Thursday, February 21, 2013
JF Stephen on the limits of morality
LIMITATIONS OF MORALITY.
It is obvious that controversies of the most fundamental character upon many of the subjects of thought which permanently interest mankind are rapidly approaching. The questions, for example,
which are suggested by the consideration of the chief political topics of the day involve principles which are imperfectly understood, and which have not as yet been even stated with any approach to fulness.
Such phrases as " progress " and " civilization," which pass so glibly over our lips, have a very vague meaning. We are not only ignorant of the course which we are steering, or which it would be desirable for us to steer, but we have not distinctly made up our minds that we are to steer, and not to drift • wherever the waves may carry us. This makes all our domestic politics indefinite and unsatisfactory. In foreign politics, questions arise of hardly less importance, involving principles of which we know, and affect to know, very little. Are we to take a side at all in the domestic affairs of foreign countries, and, if so, to what extent? Are we to remain absolutely neutral unless our own immediate safety is involved, and if so, on what principle?
Perhaps the most embarrassing questions of this order which recent events have brought to light are those which relate to the government of India. We, who at home are the upholders of something approaching to political Quakerism, and who affected to condemn as an atrocious crime the attempts of Russia to extend its limits or its power by aggressive warfare, are regarded throughout the whole of the East as the greatest conquerors that the world ever saw; and notwithstanding all that is to be said on the subject, it would be vain to deny that, in our inmost hearts, we cherish the recollection of the wonderful achievements which have won for us the Indian Empire with feelings of pride and satisfaction which are not consistent with the estimate we usually express of the conduct of many of our neighbours. It is needless to advert expressly to the religious questions raised by our position in India, as they will naturally suggest themselves to every reader.
All such problems, infinite as their variety may be, will be found to depend in a great measure upon some of the oldest of the great standing controversies which have exercised the intellect of mankind ever since it first woke to consciousness of its powers. An age almost entirely absorbed in the pursuit of mechanical results may deride them as merely boyish speculations, but they are in reality matters, not only of vital, but of immediate practical importance. They are such as these,—What is the ideal of human life? What do we really wish to do and to be? Are we in earnest when we say, as we sometimes do, that a life spent in the discharge of Christian duties is the highest form of life, and, if so, how do we extract the Indian Empire from Christianity? What place do the duties and aspirations of a citizen and a patriot find in our ideal, and upon what warrant are they to be included in it? Questions so vast and intricate cannot be handled here with any approach to fulness, but it is possible to make one or two suggestions as to the mode in which they ought to be viewed and discussed.
The most important of these suggestions is that the mere morality of actions is not the only standard to which they may be referred. The highest, or nearly the highest, point which morality can reach is innocence. Like all other laws, the moral law is almost always negative, and its commandments almost universally run in the form of prohibition—" Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shalt not steal." Socrates' demon always forbade, but never exhorted. When morality goes further than this, it introduces us to an order of things which lies beyond and beneath it. Thus it is a great general principle that love is the fulfilling of the law; but if love involves, as it unquestionably does, a wish for the welfare of that which is the object of love, it pre-supposes a knowledge of the elements on which the welfare of that object depends, or at least an opinion on the subject. And this brings in a whole class of considerations which are entirely foreign to mere morality; for "welfare" is a large word, and includes the perfection of every part of that to which it is applied, and thus it implies a knowledge of the constituent elements and ultimate destiny of human nature itself. It follows that moral considerations alone will not enable us to solve practical moral problems, because there is an enormous class of subjects of the highest importance which are not described either in an exhaustive or even in a satisfactory manner by the words " right" and " wrong." It would, for example, be a strange abuse of terms to say that art, that literature, that national greatness, that the general vigour with which men seek the common objects of human desire—a condition which varies immensely in different nations, and has more to do with national prosperity than almost any other —are in themselves either right or wrong. A man naturally feeble, lethargic, and irresolute may be either worse, or better than, or as good as, a person of the opposite temperament. Morality may be compared to the dams and floodgates which regulate the flow of the stream of life; but the quality and volume of the stream itself are independent of them, and morality was neither intended to furnish—nor can it possibly furnish—any test as to its character. To attempt to derive from morality an answer to questions which lie beyond its province is one of the commonest of the proofs of the all but universal ignorance which exists amongst us as to its limits.
