CLASSICS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
21. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison — Federalism and Domestic Faction (from The Federalist Papers)
22. Edmund Burke — Conservatism and Tradition (from Reflections on the Revolution in France)
23. Jeremy Bentham — Utility and Government (from A Fragment on Government, The Principles of Morals and Legislation, and Pannomial Fragment)
24. Immanuel Kant — War and Perpetual Peace (from The Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence)
25. Mary Wollstonecraft — Rights of Women (from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman)
26. William Godwin — Justice and Impartiality (from Enquiry Concerning Political Justice)
27. Alexis de Tocqueville — Dangers of Democracy (from Democracy in America)
FEDERALISM AND DOMESTIC FACTION
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
In 1787 and 1788, a series of 85 essays appeared in two journals which aimed to defend the rationale of a new Constitution of the United States. Published anonymously, the authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These and eight additional essays were then published together in a collection titled The Federalist, or the New Constitution in 1788, and more recently have been referred to The Federalist Papers. Below are essays 9 and 10, written by Hamilton and Madison respectively. Hamilton (1755-1804) was an assistant to George Washington during the American revolutionary war, a member of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, and became the Secretary of the Treasury under Washington’s presidency after the ratification of the Constitution. Madison (1751-1836) was a member of Congress under the new Constitution, Secretary of State for Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States. Both essays below maintain that a large confederated republic of small states (or a “union”) will resist internal faction better than a disconnected group of small independent states. For that reason, they argue, the organization of American states under the proposed Constitution is superior to that under the Articles of Confederation. In the first essay, Hamilton responds to three criticisms of the proposed Constitution. First, republics by their nature fluctuate between tyranny and anarchy. His response is that recent improvements in governing have made republicanism better. Second, Montesquieu held that confederations work only with small republics, not with large territories the American states. Hamilton responds that it would work in America by reducing the size of just the larger states. Third, confederacies by definition do not interfere with states’ internal operations, whereas the proposed Constitution does interfere. Hamilton responds that past confederacies have indeed interfered in states’ internal operations. In the second essay, Madison explores the causes and effects of factions, and how a large republic in America can prevent them.
THE EFFICACY OF A REPUBLIC OF STATES (Federalist, 9)
Criticism 1: Republics Waver between Tyranny and Anarchy
A firm Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection. It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage. If momentary rays of glory break forth from the gloom, while they dazzle us with a transient and fleeting brilliancy, they, at the same time admonish us to lament that the vices of Government should pervert the direction and tarnish the lustre of those bright talents and exalted endowments for which the favored soils that produced them have been so justly celebrated.
From the disorders that disfigure the annals of those republics the advocates of despotism have drawn arguments, not only against the forms of republican government, but against the very principles of civil liberty. They have decried all free government as inconsistent with the order of society, and have indulged themselves in malicious exultation over its friends and partisans. Happily for mankind, stupendous fabrics reared on the basis of liberty, which have flourished for ages, have, in a few glorious instances, refuted their gloomy sophisms. And, I trust, America will be the broad and solid foundation of other edifices, not less magnificent, which will be equally permanent monuments of their errors.
Response: Improvements in Governing have Improved Republicanism
But it is not to be denied that the portraits they have sketched of Republican Government were too just copies of the originals from which they were taken. If it had been found impracticable to have devised models of a more perfect structure, the enlightened friends to liberty would have been obliged to abandon the cause of that species of Government as indefensible. The science of politics, however, like most other sciences, has received great improvement. The efficacy of various principles is now well understood, which were either not known at all, or imperfectly known to the ancients. The regular distribution of power into distinct departments; the introduction of legislative balances and checks; the institution of Courts composed of Judges holding their offices during good behavior; the representation of the people in the Legislature by Deputies of their own election: these are wholly new discoveries, or have made their principal progress towards perfection in modern times. They are means, and powerful means, by which the excellences of republican government may be retained and its imperfections lessened or avoided. To this catalogue of circumstances that tend to the amelioration of popular systems of civil government, I shall venture, however novel it may appear to some, to add one more, on a principle which has been made the foundation of an objection to the new Constitution; I mean the enlargement of the orbit within which such systems are to revolve, either in respect to the dimensions of a single State or to the consolidation of several smaller States into one great Confederacy. The latter is that which immediately concerns the object under consideration. It will, however, be of use to examine the principle in its application to a single State, which shall be attended to in another place.
Criticism 2: Montesquieu Holds that Confederations work only in Small Republics
The utility of a Confederacy, as well to suppress faction and to guard the internal tranquility of States, as to increase their external force and security, is in reality not a new idea. It has been practiced upon in different countries and ages, and has received the sanction of the most approved writers on the subject of politics. The opponents of the plan proposed have, with great assiduity, cited and circulated the observations of Montesquieu on the necessity of a contracted territory [i.e., small size] for a republican government. But they seem not to have been apprised of the sentiments of that great man expressed in another part of his work, nor to have adverted to the consequences of the principle to which they subscribe with such ready acquiescence.
When Montesquieu recommends a small extent for Republics, the standards he had in view were of dimensions far short of the limits of almost every one of these States. Neither Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New-York, North Carolina, nor Georgia can by any means be compared with the models from which he reasoned and to which the terms of his description apply. If we therefore take his ideas on this point as the criterion of truth, we shall be driven to the alternative either of taking refuge at once in the arms of monarchy, or of splitting ourselves into an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths, the wretched nurseries of unceasing discord, and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt. Some of the writers who have come forward on the other side of the question seem to have been aware of the dilemma; and have even been bold enough to hint at the division of the larger States as a desirable thing. Such an infatuated policy, such a desperate expedient, might, by the multiplication of petty offices, answer the views of men who possess not qualifications to extend their influence beyond the narrow circles of personal intrigue, but it could never promote the greatness or happiness of the people of America.
Response: The Larger States could be Reduced in Size
Referring the examination of the principle itself to another place, as has been already mentioned, it will be sufficient to remark here that, in the sense of the author who has been most emphatically quoted upon the occasion, it would only dictate a reduction of the size of the more considerable members of the Union, but would not militate against their being all comprehended in one confederate government. And this is the true question, in the discussion of which we are at present interested.
So far are the suggestions of Montesquieu from standing in opposition to a general Union of the States, that he explicitly treats of a confederate republic as the expedient for extending the sphere of popular government, and reconciling the advantages of monarchy with those of republicanism. "It is very probable," (says he),
that mankind would have been obliged at length to live constantly under the government of a single person, had they not contrived a kind of constitution that has all the internal advantages of a republican, together with the external force of a monarchical government. I mean a confederate republic.
This form of government is a convention by which several smaller states agree to become members of a larger one, which they intend to form. It is a kind of assemblage of societies that constitute a new one, capable of increasing, by means of new associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power as to be able to provide for the security of the united body.
A republic of this kind, able to withstand an external force, may support itself without any internal corruptions. The form of this society prevents all manner of inconveniences.
If a single member should attempt to usurp the supreme authority, he could not be supposed to have an equal authority and credit in all the confederate states. Were he to have too great influence over one, this would alarm the rest. Were he to subdue a part, that which would still remain free might oppose him with forces independent of those which he had usurped and overpower him before he could be settled in his usurpation.
Should a popular insurrection happen in one of the confederate states the others are able to quell it. Should abuses creep into one part, they are reformed by those that remain sound. The state may be destroyed on one side, and not on the other; the confederacy may be dissolved, and the confederates preserve their sovereignty.
As this government is composed of small Republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each; and with respect to its external situation, it is possessed, by means of the association, of all the advantages of large monarchies.
I have thought it proper to quote at length these interesting passages, because they contain a luminous abridgment of the principal arguments in favor of the Union, and must effectually remove the false impressions which a misapplication of other parts of the work was calculated to make. They have, at the same time, an intimate connection with the more immediate design of this paper; which is, to illustrate the tendency of the Union to repress domestic faction and insurrection.
Criticism 3: Confederacies by Definition do not Limit States’ Internal Operations
A distinction, more subtle than accurate, has been raised between a confederacy and a consolidation of the States. The essential characteristic of the first is said to be, the restriction of its authority to the members in their collective capacities, without reaching to the individuals of whom they are composed. It is contended that the national council ought to have no concern with any object of internal administration. An exact equality of suffrage between the members has also been insisted upon as a leading feature of a confederate government. These positions are, in the main, arbitrary; they are supported neither by principle nor precedent. It has indeed happened, that governments of this kind have generally operated in the manner which the distinction taken notice of, supposes to be inherent in their nature; but there have been in most of them extensive exceptions to the practice, which serve to prove, as far as example will go, that there is no absolute rule on the subject. And it will be clearly shown in the course of this investigation that as far as the principle contended for has prevailed, it has been the cause of incurable disorder and imbecility in the government.
Response: Past Confederacies Have Limited States’ Internal Operations
The definition of a confederate republic seems simply to be "an assemblage of societies," or an association of two or more states into one state. The extent, modifications, and objects of the federal authority are mere matters of discretion. So long as the separate organization of the members be not abolished; so long as it exists, by a constitutional necessity, for local purposes; though it should be in perfect subordination to the general authority of the union, it would still be, in fact and in theory, an association of states, or a confederacy. The proposed Constitution, so far from implying an abolition of the State governments, makes them constituent parts of the national sovereignty, by allowing them a direct representation in the Senate, and leaves in their possession certain exclusive and very important portions of sovereign power. This fully corresponds, in every rational import of the terms, with the idea of a federal government.
In the Lycian Confederacy, which consisted of twenty-three cities or republics, the largest were entitled to three votes in the common council, those of the middle class to two, and the smallest to one. The common council had the appointment of all the judges and magistrates of the respective cities. This was certainly the most, delicate species of interference in their internal administration; for if there be any thing that seems exclusively appropriated to the local jurisdictions, it is the appointment of their own officers. Yet Montesquieu, speaking of this association, says: "Were I to give a model of an excellent Confederate Republic, it would be that of Lycia." Thus we perceive that the distinctions insisted upon were not within the contemplation of this enlightened civilian; and we shall be led to conclude, that they are the novel refinements of an erroneous theory.
A FEDERAL UNION WILL AVOID FACTION (Federalist, 10)
The Need for Governments to Control Faction
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.
Sources of Faction
By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.
There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.
It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.
The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.
Property the Main Cause of Faction
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.
No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
Controlling the Effects of Majority Faction
The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.
If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.
By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.
Large Republics control Majority Faction better than Small Democracies
From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.
A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.
Republics Defer to Elected Representatives
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.
The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:
In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the Representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.
In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.
It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.
Republics Encompass more Citizens and Territory than Democracies
The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.
Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,--is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.
Source: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, The Federalist Papers (1788), 9 and 10.
Questions for Review
1. In the section “Improvements in governing have made republicanism better,” what are the improvements that Hamilton lists, and what is the new improvement that he wishes to add to the list?
2. Critics of confederacies often cite Montesquieu’s view of the need for a small republic. In the section “Montesquieu’s view of confederated small republics,” what is Hamilton’s response to those critics?
3. In the section “sources of faction,” what are the two cures for faction, and what does Madison say about the viability of these cures?
4. In the section “republics defer to elected representatives” Madison states that republics have a better chance of avoiding factious representatives. What are his arguments for that view?
5. In the section “republics encompass more citizens and territory than democracies,” what are Madison’s arguments for that view?
Questions for Analysis
1. In the section on “the true nature of a confederacy,” Hamilton discusses the common view that a loose confederacy does not restrict the internal governance of individual states, but that federal consolidation does. Hamilton responds that “The extent, modifications, and objects of the federal authority are mere matters of discretion.” What is his point, and how might defenders of a loose confederacy respond?
2. In the section on “sources of faction” Madison describes two cures for faction, but then argues that each is not viable. Is Madison correct?
3. In the section on “property the main cause of faction,” What are Madison’s arguments for that view, and is he correct?
4. In the section on “property the main cause of faction,” Madison states that governments consist of people who belong to conflicting groups, and we cannot count on enlightened statesmen to “adjust these clashing interests.” But in the section “republics defer to elected representatives,” he argues that elected representatives can “enlarge the public views” and “discern the true interest of their country” and “will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Try to make these two seemingly conflicting positions consistent.
5. In the section “republics encompass more citizens and territory than democracies” Madison argues that “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” Explain his position and say whether he is correct.
CONSERVATISM AND TRADITION
Born in Dublin, Ireland, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) was a member of the British Parliament and a noted author on philosophical and political subjects. Burke is often called the “father of modern conservatism” for his view that social change should not be abrupt and radical, but, instead, proceed slowly by preserving longstanding traditions. The selections below are from his most famous work, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in which he condemns the French uprising for casting off traditional values that form the bedrock of society. Burke argues that society is harmed by advocating abstract concepts of liberty without considering concrete situations in which liberty is embedded in our actions, such as in the context of military discipline, taxation, religion, and social manners. Liberty should also be seen as “an inheritance from our forefathers,” and any changes to society should take place “as if in the presence of canonized forefathers.” Just as Burke rejects abstract notions of liberty, so too does he criticize abstract notions of natural rights as being much too simplistic for how complicated human society is. The rights we do have are midway between purely abstract speculation and practical concrete situations. For example, the right to medicine is less about an abstract right to health and more about the practical ways that we can supply medicine to those who need it. Religious institutions, he argues, should not be overhauled through critiques by atheists since something more dangerous might ultimately take its place. We should instead embrace our established religious institutions. Burke recognizes that society is founded on a contract or partnership, but it is not a partnership of temporary interests. Rather, it is a partnership with the past and the future in a way that preserves the continuity of tradition over generations.
TWO APPROACHES TO LIBERTY
Dangers of Abstract Liberty
I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of that society, be he who he will. And perhaps I have given as good proofs of my attachment to that cause, in the whole course of my public conduct. I think I envy liberty as little as they do to any other nation. But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions and human concerns on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing color and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good. Yet could I, in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government, (for she then had a government,) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom? Is it because liberty in the abstract may be classed amongst the blessings of mankind, that I am seriously to felicitate a madman who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights? This would be to act over again the scene of the criminals condemned to the galleys, and their heroic deliverer, the metaphysic Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.
Liberty in Action
When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men upon a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government, with public force, with the discipline and obedience of armies, with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue, with morality and religion, with solidity and property, with peace and order, with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things, too; and without them, liberty is not a benefit whilst it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate, insulated, private men. But liberty, when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power,—and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers. . . .
LIBERTIES AS AN INHERITANCE
Inheritance Conserves and Transmits
The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror. We wished at the period of the [English] Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate [i.e. protect] any scion [i.e., twig] alien to the nature of the original plant. All the reformations we have hitherto made have proceeded upon the principle of reference to antiquity; and I hope, nay, I am persuaded, that all those which possibly may be made hereafter will be carefully formed upon analogical precedent, authority, and example. Our oldest reformation is that of Magna Charta. . . . You will observe, that, from Magna Charta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our Constitution to claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity—as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right. By this means our Constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts. We have an inheritable crown, an inheritable peerage, and a House of Commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties from a long line of ancestors.
Social Change Analogous to Natural Change
This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection—or rather the happy effect of following Nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free; but it secures what it acquires. Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement, grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy working after the pattern of Nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. The institutions of policy, the goods of fortune, the gifts of Providence, are handed down to us, and from us, in the same course and order. Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts—wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old or middle-aged or young, but, in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. Thus, by preserving the method of Nature in the conduct of the state, in what we improve we are never wholly new, in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete. By adhering in this manner and on those principles to our forefathers, we are guided, not by the superstition of antiquarians, but by the spirit of philosophic analogy. In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood: binding up the Constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchers, and our altars.
