Monday, November 9, 2015

Why altruism is overrated

"Few of the current phrases of the day are more frequently in the
mouths of excellent people than that which stands at the head of this
essay. It is not uncommon to hear people ranked as good or bad by
reference to it. If a man is described as ill-tempered, narrow-minded,
and one-sided, the answer often is that he is most unselfish, that he
lives for others, and that he passes his life in " doing good;" and
the praise awarded to the energetic and successful prosecution of any
of the common pursuits of life is often largely modified by the
disparaging comment that the person who is entitled to it lives for
himself—is intent on his own advantage, and is indifferent to doing
good to his neighbours. The constant use of this phrase is a subject
of real regret; for few expressions are used more loosely and
thoughtlessly, or work more injustice in that secret court in which
every man sits in his own mind as judge of the conduct and characters
of his neighbours.

The words " doing good " may be used either in a popular or in an
accurate sense. Strictly speaking, to " do good " must mean to act
right. Hooker says, " Tho ways of well-doing are in number even as
many as the kinds of voluntary actions;" and, of course, every one
would maintain that a man cannot do better than conform the whole
course of his life to the rule of duty, whatever that may be. But the
popular and technical sense of the phrase is much narrower. It means
the expenditure of time and trouble in the direct relief of specific
misfortune, or the direct production of specific benefits to
individuals or to classes. In this, which is the common application of
the word, people would hardly say that the time passed in conducting a
series of scientific experiments, however important, was passed in
doing good; but they would say so of an evening employed in giving a
gratuitous lecture at Exeter Hall to the Christian Young Men's
Association. A medical student would not be described as " doing good"
whilst he was walking the hospitals, but if he gratuitously advised a
poor sick person he would. The whole apparatus of charitable and
philanthropic undertakings, which are so abundant in the present day —
missionary societies, bible societies, education societies, lecturing
societies, and the thousand other institutions of the same kind which
are spread over the face of the world,—are all recognized as organs
for doing good; but the ordinary pursuits of life— trades,
professions, and occupations of every kind— with one or two
exceptions, are not.

This mode of speaking docs great injustice in more ways than one. It
tends to establish an unfounded distinction, to give to the most
important part of society an entirely wrong notion of their position
and of their duties, and to invest one particular class with a degree
of credit to which, in fact, it has little or no claim. It is the
common ground of almost all those who profess to think upon these
subjects, that duty is coextensive with life itself, and that the most
rational view which can be taken of human society is that it is a sort
of body corporate, made up of different members, each of which has its
own special function. Thus, one class of men tills the ground, another
combines and distributes its produce; a third makes, and a fourth
executes laws; and so it would be possible to go through every class
of human society. If all these functions are properly discharged, the
whole body corporate is in a healthy condition; and thence it follows
that whoever contributes to the full and proper discharge of any one
of these functions is contributing to the general good of the whole
body; so that a person occupied in them is doing good in the strictest
sense of the words.

The proof that any given occupation is one of the functions which are
essential to the well-being of the whole, lies in the fact of its
existence and general recognition as a lawful calling. People have
neither the power nor, in most cases, the right to look further. To do
so is to assume the character of a judge of the constitution of the
world. If a given occupation is openly and avowedly exercised without
reproach, that fact is sufficient warrant to any person to engage in
it who considers himself to be called upon to do so, either by
circumstances or by personal fitness for its duties; and in so far as
he discharges those duties he is, in the strictest and in the only
proper sense of the word, doing good—that is, he is forwarding and
preserving the happiness of the society of which he is a member. A
stockbroker who passes the whole day in buying and selling shares, or
a publican who is constantly occupied in serving his customers, passes
his time in doing good just as much as the most zealous clergyman or
sister of mercy. To deny this is to say that a commissariat or
transport corps has nothing to do with carrying on a war, and that
this business is discharged entirely by those who stand in the line of
battle or mount the breach. Human society is a vast and intricate
machine, composed of innumerable wheels and pulleys. Every one has his
special handle to grind at—some with great and obvious effects, others
with little or no assignable result; but if the object ultimately
produced by the combined efforts of all is in itself a good one, it
cannot be denied that whatever is essential to its production is good

This doctrine on the subject of doing good is not so much contested as
ignored by the common use of the phrase. Few people probably would say
that any habitual recognized mode of passing time is neither good nor
bad'; and to assert that any lawful calling is bad, is a contradiction
in terms. The phrase " doing good" is used rather rhetorically than
logically. It is employed for the purpose of asserting indirectly that
the conscious effort to relieve the sufferings or to increase the
comforts of others, not only without any motive for so doing in which
personal interest can have a share, but without any direct and
commonly recognized personal obligation to do so, is in itself a
nobler and more elevating employment than any of the common
occupations of life which people are paid for carrying on in money, in
rank, in reputation, and in other ways, The assertion or insinuation
of such a view is injurious, and the view itself is false.

