to the general good, the practice in question would obtain a new name in the Utilitarian vocabulary. Crime would become beneficence; and to kill, to steal, or to tell lies would be not wrong, but right. These are propositions which, without abjuring the prime articles of his creed, the most timid Utilitarian has no alternative but to endorse; but how, then, can he shut his eyes to their obvious application? How presume to rebuke those earnest philanthropists, who, to judge from their habitual language, are firmly of opinion that annihilation of one half of mankind would be a small price to pay for conversion of the other moiety into citizens of a world-wide Red Republic; or those admirers of Prince Bismarck, who, holding national aggrandisement to be the national summum bonum, deem the most solemn treaties that might impede it to be obstacles which it is obligatory on a patriot to set aside? Will not the effects of any given cause vary with the changes in the circumstances in which the cause acts? May it not easily happen that the direct effect of some private crime shall be to augment, instead of to diminish the total happiness of all the persons affected by it? And is it not, then, conceivable that a public crime, provided it be of sufficient magnitude, may more than counterpoise, by the good it is calculated to do, all the harm that all crimes of the same description either have done or are likely to do hereafter? It is idle to reply that such a comparison between public good and evil must needs be mistaken: that the harm, for instance, which violation of treaties does to mankind by sapping the foundations of international confidence, rendering impossible international co-operation, and bringing the very name of international morality into contempt, is infinitely beyond any good it can do in the shape of national aggrandisement. Whether this be so or not is matter of opinion, on which every one may fairly insist on forming his own, and if that opinion be in the negative, a utilitarian agent, in Prince Bismarck's circumstances, would be bound in duty to imitate Prince Bismarck's high-handed policy. In all circumstances of international import, in all cases bearing upon the general interests of society, a Utilitarian, after deciding according to his lights which of the various courses open to him would best promote the general welfare, either immediately by its direct effects, or subsequently and indirectly by the example it would set, would be bound in duty to adopt that course. That course, however wrong it might have appeared in all previous cases, would now become right, as being apparently the one most conducive to the future welfare of mankind. Utilitarianism's standard of morality thus turns out to be, not any fixed and definite notion of expediency, but one liable to change with every change in individual judgment. Its boasted criterion of the right or wrong of an action is the best conjecture which the agent, with or without extrinsic advice, is able to form of the future consequences of the action. Utilitarian law, in short, resolves itself into this—that every man shall be a law unto himself. Of course no Utilitarians will acknowledge this to be their law, not even those who shape their conduct in exact conformity to it. Nevertheless, that such is the law follows necessarily from their own premises. For does not Utilitarianism sometimes—a little heedlessly, perhaps, but not the less positively—declare that the morality of an action depends not at all upon its motives, but exclusively upon its consequences? Does it not, when most guarded in its language, affirm the morality of actions to depend upon their tendencies, that is to say, on their consequences at large, and in the long run? But there can never be perfect certainty as to consequences. With regard to the future, plausible conjecture is the utmost possible; and by differing judgments different conjectures will needs be made. So that the value of the rule of conduct furnished by Utilitarianism to any individual depends upon the latter's ability, supplemented by that of any counsellors whom he may consult, to forecast events. He cannot proceed correctly, except in so far as he or they have the gift of prophecy. However dull his vision may be, he must content himself with his own blind guidance, unless he prefer as guide some one who, for aught he can tell, may be as blind as himself. And it is always for himself to judge whether he will follow advice: so that in effect every Utilitarian is his own moral law-giver; and, certainly, a worse assignment of legislative functions cannot be imagined.
But the mischievousness of Utilitarianism does not stop here. We have seen how one of its principles destroys the landmarks between right and wrong, between virtue and vice, causing each to take continually the place of its opposite. We have now to see how another of its principles obliterates all distinctions between different kinds of virtue, confounding them in one indiscriminate mass, and imparting to them a sort of general oneness not more lucid than that which, according to Mr. Curdle, is the essence of the dramatic unities.