Through the same plan of a conformity to Nature in our artificial institutions, and by calling in the aid of her unerring and powerful instincts to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason, we have derived several other, and those no small benefits, from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance. Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which Nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age, and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges. . . .
Pretended Rights Destroy Real Rights
Far am I from denying in theory, full as far is my heart from withholding in practice, (if I were of power to give or to withhold,) the real rights of men. In denying their false claims of right, I do not mean to injure those which are real, and are such as their pretended rights would totally destroy. If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in politic function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction in life and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to it as he that has five hundred pounds has to his larger proportion; but he has not a right to an equal dividend in the product of the joint stock. And as to the share of power, authority, and direction which each individual ought to have in the management of the state, that I must deny to be amongst the direct original rights of man in civil society; for I have in my contemplation the civil social man, and no other. It is a thing to be settled by convention.
If civil society be the offspring of convention [i.e., contract], that convention must be its law. That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it. Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory power are its creatures. They can have no being in any other state of things; and how can any man claim, under the conventions of civil society, rights which do not so much as suppose its existence—rights which are absolutely repugnant to it? One of the first motives to civil society, and which becomes one of its fundamental rules, is, that no man should be judge in his own cause. By this each person has at once divested himself of the first fundamental right of uncovenanted man, that is, to judge for himself, and to assert his own cause. He abdicates all right to be his own governor. He inclusively, in a great measure, abandons the right of self-defense, the first law of Nature. Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.
Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it—and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection: but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights. But as the liberties and the restrictions vary with times and circumstances, and admit of infinite modifications, they cannot be settled upon any abstract rule; and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle.
Abstract Rights are too Simplistic
The moment you abate anything from the full rights of men each to govern himself, and suffer any artificial, positive limitation upon those rights, from that moment the whole organization of government becomes a consideration of convenience. This it is which makes the constitution of a state, and the due distribution of its powers, a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. It requires a deep knowledge of human nature and human necessities, and of the things which facilitate or obstruct the various ends which are to be pursued by the mechanism of civil institutions. The state is to have recruits to its strength and remedies to its distempers. What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate, but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation, and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being, therefore, so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of Nature, refracted from their straight line. Indeed, in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty. The simple governments are fundamentally defective, to say no worse of them. If you were to contemplate society in but one point of view, all these simple modes of polity are infinitely captivating. In effect each would answer its single end much more perfectly than the more complex is able to attain all its complex purposes. But it is better that the whole, should be imperfectly and anomalously answered than that while some parts are provided for with great exactness, others might be totally neglected, or perhaps materially injured, by the over-care of a favorite member.
True Rights balance Social Interests
The pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false. The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned. The rights of men in governments are their advantages; and these are often in balances between differences of good,—in compromises sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil. Political reason is a computing principle: adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally, and not metaphysically or mathematically, true moral denominations.
By these theorists the right of the people is almost always sophistically confounded with their power. The body of the community, whenever it can come to act, can meet with no effectual resistance; but till power and right are the same, the whole body of them has no right inconsistent with virtue, and the first of all virtues, prudence. Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit; for though a pleasant writer said, “Liceat perire poetis,” when one of them, in cold blood, is said to have leaped into the flames of a volcanic revolution, “ardentem frigidus Ætnam insiluit,” I consider such a frolic rather as an unjustifiable poetic license than as one of the franchises of Parnassus; and whether he were poet, or divine, or politician, that chose to exercise this kind of right, I think that more wise, because more charitable, thoughts would urge me rather to save the man than to preserve his brazen slippers as the monuments of his folly. . . .
RELIGION THE BASIS OF CIVIL SOCIETY
Against Atheistic Critiques of Religion
We know, and, what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good, and of all comfort. In England we are so convinced of this, that there is no rust of superstition, with which the accumulated absurdity of the human mind might have crusted it over in the course of ages, that ninety-nine in a hundred of the people of England would not prefer to impiety. We shall never be such fools as to call in an enemy to the substance of any system to remove its corruptions, to supply its defects, or to perfect its construction. If our religious tenets should ever want a further elucidation, we shall not call on Atheism to explain them. We shall not light up our temple from that unhallowed fire. It will be illuminated with other lights. It will be perfumed with other incense than the infectious stuff which is imported by the smugglers of adulterated metaphysics. If our ecclesiastical establishment should want a revision, it is not avarice or rapacity, public or private, that we shall employ for the audit or receipt or application of its consecrated revenue. Violently condemning neither the Greek nor the Armenian, nor, since heats are subsided, the Roman system of religion, we prefer the Protestant: not because we think it has less of the Christian religion in it, but because, in our judgment, it has more. We are Protestants, not from indifference, but from zeal.
We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot, and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness, by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us, and among many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it.
For that reason, before we take from our establishment the natural, human means of estimation, and give it up to contempt, as you have done, and in doing it have incurred the penalties you well deserve to suffer, we desire that some other may be presented to us in the place of it. We shall then form our judgment.
On these ideas, instead of quarrelling with establishments, as some do, who have made a philosophy and a religion of their hostility to such institutions, we cleave closely to them. We are resolved to keep an established church, an established monarchy, an established aristocracy, and an established democracy, each in the degree it exists, and in no greater. I shall show you presently how much of each of these we possess.
Benefits of an Established Church
It has been the misfortune (not, as these gentlemen think it, the glory) of this age, that everything is to be discussed, as if the Constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment. For this reason, as well as for the satisfaction of those among you (if any such you have among you) who may wish to profit of examples, I venture to trouble you with a few thoughts upon each of these establishments. I do not think they were unwise in ancient Rome, who, when they wished to new-model their laws, sent commissioners to examine the best-constituted republics within their reach.
First I beg leave to speak of our Church Establishment, which is the first of our prejudices,—not a prejudice destitute of reason, but involving in it profound and extensive wisdom. I speak of it first. It is first, and last, and midst in our minds. For, taking ground on that religious system of which we are now in possession, we continue to act on the early received and uniformly continued sense of mankind. That sense not only, like a wise architect, hath built up the august fabric of states, but, like a provident proprietor, to preserve the structure from profanation and ruin, as a sacred temple, purged from all the impurities of fraud and violence and injustice and tyranny, hath solemnly and forever consecrated the commonwealth, and all that officiate in it. This consecration is made, that all who administer in the government of men, in which they stand in the person of God Himself, should have high and worthy notions of their function and destination; that their hope should be full of immortality; that they should not look to the paltry pelf [i.e., wealth] of the moment, nor to the temporary and transient praise of the vulgar, but to a solid, permanent existence, in the permanent part of their nature, and to a permanent fame and glory, in the example they leave as a rich inheritance to the world.
Such sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them. Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic institution, aiding the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure, Man,—whose prerogative it is, to be in a great degree a creature of his own making, and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation. But whenever man is put over men, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly he should as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection. . . .
IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION
Tradition brings Stability to Law and Education
But one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it amongst their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society: hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation,—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often and as much and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken; no one generation could link with the other; men would become little better than the flies of a summer.
And first of all, the science of jurisprudence, the pride of the human intellect, which, with all its defects, redundancies, and errors, is the collected reason of ages, combining the principles of original justice with the infinite variety of human concerns, as a heap of old exploded errors, would be no longer studied. Personal self-sufficiency and arrogance (the certain attendants upon all those who have never experienced a wisdom greater than their own) would usurp the tribunal. Of course no certain laws, establishing invariable grounds of hope and fear, would keep the actions of men in a certain course, or direct them to a certain end. Nothing stable in the modes of holding property or exercising function could form a solid ground on which any parent could speculate in the education of his offspring, or in a choice for their future establishment in the world. No principles would be early worked into the habits. As soon as the most able instructor had completed his laborious course of institution, instead of sending forth his pupil accomplished in a virtuous discipline fitted to procure him attention and respect in his place in society, he would find everything altered, and that he had turned out a poor creature to the contempt and derision of the world, ignorant of the true grounds of estimation. Who would insure a tender and delicate sense of honor to beat almost with the first pulses of the heart, when no man could know what would be the test of honor in a nation continually varying the standard of its coin? No part of life would retain its acquisitions. Barbarism with regard to science and literature, unskilfulness with regard to arts and manufactures, would infallibly succeed to the want of a steady education and settled principle; and thus the commonwealth itself would in a few generations crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.
Do not reform Government through subversion
To avoid, therefore, the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution and renovate their father’s life.
Society as Partnership with the Past and Future
Society is, indeed, a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure; but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures each in their appointed place. This law is not subject to the will of those who, by an obligation above them, and infinitely superior, are bound to submit their will to that law. The municipal corporations of that universal kingdom are not morally at liberty, at their pleasure, and on their speculations of a contingent improvement, wholly to separate and tear asunder the bands of their subordinate community, and to dissolve it into an unsocial, uncivil, unconnected chaos of elementary principles. It is the first and supreme necessity only—a necessity that is not chosen, but chooses, a necessity paramount to deliberation, that admits no discussion and demands no evidence—which alone can justify a resort to anarchy. This necessity is no exception to the rule; because this necessity itself is a part, too, of that moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient by consent or force: but if that which is only submission to necessity should be made the object of choice, the law is broken, Nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow. . . .
Source: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
Questions for Review
1. In the section on “two approaches to liberty” what is the difference between abstract liberty and liberty in action?
2. In the section “inheritance conserves and transmits,” beginning with the Magna Carta, what are the features of British government, that preserved English political tradition?
3. In the section “Abstract rights are too simplistic,” how, according to Burke, are we to understand the rights to food and medicine?
4. In the section on “benefits of an established church,” what are those benefits?
5. In the section on “society as a partnership with the past and future,” what does that partnership involve?
Questions for Analysis
1. Brutus and Locke both defend revolution. Do either of their accounts allow for preserving tradition in a way that would satisfy Burke? Explain.
2. In the section on “liberties as an inheritance,” Burke draws an analogy between proper social change and change within the natural world. Explain his point with an example from nature, and discuss whether this is a good analogy.
3. Burke says much about preserving our connection with past traditions. In the section on “society as partnership with the past and future,” he briefly suggests that we must also anticipate the future. Develop his point here about a partnership with the future.
4. Advocates of the French Revolution argue that French society under its old regime was so politically and economically flawed that a radical break from the past was needed. Considering that Burke wrote his critique before the reign of terror, it is easy to see how those tragic events confirmed what Burke said. Does the reign of terror support Burke’s critique, or was the French revolution ultimately justified by the long term results within France?
5. Burke argued that religious institutions should not be reformed by atheistic critiques, but rather through internal re-evaluations by the religious institutions themselves. Is Burke correct?
6. Burke is considered the father of modern conservatism because of the importance that he places on the preservation of past traditions. Within the parameters of what Burke says about tradition, is there anything in his theory that is supportive of a more liberal or progressive approach to politics?
UILITY AND GOVERNMENT
Born in London into a wealthy family line of attorneys, Jeremy Bentham (1742–1836) was a prolific writer on political theory and reform and one of the founders of what is now called “classic utilitarianism.” In the selections below, from four of his works, Bentham begins by discussing how laws should be based on the principle of utility, that is, the standard of right and wrong is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Good laws are those which bring about happiness, and bad laws mischief. Bentham devised a procedure, now called the “utilitarian calculus,” which enables one to judge the rightness of an action based on an analysis of the pleasure and pain that result—including how intense the pleasures and pains are, and how long they last. In addition to his utilitarian view of government, two other aspects of Bentham’s political philosophy have been particularly influential. First is his critique of an original social contract where people promise to obey the king, and the king promises to govern the people in a way that secures their happiness. The problem with this view, Bentham argues, is with the notion of a promise: the foundation of all promise-keeping is utility that is, the benefit or disbenefit that results from keeping one’s promises. Thus, the King’s “promise” to govern, and the subject’s “promise” to obey, simply reduce to the utility of the King governing and the utility of the people obeying. The second influential aspect of Bentham’s political thought is his critique of natural rights theory. All rights, he argues, are the creation of laws: without a foundation law creating a right, there is no right. This is precisely what we have with legal rights: they are product of laws made by governmental legislators. They are grounded in facts regarding the legislative process. None of this is the case, though, with so-called “natural rights”. They are not founded by any law, and there are no facts that one can investigate to clarify the nature of those rights. While some theorists argue that natural rights are grounded in natural laws, Bentham argues that the concept of a natural law is a pure invention. Political revolutionaries rely on the concepts of natural laws and natural rights as a way of forcing governments to create new legal rights in support of their particular agenda. But, ultimately, these natural laws and natural rights have no substance, and are at best lies, and at worst harmful intrusions into a legitimate political system. In the final section Bentham explains a new plan for a penitentiary building in which the prisoners are under constant surveillance and thus is “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind” Th
ULITITY THE STANDARD OF LAW (A Fragment on Government)
Reformation in Morality
The age we live in is a busy age; in which knowledge is rapidly advancing towards perfection. In the natural motives of world, in particular, everything teems with discovery and the present with improvement. The most distant and recondite regions of the earth traversed and explored—the all-vivifying and subtle element of the air so recently analyzed and made known to us,—are striking evidences, were all others wanting, of this pleasing truth.
Correspondent to discovery and improvement in the natural world, is reformation in the moral; if that which seems a common notion be, indeed, a true one, that in the moral world there no longer remains any matter for discovery. Perhaps, however, this may not be the case: perhaps among such observations as would be best calculated to serve as grounds for reformation, are some which, being observations of matters of fact hitherto either incompletely noticed, or not at all would, when produced, appear capable of bearing the name of discoveries: with so little method and precision have the consequences of this fundamental axiom, it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong, been as yet developed.
Be this as it may, if there be room for making, and if there be use in publishing, discoveries in the natural world, surely there is not much less room for making, nor much less use in proposing, reformation in the moral. If it be a matter of importance and of use to us to be made acquainted with distant countries, surely it is not a matter of much less importance, nor of much less use to us, to be made better and better acquainted with the chief means of living happily in our own. If it be of importance and of use to us to know the principles of the element we breathe, surely it is not of much less importance nor of much less use to comprehend the principles, and endeavor at the improvement of those laws, by which alone we breathe it in security. If to this endeavor we should fancy any Author, especially any Author of great name, to be, and as far as could in such case be expected, to avow himself a determined and persevering enemy, what should we say of him? We should say that the interests of reformation, and through them the welfare of mankind, were inseparably connected with the downfall of his works: of a great part, at least, of the esteem and influence, which these works might under whatever title have acquired. . . .
Distinguishing Good and Bad Laws
Now then, with respect to actions in general, there is no property in them that is calculated so readily to engage, and so firmly to fix the attention of an observer, as the tendency they may have to, or divergency (if one may so say) from, that which may be styled the common end of all of them. The end I mean is happiness: and this tendency in any act is what we style its utility: as this divergency is that to which we give the name of mischievousness. With respect then to such actions in particular as are among the objects of the Law, to point out to a man the utility of them or the mischievousness, is the only way to make him see clearly that property of them which every man is in search of; the only way, in short, to give him satisfaction.