The insinuation is injurious principally because it has a strong
practical tendency to discredit the common occupations of life, and it
does this in two ways. In the first place, it assumes that the motives
which urge people to the diligent and successful prosecutions of their
various callings are, generally speaking, mean and petty. It
insinuates that the mainspring of professional zeal is personal
ambition; that commerce and agriculture are mere embodiments of
avarice; and that, in a word, selfishness is the vital principle of
almost every part of society. If this assumption were true,
philanthropy in all its forms would be an absurdity. To "do good" to
such a society would be like trying to do good to a corpse. The effort
to increase the prosperity and to relieve the sufferings of the
miserable part of the world would, upon this supposition, be efforts
to enable those who had been providentially weaned from a corrupt and
detestable system to be as selfish and grasping as the rest. If common
life is so corrupt, surely it is no evil to be cut off by poverty or
sickness from its pursuits; yet the philanthropists whose habitual
language is based on the hypothesis of the corruption and selfishness
of ordinary pursuits, strain every nerve to do away with poverty and

The theory of the baseness of ordinary pursuits not only involves
those who maintain it in this inextricable contradiction, but is
false. It is totally untrue that selfishness is the life of anything
at all— least of all is it the life of any lawful pursuit. No one, of
course, would contend that lawyers are actuated in their profession
only or chiefly by a disinterested zeal for the administration of
justice ; physicians by a. desire to promote health; or merchants by a
wish that men should enjoy the produce of foreign countries; but it is
perfectly true that in every pursuit there is an esprit de corps which
has reference to such objects as these, and exercises a marked
influence on those who adopt it. And it is also a truth, the
importance of which can hardly be overestimated, that nearly every
successful member of any profession whatever owes his success largely
to the fact that he has pursued it, not from a slavish hunger after
its emoluments, but from a genuine love for it, and satisfaction in
discharging its duties efficiently and well. A ploughman, if he is
worth his wages, likes to see the furrows run evenly and
symmetrically; the mason likes to see his work justified by the
plumb-line and spirit-level; and in the higher walks of life, every
man who deserves, and almost every man who earns distinction, seeks
and finds his reward far more in his work than in his pay.

The second way in which the common language about " doing good " does
injustice to ordinary life is that, besides bringing against it the
false accusation that it is radically corrupt, it does so on the false
ground that pursuits which benefit the person who follows them up are
selfish. Independently of the consideration that this, if true, would
destroy the beauty of philanthropy itself, it is hardly possible to
imagine a view which puts people in a more absurd position. It is
equivalent to tho theory that we ought to be too fine to take the
wages which our Maker offers us, and that the proper attitude for us
to assume is that of persons conferring a favour upon creation at
large. It is curious to see the doctrine of works of supererogation
reintroduced by this door into a Protestant community, amidst the
universal applause of those who are considered the picked
representatives of the Protestant belief, and the champions of faith
against works.

The falsehood of the opinion that conscious and direct efforts to
mitigate suffering and to increase comfort are in themselves more
beneficial, either to society at large or to the persons who engage in
them, than the prosecution of the common affairs of life, is at least
as well marked as the injurious effects of insisting upon it. That
such efforts are great benefits to the world there can be no doubt,
but they are benefits as medicine is a benefit, and they stand in the
same relation to common life as that in which medicine stands to food.
No one will deny the importance of doctors and surgeons, but we could
dispense with their services much more easily than with those of
butchers and bakers. We should not get on nearly so well as we do
without schools, and hospitals, and charitable institutions; but if
they were all swept away, England would still be, and would probably
long remain, a great nation; whereas, if the plough and the loom stood
still, if there were no government and no law, it would exist for a
short time as a den of robbers, and would soon cease to exist at all.