The object which it insists upon as conduct's end and aim is the general good—the greatest possible aggregate of good or happiness for all. As the Scriptures enjoin us, whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do, to do all to the glory of God, so Utilitarianism exhorts us to do all for the welfare of mankind. Now, far be it from me to caricature this soul-inspiring rule by forcing it, under a strained construction, to an unnatural extreme. Fairly examined, it will be seen to make no extravagant demands on our self-denial. As Christianity, even while bidding us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, promises that all other things shall be added unto us, so Utilitarianism, even while insisting on our seeking first to please others, permits, nay, directs, us to take as much pleasure for ourselves as we can lay hold of without depriving others, since the aggregate of happiness which it is incumbent upon us to augment to the best of our ability would otherwise be less. Nay, for the same reason, it disapproves of our foregoing any pleasure of our own, the full equivalent of which is not transferred to others. The happiness which it requires us to attend to is that of a society of which each of us is a component member, and no member of which can deny himself any pleasure within his reach, and beyond the reach of others, without diminishing the total of happiness which the whole society might enjoy. 'As between his own happiness and that of others,' says Mr. Mill, 'Utilitarianism requires an agent to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.' Thus qualified, the prescribed subordination of one's own to the general good is no such extravagantly self-denying ordinance. If for anything, it might rather be reproached for its cold, calculating equity. With reference quite as much to individual as to communal happiness it is an excellent rule of conduct, against which not a word could be said, provided only it were left to be adopted voluntarily, and were not authoritatively imposed.
Unfortunately, however, Utilitarianism allows no option in the matter. Unless we do our very utmost to promote the general weal, at whatever sacrifice to ourselves, it charges us with sin of omission. In the words of one of the ablest among able Editors, 'justice is the social idea in its highest, widest, and most binding expression.... It signifies the moral principle which obliges each so to shape his conduct and relations, his claims and his achievements, that they harmonise with the highest good of all.' To which doctrine of Mr. Morley's, if other Utilitarians do not subscribe, it can only be because they are less resolutely logical. Mr. Mill, indeed, though dissenting in appearance on this point from Mr. Morley, agrees with him in substance. Even when on one occasion, distinguishing between duty and virtue, he says that there are innumerable acts and forbearances of human beings which, though either causes or hindrances of good to their fellow-creatures, lie beyond the domain of duty, and within that of virtue or merit, he goes on to assign as the sole reason for placing them in the domain of the latter that, in respect to them, it is, on the whole, for the general interest that people should be left free, thereby plainly intimating that society would be equitably entitled to insist on them if it thought proper. But conduct that can be equitably insisted on is clearly, in the strictest sense, duty; and it would be preposterous to claim merit for doing that which it would be a breach of duty to leave undone. Duties do not cease to be duties because he on whom they are incumbent is not compelled under penalty to perform them, any more than debts cease to be debts because creditors do not choose to ask for payment. All consistent utilitarian teaching points inflexibly towards Mr. Morley's conclusion, according to which justice and social virtue are absolutely identical, and according to which, also, whoever does not shape his 'conduct, &c., in harmony with the highest good of all,' does less than is due from him, while it is impossible for him to do more. For whatever he propose to do must either be or not be in the prescribed harmony. If it be, he is bound to do it. If not, he is bound not to do it. The very utmost he can do is no more than is incumbent upon him. Less than his very utmost is less than is incumbent. No action of his, therefore, can possess any merit; for mere fulfilment of obligations is reckoned not of grace, but of debt. Having done everything, he is still but an unprofitable servant; he has but done that which was his duty to do. Where, then, is the boast of virtue? It is excluded. By what law? By that of Utilitarianism, set forth in its full amplitude. Honesty and generosity, faith, truth, charity, patient endurance, and chivalrous self-devotion, all are mingled together under the name of justice, and justice itself only remains just as long as it remains identical with the largest expediency.
At this rate we cannot possibly have any virtue to plume ourselves upon. The best we can do being no more than our duly, the only reward we can claim is exemption from the punishment we should have deserved if we had not done it. Whether it be that we have abstained from killing or robbing our fellow-citizens for our own advantage, or have impoverished or half-killed ourselves in the service of the State, our meed is the same. Loris non ureris. Non pasces in cruce corvos, is what we are told. We may congratulate ourselves on having escaped the cat-o'-nine-tails and the gallows. Well, we have, most of us, so much self-sufficiency, that to deprive us of all ground for it might be a fault on the right side. But now comes a second and more awkward reflection. If you will not of your own accord do your duty, those to whom performance of the duty is owing have a right to use means to make you—foul means if fair means will not avail. If, then, you hesitate to do your utmost for the interests of society, society is warranted in taking measures to accelerate your movement. If you are not, or what is practically the same thing, if a numerical majority of your fellow-citizens think you are not, making the most beneficial use of your property; if it be generally considered that it would be for the greater good of the greater number to divide your park and garden into peasant properties and cottage allotments, to double the wages of the workmen in your employment, or to subject you and the likes of you to a graduated income tax for the purpose of setting up national workshops to compete with you in your own trade; and, if you do not readily enter into the same views, then the said numerical majority are not simply warranted in taking the law into their own hands and doing, in spite of you, what they think ought to be done with your property, but would be culpably remiss if they neglected so to act.