From utility then we may denominate a principle, that may serve to preside over and govern, as it were, such arrangement as shall be made of the several institutions or combinations of institutions that compose the matter of this science: and it is this principle, that by putting its stamp upon the several names given to those combinations, can alone render satisfactory and clear any arrangement that can be made of them.
Governed in this manner by a principle that is recognized by all men, the same arrangement that would serve for the jurisprudence of anyone country, would serve with little variation for that of any other.
Yet more. The mischievousness of a bad Law would be detected, at least the utility of it would be rendered suspicious, by the difficulty of finding a place for it in such an arrangement: while, on the other hand, a technical arrangement is a sink that with equal facility will swallow any garbage that is thrown into it.
That this advantage may be possessed by a natural arrangement, is not difficult to conceive. Institutions would be characterized by it in the only universal way in which they can be characterized; by the nature of the several modes of conduct which, by prohibiting, they constitute offences.
These offences would be collected into classes denominated by the various modes of their divergency from the common end; that is, as we have said, by their various forms and degrees of mischievousness: in a word, by those properties which are reasons for their being made offences: and whether any such mode of conduct possesses any such property is a question of experience. Now, a bad Law is that which prohibits a mode of conduct that is not mischievous. Thus would it be found impracticable to place the mode of conduct prohibited by a bad law under any denomination of offence, without asserting such a matter of fact as is contradicted by experience. Thus cultivated, in short, the soil of Jurisprudence would be found to repel in a manner every evil institution; like that country which refuses, we are told, to harbor anything venomous in its bosom. . . .
Utility is that standard to which men in general (except in here and there an instance where they are deterred by prejudices of the religious class, or hurried away by the force of what is called sentiment or feeling). Utility, as we have said, is the standard to which they refer a Law or institution in judging of its title to approbation or disapprobation. Men of Law, corrupted by interests, or seduced by illusions, which it is not here our business to display, have deviated from it much more frequently, and with much less reserve. Hence it is that such reasons as pass with lawyers, and with no one else, have got the name of technical reasons; reasons peculiar to the art, peculiar to the profession.
Nor in this is there anything that need surprise us. The consequences of any law, or of any act which is made the object of a Law, the only consequences that men are at all interested in, what are they but pain and pleasure? By some such words then as pain and pleasure, they may be expressed: and pain and pleasure at least, are words which a man has no need, we may hope, to go to a lawyer to know the meaning of. In the synopsis then of that sort of arrangement which alone deserves the name of a natural one, terms such as these, terms which if they can be said to belong to any science, belong rather to Ethics than to Jurisprudence, even than to universal Jurisprudence, will engross the most commanding stations.
THE UTILITARIAN CALCULUS (Principles of Morals and Legislation)
The Principle of Utility
1.1. Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think; every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it. In words a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while. The principle of utility recognizes the subjection, and assumes it for the foundation of that system, the object of which is to rear the fabric of felicity by the hands of reason and of law. Systems which attempt to question it, deal in sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light.
But enough of metaphor and declamation: it is not by such means that moral science is to be improved.
1.2. The principle of utility is the foundation of the present work; it will be proper therefore at the outset to give an explicit and determinate account of what is meant by it. By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question; or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness. I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.
1.3. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing) or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community: if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.
1.4. The interest of the community is one of the most general expressions that can occur in the phraseology of morals: no wonder that the meaning of it is often lost. When it has a meaning, it is this. The community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what?— the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.
1.5. It is in vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasures: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains.
1.6. An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness' sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.
1.7. A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it. . . .
4.1. Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends which the legislator has in view: it behooves him therefore to understand their value. Pleasures and pains are the instruments he has to work with: it behooves him therefore to understand their force, which is again, in other words, their value.
4.2. To a person considered by himself, the value of a pleasure or pain considered by itself, will be greater or less, according to the four following circumstances:
(1) Its intensity.
(2) Its duration.
(3) Its certainty or uncertainty.
(4) Its propinquity or remoteness.
4.3. These are the circumstances which are to be considered in estimating a pleasure or a pain considered each of the m by itself. But when the value of any pleasure or pain is considered for the purpose of estimating the tendency of any act by which it is produced, there are two other circumstances to be taken into the account; these are,
(5) Its fecundity, or the chance it has of being followed by, sensations of the same kind: that is, pleasures, if it be a pleasure: pains, if it be a pain.
(6) Its purity, or the chance it has of not being followed by, sensations of the opposite kind: that is, pains, if it be a pleasure: pleasures, if it be a pain.
These two last, however, are in strictness scarcely to be deemed properties of the pleasure or the pain itself; they are not, therefore, in strictness to be taken into the account of the value of that pleasure or that pain. They are in strictness to be deemed properties only of the act, or other event, by which such pleasure or pain has been produced; and accordingly are only to be taken into the account of the tendency of such act or such event.
4.4. To a number of persons, with reference to each of whom the value of a pleasure or a pain is considered, it will be greater or less, according to seven circumstances: to wit, the six preceding ones; viz.
(1) Its intensity.
(2) Its duration.
(3) Its certainty or uncertainty.
(4) Its propinquity or remoteness.
(5) Its fecundity.
(6) Its purity.
And one other; to wit:
(7) Its extent; that is, the number of persons to whom it extends; or (in other words) who are affected by it.
Applying the Factors
4.5. To take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act, by which the interests of a community are affected, proceed as follows. Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it: and take an account,
1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.
4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure.
5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.
6. Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole: do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community.
4.6. It is not to be expected that this process should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment, or to every legislative or judicial operation. It may, however, be always kept in view: and as near as the process actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one.
4.7. The same process is alike applicable to pleasure and pain, in whatever shape they appear: and by whatever denomination they are distinguished: to pleasure, whether it be called good (which is properly the cause or instrument of pleasure) or profit (which is distant pleasure, or the cause or instrument o distant pleasure,) or convenience, or advantage, benefit, emolument, happiness, and so forth: to pain, whether it be called evil, (which corresponds to good) or mischief, or inconvenience, or disadvantage, or loss, or unhappiness, and so forth.
4.8. Nor is this a novel and unwarranted, any more than it is a useless theory. In all this there is nothing but what the practice of humankind, wheresoever they have a clear view of their own interest, is perfectly conformable to. An article of property, an estate in land, for instance, is valuable, on what account? On account of the pleasures of all kinds which it enables a man to produce, and what comes to the same thing the pains of all kinds which it enables him to avert. But the value of such an article of property is universally understood to rise or fall according to the length or shortness of the time which a man has in it: the certainty or uncertainty of its coming into possession: and the nearness or remoteness of the time at which, if at all, it is to come into possession. As to the intensity of the pleasures which a man may derive from it, this is never thought of, because it depends upon the use which each particular person may come to make of it; which cannot be estimated till the particular pleasures he may come to derive from it, or the particular pains he may come to exclude by means of it, are brought to view. For the same reason, neither does he think of the fecundity or purity of those pleasures.
AGAINST THE ORIGINAL CONTRACT (A Fragment on Government)
The Assumed Binding Nature of Contracts
38. As to the fiction now before us [regarding the original contract], in the character of an argumentum ad hominem, coming when it did, and managed as it was, it succeeded to admiration.
That compacts, by whomsoever entered into, ought to be kept;—that men are bound by compacts, are propositions which men, without knowing or inquiring why, were disposed universally to accede to. The observance of promises they had been accustomed to see pretty constantly enforced. They had been accustomed to see Kings, as well as others, behave themselves as if bound by them. This proposition, then, “that men are bound by compacts;” and this other, “that, if one party performs not his part, the other is released from his,” being propositions which no man disputed, were propositions which no man had any call to prove. In theory they were assumed for axioms: and in practice they were observed as rules, If, on any occasion, it was thought proper to make a show of proving them, it was rather for form’s sake than for anything else; and that, rather in the way of memento or instruction to acquiescing auditors, than in the way of proof against opponents. On such an occasion, the common-place retinue of phrases was at hand: Justice, Right Reason required it; the Law of Nature commanded it, and so forth: all which are but so many ways of intimating that a man is firmly persuaded of the truth of this or that moral proposition, though he either thinks he need not, or finds he can’t, tell why. Men were too obviously and too generally interested in the observance of these rules, to entertain doubts concerning the force of any arguments they saw employed in their support. It is an old observation, how Interest smoothes the road to Faith.
39. A compact, then, it was said, was made by the King and People: the terms of it were to this effect:—The People, on their part, promised to the King a general obedience: the King, on his part, promised to govern the People in such a particular manner always, as should be subservient to their happiness. I insist not on the words: I undertake only for the sense; as far as an imaginary engagement, so loosely and so variously worded by those who have imagined it, is capable of any decided signification. Assuming, then, as a general rule, that promises, when made, ought to be observed; and, as a point of fact, that a promise to this effect in particular had been made by the party in question, men were more ready to deem themselves qualified to judge when it was such a promise was broken, than to decide directly and avowedly on the delicate question, when it was that a King acted so far in opposition to the happiness of his People, that it were better no longer to obey him.
Problem Determining the King’s Violation of his Promise
40. It is manifest, on a very little consideration, that nothing was gained by this maneuver after all: no difficulty removed by it. It was still necessary, and that as much as ever, that the question men studied to avoid should be determined, in order to determine the question they thought to substitute in its room. It was still necessary to determine, whether the King in question, had, or had not, acted so far in opposition to the happiness of his people, that it were better no longer to obey him; in order to determine, whether the promise he was supposed to have made, had or had not been broken. For what was the supposed purport of this promise? It was no other than what has just been mentioned.
41. Let it be said, that part at least of this promise was to govern in subservience to Law; that hereby a more precise rule was laid down for his conduct, by means of this supposal of a promise, than that other loose and general rule to govern in subservience to the happiness of his people: and that, by this means, it is the letter of the Law that forms the tenor of the rule.
Now true it is, that the governing in opposition to Law, is one way of governing in opposition to the happiness of the people: the natural effect of such a contempt of the Law being, if not actually to destroy, at least to threaten with destruction, all those rights and privileges that are founded on it: rights and privileges on the enjoyment of which that happiness depends. But still it is not this that can be safely taken for the entire purport of the promise here in question: and that for several reasons. First, Because the most mischievous, and under certain constitutions the most feasible, method of governing in opposition to the happiness of the people, is, by setting the Law itself in opposition to their happiness. Second, Because it is a case very conceivable, that a King may, to a great degree, impair the happiness of his people without violating the letter of any single Law. Third, Because extraordinary occasions may now and then occur, in which the happiness of the people may be better promoted by acting, for the moment, in opposition to the Law, than in subservience to it. fourth, Because it is not any single violation of the Law, as such, that can properly be taken for a breach of his part of the contract, so as to be understood to have released the people from the obligation of performing theirs. For, to quit the fiction, and resume the language of plain truth, it is scarce ever any single violation of the Law that, by being submitted to, can produce so much mischief as shall surpass the probable mischief of resisting it. If every single instance whatever of such a violation were to be deemed an entire dissolution of the contract, a man who reflects at all would scarce find anywhere, I believe, under the sun, that Government which he could allow to subsist for twenty years together. It is plain, therefore, that to pass any sound decision upon the question which the inventors of this fiction substituted instead of the true one, the latter was still necessary to be decided. All they gained by their contrivance was, the convenience of deciding it obliquely, as it were, and by a side wind; that is, in a crude and hasty way, without any direct and steady examination.
Promise Keeping based on Utility
42. But, after all, for what reason is it, that men ought to keep their promises? The moment any intelligible reason is given, it is this: that it is for the advantage of society they should keep them; and if they do not, that as far as punishment will go, they should be made to keep them. It is for the advantage of the whole number that the promises of each individual should be kept: and, rather than they should not be kept, that such individuals as fail to keep them should be punished. If it be asked, how this appears? the answer is at hand: — Such is the benefit to gain, and mischief to avoid, by keeping them, as much more than compensates the mischief of so much punishment as is requisite to oblige men to it. Whether the dependence of benefit and mischief (that is, of pleasure and pain) upon men’s conduct in this behalf, be as here stated, is a question of fact, to be decided, in the same manner that all other questions of fact are to be decided, by testimony, observation, and experience.
43. This, then, and no other, being the reason why men should be made to keep their promises, viz. that it is for the advantage of society that they should, is a reason that may as well be given at once why Kings, on the one hand, in governing, should in general keep within established Laws, and (to speak universally) abstain from all such measures as tend to the unhappiness of their subjects: and, on the other hand, why subjects should obey Kings as long as they so conduct themselves, and no longer; why they should obey, in short, so long as the probable mischiefs of obedience are less than the probable mischiefs of resistance: why, in a word, taking the whole body together, it is their duty to obey just so long as it is their interest, and no longer. This being the case, what need of saying of the one, that he Promised so to govern; of the other, that they Promised so to obey, when the fact is otherwise?
44. True it is, that, in this country, according to ancient forms, some sort of vague promise of good government is made by Kings at the ceremony of their coronation: and let the acclamations, perhaps given, perhaps not given, by chance persons out of the surrounding multitude, be construed into a promise of obedience on the part of the whole multitude: that whole multitude itself a small drop collected together by chance out of the ocean of the state: and let the two promises thus made be deemed to have formed a perfect compact: — not that either of them is declared to be the consideration of the other.
45. Make the most of this concession: one experiment there is, by which every reflecting man may satisfy himself, I think beyond a doubt that it is the consideration of utility, and no other, that, secretly, perhaps, but unavoidably, has governed his judgment upon all these matters. The experiment is easy and decisive. It is but to reverse, in supposition, in the first place, the import of the particular promise thus feigned; in the next place, the effect in point of utility of the observance of promises in general. Suppose the King to promise that he would govern his subjects not according to Law; not in the view to promote their happiness: — would this be binding upon Aim? Suppose the people to promise they would obey him at all events, let him govern as he will; let him govern to their destruction: — would this be binding upon them? Suppose the constant and universal effect of an observance of promises were to produce mischief, would it then be men’s duty to observe them? would it then he right to make Laws, and apply punishment to oblige men to observe them?
Validity of Promise based on Utility, not on the Promise itself
46. “No,” (it may perhaps be replied); “but for this reason: among promises, some there are that, as everyone allows, are void: now these you have been supposing, are unquestionably of the number. A promise that is in itself void, cannot, it is true, create any obligation: But allow the promise to be valid, and it is the promise itself that creates the obligation, and nothing else.” The fallacy of this argument it is easy to perceive. For what is it, then, that the promise depends on for its validity? what is it that being present makes its valid? what is it that being wanting makes it void? To acknowledge that any one promise may be void, is to acknowledge that if any other is binding, it is not merely because it is a promise. That circumstance, then, whatever it be, on which the validity of a promise depends; that circumstance, I say, and not the promise itself, must, it is plain, be the cause of the obligation which a promise is apt in general to carry with it.
47. But farther. Allow, for argument’s sake, what we have disproved: allow that the obligation of a promise is independent of every other: allow that a promise is binding proprid vi: Binding, then, on whom? On him certainly who makes it. Admit this: For what reason is the same individual promise to be binding on those who never made it? The King, fifty years ago, promised my Great-Grandfather to govern him according to Law: my Great-Grandfather, fifty years ago, promised the King to obey him according to Law. The King, just now, promised my neighbor to govern him according to Law: my neighbor, just now, promised the King to obey him according to Law. Be it so: What are these promises, all or any of them, to me? To make answer to this question, some other principle, it is manifest, must be resorted to, than that of the intrinsic obligation of promises upon those who make them.