It is thus evident that philanthropy is not the most important clement
of human society; and though it may appear a more plausible, it is not
a better- founded assertion, that philanthropic pursuits arc more
healthy to those who follow them than the common employments of life.
The grand objection to them all is that people create them for
themselves ; so that they have far less power to educate and develop
the whole mind than pursuits which have received their shape from the
permanent standing necessities of human nature. In any calling of this
permanent kind there is, and always must be, endless instruction. It
has its traditions, its fixed objects, it abuses, its difficulties; it
presents a constant succession of problems, which its members must
solve for themselves; it pays little attention to their preconceived
ideas, but is constantly moulding and changing them in a thousand
ways, so that a long life may be passed in the diligent cultivation of
such a pursuit without exhausting the instruction which it is capable
of giving. This is far from being the case with the great majority of
philanthropic employments. A man who embarks in them is a volunteer,
and he generally is obliged to put himself forward as a teacher when
he ought to be a learner. He is more exposed than almost any other
person to the danger of becoming pedantic and petty, and of trying to
realize his own conceptions of what people ought to be and to do,
instead of learning how slight and narrow those conceptions are.
Benevolence is constantly cultivated by philanthropists at the expense
of modesty, truthfulness, and consideration for the rights and
feelings of others; for by the very fact that a man devotes himself to
conscious efforts to make people happier and better than they are, he
asserts that he knows better than they what are the necessary
constituent elements of happiness and goodness. In other words, he
sets himself up as their guide and superior. Of course, his claim to
do this may bo well founded; but the mere fact that it is made does
not prove its justice. On the contrary, it often arises from a
domineering self-sufficiency of disposition, associated with a taste
for interfering in other people's affairs. The habit of not only doing
this, but looking upon it as the one course of life which is worthy of
admiration—as the one laudable employment which redeems the vulgarity
and selfishness of the rest—can hardly be favourable to the mental
constitution of those who indulge in it.

The habit of doing acts of kindness, and of transacting the common
affairs of life in a kind and generous spirit, cannot be too much
practised, but nothing has less in common with this than the habit of
regarding oneself as the person officially charged with the
improvement of others. There is only a slight connection between the
maintenance of this general benevolence and any real individual warmth
of feeling. The habit of looking upon our neighbours from a position
of conscious and avowed superiority has a direct tendency to make
sympathy impossible. A man who thinks that no portion of his time is
so well employed as that which is devoted to checking and tutoring
unruly wills and affections, is fortunate if he continues to be kind
and amiable; and one whose cherished object in life is to realize
amongst his poorer neighbours some ideal of his own as to character
and conduct, is still more fortunate if that ideal does not rapidly
become narrow and petty. Philanthropic pursuits have many indisputable
advantages, but it is doubtful whether they can be truly said to
humanize .and soften the minds of those who are most addicted to them.
It is true that they are often cultivated from motives of humanity,
but they have far less tendency than might have been expected to
develop the principles from which they spring.

These remarks must not be understood to apply to the case of
professions like that of a clergyman or physician, in which direct
efforts to benefit others form a conspicuous and important element.
They are levelled against a contempt for those pursuits which are not
so distinguished. In deciding the great question of the choice of a
profession, it is, no doubt, a most weighty consideration that some
callings make greater demands upon and afford greater play to the
kindly and gentle parts of our nature than others; but whether this is
a recommendation or otherwise in any particular case, turns upon the
natural character of the person by whom the choice is to be made. A
man of stern, cold disposition has no right to place himself in a
position in which great demands will be made upon his sympathies; but
life is large and various, and he may do service in other quarters, in
which his services are quite as important. It is hard on such a man to
assert, as the current phraseology about doing good virtually does,
that unless he forces his nature and enters upon philanthropic
pursuits for which he has neither inclination nor fitness, he is of
necessity leading a selfish, godless, graceless life. It is apparently
part of the providential plan of life that men should differ
endlessly, and this difference is nowhere more clearly marked than in
matters of feeling. It is impossible to say that it is a duty to have
warm feelings, though it may be a misfortune not to have them, and
there is a large class of persons on whom the attempt to warm up their
own feelings to the level which might be considered right by others
would have no other effect than that of producing either cruel
mortification or a self-righteous hypocrisy of the most odious kind.
To this class— and few know how large and important a class it is—
popular language does gross injustice. Such men may be good
Christians, good citizens, useful members of society in honourable
callings ; yet because their natural temperament disqualifies them
from joining in certain amiable enterprises which are invested with a
monopoly of the attribute of doing good, they are stigmatized by
implication as selfish, harsh, and indifferent to everything but their
personal advancement. Few imputations are so unjust. The injustice,
however, is one which does little harm to those who suffer under it,
for they are usually a thick-skinned and long-enduring generation,
whose comfort is not much affected one way or the other by the opinion
of others."

("Doing Good", James Fitzjames Stephen, December 17, 1859)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Chesterton on Education

"Education is a word like "transmission" or "inheritance"; it is not an object, but a method... 