These considerations assume in practice the most definite concrete forms. What are we to think, and how are we to act, in relation to national enterprises like the establishment and maintenance of our Indian Empire? Is our position there radically right or wrong? The answer depends entirely on our conception of national existence, and on the degree of importance which attaches to the different objects which nations propose to themselves. The question as to what it is right or wrong for a nation to do depends upon the further question as to what a nation is, and for what purposes it exists. And this is a matter of which we know exceedingly little, and on which our present habits of thought do not encourage speculation. A single illustration will perhaps throw some light upon the depth of the ignorance in which we are involved upon it . One of the principal subjects which excite the attention and draw forth the enthusiasm of almost every modern observer of national affairs, is the diminution of crime. Tacitly or expressly, it is constantly assumed that there is no better test of the goodness of a nation; and that to produce a state of things in which no overt acts of wickedness should take place would be the highest aim which philanthropy could propose to itself. It is certainly true that every crime which is committed diminishes all that every good man would wish to increase, and produces a train of consequences which, as far as we can trace them, are simply detestable. Good does not come from evil, and evil can never be the subject of any other feeling than anger and sorrow; but there is another truth which lies beyond this. It is that, though there is no assignable connection between crimes—still less between vices—and goodness in general, or any good thing in particular, the most innocent men and nations are not the greatest, and therefore not the best or most admirable. A baby who dies at a month old, an absolute idiot, a man who has been shielded by circumstances from all knowledge of either good or evil, are not the types to which one would wish to see mankind at large conformed. It is said that the Icelanders never commit
crimes, and that the same is true to a great extent of the Esquimaux; but even if this is the case no one would really wish to see England and France converted into a larger Iceland and a larger Greenland. It would seem to follow from this, that greatness and crime are each in some way traceable to causes winch lie deeper than the distinction between right and wrong, and that there must be something more valuable than blamelessness—something higher than innocence. We call that something by a variety of names of which "progress" and "civilization" are perhaps the most in vogue, but it is remarkable that we never apply to individuals the rule which we all apply to nations. We are all willing to put up with the extreme wickedness of a few as a sort of concomitant of the greatness of the nation to which they belong, but no one would expressly advise an individual to do wrong acts for his own advancement. If it were put to the vote, no one would sacrifice the history of this country for the sake of a history of unbroken inoffensiveness, varied by no incident and exalted by no greatness. Yet no one would say that a man ought to tell a lie or commit a murder for the sake of any conceivable advantages to himself or to his friends.
It is entirely impossible to solve such questions as these—at least in the present state of our knowledge. Yet it is wise to weigh them, to turn them over in the mind, and to attempt to realize the fact of their existence, and obtain some conception of their relations to the great interests of life. As a matter of fact, they usually solve themselves in practice. There are acts of which the justice and the virtue cannot be disproved, which no one ever ventures to propose to a nation. An unexpressed conviction pervades mankind that the ordinary rules of morality do not quite reach the case of national acts; and it is by no means true that this conviction is altogether wicked or altogether unfounded, though it may be made the excuse for detestable wickedness. In the same way, there are persons who have been guilty of great crimes whom nevertheless the common verdict of mankind does not utterly condemn. The man after God's own heart was a murderer and an adulterer; but those two words would not be an adequate description of David. Like all other things, morality has its limits. They are dim and mysterious in the highest degree—but they exist, and their existence should be admitted.
January 28. 1860.
(p107, in "Essays by a Barrister", by James Fitzjames Stephen)
Posted by Chris at 8:19 AM