48. Now this other principle that still recurs upon us, what other can it be than the principle of Utility? The principle which furnishes us with that reason, which alone depends not upon any higher reason, but which is itself the sole and all sufficient reason for every point of practice whatsoever.
AGAINST NATURAL RIGHTS (Pannomial Fragments)
Only Legal Rights are Grounded in Legislative Facts
The word right, is the name of a fictitious entity: one of those objects, the existence of which is feigned for the purpose of discourse by a fiction so necessary, that without it human discourse could not be carried on.
A man is said to have it, to hold it, to possess it, to acquire it, to lose it. It is thus spoken of as if it were a portion of matter such as a man may take into his hand, keep it for a time and let it go again. According to a phrase more common in law language than in ordinary language, a man is even spoken of as being invested with it. Vestment is clothing: invested with it makes it an article of clothing, and is as much as to say is clothed with it.
To the substantive word are frequently prefixed, as adjuncts and attributives, not only the word political, but the word natural and the word moral: and thus rights are distinguished into natural, moral, and political.
From this mode of speech, much confusion of ideas has been the result.
The only one of the three cases in which the word right has any determinate and intelligible meaning is that in which it has the adjunct political attached to it: in this case, when a man is said to have a right (mentioning it), the existence of a certain matter of fact is asserted; namely, of a disposition on the part of those by whom the powers of government are exercised, to cause him, to possess and so far as depends upon them to have the faculty of enjoying, the benefit to which he has a right. If, then, the fact thus asserted be true, the case is, that amongst them they are prepared on occasion to render him this service: and to this service on the part of the subordinate functionaries to whose province the matter belongs, he has, if so it be, a right; the supreme functionaries being always prepared to do what depends upon them to cause this same service to be rendered by those same subordinate functionaries.
Now, in the case of alleged natural rights, no such matter of fact has place—nor any matter of fact other than what would have place supposing no such natural right to have place. In this case, no functionaries have place—or if they have, no such disposition on their part, as above, has place; for if it have, it is the case of a political right, and not of a merely natural right. A man is never the better for having such natural right: admit that he has it, his condition is not in any respect different from what it would be if he had it not.
If I say a man has a right to this coat or to this piece of land, meaning a right in the political sense of the word,—what I assert is a matter of fact; namely, the existence of the disposition in question as above.
If I say a man has a natural right to the coat or the land—all that it can mean, if it mean anything and mean true, is that I am of opinion he ought to have a political right to it; that by the appropriate services rendered upon occasion to him by the appropriate functionaries of government, he ought to be protected and secured in the use of it: he ought to be so—that is to say, the idea of his being so is pleasing to me—the idea of the opposite result displeasing.
Ambiguity with the Word “Right”
In the English language, an imperfection perhaps peculiar to that language, contributes to the keeping up of this confusion. In English, in speaking of a certain man and a certain coat, or a certain piece of land, I may say it is right he should have this coat or this piece of land. But in this case, beyond doubt, nothing more do I express than my satisfaction at the idea of his having this same coat or land. . . .
If the coat I have on is mine, I have a right by law to knock down, if I can, any man who by force should attempt to take it from me; and this right is what in any case it can scarcely be but that a man looks to when he says, I have a right to a constitution, to such or such an effect—or a right to have the powers of government arranged in such manner as to place me in such or such a condition in respect of actual right, actually established rights, political rights.
To engage others to join with him in applying force for the purpose of putting things into a state in which he would actually be in possession of the right, of which he thus pretends to be in possession, is at bottom the real object and purpose of the confusion thus endeavoured to be introduced into men's ideas, by employing a word in a sense different from what it had been wont to be employed, and from thus causing men to accede in words to positions from which they dissent in judgment.
This confusion has for its source the heat of argument. In the case of a political right, when the existence of it is admitted on all sides, all dispute ceases. But when so it is that a man has been contending for a political right which he either never has possessed, or having in his possession, is fearful of losing, he will not quietly be beaten out of his claim; but in default of the political right, or as a support to the political right, he asserts he has a natural right. This imaginary natural right is a sort of thread he clings by:—in the case in question, his having any efficient political right is a supposed matter of fact, the existence of the contrary of which is but too notorious and being so, is but too capable of being proved. Beaten out of this ground, he says he has a natural right—a right given him by that kind goddess and governess Nature whose legitimacy who shall dispute? And if he can manage so as to get you to admit the existence of this natural right, he has, under favor of this confusion, the hope of getting you to acknowledge the existence of the correspondent political right, and your assistance in enabling him to possess it. . . .
Natural Rights do not come from Natural Laws
It is the weakness of the understanding which has given birth to these pretended natural rights; it is the force of the passions which has led to their adoption, when, desirous of leading men to pursue a certain line of conduct which general utility does not furnish sufficient motives to induce them to pursue, or when, having such motives, a man knows not how to produce and develop them, yet wishes that there were laws to constrain men to pursue this conduct, or what comes to the same thing, that they would believe that there were such laws,—it has been found the shortest and easiest method to imagine laws to this effect.
Behold the professors of natural law, of which they have dreamed—the legislating Grotii—the legislators of the human race: that which the Alexanders and the Tamerlanes endeavoured to accomplish by traversing a part of the globe, the Grotii and the Puffendorffs would accomplish, each one sitting in his arm chair: that which the conqueror would effect with violence by his sword, the jurisconsult would effect without effort by his pen. Behold the goddess Nature!—the jurisconsult is her priest; his idlest trash is an oracle, and this oracle is a law.
The jurisconsult in his arm-chair is an individual sufficiently peaceable: he lies,—he fabricates false laws in the simplicity of his heart;—desirous of doing something, ignorant how to do better, hoping to do well, he would not willingly injure any one. From his hands the instruments he employs have passed into hands of a far different temper.
The invention was fortunate: it spared discussion—it saved research and reflection—it did not require even common sense—it spared all forbearance and toleration:—what the oath is on the part of the footpad who demands your purse, the rights of man have been in the mouth of the terrorist. . . .
Only Legal Rights Exist
Rights are, then, the fruits of the law, and of the law alone. There are no rights without law—no rights contrary to the law—no rights anterior to the law. Before the existence of laws there may be reasons for wishing that there were laws—and doubtless such reasons cannot be wanting, and those of the strongest kind;—but a reason for wishing that we possessed a right, does not constitute a right. To confound the existence of a reason for wishing that we possessed a right, with the existence of the right itself, is to confound the existence of a want with the means of relieving it. It is the same as if one should say, everybody is subject to hunger, therefore everybody has something to eat.
There are no other than legal rights,—no natural rights—no rights of man, anterior or superior to those created by the laws. The assertion of such rights, absurd in logic, is pernicious in morals. A right without a law is an effect without a cause. We may feign a law, in order to speak of this fiction—in order to feign a right as having been created; but fiction is not truth.
We may feign laws of nature—rights of nature, in order to show the nullity of real laws, as contrary to these imaginary rights; and it is with this view that recourse is had to this fiction:—but the effect of these nullities can only be null.
PENITENTIARY SURVEILLANCE (Panopticon Letter 1, 5)
The Building Plan (“Outline of the Plan of Construction of a Panopticon Penitentiary House”)
The building circular—the cells occupying the circumference—the keepers, &c.—the centre—an intermediate annular well all the way up, crowned by a sky-light usually open, answering the purpose of a ditch in fortification, and of a chimney in ventilation—the cells, laid open to it by an iron grating. By blinds and other contrivances, the keeper concealed from the observation of the prisoners, unless where he thinks fit to show himself: hence, on their part, the sentiment of an invisible omnipresence.—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of two stories of cells, and a considerable view of another:—the result of a difference of level.
I observed the other day in one of your English papers, an advertisement relative to a house of correction therein spoken of, as intended for * * * * * * *. It occurred to me, that the plan of a building, lately contrived by my brother, for purposes in some respects similar, and which, under the name of the Inspection House, or the Elaboratory, he is about erecting here, might afford some hints for the above establishment. I have accordingly obtained some drawings relative to it, which I here enclose. Indeed I look upon it as capable of applications of the most extensive nature; and that for reasons which you will soon perceive.
To say all in one word, it will be found applicable, I think, without exception, to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection. No matter how different, or even opposite the purpose: whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.
It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so. This point, you will immediately see, is most completely secured by my brother’s plan; and, I think, it will appear equally manifest, that it cannot be compassed by any other, or to speak more properly, that if it be compassed by any other, it can only be in proportion as such other may approach to this.
To cut the matter as short as possible, I will consider it at once in its application to such purposes as, being most complicated, will serve to exemplify the greatest force and variety of precautionary contrivance. Such are those which have suggested the idea of penitentiary-houses: in which the objects of safe custody, confinement, solitude, forced labor, and instruction, were all of them to be kept in view. If all these objects can be accomplished together, of course with at least equal certainty and facility may any lesser number of them.
Seeing without Being Seen
It may be of use, that among all the particulars you have seen, it should be clearly understood what circumstances are, and what are not, essential to the plan. The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen. As to the general form of the building, the most commodious for most purposes seems to be the circular: but this is not an absolutely essential circumstance. . . . You will please to observe, that though perhaps it is the most important point, that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so, yet it is not by any means the only one. If it were, the same advantage might be given to buildings of almost any form. What is also of importance is, that for the greatest proportion of time possible, each man should actually be under inspection. . . . Not only so, but the greater chance there is, of a given person’s being at a given time actually under inspection, the more strong will be the persuasion—the more intense, if I may say so, the feeling, he has of his being so.
Source: Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment on Government (1776), Preface, Ch. 1; The Principles of Morals and Legislation (1780) Ch. 1, 4; Pannomial Fragments (1831), Ch. 3; Panopticon (1791), Letters 1, 5.
Questions for Review
1. In the section on “reformation in morality” what does Bentham say about advancement in both science and ethics?
2. What are the seven factors in Bentham’s utilitarian calculus?
3. Defenders of social contract theory argue that the King’s promise to secure happiness is a promise to follow the letter of the law. In the section on the “problem determining the king’s violation of his promise,” what are Bentham’s four counter instances to this position?
4. In the section “the assumed binding nature of contracts,” what is the presumed original contract between king and the people?
5. In the section on “ambiguity with the word right,” what are the two meanings of “right” and how, according Bentham, do we move from one to the other?
Questions for Analysis
1. A common criticism of Bentham’s utilitarian calculus is that it is far too tedious to calculate all of the seven factors. In the section on “applying the factors,” Bentham discusses whether the calculus needs to be strictly applied in every moral judgment. Does his discussion there adequately address the criticism?
2. In the section “obligation to govern and obey based on utility,” Bentham criticizes social contract theory on the grounds that the King’s “promise” to govern and the subject’s “promise” to obey reduce to the utility of governing and the utility of obeying. How might Hobbes respond to this criticism?
3. In the section “only legal rights are grounded in legislative facts,” Bentham argues that natural rights have no factual basis. Is Bentham correct? Explain.
4. Bentham criticizes Grotius, Pufendorf and other natural law theorists for fabricating natural laws, which might then be wrongly used as a foundation for natural rights. Is there anything in natural law theory that might legitimately form the foundation of natural rights?
5. In the section “only legal rights exist,” Bentham states that “Rights are, then, the fruits of the law, and of the law alone.” Is he correct? Explain.
WAR AND PERPETUAL PEACE
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in Königsberg, the capital of what was then East Prussia. He studied at the University of Königsberg, became a lecturer there in 1755, and finally in 1770 was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. Kant is one of the most influential philosophers in recent centuries and presented below are selections from
THE RIGHT OF NATIONS AND INTERNATIONAL LAW
53. Nature and Division of the Right of Nations
The individuals, who make up a people, may be regarded as natives of the country sprung by natural descent from a common ancestry, although this may not hold entirely true in detail. Again, they may be viewed according to the intellectual and juridical relation, as born of a common political mother, the republic, so that they constitute, as it were, a public Family or nation whose members are all related to each other as citizens of the state. As members of a state, they do not mix with those who live beside them in the state of nature, considering such to be ignoble. Yet these savages, on account of the law less freedom they have chosen, regard themselves as superior to civilized peoples; and they constitute tribes and even races, but not states. The public right of states in their relations to one another, is what we have to consider under the designation of the right of nations. Wherever a state, viewed as a moral person, acts in relation to another existing in the condition of natural freedom, and consequently in a state of continual war, such right takes its rise.
The right of nations in relation to the state of war may be divided into: 1. The right of going to war; 2. Right during war; and 3. Right after war, the object of which is to constrain the nations mutually to pass from this state of war, and to found a common constitution establishing perpetual peace. The difference between the right of individual men or families as related to each other in the state of nature, and the right of the nations among themselves, consists in this, that in the right of nations we have to consider not merely a relation of one state to another as a whole, but also the relation of the individual persons in one state to the individuals of another state, as well as to that state as a whole. This difference, however, between the right of nations and the right of Individuals in the mere state of nature, requires to be determined by elements which can easily be deduced from the conception of the latter.
54. Elements of the Right of Nations
The elements of the right of nations are as follow:
1. states, viewed as nations, in their external relations to one another like lawless savages are naturally in a non-juridical condition;
2. This natural condition is a state of war in which the right of the stronger prevails; and although it may not in fact be always found as a state of actual war and incessant hostility, and although no real wrong is done to anyone therein, yet the condition is wrong in itself in the highest degree, and the nations which form states contiguous to each other are bound mutually to pass out of it;
3. An alliance of nations, in accordance with the idea of an original social contract, is necessary to protect each other against external aggression and attack, but not involving interference with their several internal difficulties and disputes;
4. This mutual connection by Alliance must dispense with a distinct sovereign Tower, such as is set up in the civil constitution; it can only take the form of a federation, which as such may be revoked on any occasion, and must consequently be renewed from time to time.
This is therefore a right which comes in as an accessory of another original right, in order to prevent the nations from falling from right, and lapsing into the state of actual war with each other. It thus issues in the idea of a Fcedus Ampliidyonum.
55. Right of Going to War as Related to the Subjects of the State.
We have then to consider, in the first place, the original right of free states to go to war with each other as being still in a state of nature, but as exercising this right in order to establish some condition of society approaching the juridical state. And, first of all, the question arises as to what right the state has in relation to its own subjects, to use them in order to make war against other states, to employ their property and even their lives for this purpose, or at least to expose them to hazard and danger; and all this in such a way that it does not depend upon their own personal judgment whether they will march into the field of war or not, but the supreme command of the sovereign claims to settle and dispose of them thus.
This right appears capable of being easily established. It may be grounded upon the right which everyone has to do with what is his own as he will. Whatever one has made substantially for himself, he holds as his incontestable property. The following, then, is such a deduction as a mere jurist would put forward.
There are various natural products in a country which, as regards the number and quantity in which they exist, must be considered as specially produced by the work of the state; for the country would not yield them to such extent were it not under the constitution of the state and its regular administrative government, or if the inhabitants were still living in the state of nature. Sheep, cattle, domestic fowl, the most useful of their kind, swine, and such like, would either be used up as necessary food or destroyed by animals of prey in the district in which I live, so that they would entirely disappear, or be found in very scant supplies, were it not for the government securing to the inhabitants their acquisitions and property. This holds likewise of the population itself, as we see in the case of the American deserts; and even were the greatest industry applied in those regions which is not yet done there might be but a scanty population. The inhabitants of any country would be but sparsely sown here and there were it not for the protection of government; because without it they could not spread themselves with their households upon a territory which was always in danger of being devastated by enemies or by wild animals of prey; and further, so great a multitude of men as now live in any one country could not otherwise obtain sufficient means of support. Hence, as it can be said of vegetable growths, such as potatoes, as well as of domesticated animals, that because the abundance in which they are found is a product of human labor, they may be used, destroyed, and consumed by man; so it seems that it may be said of the sovereign as the supreme power in the state, that he has the right to lead his subjects, as being for the most part productions of his own, to war, as if it were to the chase, and even to march them to the field of battle, as if it were on a pleasure excursion.