A little boy in a little house, son of a little tradesman, is taught to eat his breakfast, to take his medicine, to love his country, to say his prayers, and to wear his Sunday clothes. Obviously Fagin, if he found such a boy, would teach him to drink gin, to lie, to betray his country, to blaspheme and to wear false whiskers. But so also Mr. Salt the vegetarian would abolish the boy's breakfast; Mrs. Eddy would throw away his medicine; Count Tolstoi would rebuke him for loving his country; Mr. Blatchford would stop his prayers, and Mr. Edward Carpenter would theoretically denounce Sunday clothes, and perhaps all clothes. I do not defend any of these advanced views, not even Fagin's. But I do ask what, between the lot of them, has become of the abstract entity called education. It is not (as commonly supposed) that the tradesman teaches education plus Christianity; Mr. Salt, education plus vegetarianism; Fagin, education plus crime. 

The truth is, that there is nothing in common at all between these teachers, except that they teach. In short, the only thing they share is the one thing they profess to dislike: the general idea of authority. It is quaint that people talk of separating dogma from education. Dogma is actually the only thing that cannot be separated from education. It is education. A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching." 

-- (GK Chesterton, "What's Wrong With The World?")

Friday, October 9, 2015

How 19th century European nationalism was everywhere problematic like Ireland

"In linguistically mixed regions delimitation is a thorny problem even where there is mere juxtaposition of national groups. But in Europe intermixture was as a rule the result of past conquests, political and cultural, which had reduced the original national group to a state of social inferiority. Conquests created Ulsters, and over further, wider regions spread the network of an 'ascendancy' primarily based on the landowning classes and the town population, alien to, or alienated from, the peasantry which retained its own language or religion, or both. Self-government meant, in the earlier stages, the rule of the big landowners and their retainers in the countryside, and of the upper middle-class and the intelligentsia in the towns; their language or religion determined the national character of the country (Grattan's Parliament, composed of Anglo-Irish Protestants, deemed itself representative of the Irish nation). Hence in the numerous Irelands scattered all over Europe turmoil and strife were bound to result from the rise of the lower classes, and especially of the peasantry, to political consciousness and action. National and religious conflicts interlocked with agrarian movements, envenoming each other: war was waged for both the national and the personal ownership of the land, and either side felt that it was fighting not for private interests only. An educated upper class, for centuries accustomed to consider the country its own, would not easily allow itself to be reduced to the position of alien interlopers, while peasants rooted in the land, as only they can be, fought the long-drawn battle with an obstinacy unsurpassed by any other class. Moreover the dominant minority invariably had the backing of its Ulster and of its homeland: even under democracy. With the progressive widening of the political nation, the unprivileged orders, one by one down the social scale, were taking over the quasi-proprietary claims of dynasties and feudal oligarchies to territorial dominance; they became ideological partners or heirs of their quondam rulers, and frequently their actual partners by being settled on the land or in government posts in the disputed territory. Peasant-settlers planted as a garrison to keep down the subject race, school-teachers sent to spread the language of the minority, and a host of petty officials, constituted a master-nation whose rule was much harder to bear, and more galling, than that of a dynasty or of a remote oligarchy. Consider the amount of disturbance which during the nineteenth century was caused in the political life of this country by an Ireland geographically isolated and not subjected to any further encroachments; and you can gauge the effect which two dozen Irelands were bound to have on the life of nineteenth-century Europe as borderlands between contending nations, especially while attempts continued to be made to complete conquest and conversion."

("Vanished Supremacies", by Lewis Namier, pp.166-167)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why Agrarian Revolutions are the only successful Revolutions

“revolutions are in their very nature economically and socially retrograde: and this is the reason why, so far, agrarian revolutions alone have been successful.  The French Revolution of 1789 was essentially agrarian, and its land settlement was its most permanent achievement.  The Revolution of 1848 failed in France because it had no agrarian programme, and in Germany and Austria it succeeded only in so far as it was agrarian.  The forces behind the Russian Revolution of 1917 were agrarian and there the victorious agrarian revolution now gradually destroys other conquests incompatibles with its own principles and nature.  The German Revolution of 1918 was essentially urban, and that is why its victory is uncertain and its social achievements are nil.
The masses are invincible whenever they have a clearly defined, feasible aim in view.  The Socialist programme of the industrial labour movement cannot be realized immediately, but agrarian programmes are usually capable of immediate realization.  This accounts for the enormous strength of revolutionary peasantries…
Industrial labour, if by injudicious action it impairs its own productiveness, runs the danger of losing its markets, employments and livelihood.  But the peasant, by seizing the land of the big estates, may increase his own foodstuffs while diminishing the total agricultural production of the country.  He will be the last to suffer hunger.”