Now it is needless to dwell on the extent to which that large numerical majority of our fellow-citizens which consists of the working classes is imbued with this notion, nor, except to those who are similarly imbued, can it be necessary to insist that there is no notion of which it is more indispensable to disabuse the working-class mind. This, accordingly, I strove to do throughout a recent work of mine, 'On Labour,' particularly in the chapter which treats of the claims and rights thereof. I there earnestly pleaded that there may be, and are, private rights independent of utility which no public needs can cancel; that all which any man, or set of men, is entitled to exact from another is payment or fulfilment of what is due to him or them from that other; that unless the poverty of the many has been caused by the few, the many are not warranted in extorting relief of their wants from the few; that the mere circumstance of their being without food or work does not entitle the poor to be fed or employed by the rich, for that there is likewise a justice independent of and superior to utility, consisting simply of respect for rights, while injustice consists simply of violation of rights.
In so arguing, I ran directly counter to Utilitarianism, provoking thereby a retaliatory assault from Utilitarianism's tutelary champion, who, as readers of the 'Fortnightly Review' are aware, bore down upon me with an energy no whit the less effective for being tempered with all knightly courtesy. Yet, not to say it vaingloriously, I am not conscious of having been shaken in the saddle, and I now return to the encounter with modest assurance, firmly believing mine to be the better cause, and recollecting too that in a contest with Mr. Mill, let the issue be what it may, I may at least comfort myself with the reflection
Minus turpe vinci quam contendisse decorum.
I must at the outset be permitted to remark that one or two of Mr. Mill's objections to my statements are based upon misconception of their meaning. I never questioned, but, on the contrary, have always in the distinctest terms admitted that society is perfectly at liberty to put an end to the institution of property in land. No extremest Socialist ever went beyond me in proclaiming that the 'earth was bestowed by the Creator, not on any privileged class or classes, but on all mankind and on all successive generations of men, so that no one generation can have more than a life interest in the soil, or be entitled to alienate the birthright of succeeding generations.' No one more fully recognises that property in land exists only on sufferance and by concession, and that society, which made the concession, may at any moment take it back on giving full compensation to the concessioners.
Again, when asserting the inviolability of moveable, as distinguished from landed, property, I was careful to limit the assertion to property honestly acquired. I never supposed it possible to acquire by prescription 'a fee simple in an injustice.' Only, if in any particular instance it be suspected that property has been acquired by force, fraud, or robbery, I contend that the onus probandi lies on him who raises the question. It is for him to show, if he can, that a commercial fortune has, as Mr. Mill suggests, been built up by 'jobbing contracts, profligate loans, or other reprehensible practices.' But if this cannot be shown, the validity of the actual possessor's title must not be impugned. Property must be treated as of innocent acquisition and derivation until proved to be of guilty. And that not merely because there could otherwise be no rights of property at all, since it must always be impossible for any owner to demonstrate that neither he nor any one of those from whom he derives ever either overreached in a bargain or failed in a contract; but also, and much more, because whether a person be or be not the rightful owner of the wealth in his possession, no one can possibly be entitled to despoil him unless the wealth can be shown to have been ill-gotten. That right must be held to be complete with which no one can show a right to interfere.