This principle of right may be supposed to float dimly before the mind of the monarch, and it certainly holds true at least of the lower animals which may become the property of man. But such a principle will not at all apply to men, especially when viewed as citizens who must be regarded as members of the state, with a share in the legislation, and not merely as means for others but as ends in themselves. As such they must give their free consent, through their representatives, not only to the carrying on of war generally, but to every separate declaration of war; and it is only under this limiting condition that the state has a right to demand their services in undertakings so full of danger.
We would therefore deduce this right rather from the duty of the sovereign to the people than conversely. Under this relation the people must be regarded as having given their sanction; and, having the right of voting, they may be considered, although thus passive in reference to themselves individually, to be active in so far as they represent the sovereignty itself.
56. Right of Going to War in relation to Hostile states.
Viewed as in the state of nature, the right of nations to go to war and to carry on hostilities is the legitimate way by which they prosecute their rights by their own power when they regard themselves as injured; and this is done because in that state the method of a juridical process, although the only one proper to settle such disputes, cannot be adopted.
The threatening of war is to be distinguished from the active injury of a first aggression, which again is distinguished from the general outbreak of hostilities. A threat or menace may be given by the active preparation of armaments, upon which a right of prevention is founded on the other side, or merely by the formidable increase of the power of another state by acquisition of territory. Lesion of a less powerful country may be involved merely in the condition of a more powerful neighbor prior to any action at all; and in the state of nature an attack under such circumstances would be warrantable. This international relation is the foundation of the right of Equilibrium, or of the balance of power/ among all the states that are in active contiguity to each other.
The right to go to war is constituted by any overt act of injury. This includes any arbitrary retaliation or act of reprisal as a satisfaction taken by one people for an offence committed by another, without any attempt being made to obtain reparation in a peaceful way. Such an act of retaliation would be similar in kind to an outbreak of hostilities without a previous declaration of war. For if there is to be any right at all during the state of war, something analogous to a contract must be assumed, involving acceptance on the one side of the declaration on the other, and amounting to the fact that they both will to seek their right in this way.
57. Right during War.
The determination of what constitutes right in war, is the most difficult problem of the right of nations and international law. It is very difficult even to form a conception of such a right, or to think of any law in this lawless state without falling into a contradiction. In times of war, the law falls silent (Inter arma silent leges). It must then be just the right to carry on war according to such principles as render it always still possible to pass out of that natural condition of the states in their external relations to each other, and to enter into a condition of right.
No war of independent states against each other, can rightly be a war of punishment. For punishment is only in place under the relation of a Superior to a subject; and this is not the relation of the states to one another. Neither can an international war be a war of extermination, nor even a war of subjugation; for this would issue in the moral extinction of a state by its people being either fused into one mass with the conquering state, or being reduced to slavery. Not that this necessary means of attaining to a condition of peace is itself contradictory to the right of a state; but because the idea of the right of nations includes merely the conception of an antagonism that is in accordance with principles of external freedom, in order that the state may maintain what is properly its own, but not that it may acquire a condition which, from the aggrandizement of its power, might become threatening to other states.
Defensive measures and means of all kinds are allow able to a state that is forced to war, except such as by their use would make the subjects using them unfit to be citizens; for the state would thus make itself unfit to be regarded as a person capable of participating in equal rights in the international relations according to the right of nations. Among these forbidden means are to be reckoned the appointment of subjects to act as spies, or engaging subjects or even strangers to act as assassins, or poisoners (in which class might well be included the so-called sharpshooters who lurk in ambush for individuals), or even employing agents to spread false news. In a word, it is forbidden to use any such malignant and perfidious means as would destroy the confidence which would be requisite to establish a lasting peace thereafter.
It is permissible in war to impose exactions [i.e., financial penalties] and contributions upon a conquered enemy; but it is not legitimate to plunder the people in the way of forcibly depriving individuals of their property. For this would be robbery, seeing it was not the conquered people but the state under whose government they were placed that carried on the war by means of them. All exactions should be raised by regular requisition, and receipts ought to be given for them, in order that when peace is restored the burden imposed on the country or the province may be proportionately borne.
58. Right after War.
The right that follows after war, begins at the moment of the treaty of peace and refers to the consequences of the war. The conqueror lays down the conditions under which he will agree with the conquered power to form the conclusion of peace. Treaties are drawn up; not indeed according to any right that it pertains to him to protect, on account of an alleged lesion by his opponent, but as taking this question upon himself, he bases the right to decide it upon his own power. Hence the conqueror may not demand restitution of the cost of the war; because he would then have to declare the war of his opponent to be unjust. And even although he should adopt such an argument, he is not entitled to apply it; because he would have to declare the war to be punitive, and he would thus in turn inflict an injury. To this right belongs also the Exchange of Prisoners, which is to be carried out without ransom and without regard to equality of numbers.
Neither the conquered state nor its subjects, lose their political liberty by conquest of the country, so as that the former should be degraded to a colony, or the latter to slaves; for otherwise it would have been a penal war, which is contradictory in itself. A colony or a province is constituted by a people which has its own constitution, legislation, and territory, where persons belonging to another state are merely strangers, but which is nevertheless subject to the supreme executive power of another state. This other state is called the mother-country. It is ruled as a daughter, but has at the same time its own form of government, as in a separate Parliament under the presidency of a viceroy. Such was Athens in relation to different islands; and such is at present  the relation of Great Britain to Ireland.
Still less can slavery be deduced as a rightful institution, from the conquest of a people in war; for this would assume that the war was of a punitive nature. And least of all can a basis be found in war for a Jicreditary slavery, which is absurd in itself, since guilt cannot be inherited from the criminality of another.
Further, that an Amnesty is involved in the conclusion of a treaty of peace, is already implied in the very idea of a peace.
59. The Rights of Peace.
The rights of peace are:
1. The right to be in peace when war is in the neighborhood, or the right of neutrality.
2. The right to have peace secured so that it may continue when it has been concluded, that is, the right of Guarantee.
3. The right of the several states to enter into mutual alliance, so as to defend themselves in common against all external or even internal attacks. This right of Federation, however, does not extend to the formation of any League for external aggression or internal aggrandizement.
60. Right as against an Unjust Enemy.
The right of a state against an unjust enemy has no limits, at least in respect of quality as distinguished from quantity or degree. In other words, the injured state may use not, indeed, any means, but yet all those means that are permissible and in reasonable measure in so far as they are in its power, in order to assert its right to what is its own. But what then is an unjust enemy according to the conceptions of the right of nations, when, as holds generally of the state of nature, every state is judge in its own cause? It is one whose publicly expressed will, whether in word or deed, betrays u maxim which, if it were taken as a universal rule, would make a state of peace among the nations impossible, and would necessarily perpetuate the state of nature. Such is the violation of public treaties, with regard to which it may be assumed that any such violation concerns all nations by threatening their freedom, and that they are thus summoned to unite against such a wrong, and to take away the power of committing it. But this does not include the right to partition and appropriate the country, so as to make a state as it were disappear from the earth; for this would be an injustice to the people of that state, who cannot lose their original right to unite into a commonwealth, and to adopt such a new constitution as by its nature would be unfavorable to the inclination for war.
Further, it may be said that the expression an unjust enemy in the state of nature is pleonastic; for the state of nature is itself a state of injustice. A just enemy would be one to whom I would do wrong in offering resistance; but such a one would really not be my enemy.
61. Perpetual Peace and a Permanent Congress of Nations
The natural state of nations as well as of individual men is a state which it is a duty to pass out of, in order to enter into a legal state. Hence, before this transition occurs, all the right of nations and all the external property of states acquirable or maintainable by war, are merely provisory; and they can only become peremptory in a universal union of states analogous to that by which a nation becomes a state. It is thus only that a real state of peace could be established. But with the too great extension of such a union of states over vast regions any government of it, and consequently the protection of its individual members, must at last become impossible; and thus a multitude of such corporations would again bring round a state of war. Hence the perpetual peace, which is the ultimate end of all the right of nations, becomes in fact an impracticable idea. The political principles, however, which aim at such an end, and which enjoin the formation of such unions among the states as may promote a continuous approximation to a perpetual peace, are not impracticable; they are as practicable as this approximation itself, which is a practical problem involving a duty, and founded upon the Right of individual men and states.
Such a union of states, in order to maintain peace, may be called a permanent congress of nations; and it is free to every neighboring state to join in it. A union of this kind, so far at least as regards the formalities of the right of nations in respect of the preservation of peace, was presented in the first half of this century, in the assembly of the states-general at the Hague. In this assembly most of the European courts, and even the smallest republics, brought forward their complaints about the hostilities which were carried on by the one against the other. Thus the whole of Europe appeared like a single federated state, accepted as Umpire by the several nations in their public differences. But in place of this agreement, the right of nations afterwards survived only in books; it disappeared from the cabinets, or, after force had been already used, it was relegated in the form of theoretical deductions to the obscurity of Archives.
By such a congress is here meant only a voluntary combination of different states that would be dissoluble at any time, and not such a union as is embodied in the United States of America, founded upon a political constitution, and therefore indissoluble. It is only by a congress of this kind that the idea of a Public right of nations can be established, and that the settlement of their differences by the mode of a civil process, and not by the barbarous means of war, can be realized.
THE UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF MANKIND
Nature and Conditions of Cosmopolitical Right
The rational idea of a universal, peaceful, if not yet friendly, union of all the nations upon the earth that may come into active relations with each other, is a juridical Principle, as distinguished from philanthropic or ethical principles. Nature has enclosed them altogether within definite boundaries, in virtue of the spherical form of their abode as a globus terraqucus; and the possession of the soil upon which an inhabitant of the earth may live, can only be regarded as possession of a part of a limited whole, and consequently as a part to which everyone has originally a right. Hence all nations originally hold a community of the soil, but not a juridical community of possession, nor consequently of the use or proprietorship of the soil, but only of a possible physical intercourse by means of it. In other words, they are placed in such thoroughgoing relations of each to all the rest, that they may claim to enter into intercourse with one another, and they have a right to make an attempt in this direction, while a foreign nation would not be entitled to treat them on this account as enemies. This right, in so far as it relates to a possible union of all nations, in respect of certain laws universally regulating their intercourse with each other, may be called cosmopolitical right.
It may appear that seas put nations out of all communion with each other. But this is not so; for by means of commerce, seas form the happiest natural provision for their intercourse. And the more there are of neighboring coastlands, as in the case of the Mediterranean Sea, this intercourse becomes the more animated. And hence communications with such lands, especially where there are settlements upon them connected with the mother countries giving occasion for such communications, bring it about that evil and violence committed in one place of our globe are felt in all. Such possible abuse cannot, however, annul the right of man as a citizen of the world to attempt to enter into communion with all others, and for this purpose to visit all the regions of the earth, although this does not constitute a right of settlement upon the territory of another people, for which a special contract is required.
But the question is raised as to whether, in the case of newly discovered countries, a people may claim the right to settle, and to occupy possessions in the neighborhood of another people that has already settled in that region; and to do this without their consent.
Such a right is indubitable, if the new settlement takes place at such a distance from the seat of the former, that neither would restrict or injure the other in the use of their territory. But in the case of nomadic peoples, or tribes of shepherds and hunters (such as the Hottentots, the Tungusi, and most of the American Indians), whose support is derived from wide desert tracts, such occupation should never take place by force, but only by contract; and any such contract ought never to take advantage of the ignorance of the original dwellers in regard to the cession of their lands. Yet it is commonly alleged that such acts of violent appropriation may be justified as subserving the general good of the world. It appears as if sufficiently justifying grounds were furnished for them, partly by reference to the civilization of barbarous peoples (as by a pretext of this kind even Busching tries to excuse the bloody introduction of the Christian religion into Germany), and partly by founding upon the necessity of purging one s own country from depraved criminals, and the hope of their improvement or that of their posterity, in another continent like New Holland. But all these alleged good purposes cannot wash out the stain of injustice in the means employed to attain them. It may be objected that had such scrupulousness about making a beginning in founding a legal state with force been always maintained, the whole earth would still have been in a state of lawlessness. But such an objection would as little annul the conditions of right in question as the pretext of the political revolutionaries, that when a constitution has become degenerate, it belongs to the people to transform it by force. This would amount generally to being unjust once and for all, in order thereafter to found justice the more surely, and to make it flourish.
If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. In other words, a hypothesis may be accepted either in order to explain a certain phenomenon (as in astronomy to account for the retrogression and stationariness of the planets), or in order to attain a certain end, which again may be either pragmatic as belonging merely to the sphere of art, or moral as involving a purpose which it is a duty to adopt as a maxim of action. Now it is evident that the assumption of the practicability of such an End, though presented merely as a theoretical and problematical judgment, may be regarded as constituting a duty; and hence it is so regarded in this case. For although there may be no positive obligation to believe in such an end, yet even if there were not the least theoretical probability of action being carried out in accordance with it, so long as its impossibility cannot be demonstrated, there still remains a duty incumbent upon us with regard to it.
Now, as a matter of fact, the morally practical reason utters within us its irrevocable veto: there shall be no war. So there ought to be no war, neither between me and you in the condition of nature, nor between us as members of states which, although internally in a condition of law, are still externally in their relation to each other in a condition of lawlessness; for this is not the way by which anyone should prosecute his right. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real. We must work for what may perhaps not be realized, and establish that constitution which yet seems best adapted to bring it about (perhaps republicanism in all states, together and separately). And thus we may put an end to the evil of wars, which have been the chief interest of the internal arrangements of all the states without exception. And although the realization of this purpose may always remain but a pious wish, yet we do certainly not deceive ourselves in adopting the maxim of action that will guide us in working incessantly for it; for it is a duty to do this. To suppose that the moral Law within us is itself deceptive, would be sufficient to excite the horrible wish rather to be deprived of all Reason than to live under such deception, and even to see oneself, according to such principles, degraded like the lower animals to the level of the mechanical play of nature.
It may be said that the universal and lasting establishment of peace constitutes not merely a part, but the whole final purpose and end of the science of right as viewed within the limits of reason. The state of peace is the only condition of the mine and thine that is secured and guaranteed by Laws in the relationship of men living in numbers contiguous to each other, and who are thus combined in a constitution whose rule is derived not from the mere experience of those who have found it the best as a normal guide for others, but which must be taken by the reason a priori from the ideal of a juridical union of men under public laws generally. For all particular examples or instances, being able only to furnish illustration but not proof, are deceptive, and at all events require a metaphysic to establish them by its necessary principles. And this is conceded indirectly even by those who turn metaphysics into ridicule, when they say, as they often do, the best constitution is that in which not men but laws exercise the power. For what can be more metaphysically sublime in its own way than this very idea of theirs, which according to their own assertion has, notwithstanding, the most objective reality? This may be easily shown by reference to actual instances. And it is this very idea which alone can be carried out practically, if it is not forced on in a revolutionary and sudden way by violent overthrow of the existing defective constitution; for this would produce for the time the momentary annihilation of the whole juridical state of society. But if the idea is carried forward by gradual reform, and in accordance with fixed principles, it may lead by a continuous approximation to the highest political good, and to perpetual peace.