-- Lewis Namier (“Agrarian Revolution”, p147-8 in Skyscrapers and Other Essays)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dostoyevsky on Church and State

“’Reduce God to a mere attribute of nationality?... On the contrary, I elevate the nation to God.  Has it ever been otherwise?  The people is the body of God.  Every nation is a nation only so long as it has its own particular God, excluding all other gods on earth without any possible reconciliation, so long as it believes that by its own God it will conquer and drive all other gods off the face of the earth.
At least that’s what all great nations have believed since the beginning of time, all those remarkable in any way, those standing in the vanguard of humanity.  It’s impossible to go against the fact.  The Jews lived solely in expectation of the true God, and they left this true God to the world.  The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed this religion to the world, that is, philosophy and art.  Rome deified the nation in the state and bequeathed the state to other nations.  France, in the course of its long history, was merely the embodiment and development of the idea of the Roman God, and if it finally hurled its Roman God into the abyss and embraced atheism, which, for the time being, they call socialism, it’s solely because atheism is still healthier than Roman Catholicism.
If a great nation doesn’t believe that the truth resides in it alone (in it alone to the exclusion of all other nations), if it doesn’t believe that it alone is capable and chosen to resurrect and save everyone through its own history, then it immediately ceases to be a great nation and it at once transformed merely into ethnographic material.”

-- (Demons, p265-266).