The gravest, however, of Mr. Mill's criticisms is that mine is 'a doctrine a priori, claiming to command assent by its own light, and to be evident by simple intuition.' This is an imputation to which I am so unaware of having laid myself open that I can account for its having been made only on the supposition that Mr. Mill, in common with most other Utilitarians, imagines that their only opponents are Intuitionists, and that it is only necessary to set aside the tenets of these in order to get their own established instead. If this were really the case, utilitarian advocacy would be a comparatively easy task. Intuitionism, whether capable or not of being disproved, is by its nature unsusceptible of decisive proof. If I, in support of the proposition that there is in the human mind an intuitive sense of any sort, were to assert that I had such a sense while you denied that you had, it would be impossible for me to prove you to be mistaken, while, unless you were mistaken as to your individual experience, I should clearly be mistaken as to the generalisation which I had based upon mine. But I never said a word about an intuitive sense of right and wrong. How could I, seeing, as no one who chooses to look can fail to see, that the instincts of untutored children prompt them to disregard all rights but their own, to spit cockchafers, rob birds' nests, and confiscate younger children's cakes and apples? All I say is that there may be and are rights independent of and even opposed to utility, and these, for reasons which shall immediately be stated, I call natural rights; but I do not say that they are intuitively perceived. As for sense of justice or of duty, or moral sense or faculty, what I understand by that is not recognition of certain rights or duties as such, but recognition of the obligation to respect whatever rights and to fulfil whatever duties are recognised, according to which definition it is mere tautology to add that the sense or faculty in question originates simultaneously with the recognition of any rights or duties. For inasmuch as rights invariably imply corresponding obligations—inasmuch as if a thing be rightfully claimed, that same thing must needs be due or owing, it is of course impossible to perceive that a thing is owing without perceiving at the same moment that it ought to be paid. On this account, and with this explanation, I should not scruple to speak of the moral sense as intuitive; but if for that reason I am to be called an Intuitionist, so equally must Mr. Mill, for he has said precisely the same thing. He likewise has said that 'the moral faculty, if not a part of our nature, is a natural out-growth from it, capable, in a certain small degree, of springing up spontaneously.'
By my avowal of a belief in 'Natural Rights,' I feel that I must have incurred in philosophic quarters a sort of civil contempt, which I am very desirous of removing, and which will, I trust, be somewhat diminished on my proceeding to explain how few and elementary are the rights that I propose for naturalisation. They are but two in number, and they are these:—(1) Absolute right, except in so far as the same may have been forfeited by misconduct or modified by consent, to deal in any way one pleases, not noxious to other people, with one's own self or person; (2) right equally absolute to dispose similarly of the produce either of one's own honest industry, or of that of others whose rights in connection with it have been honestly acquired by oneself. I call these 'rights,' because there cannot possibly anywhere exist either the right to prevent their being exercised, or any rights with which they can clash, and because, therefore, by their freest exercise, no one can possibly be wronged, while to interfere with their exercise would be to wrong their possessor. And I call them 'natural,' because they are not artificially created, and have no need of external ratification. Whoever thinks proper to deny this—whoever, as all Utilitarians do, contends that society is entitled to interfere with the rights which I have called natural, is bound to attempt to show how society became so entitled; when for the claim he puts forward on society's behalf he will find it impossible to produce any plausible pretext, without crediting society with possession of a right belonging to that same 'natural' class, the existence of which he denies. For, as there can be no rights without corresponding obligations or duties, if it be really the right of society to deal at its discretion with the persons or effects of individuals, it must be incumbent on individuals to permit themselves and whatever is theirs to be so dealt with. Have, then, individuals incurred any such obligation? No obligation, be it remembered, can arise, except through some antecedent act of one or other or both of the parties concerned. Either a pledge of some sort must have been given or a benefit of some sort must have been received. Now undoubtedly there are no limits to the extent to which society and its individual members might have reciprocally pledged themselves. It might have been stipulated by their articles of association that society at large should do its utmost for the welfare of each of its members, and that each of its members should do his utmost for the welfare of society at large. But it is certain, either that no such compact ever was made, or that, if made, it has always been systematically set at nought. Society has never made much pretence of troubling itself about the welfare of individuals, except in certain specified particulars; so that, even if individuals had, on condition of being treated with reciprocal solicitude, accepted the obligation of attending to the welfare of society in other than the same particulars, that conditional obligation would from the commencement have been null and void. The one thing which society invariably pledges itself to do is to protect person and property, and by implication to enforce performance of contracts; and the two things which individual associates in turn pledge themselves to do are to abstain from molesting each other's persons and property, and to assist society in protecting both. In so abstaining and so assisting consist all those 'many acts and the still greater number of forbearances, the perpetual practice of which by all is,' as Mr. Mill says, 'universally deemed to be so necessary to the general well-being, that people must be held to it compulsorily, either by law or by social pressure.' Under one or other of these two heads may be ranged everything that individuals owe to society in return for the mere protection which they receive from it.