Source: Immanuel Kant, The Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence (1796), tr. W. Hastie
Questions for Review
Questions for Analysis
THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
Born in London to an abusive alcoholic father, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) was an author in a variety of genres and an early defender of women’s rights. During the last year of her life, at age 38, she married political philosopher William Godwin and died shortly after the delivery of their daughter, who was later to become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft’s first philosophical work, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), is a critique of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution in which she denounces the aristocracy and defends republicanism. Two years later she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), from which the selections below are taken. In this work she argues that, while women are physically weaker than men, they are rational equals and thus capable of developing the same moral characteristics. However, she maintains, women of her time have been improperly educated, and books on education, such as Rousseau’s Emile, teach women to become alluring mistresses rather than rational wives. Such books perpetuate the view that women can be protected by men through childlike mannerisms and beauty. The best education, she believes, is that which makes women independent. Class distinction, she argues, corrupts all society, and while some men can rise above it, it is almost impossible for women to do so. Laws lower the legal status of women by linking them with their husbands who have full domestic authority. But with the proper education women could become physicians, midwives, politics, business, farm managers, shop owners and even politicians.
THE CURRENT STATUS OF WOMEN
Changes in Social Attitude Needed regarding Women [Dedication]
. . . Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate, unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? Unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.
In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me were conclusive, to prove, that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity must more universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolized when little virtue or sense embellish it with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of affection. . . .
Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves, respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?
In this style, argue tyrants of every denomination from the weak king to the weak father of a family; they are all eager to crush reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful. Do you not act a similar part, when you force all women, by denying them civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark? For surely, sir, you will not assert, that a duty can be binding which is not founded on reason? If, indeed, this be their destination, arguments may be drawn from reason; and thus augustly supported, the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty, comprehending it, for unless they comprehend it, unless their morals be fixed on the same immutable principles as those of man, no authority can make them discharge it in a virtuous manner. They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.
Harmful Stereotypes of Women [Introduction]
After considering the historic page, and viewing the living world with anxious solicitude, the most melancholy emotions of sorrowful indignation have depressed my spirits, and I have sighed when obliged to confess, that either nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization, which has hitherto taken place in the world, has been very partial. I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result? a profound conviction, that the neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion. The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove, that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity. One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.
. . . In the government of the physical world, it is observable that the female, in general, is inferior to the male. The male pursues, the female yields—this is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favor of woman. This physical superiority cannot be denied—and it is a noble prerogative! But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.
I am aware of an obvious inference: from every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If, by this appellation, men mean to inveigh against their ardor in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be, against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind—all those who view them with a philosophical eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine. . . .
The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly; yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the writers who endeavor by satire or instruction to improve them. It is acknowledged that they spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments: meanwhile, strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves, the only way women can rise in the world—by marriage. And this desire making mere animals of them, when they marry, they act as such children may be expected to act: they dress; they paint, and nickname God's creatures.
Reason, Virtue and Knowledge the Foundation of Humanity [Chapter 1]
In the present state of society, it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground. To clear my way, I must be allowed to ask some plain questions, and the answers will probably appear as unequivocal as the axioms on which reasoning is built; though, when entangled with various motives of action, they are formally contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men.
In what does man's pre-eminence over the brute creation consist? The answer is as clear as that a half is less than the whole; in Reason.
What acquirement exalts one being above another? Virtue; we spontaneously reply.
For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes: whispers Experience.
Consequently the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness, must be estimated by the degree of reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguish the individual, and direct the laws which bind society: and that from the exercise of reason, knowledge and virtue naturally flow, is equally undeniable, if mankind be viewed collectively.
The rights and duties of man thus simplified, it seems almost impertinent to attempt to illustrate truths that appear so incontrovertible: yet such deeply rooted prejudices have clouded reason, and such spurious qualities have assumed the name of virtues, that it is necessary to pursue the course of reason as it has been perplexed and involved in error, by various adventitious circumstances, comparing the simple axiom with casual deviations.
AGAINST THE COMMON VIEWS OF FEMALE COQUETTISHNESS [Chapter 2]
Female Subjugation results from Improper Education
To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue. Yet it should seem, allowing them to have souls, that there is but one way appointed by providence to lead mankind to either virtue or happiness.
If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence? Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and groveling vices. Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force. Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of [male] human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives. . . .
Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart; or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau's opinion respecting men: I extend it to women, and confidently assert that they have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavor to acquire masculine qualities. Still the regal homage which they receive is so intoxicating, that, till the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality, if they wish to secure the placid satisfaction that unsophisticated affections impart. But for this epoch we must wait—wait, perhaps, till kings and nobles, enlightened by reason, and, preferring the real dignity of man to childish state, throw off their gaudy hereditary trappings; and if then women do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty, they will prove that they have less mind than man. I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare, what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners, from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weaker characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society. . . .
To do everything in an orderly manner, is a most important precept, which women, who, generally speaking, receive only a disorderly kind of education, seldom attend to with that degree of exactness that men, who from their infancy are broken into method, observe. This negligent kind of guesswork, for what other epithet can be used to point out the random exertions of a sort of instinctive common sense, never brought to the test of reason? prevents their generalizing matters of fact, so they do today, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday.
This contempt of the understanding in early life has more baneful consequences than is commonly supposed; for the little knowledge which women of strong minds attain, is, from various circumstances, of a more desultory kind than the knowledge of men, and it is acquired more by sheer observations on real life, than from comparing what has been individually observed with the results of experience generalized by speculation. Led by their dependent situation and domestic employments more into society, what they learn is rather by snatches; and as learning is with them, in general, only a secondary thing, they do not pursue any one branch with that persevering ardor necessary to give vigor to the faculties, and clearness to the judgment. . . .
Women are, therefore, to be considered either as moral beings, or so weak that they must be entirely subjected to the superior faculties of men.
Against Rousseau’s view of Female Coquetry
Let us examine this question. Rousseau declares, that a woman should never, for a moment feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself. He carries the arguments, which he pretends to draw from the indications of nature, still further, and insinuates that truth and fortitude the corner stones of all human virtue, shall be cultivated with certain restrictions, because with respect to the female character, obedience is the grand lesson which ought to be impressed with unrelenting rigor.
What nonsense! When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject! If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; consequently, their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim.
Connected with man as daughters, wives, and mothers, their moral character may be estimated by their manner of fulfilling those simple duties; but the end, the grand end of their exertions should be to unfold their own faculties, and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue. They may try to render their road pleasant; but ought never to forget, in common with man, that life yields not the felicity which can satisfy an immortal soul. I do not mean to insinuate, that either sex should be so lost, in abstract reflections or distant views, as to forget the affections and duties that lie before them, and are, in truth, the means appointed to produce the fruit of life; on the contrary, I would warmly recommend them, even while I assert, that they afford most satisfaction when they are considered in their true subordinate light.
Probably the prevailing opinion, that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses's poetical story; yet, as very few it is presumed, who have bestowed any serious thought on the subject, ever supposed that Eve was, literally speaking, one of Adam's ribs, the deduction must be allowed to fall to the ground; or, only be so far admitted as it proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to show that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke; because she as well as the brute creation, was created to do his pleasure. . . .
To speak disrespectfully of love is, I know, high treason against sentiment and fine feelings; but I wish to speak the simple language of truth, and rather to address the head than the heart. . . . Youth is the season for love in both sexes; but in those days of thoughtless enjoyment, provision should be made for the more important years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation. But Rousseau, and most of the male writers who have followed his steps, have warmly inculcated that the whole tendency of female education ought to be directed to one point to render them pleasing.
Against Traditional Female Weakness and Coquettish Arts
Nature has given woman a weaker frame than man; but, to ensure her husband's affections, must a wife, who, by the exercise of her mind and body, whilst she was discharging the duties of a daughter, wife, and mother, has allowed her constitution to retain its natural strength, and her nerves a healthy tone, is she, I say, to condescend, to use art, and feign a sickly delicacy, in order to secure her husband's affection? Weakness may excite tenderness, and gratify the arrogant pride of man; but the lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected. Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!
In a seraglio [i.e., a Muslim place of seclusion for women], I grant, that all these arts are necessary; the epicure must have his palate tickled, or he will sink into apathy; but have women so little ambition as to be satisfied with such a condition? Can they supinely dream life away in the lap of pleasure, or in the languor of weariness, rather than assert their claim to pursue reasonable pleasures, and render themselves conspicuous, by practicing the virtues which dignify mankind? Surely she has not an immortal soul who can loiter life away, merely employed to adorn her person, that she may amuse the languid hours, and soften the cares of a fellow-creature who is willing to be enlivened by her smiles and tricks, when the serious business of life is over.
Besides, the woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind will, by managing her family and practicing various virtues, become the friend, and not the humble dependent of her husband; and if she deserves his regard by possessing such substantial qualities, she will not find it necessary to conceal her affection, nor to pretend to an unnatural coldness of constitution to excite her husband's passions. In fact, if we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex. . . . Why must the female mind be tainted by coquettish arts to gratify the sensualist, and prevent love from subsiding into friendship or compassionate tenderness, when there are not qualities on which friendship can be built? Let the honest heart show itself, and reason teach passion to submit to necessity; or, let the dignified pursuit of virtue and knowledge raise the mind above those emotions which rather embitter than sweeten the cup of life, when they are not restrained within due bounds. . . .
Noble morality! and consistent with the cautious prudence of a little soul that cannot extend its views beyond the present minute division of existence. If all the faculties of woman's mind are only to be cultivated as they respect her dependence on man; if, when she obtains a husband she has arrived at her goal, and meanly proud, is satisfied with such a paltry crown, let her grovel contentedly, scarcely raised by her employments above the animal kingdom; but, if she is struggling for the prize of her high calling, let her cultivate her understanding without stopping to consider what character the husband may have whom she is destined to marry. Let her only determine, without being too anxious about present happiness, to acquire the qualities that ennoble a rational being, and a rough, inelegant husband may shock her taste without destroying her peace of mind. She will not model her soul to suit the frailties of her companion, but to bear with them: his character may be a trial, but not an impediment to virtue. . . .
I own it frequently happens, that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid increasing affection every day, and all day. But they might as well pine married as single, and would not be a jot more unhappy with a bad husband than longing for a good one. . . .
Surely there can be but one rule of right, if morality has an eternal foundation, and whoever sacrifices virtue, strictly so called, to present convenience, or whose duty it is to act in such a manner, lives only for the passing day, and cannot be an accountable creature.
Playing with Dolls no proof of Natural Coquettishness [Chapter 3]
As for Rousseau's remarks, which have since been echoed by several writers, that they have naturally, that is from their birth, independent of education, a fondness for dolls, dressing, and talking, they are so puerile as not to merit a serious refutation. That a girl, condemned to sit for hours together listening to the idle chat of weak nurses or to attend at her mother's toilet, will endeavor to join the conversation, is, indeed very natural; and that she will imitate her mother or aunts, and amuse herself by adorning her lifeless doll, as they do in dressing her, poor innocent babe! is undoubtedly a most natural consequence. For men of the greatest abilities have seldom had sufficient strength to rise above the surrounding atmosphere; and, if the page of genius has always been blurred by the prejudices of the age, some allowance should be made for a sex, who, like kings, always see things through a false medium.
In this manner may the fondness for dress, conspicuous in women, be easily accounted for, without supposing it the result of a desire to please the sex on which they are dependent. The absurdity, in short, of supposing that a girl is naturally a coquette, and that a desire connected with the impulse of nature to propagate the species, should appear even before an improper education has, by heating the imagination, called it forth prematurely, is so unphilosophical, that such a sagacious observer as Rousseau would not have adopted it, if he had not been accustomed to make reason give way to his desire of singularity, and truth to a favorite paradox. . . .
I have, probably, had an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy than J. J. Rousseau. I can recollect my own feelings, and I have looked steadily around me; yet, so far from coinciding with him in opinion respecting the first dawn of the female character, I will venture to affirm, that a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no alternative. Girls and boys, in short, would play harmless together, if the distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference. I will, go further, and affirm, as an indisputable fact, that most of the women, in the circle of my observation, who have acted like rational creatures, or shown any vigor of intellect, have accidentally been allowed to run wild, as some of the elegant formers of the fair sex would insinuate.
The baneful consequences which flow from inattention to health during infancy, and youth, extend further than is supposed, dependence of body naturally produces dependence of mind; and how can she be a good wife or mother, the greater part of whose time is employed to guard against or endure sickness; nor can it be expected, that a woman will resolutely endeavor to strengthen her constitution and abstain from enervating indulgences, if artificial notions of beauty, and false descriptions of sensibility, have been early entangled with her motives of action. Most men are sometimes obliged to bear with bodily inconveniences, and to endure, occasionally, the inclemency of the elements; but genteel women are, literally speaking, slaves to their bodies, and glory in their subjection. . . .
Women are everywhere in this deplorable state; for, in order to preserve their innocence, as ignorance is courteously termed, truth is hidden from them, and they are made to assume an artificial character before their faculties have acquired any strength. Taught from their infancy, that beauty is woman's scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour. But was their understanding once emancipated from the slavery to which the pride and sensuality of man and their short sighted desire, like that of dominion in tyrants, of present sway, has subjected them, we should probably read of their weaknesses with surprise. . . .
Moral Virtues and Duties the Same for Men and Women
I wish to sum up what I have said in a few words, for I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty. For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience.
Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfill; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same.
To become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character; I mean explicitly to say, that they must only bow to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion.
FUTURE POSSIBILITIES FOR WOMEN
Social Obstacles to Woman’s Rights [Chapter 9]
There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind are chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride. It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and good mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, they will be cunning, mean, and selfish, and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness, of spaniel-like affection, have not much delicacy, for love is not to be bought, in any sense of the word, its silken wings are instantly shriveled up when anything beside a return in kind is sought. Yet whilst wealth enervates men; and women live, as it were, by their personal charms, how can we expect them to discharge those ennobling duties which equally require exertion and self-denial. . . .
The preposterous distinctions of rank, which render civilization a curse, by dividing the world between voluptuous tyrants, and cunning envious dependents, corrupt, almost equally, every class of people, because respectability is not attached to the discharge of the relative duties of life, but to the station, and when the duties are not fulfilled, the affections cannot gain sufficient strength to fortify the virtue of which they are the natural reward. Still there are some loop-holes out of which a man may creep, and dare to think and act for himself; but for a woman it is an herculean task, because she has difficulties peculiar to her sex to overcome, which require almost super-human powers. . . .
Women are in common with men, rendered weak and luxurious by the relaxing pleasures which wealth procures; but added to this, they are made slaves to their persons, and must render them alluring, that man may lend them his reason to guide their tottering steps aright. Or should they be ambitious, they must govern their tyrants by sinister tricks, for without rights there cannot be any incumbent duties. The laws respecting woman, which I mean to discuss in a future part, make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cypher [i.e., a zero].
The being who discharges the duties of its station, is independent; and, speaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother. The rank in life which dispenses with their fulfilling this duty, necessarily degrades them by making them mere dolls. Or, should they turn to something more important than merely fitting drapery upon a smooth block, their minds are only occupied by some soft platonic attachment; or, the actual management of an intrigue may keep their thoughts in motion; for when they neglect domestic duties, they have it not in their power to take the field and march and counter-march like soldiers, or wrangle in the senate to keep their faculties from rusting.