Friday, September 11, 2015

John Grote on the problem of aggregating utility in Utilitarianism

“The principle of philosophical utilitarianism which has some value and is important, (viz. that an action is lost or worthless which does not promote some happiness, and worse than that if it simply diminishes happiness,) gives us, as I have said, no principle of distribution of our action for happiness, but of itself would leave it to be supposed that it was of no consequence whose happiness was promoted. This however will not make a moral system: there must be some hypothesis as to the distribution: and I suppose that the charm of equality of distribution to utilitarianism is that in certain respects it stands nearest to the former supposition; I mean that we might take it to signify that it was not of special consequence whose happiness was promoted ; in other words, that the reason why the happiness of all should be promoted alike was, that there was no reason why the happiness of one should be promoted more than that of another. In the view of some, probably, this principle of distribution derives an additional charm from the apparent association with the political idea of equality: but utilitarians have not I think necessarily been men of political views of this kind.  Doubtless also the idea of justice and of reason adds a strong support to the proposed principle on the ground of its seeming impartiality and disinterestedness.
One important view of morality which has entered into very opposite systems, is that which regards it as effecting a revolution in our natural judgment of actions, similar to that which took place in astronomical thought when the Copernican system was substituted for the Ptolemaic. Morality in this view bids us change our standing-point from ourselves, cease to be self-centred, and to refer everything to our own happiness, and calls us to put our standing-points it were in the centre of the universe, and to make ourselves, as thought of, be no more to ourselves, as thinking, than anybody else is. Just as, intellectually, reason binds men together, and if we may so speak, deindividualizes them, truth being common, or what so far assimilates one mind to another, while error is individual : so morally, the growth of virtue is a gradual deindividualization of men as to the purpose of their action also, substituting common purposes for private ones, and carrying sympathy to such an extent that individual interests will really vanish. Reason is the same for all, and the application of the principle of reason to morality abolishes the notion of self. One manner also of the action of religion has always been in this direction: we are taught to look at things as God sees them, and to love men as He loves them. But all this must begin with the notion of ourselves, and of something, whatever it is, which makes us what we are, and with the notion of others as differing among themselves, and with certain things which make them what they are: when our point of view is changed these views are altered, but still the first are the groundwork of those which are formed afterwards. Impartiality and disinterestedness are negative terms, which have no meaning except on the supposition of temptation to partiality and of possible interestedness in the first instance: they are guards and corrections and cannot be given to us as original principles. They can only mean acting as between two parties according to the relations which ought to guide action: not necessarily the giving no preference, but the giving no undue preference: and we have still then the meaning of ‘ought’ and ‘due’ to settle. Because a judge is impartial, it does not follow that he will divide the thing in dispute equally between the parties. Impartiality between two parties means, the not allowing any considerations to contribute to the judgment formed which ought not to do so.
The two great moral questions, the one, as between ourselves and others, the other, as between those to whom we are bound in any way and those to whom we are not bound, cannot be settled by any anticipatory determination to make no preferences.  It looks of course well to say, in Mr Mill’s version of our Lord’s words, ‘Love yourself and your neighbour alike :’ but it does not look well to say, ‘Love your father and your neighbour, your benefactor and your neighbour, alike ;’ yet this is in fact what the principle of ‘every body counting for one’ leads to. There are circumstances, I presume, in which we are to deal with our benefactor the same as with anybody else, and circumstances in which we are not:
and if we are to have utilitarian morality as a science to deal with our incitements to action, we certainly want besides it a morality of justice and duty to deal with these circumstances. For utilitarianism here, it appears, can only put us off with the very inapplicable doctrine of ‘no preferences:’ and this adopted not from any principle in utilitarianism itself, but because something must be adopted, and this seems least to commit utilitarianism to any principles dangerous to it.
In some respects, society, whether moral or political, may be considered an aggregation of similar units; but in far more important respects it is an organization of dissimilar members. The general happiness, as a fact, is the sum of the happiness of the individuals; but as an object to be aimed at, it is not this, but it is to be attained by the acting of each according to the relations in which he is placed in the society. It is these different relations, rendering as they do the individuals dissimilar in circumstances, which more truly convert mere juxtaposition into society than anything of similarity does. This latter is needed in certain most important respects, not indeed in any form of equality, but in the form of common understanding and sympathy: but the various need and the power of mutual benefit which dissimilarity of circumstance produces are as vital to the society as the other points, and do more to make it necessary and fruitful. By moral relations and moral society, as distinguished from political, I understand men as stronger and weaker, benefactors and benefited, trusters and trusted, or linked together in other moral relations similar to these, besides the natural relations, as of family, which partially coincide with these; lastly, supposing there is no other relation, as linked together in any case by the general relation of human brotherhood. And if we are to answer the question, whose happiness are we to promote? we must answer it by saying, not the happiness of all alike, ourselves taking share with the rest, but the happiness (if we are so to describe it) of each one with whom we have to do, according to the moral relation in which we stand to him. The happiness which we are to promote is that of those who are benefitable by us, who want something of us, or have claim upon us, according to their wants and claims. The satisfaction of such want and claim is the doing our duty.
And duty binds us, not first in the general (namely, to promote the general happiness), and in the particular only as a consequence of this; but first in the particular, duty in general being an expression for the whole of such particular duty. The particularity of duty and its felt stringency or urgency go together. Failure in duty is an injury to the person towards whom we fail, and it is not the diminution of the happiness of society or of happiness in general, which makes the point of the wrongness of it.
Speaking generally, sympathy follows duty, it being a part of the right working of human nature that feeling follows fact. Feeling, as for instance sympathy, involves in it constantly a great mass of indistinct but true perception ; it is what we may call undeveloped thought, and in cases (most abundant) where the fixing and expression of thought is difficult and slippery, feeling is a guide which often indicates fact and duty when thought and reason may be able hut very imperfectly to exhibit them. The feeling which accompanies the intellectual perception of particular moral duty is often of the intensest character. The idea of not failing to repay obligation and benefit, the idea of answering trust in us by truthfulness and faithfulness on our part, these and similar ideas are accompanied constantly by feeling, the intenseness of which arises entirely from the felt particularity of the relation: any mixture of this feeling with the other feeling, good enough in itself, that we ought to speak the truth because it is of vast importance to society that people’s word should be believed, would, so far as it had any effect, weaken the former. Thus it is that, in a right state of things, feeling which arises of itself, and reason, which makes us aware of moral fact (as of relation and of duty), work together.

And the utilitarian maxim, that ‘an action is right in proportion as it tends to promote happiness ’ is incomplete without having appended to it such an addition as this, ‘ and not merely happiness in general, clutde but such happiness in particular as the agent is duty specially bound and called upon to promote,’ the terms ‘bound ’ and ‘called upon’ being explained by the ideas of duty and sympathy in the manner which I have just described. It is so that the question, ‘Whose happiness?’ is to be answered.” 

-- (An Examination of the Utilitarian Philosophy by John Grote, pp. 93-98)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Adam Smith on how the invisible hand yields equality

"The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for."

p184, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith

Irving Kristol on the value of conservative intellectuals

"The risk of being progressive is that there is always some new version of "progress" which seeks to outgrow whatever was thought to be important by progressives a few years earlier.  Who, for example, reads Harold Laski today?...Yet his successor at the London School of Economics, Michael Oakeshott, who was a conservative, was able to produce essays that are still being reprinted, still being quoted and still very readable, not only because his writing was so elegant, but because the ideas contained in them were of enduring value.  This is the advantage the conservative has over thinkers on the Left writing on contemporary affairs.  The conservative tends to think in permanent terms, so his ideas remain relevant" -- Irving Kristol, 1999.