True, there is an universal understanding that individuals shall be subject to any laws, whether wise or foolish, provided only they be of equal and impartial operation, which may be enacted by a numerical majority of the community to which the individuals belong; and in this manner individuals may become bound by any number of miscellaneous pledges, society acquiring simultaneously the right to hold individuals to the performance of those pledges. Thus, if by the vote of an unimpeachably representative House of Commons it were declared to be for the general good, and agreed to accordingly, that every one should be vaccinated or circumcised, it would be incumbent on every one to submit quietly to vaccination or circumcision, however deleterious the operation might be deemed by some. Or if, improving upon a hypothetical suggestion of Mr. Mill, a parliament elected by constituencies in which the labouring-class element greatly predominated, should prospectively forbid the accumulation by any individual of property beyond a specified amount, then, though the almost certain consequence would be that the prescribed limit of accumulation would not be exceeded, still if it were exceeded, the accumulator could not justly complain when the surplus was forfeited according to law. Yet even thus the obligations or duties created will correspond exactly with the pledges given; none will be incurred except such as have been imposed by special legislation—nor even those, unless the legislation have been impartial. A law requiring people to pay poor's-rates would not suffice as a pretext for requiring them to pay education rates likewise. Neither if, instead of passing the prospective law just now supposed, a governing majority which had previously always permitted the indefinite accumulation of wealth, were retrospectively to decree the forfeiture of all past accumulations beyond a defined amount, would individuals be morally bound to submit to such a decree if they could contrive to evade it, any more than sexquipedalians would be bound to lay their heads on the block in obedience to a law directing everybody six feet high to be decapitated. All such partial legislation would be tyrannical, and circumstances must be very peculiar indeed to make submission to tyranny a duty. But of all conceivable legislation, none could possibly be more partial, or therefore more tyrannical, than such as should give to society a general power of dealing at its pleasure with its associates, and of arbitrarily subjecting separate classes or individuals to exceptional treatment. Even, therefore, if a law to such monstrous effect were enacted, it could have no morally binding force. It would be no one's duty to acquiesce in it.
I will not here stop to dispute, though I am not sure that I could without some slight reservation admit, that the receipt of unasked-for benefits places the recipient under precisely the same obligation to benefit his benefactor, as if the good received by him had been conferred on express condition of his availing himself of the first opportunity to render equal good. I will not stop to dispute, for instance, that a person saved from drowning at the risk of his own rescuer's life, would be bound, on occasion arising, to risk his own life in order to save his former rescuer's. For my immediate purpose, it may suffice to remark that society has never been in the habit of showing such parental solicitude for its component members as would warrant its claiming filial devotion from them. In the matter of philanthropy its practice has never been in advance of its very moderate professions. It has invariably contented itself with rendering certain specific services, never failing to exact in return fully equivalent services of each species.
In candour, however, there must be admitted to be innumerable blessings not yet adverted to, including indeed most of those by the possession of which man is distinguished from brutes, for which he is in so far indebted to society that, but for the instrumentality of society, they would never have been his. Unless individuals had formed themselves into communities, civilization could have made no sensible progress: there could have been no considerable advances, material, intellectual, moral, or aesthetic. Not only should we have been destitute of all the comforts and luxuries that now surround us, we should have lacked also whatever cerebral development we have attained, together with all its concomitants and consequences; whatever of intelligence, or moral perceptiveness, or artistic taste we have to boast of. Still, though none of these faculties could have made much approach to maturity except under the shelter of society, they are not gifts of society. Without the help of a plough, land cannot be ploughed; but we do not therefore credit the ploughmaker with the achievements of the ploughman. Neither is society to take to itself praise because its members have made good use of the protection which, in consideration of stipulated services on their part, it has afforded them. Besides, whatever we inherit from society, we inherit from a society of members no longer in being. Let the dead come to life again, and it may then become us to examine their claims upon our gratitude, but we need not meanwhile confound past and present generations, nor our forefathers with our contemporaries. To the mass of these latter, at any rate, we are none of us indebted for our brains or our aptitudes of thought and feeling, and the circumstance of our being joint sharers with them in patrimony bequeathed by a common ancestry, affords no very obvious reason why our share of the inheritance, together with whatever else we possess, should be at their absolute disposal.