I know, that as a proof of the inferiority of the sex, Rousseau has exultingly exclaimed, How can they leave the nursery for the camp! And the camp has by some moralists been termed the school of the most heroic virtues . . . . . But fair and softly, gentle reader, male or female, do not alarm thyself, for though I have contrasted the character of a modern soldier with that of a civilized woman, I am not going to advise them to turn their distaff into a musket, though I sincerely wish to see the bayonet converted into a pruning hook. . . . But, to render her really virtuous and useful, she must not, if she discharge her civil duties, want, individually, the protection of civil laws; she must not be dependent on her husband's bounty for her subsistence during his life, or support after his death. . . .
Occupations for Women [Chapter 9]
I cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence. I may excite laughter, by dropping an hint, which I mean to pursue, some future time, for I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.
But what have women to do in society? I may be asked, but to loiter with easy grace; surely you would not condemn them all to suckle fools, and chronicle small beer! No. Women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses. And midwifery, decency seems to allot to them, though I am afraid the word midwife, in our dictionaries, will soon give place to accoucheur [i.e., a male midwife], and one proof of the former delicacy of the sex be effaced from the language.
They might, also study politics, and settle their benevolence on the broadest basis; for the reading of history will scarcely be more useful than the perusal of romances, if read as mere biography; if the character of the times, the political improvements, arts, etc. be not observed. . . . Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue, if they were educated in a more orderly manner, which might save many from common and legal prostitution. Women would not then marry for a support, as men accept of places under government, and neglect the implied duties; nor would an attempt to earn their own subsistence, a most laudable one! sink them almost to the level of those poor abandoned creatures who live by prostitution. For are not milliners and mantuamakers [i.e., dress makers] reckoned the next class? . . .
It is a melancholy truth; yet such is the blessed effects of civilization! the most respectable women are the most oppressed; and, unless they have understandings far superior to the common run of understandings, taking in both sexes, they must, from being treated like contemptible beings, become contemptible. How many women thus waste life away, the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave luster; nay, I doubt whether pity and love are so near a-kin as poets feign, for I have seldom seen much compassion excited by the helplessness of females, unless they were fair; then, perhaps, pity was the soft handmaid of love, or the harbinger of lust.
How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty! beauty did I say? so sensible am I of the beauty of moral loveliness, or the harmonious propriety that attunes the passions of a well-regulated mind, that I blush at making the comparison; yet I sigh to think how few women aim at attaining this respectability, by withdrawing from the giddy whirl of pleasure, or the indolent calm that stupefies the good sort of women it sucks in. . . .
WOMEN’S DUTIES AND THE FAMILY (Chapter 10)
Good Childrearing based on Female Independence
Woman, however, a slave in every situation to prejudice seldom exerts enlightened maternal affection; for she either neglects her children, or spoils them by improper indulgence. Besides, the affection of some women for their children is, as I have before termed it, frequently very brutish; for it eradicates every spark of humanity. Justice, truth, every thing is sacrificed by these Rebekahs, and for the sake of their own children they violate the most sacred duties, forgetting the common relationship that binds the whole family on earth together. Yet, reason seems to say, that they who suffer one duty, or affection to swallow up the rest, have not sufficient heart or mind to fulfil that one conscientiously. It then loses the venerable aspect of a duty, and assumes the fantastic form of a whim.
As the care of children in their infancy is one of the grand duties annexed to the female character by nature, this duty would afford many forcible arguments for strengthening the female understanding, if it were properly considered.
The formation of the mind must be begun very early, and the temper, in particular, requires the most judicious attention—an attention which women cannot pay who only love their children because they are their children, and seek no further for the foundation of their duty, than in the feelings of the moment. It is this want of reason in their affections which makes women so often run into extremes, and either be the most fond, or most careless and unnatural mothers.
To be a good mother—a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow. . . .
Marriage based on Friendship, not Lust [Chapter 13.6]
That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious, is, I think, not to be disputed; and, that the most salutary effects tending to improve mankind, might be expected from a revolution in female manners, appears at least, with a face of probability, to rise out of the observation. For as marriage has been termed the parent of those endearing charities, which draw man from the brutal herd, the corrupting intercourse that wealth, idleness, and folly produce between the sexes, is more universally injurious to morality, than all the other vices of mankind collectively considered. To adulterous lust the most sacred duties are sacrificed, because, before marriage, men, by a promiscuous intimacy with women, learned to consider love as a selfish gratification—learned to separate it not only from esteem, but from the affection merely built on habit, which mixes a little humanity with it. Justice and friendship are also set at defiance, and that purity of taste is vitiated, which would naturally lead a man to relish an artless display of affection, rather than affected airs. But that noble simplicity of affection, which dares to appear unadorned, has few attractions for the libertine, though it be the charm, which, by cementing the matrimonial tie, secures to the pledges of a warmer passion the necessary parental attention; for children will never be properly educated till friendship subsists between parents. Virtue flies from a house divided against itself—and a whole legion of devils take up their residence there.
The affection of husbands and wives cannot be pure when they have so few sentiments in common, and when so little confidence is established at home, as must be the case when their pursuits are so different. That intimacy from which tenderness should flow, will not, cannot subsist between the vicious.
Contending, therefore, that the sexual distinction, which men have so warmly insisted upon, is arbitrary, I have dwelt on an observation, that several sensible men, with whom I have conversed on the subject, allowed to be well founded. And it is simply this, that the little chastity to be found amongst men, and consequent disregard of modesty, tend to degrade both sexes; and further, that the modesty of women, characterized as such, will often be only the artful veil of wantonness [i.e., promiscuousness], instead of being the natural reflection of purity, till modesty be universally respected. . . .
Women’s Duties hinge on Women’s Rights [Chapter 13.6]
Asserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for, I have not attempted to extenuate their faults; but to prove them to be the natural consequence of their education and station in society. If so, it is reasonable to suppose, that they will change their character, and correct their vices and follies, when they are allowed to be free in a physical, moral, and civil sense.
Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated, or justify the authority that chains such a weak being to her duty. If the latter, it will be expedient to open a fresh trade with Russia for whips; a present which a father should always make to his son-in-law on his wedding day, that a husband may keep his whole family in order by the same means; and without any violation of justice reign, wielding this scepter, sole master of his house, because he is the only being in it who has reason; the divine, indefeasible, earthly sovereignty breathed into man by the Master of the universe. Allowing this position, women have not any inherent rights to claim; and, by the same rule their duties vanish, for rights and duties are inseparable.
Source: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Questions for Review
1. According to Wollstonecraft, what are some of the harmful stereotypes of women?
2. According to Wollstonecraft, what is Rousseau’s view of women and how does Wollstonecraft respond?
3. According to Wollstonecraft, what are some of the “coquettish arts”?
4. In the section on “Social Obstacles to Women’s Rights” what are some of those obstacles?
5. In the section on women’s duties and the family, what does Wollstonecraft say about women as mothers and wives?
Questions for Analysis
1. Explain Wollstonecraft’s position on doll playing, and discuss whether she is right.
2. Explain what a woman’s domestic responsibilities should be according to Wollstonecraft, and discuss whether she is right.
3. Find an online digital copy of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication (e.g., at gutenberg.org) and search for the words “chaste” and “chastity”. Explain her position on male and female chastity and discuss whether she is right.
4. In 1792, William Enfield wrote the following in his review of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication: “It does not appear to us to be necessary, in order to enlighten the understandings of women, that we should prohibit the employment of their fingers in those useful and elegant labours of the needle, for which, from the days of Penelope, they have obtained much deserved applause.” (Monthly Review, 1792, series 2, v 8). How might Wollstonecraft respond to Enfield?
5. Enfield also wrote the following: “Certain associations, now too firmly established to be easily broken, forbid us to think that women are degraded by the trivial attention which the men are inclined to pay them; or that it would be of any increase of the pleasures of society, if 'except where love animates the behaviour, the distinction of sex were to be confounded.'" How might Wollstonecraft respond to Enfield?
6. John Henry Colls published a poem in defense of Wollstonecraft's Vindication, which includes the following lines: "What then is Woman on the present plan? The splendid plaything of tyrannic man-- His equal, only in a wanton hour, When Lawless lust subdues the tyrant's pow'r; . . . Hence many a female, from her nuptial hour, Becomes the victim of oppressive pow'r; Bears unrepining through successive years, The painful burthen of domestic cares, Each stern injunction of her lord obeys, And all the slave's servility displays, Flies where he bids, and as he pleases lives, Nor tastes a bliss but the tyrant gives. Ask ye to whom this gloomy sketch applies? Tis modern wedlock, stript of all disguise . . . Thus Wollstonecraft, by fiery genius led, Entwines the laurel round the female's head; Contends with man for equal strength of mind, And claims the rights estrang'd from womankind; Dives to depths of science and of art, And leaves to fools the conquest of the heart" (A poetical epistle addressed to Miss Wollstonecraft, 1795). Explain Coll’s view and discuss whether it accurately represent Wollstonecraft's position.
7. Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft's daughter, wrote the following about rationality in women: "You speak of woman's intellect. We can scarcely do more than judge by ourselves. I know that, however clever I may be, there is in me a vacillation, a weakness, a want of eagle-winged resolution that appertains to my intellect as well as to my moral character, and renders me what I am, one of broken purposes, failing thoughts, and a heart all wounds. My mother had more energy of character, still she had not sufficient fire of imagination. In short, my belief is, whether there be sex in souls or not, that the sex of our material mechanism makes us quite different creatures--better, though weaker, but wanting in the higher grades of intellect" (Shelley to Gisborne, June 11, 1835). How might Wollstonecraft respond to her daughter?
JUSTICE AND IMPARTIALITY
William Godwin (1756–1836)
SUMMARY OF PRINCIPLES
The reader who would form a just estimate of the reasonings of these volumes, cannot perhaps proceed more judiciously than by examining, for himself the truth of these principles, and the support they afford to the various inferences interspersed through the work.
The true object of moral and political disquisition, is pleasure or happiness.
The primary, or earliest, class of human pleasures, is the pleasures of the external senses.
In addition to these, man is susceptible of certain secondary pleasures, as the pleasures of intellectual feeling, the pleasures—of sympathy, and the pleasures of self-approbation.
The secondary pleasures are probably more exquisite than the primary: Or, at least,
The most desirable state of man, is that, in which he has access to all these sources of pleasure, and is in possession of a. happiness the most varied and uninterrupted.
This state is a state of high civilization.
The most desirable condition of the human species, is a state of society.
The injustice and violence of men in a state of society, produced the demand for government.
Government, as it was forced upon mankind by their vices, so has it commonly been the creature of their ignorance and mistake.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.
By concentrating the force of the community, it gives occasion to wild projects of calamity, to oppression, despotism, war, and conquest.
By perpetuating and aggravating the inequality of property, it fosters many injurious passions, and excites men to the practice of robbery and fraud.
Government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.
The immediate object of government, is security.
The means employed by government, is restriction, an abridgment of individual independence.
The pleasures of self-approbation, together with the right cultivation of all our pleasures, require individual independence.
Without independence men cannot become either wise, or useful, or happy.
Consequently, the most desirable state of mankind, is that which maintains general security, with the smallest encroachment upon individual independence.
The true standard of the conduct of one man towards another, is justice.
Justice is a principle which proposes to itself the production of the greatest sum of pleasure or happiness.
Justice requires that I should put myself in the place of an impartial spectator of human concerns, and divest myself of retrospect to my own predilections.
Justice is a rule of the utmost universality, and prescribes a specific mode of proceeding, in all affairs by which the happiness of a human being may be affected.
Duty is that mode of action, which constitutes the best application of the capacity of the individual, to the general advantage.
Right is the claim of the individual, to his share of the benefit arising from his neighbor’s discharge of their several duties.
The claim of the individual, is either to the exertion or the forbearance of his neighbors.
The exertions of men in society should ordinarily be trusted to their discretion; their forbearance, in certain cases, is a point of more pressing necessity, and is the direct province of political superintendence, or government.
The voluntary actions of men are under the direction of their feelings. Reason is not an independent principle, and has no tendency to excite us to action; in a practical view, it is merely a comparison and balancing of different feelings.
Reason, though it cannot excite us to action, is calculated to regulate our conduct, according to the comparative worth it ascribes to different excitements.
It is to the improvement of reason therefore, that we are to look for the improvement of our social condition.
Reason depends for its clearness and strength upon the cultivation of knowledge.
The extent of our progress in the cultivation of knowledge, is unlimited.
Hence it follows,
a. That human inventions, and the modes of social existence, are susceptible of perpetual improvement.
b. That institutions calculated to give perpetuity to any particular mode of thinking, or condition of existence, are pernicious.
The pleasures of intellectual feeling, and the pleasures of self-approbation, together with the right cultivation of all our pleasures, are connected with soundness of understanding.
Soundness of understanding is inconsistent with prejudice: consequently, as few falsehoods as possible, either speculative or practical, should be fostered among mankind.
Soundness of understanding is connected with freedom of enquiry; consequently, opinion should, as far as public security will admit, be exempted from restraint.
Soundness of understanding is connected with simplicity of manners, and leisure for intellectual cultivation: consequently, a distribution of property extremely unequal, is adverse to the most desirable state of man.
From what has been said it appears, that the subject of our present enquiry is strictly speaking a department of the science of morals. Morality is the source from which its fundamental axioms must be drawn, and they will be made somewhat clearer in the present instance, if we assume the term justice as a general appellation for all moral duty.
That this appellation is sufficiently expressive of the subject will appear, if we examine mercy, gratitude, temperance, or any of those duties which, in looser speaking, are contradistinguished from justice. Why should I pardon this criminal, remunerate this favor, or abstain from this indulgence? If it partake of the nature of morality, it must be either right or wrong, just or unjust. It must tend to the benefit of the individual, either without trenching upon, or with actual advantage to the mass of individuals. Either way it benefits the whole, because individuals .are parts of the whole. Therefore to do it is just, and to forbear it is unjust. —By justice I understand that impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a consideration of the properties of the receiver, and the capacity of him that bestows. Its principle therefore is, according to a well known phrase, to be “no respecter of persons.”
Considerable light will probably be thrown upon our investigation, if, quitting for the present the political view, we examine justice merely as it exists among individuals. Justice is a rule of conduct originating in the connection of one percipient being with another. A comprehensive maxim which has been laid down upon the subject is, “that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.” But this maxim, though possessing considerable merit as a popular principle, is not modeled with the strictness of philosophical accuracy.
In a loose and general view I and my neighbor are both of us men; and of consequence entitled to equal attention. But, in reality, it is probable that one of us, is a being of more worth and importance than the other. A man is of more worth than a beast; because, being possessed of higher faculties, he is capable of a more refined and genuine happiness. In the same manner the illustrious archbishop of Cambray was of more worth than his valet, and there are few of us that would hesitate to pronounce, if his palace were in flames, and the life of only one of them could be preserved, which of the two ought to be preferred.