HL Mencken on Occupy Wall Street

Varieties of Envy
H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun
June 15, 1936

The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts.  He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some othe such den of infamy.  If these villains could be put down, he holds, he would at once become rich, powerful and eminent.  Nine politicians out of every ten, of whatever party, live and have their being by promising to perform this putting down.  In brief, they are knaves who maintain themselves by preying on the idiotic vanities and pathetic hopes of half-wits.

What is thus promised, of course, always falls far short of fulfillment.  The politicians devote themselves ardently enough to robbing A, who is an honest and useful man, eager only to pay his way, in order to bribe and flatter B, who is lazy, stupid and incompetent, and a very large part of the national income is dissipated in the process.  But B still remains clearly inferior to A.  He was inferior as a blastocyte, and he continues so as a nascent cadaver at a rally of Townsendites or New Dealers.  He is therefore easy meat for the rascals who promise to give him, not merely a dole, but irresistible power.  He dreams of becoming so mighty, en masse, if not on his own, that the nation will tremble at his tread, and Wall Street will entreat him for peace terms.  In brief, he puts on a night-shirt and joins the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Legion, or some such amalgamation of crooks and fools.

It seems to be little noticed that this yearning to dragoon and terrify all persons who happen to be lucky is at the bottom of the puerile radicalism now prevailing among us, just as it is at the bottom of Ku Kluxery.  The average American radical today likes to think of himself as a profound and somber fellow, privy to arcane not open to the general; he is actually only a poor fish, with distinct overtones of the jackass.  What ails him, first and last, is simply envy of his betters.  Unable to make any progress against them under the rules in vogue, he proposes to fetch below the belt by making the rules over.  He is no more an altruist than J. Pierpont Morgan is an altruist, or Jim Farley, or, indeed, Al Capone.

Every such rescuer of the downtrodden entertains himself with gaudy dreams of power, far beyond his natural fortunes and capacities.  He sees himself at the head of an overwhelming legion of morons, marching upon the fellows he envies and hates.  He thinks of himself in his private reflections (and gives it away every time he makes a speech or prints an article) as a gorgeous amalgam of Lenin, Mussolini and Genghis Khan, with the Republic under his thumb, his check for any amount good at the bank, and ten million heels clicking every time he winks his eye.  Not infrequently he throws in a private brewery or distillery, belching smoke in his personal service, and a girl considerably more slightly than he can scare up by his native magnetism.  When such grotesque megalomania reaches a certain virulence a black wagon dashes up, and its two honest deckhands, Jack and Emil, haul off another nut to the psychopathic hoosegow.  But not many of the patients go that far.  They retain all their ordinary faculties.  They can eat, drink, talk, sweat, walk, dance and hope.  They read the New Masses, sing “The Internationale,” and lecture on “Das Kapital” without having read it.  A vision enchants them, and perhaps one should allow that, considering their natural gifts, it is as beautiful as any they are capable of.  But it will come to nothing.  Like the dupes of the Black Legion, they are doomed to be fooled.

David Hume on the "constitution in exile" movement

"In vain do the lawyers establish it as a principle that a statute can never be abrogated by opposite custom, but requires to be expressly repealed by a contrary statute; while they pretend to inculcate an axiom peculiar to English jurisprudence, they violate the most established principles of human nature; and even, by necessary consequence, reason in contradiction to law itself, which they would represent as so sacred and inviolable. A law, to have any authority, must be derived from a legislature which has right. And whence do all legislatures derive their right but from long custom and established practice? If a statute contrary to public good has at any time been rashly voted and assented to, either from the violence of faction or the inexperience of senates and princes, it cannot be more effectually abrogated than by a train of contrary precedents, which prove that, by common consent, it has tacitly been set aside as inconvenient and impracticable. Such has been the case with all those statutes enacted during turbulent times in order to limit royal prerogative and cramp the sovereign in his protection of the public and his execution of the laws." -- Ch.51, History of England, by David Hume.

William Hazlitt on ideologues

"If you proscribe all opinion opposite to your own, and impertinently exclude all
the evidence that does not make for you, it stares you in the face with double force when it breaks in unexpectedly upon you, or if at any subsequent period it happens to suit your interest or convenience to listen to objections which vanity or prudence had hitherto overlooked. But if you are aware from the first suggestion of a subject, either by subtlety, or tact, or close attention, of the full force of what others possibly feel and think of it, you are not exposed to the same vacillation of opinion. The number of grains and scruples, of doubts and difficulties, thrown into the scale while the balance is yet undecided, add to the weight and steadiness of the determination. He who anticipates his opponent's arguments, confirms while he corrects his own reasonings. When a question has been carefully examined in all its bearings, and a principle is once established, it is not liable to be overthrown by any new facts which have been arbitrarily and petulantly set aside, nor by every wind of idle doctrine rushing into the interstices of a hollow speculation, shattering it in pieces, and leaving it a mockery and a bye-word ; like those tall, gawky, staring, pyramidal erections which are seen scattered over different parts of the country, and are called the Follies of different gentlemen! A man may be confident in maintaining a side, as he has been cautious in choosing it. If after making up his mind strongly in one way, to the best of his capacity and judgment, he feels himself inclined to a very violent revulsion of sentiment, he may generally rest assured that the change is in himself and his motives, not in the reason of things.
I cannot say that, from my own experience, I have found that the persons most remarkable for sudden and violent changes of principle have been cast in the softest or most susceptible mould. All their notions have been exclusive, bigoted, and intolerant. Their want of consistency and moderation has been in exact proportion to their want of candour and comprehensiveness of mind. Instead of being the creatures of sympathy, open to conviction, unwilling to give offence by the smallest difference of sentiment, they have (for the most part) been made up of mere antipathies— a very repulsive sort of personages— at odds with themselves, and with everybody else. The slenderness of their pretensions to philosophical inquiry has been accompanied with the most presumptuous dogmatism. They have been persons of that narrowness of view and headstrong self-sufficiency of purpose, that they could see only one side of a question at a time, and whichever they pleased. There is a story somewhere in Don Quixote, of two champions coming to a shield hung up against a tree with an inscription written on each side of it. Each of them maintained, that the words were what was written on the side next him, and never dreamt, till the fray was over, that they might be different on the opposite side of the shield. It would have been a little more extraordinary if the combatants had changed sides in the heat of the scuffle, and stoutly denied that there were any such words on the opposite side as they had before been bent on sacrificing their lives to prove were the only ones it contained. Yet such is the very situation of some of our modern polemics. They have been of all sides of the question, and yet they cannot conceive how an honest man can be of any but one — that which they hold at present. It seems that they are afraid to look their old opinions in the face, lest they should lie fascinated by them once more. They banish all doubts of their own sincerity by inveighing against the motives of their antagonists. There is no salvation out of the pale of their strange inconsistency. They reduce common sense and probity to the straitest possible limits — the breasts of themselves and their patrons. They are like people out at sea on a very narrow plank, who try to push everybody else off. Is it that they have so little faith in the course to which they have become such staunch converts, as to suppose that, should they allow a grain of sense to their old allies and new antagonists, they will have more than they? Is it that they have so little consciousness of their own disinterestedness, that they feel, if they allow a particle of honesty to those who now differ with them, they will have more than they? Those opinions must needs be of a very fragile texture which will not stand the shock of the least acknowledged opposition, and which lay claim to respectability by stigmatising all who do not hold them as 'sots, and knaves, and cowards.' There is a want of well-balanced feeling in every such instance of extravagant versatility; a something crude, unripe, and harsh, that does not bit a judicious palate, but sets the teeth on edge to think of. 'I had rather hear my mother's cat mew, or a wheel grate on the axletree, than one of these same metre-ballad-mongers' chaunt his incondite, retrograde lays, without rhyme and without reason.
The principles and professions change: the man remains the same. There is the same spirit at the bottom of all this pragmatical fickleness and virulence, whether it runs into one extreme or another: to wit, a confinement of view, a jealousy of others, an impatience of contradiction, a want of liberality in construing the motives of others, either from monkish pedantry, or a conceited overweening reference of everything to our own fancies and feelings."

-- ("On Consistency of Opinion" by William Hazlitt)

GWF Hegel on Middle East politics

"Among uncivilized people, revenge is undying; among the Arabs, for instance, it can be checked only by superior force or by the impossibility of its satisfaction."

-- Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, p 107.

Rousseau on philosophers (including the common stereotype of Rousseau)

"Distrust those cosmopolitans who go to great lengths in their books to discover duties they do not deign to fulfill around them.  A philosopher loves the Tartars so as to be spared having to love his neighbors." -- p39, Emile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

"General and abstract ideas are the source of men's greatest errors.  The jargon of metaphysics has never led us to discover a single truth, and it has filled philosophy with absurdities of which one is ashamed as soon as one has stripped them of their big words." -- p274, Emile.