But there is another ground of preference, beside the private consideration of one of them being further removed from the state of a mere animal. We are not connected with one or two percipient beings, but with a society, a nation, and in some sense with the whole family of mankind. Of consequence that life ought to be preferred which will be most conducive to the general good. In saving the life of Fenelon, suppose at the moment he conceived the project of his immortal Telemachus, I should have been promoting the benefit of thousands, who have been cured by the perusal of that work, of some error, vice, and consequent unhappiness. Nay, my benefit would extend further than this; for every individual, thus cured, has become a better member of society, and has contributed in his turn to the happiness, information, and improvement of others.
Suppose I had been myself the valet; I ought to have chosen to die, rather than Fenelon should have died. The life of Fenelon was really preferable to that of the valet. But understanding is the faculty that perceives the truth of this and similar propositions; and justice is the principle that regulates my conduct accordingly. It would have been just in the valet to have preferred the archbishop to himself. To have done otherwise would have been a breach of justice.
Suppose the valet had been my brother, my father, or my benefactor. This would not alter the truth of the proposition. The life of Fenelon would still be more valuable than that of the valet; and justice, pure, unadulterated justice, would still have preferred that which was most valuable. Justice would have taught me to save the life of Fenelon at the expense of the other. What magic is there in the pronoun “my,” that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth? My brother or my father may be a fool or a profligate, malicious, lying or dishonest. If they be, of what consequence is it that they are mine?
“But to my father I am indebted for existence; he supported me in the helplessness of infancy.” When he first subjected himself to the necessity of these cares, he was probably influenced by no particular motives of benevolence to his future offspring. Every voluntary benefit however entitles the bestower to some kindness and retribution. Why? Because a voluntary benefit is an evidence of benevolent intention, that is, in a certain degree, of virtue. It is the disposition of the mind, not the external action separately taken, that entitles to respect. But the merit of this disposition is equal, whether the benefit were conferred upon me or upon another. I and another man cannot both be right in preferring our respective benefactors, for my benefactor cannot be at the same time both better and worse than his neighbor. My benefactor ought to be esteemed, not because he bestowed a benefit upon me, but because he bestowed it upon a human being. His desert will be in exact proportion to the degree, in which that human being was worthy of the distinction conferred.
Thus every view of the subject brings us back to the consideration of my neighbor’s moral worth, and his importance to the general weal, as the only standard to determine the treatment to which he is entitled. Gratitude therefore, if by gratitude we understand a sentiment of preference which I entertain towards another, upon the ground of my having been the subject of his benefits, is no part either of justice or virtue.
It may be objected, “that my relation, my companion, or my benefactor, will of course in many instances obtain an uncommon portion of my regard: for, not being universally capable of discriminating the comparative worth of different men, I shall inevitably judge most favorably of him, of whose virtues I have received the most unquestionable proofs; and thus shall be compelled to prefer the man of moral worth whom I know, to another who may possess, unknown to me, an essential superiority.”
This compulsion however is founded only in the imperfection of human nature. It may serve as an apology for my error, but can never change error into truth. It will always remain contrary to the strict and universal decisions of justice. The difficulty of conceiving this, is owing merely to our confounding the disposition from which an action is chosen, with the action itself. The disposition, that would prefer virtue to vice, and a greater degree of virtue to a less, is undoubtedly a subject of approbation; the erroneous exercise of this disposition, by which a wrong object is selected, if unavoidable, is to be deplored, but can by no coloring and under no denomination be converted into right. It may in the second place be objected, “that a mutual commerce of benefits tends to increase the mass of benevolent action, and that to increase the mass of benevolent action is to contribute to the general good.” Indeed! Is the general good promoted by falsehood, by treating a man of one degree of worth, as if he had ten times that worth? or as if he were in any degree different from what he really is? Would not the most beneficial consequences result from a different plan; from my constantly and carefully enquiring into the deserts of all those with whom I am connected, and from their being sure, after a certain allowance for the fallibility of human judgment, of being treated by me exactly as they deserved? “Who can describe the benefits that would result from such a plan of conduct, if universally adopted?
It would perhaps tend to make the truth in this respect more accurately understood, to consider that, whereas the received morality teaches me to be grateful, whether in affection or in act, for benefits conferred on myself, the reasonings here delivered, without removing the tie upon me from personal benefits (except where benefit is conferred from an unworthy motive), multiply the obligation, and enjoin me to be also grateful for benefits conferred upon others. My obligation towards my benefactor, supposing his benefit to be justly conferred, is in no sort dissolved; nor can anything authorize me to supersede it, but the requisition of a superior duty. That which ties me to my benefactor, upon these principles, is the moral worth he has displayed; and it will frequently happen that I shall be obliged to yield him the preference, because, while other competitors may be of greater worth, the evidence I have of the worth of my benefactor is more complete.
There seems to be more truth, in the argument, derived chiefly from the prevailing modes of social existence, in favor of my providing, in ordinary cases, for my wife and children, my brothers and relations, before I provide for strangers, than in those which have just been examined. As long as the providing for individuals is conducted with its present irregularity and caprice, it seems as if there must be a certain distribution of the class needing superintendence and supply, among the class affording it; that each man may have his claim and resource. But this argument is to “be admitted with great caution. It belongs only to ordinary cases; and cases of a higher order, or a more urgent necessity, will perpetually occur, in competition with which these will be altogether impotent. We must be severely scrupulous in measuring the quantity of supply; and, with respect to money in particular, should remember how little is yet understood of the true mode of employing it for the public benefit.
Nothing can be less exposed to reasonable exception than these principles. If there be such a thing as virtue, it must be placed in a conformity to truth, and not to error. It cannot be virtuous, that I should esteem a man, that is, consider him as possessed of estimable qualities, when in reality he is destitute of them. It surely cannot conduce to the benefit of mankind, that each man should have a different standard of moral judgment and preference, and that the standard of all should vary from that of reality. Those who teach this, impose the deepest disgrace upon virtue. They assert in other words, that, when men cease to be deceived, when the film is removed from their eyes, and they see things as they are, they will cease to be either good or happy. Upon the system opposite to theirs, the soundest criterion of virtue is, to \j put ourselves in the place of an impartial spectator, of an angelic nature, suppose, beholding us from an elevated station, and uninfluenced by our prejudices, conceiving what would be his estimate of the intrinsic circumstances of our neighbor, and acting accordingly.
Having considered the persons with whom justice is conversant, let us next enquire into the degree in which we are obliged to consult the good of others. And here, upon the very same reasons, it will follow, that it is just I should do all the good in my power. Does a person in distress apply to me for relief? It is my duty to grant it, and I commit a breach of duty in refusing. If this principle be not of universal application, it is because, in conferring a benefit upon an individual, I may in some instances inflict an injury of superior magnitude upon myself or society. Now the same justice, that binds me to any individual of my fellow men, binds me to the whole. If, while I confer a benefit upon one man, it appear, in striking an equitable balance, that I am injuring the whole, my action ceases to be right, and becomes absolutely wrong. But how much am I bound to do for the general weal, that is, for the benefit of the individuals of whom the whole is composed? Everything in my power. To the neglect of the means of my own existence? No; for I am myself a part of the whole. Beside, it will rarely happen that the project of doing for others everything in my power, will not demand for its execution the preservation of my own existence; or in other words, it will rarely happen that I cannot do more good in twenty years, than in one. If the extraordinary case should occur, in which I can promote the general good by my death more than by my life, justice requires that I should be content to die. In other cases, it will usually be incumbent on me, to maintain my body and mind in the utmost vigor, and in the best condition for service.
Suppose, for example, that it is right for one man to possess a greater portion of property than another, whether as the fruit of his industry, or the inheritance of his ancestors. Justice obliges him to regard this property as a trust, and calls upon him maturely to consider in what manner it may be employed for the increase of liberty, knowledge, and virtue. He has no right to dispose of a shilling of it at the suggestion of his caprice. So far from being entitled to well earned applause, for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent, if lie withhold any portion from that service. Could that portion have been better or more worthily employed? That it could, is implied in the very terms of the proposition. Then it was just it should have been so employed. In the same manner as my property, I hold my person as a trust in behalf of mankind. I am bound to employ my talents, my understanding, my strength, and my time, for the production of the greatest quantity of general good. Such are the declarations of justice, so great is the extent of my duty.
But justice is reciprocal. If it be just that I should confer a benefit, it is just that another man should receive it, and, if I withhold from him that to which he is entitled, he may justly complain. My neighbor is in want of ten pounds that I can spare. There is no law of political institution to reach this case, and transfer the property from me to him. But in a passive sense, unless it can be shown that the money can be more beneficently employed, his right is as complete, (though actively he have not the same right, or rather duty, to possess himself of it), as if he had my bond in his possession, or had supplied me with goods to the amount.
To this it has sometimes been answered, “that there is more than one person, who stands in need of the money I have to spare, and of consequence I must be at liberty to bestow it as I please.” By no means. If only one person offer himself to my knowledge or search, to me there is but one. Those others that I cannot find, belong to other rich men to assist (every man is in reality rich, who has more than his just occasions demand), and not to me. If more than one person offer, I am obliged to balance their claims, and conduct myself accordingly. It is scarcely possible that two men should have an exactly equal claim, or that I should be equally certain respecting the claim of the one as of the other.
It is therefore impossible for me to confer upon any man a favour; I can only do him right. Whatever deviates from the law of justice, though it should be done in favour of some individual or some part of the general whole, is so much subtracted from the general stock, so much of absolute injustice.
The reasonings here alleged, are sufficient, clearly to establish the competence of justice as a principle of deduction in all cases of moral enquiry. They are themselves rather of the nature of illustration and example, and, if error be imputable to them, in particulars, this will not invalidate the general conclusion, the propriety of applying moral justice as a criterion in the investigation of political truth.
Society is nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. Its claims and duties must be the aggregate of their claims and duties, the one no more precarious and arbitrary than the other. What has the society a right to require from me? The question is already answered: everything that it is my duty to do. Any thing more? Certainly not. Can it change eternal truth, or subvert the nature of men and their actions? Can it make my duty consist in committing intemperance, in maltreating or assassinating my neighbor? Again, what is it that the society is bound to do for its members? Everything that is requisite for their welfare. But the nature of their welfare is denned by the nature of mind. That will most contribute to it, which expands the understanding, supplies incitements to virtue, fills us with a generous consciousness of our independence, and carefully removes whatever can impede our exertions.
Should it be affirmed, “that it is not in the power of any political system to secure to us these advantages,” the conclusion will not be less incontrovertible. It is bound to contribute everything it is able to these purposes. Suppose its influence in the utmost degree limited; there must be one method, approaching nearer than any other to the desired object, and that method ought to be universally adopted. There is one thing that political institutions can assuredly do, they can avoid positively counteracting the true interests of their subjects. But all capricious rules and arbitrary distinctions do positively counteract them. There is scarcely any modification of society but has in it some degree of moral tendency. So far as it produces neither mischief nor benefit, it is good for nothing. So far as it tends to the improvement of the community, it ought to be universally adopted.
TWO ROLES OF GOVERNMENT (bk 5.22)
Government can have no more than two legitimate purposes, the suppression of injustice against individuals within the community, and the common defence against external invasion. The first of these purposes, which alone can have an uninterrupted claim upon us, is sufficiently answered by an association, of such an extent, as to afford room for the institution of a jury to decide upon the offences of individuals within the community, and upon the questions and controversies respecting property which may chance to arise. It might be easy indeed for an offender to escape from the limits of so petty a jurisdiction; and it might seem necessary, at first, that the neighbouring parishes, or jurisdictions, should be governed in a similar manner, or at least should be willing, whatever was their form of government, to co-operate with us in the removal or reformation of an offender whose present habits were alike injurious to us and to them. But there will be no need of any express compact, and still less of any common centre of authority, for this purpose. General justice, and mutual interest, are found more capable of binding men than signatures and seals. In the meantime, all necessity for causing the punishment of the crime, to pursue the criminal would soon, at least, cease, if it ever existed. The motives to offence would become rare: its aggravations few: and rigour superfluous. The principal object of punishment is restraint upon a dangerous member of the community; and the end of this restraint would be answered by the general inspection that is exercised by the members of a limited circle over the conduct of each other, and by the gravity and good sense that would characterize the censures of men, from whom all mystery and empiricism were banished. No individual would be hardy enough in the cause of vice to defy the general consent of sober judgement that would surround him. It would carry despair to his mind, or, which is better, it would carry conviction. He would be obliged, by a force not less irresistible than whips and chains, to reform his conduct.
EVILS OF GOVERNMENT (bk 6.1)
A principle which has entered deeply into the systems of the writers on political law is that of the duty of governments to watch over the manners of the people. 'Government' say they, 'plays the part of an unnatural step mother, not of an affectionate parent, when she is contented by rigorous punishments to avenge the commission of a crime, while she is wholly inattentive beforehand to imbue the mind with those virtuous principles which might have rendered punishment unnecessary. It is the business of a sage and patriotic magistracy to have its attention ever alive to the sentiments of the people, to encourage such as are favourable to virtue, and to check, in the bud, such as may lead to disorder and corruption.
How long shall government be employed to display its terrors without ever having recourse to the gentleness of invitation? How long shall she deal in retrospect and censure to the utter neglect of prevention and remedy?' These reasonings have, in some respects, gained additional strength by means of the latest improvements, and clearest views, upon the subject of political truth. It is now more evident than it was in any former period that government, instead- of being an object of secondary consideration, has been the principal vehicle of extensive and permanent evil to mankind. It was unavoidable therefore to say 'since government can produce so much positive mischief, surely it can do some positive good'.
But these views, however specious and agreeable they may in the first instance appear, are liable to very serious question. If we would not be seduced by visionary good, we ought here, more than ever, to recollect the fundamental principles laid down and illustrated in the work, “that government is, in all cases, an evil”, and “that it ought to be introduced as sparingly as possible”. Man is a species of being whose excellence depends upon his individuality; and who can be neither great nor wise but in proportion as he is independent.
Source: William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), 2.2.
Questions for Review
Questions for Analysis
DANGERS OF DEMOCRACY
Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
Among the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the extraordinary influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed. I quickly perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.
I then turned my thoughts to our own hemisphere, where I imagined that I discerned something analogous to the spectacle which the New World presented to me. I observed that the equality of conditions is daily progressing towards those extreme limits which it seems to have reached in the United States, and that the democracy which governs the American communities appears to be rapidly rising into power in Europe. I hence conceived the idea of the book which is now before the reader.
It is evident to all alike that a great democratic revolution is going on amongst us; but there are two opinions as to its nature and consequences. To some it appears to be a novel accident, which as such may still be checked; to others it seems irresistible, because it is the most uniform, the most ancient, and the most permanent tendency which is to be found in history. . . .
In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. The Crusades and the wars of the English decimated the nobles and divided their possessions; the erection of communities introduced an element of democratic liberty into the bosom of feudal monarchy; the invention of fire-arms equalized the villein and the noble on the field of battle; printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post was organized so as to bring the same information to the door of the poor man’s cottage and to the gate of the palace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are alike able to find the road to heaven. The discovery of America offered a thousand new paths to fortune, and placed riches and power within the reach of the adventurous and the obscure. If we examine what has happened in France at intervals of fifty years, beginning with the eleventh century, we shall invariably perceive that a twofold revolution has taken place in the state of society. The noble has gone down on the social ladder, and the roturier has gone up; the one descends as the other rises. Every half century brings them nearer to each other, and they will very shortly meet.
Nor is this phenomenon at all peculiar to France. Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it by their exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause, and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it and those who have declared themselves its opponents, have all been driven along in the same track, have all labored to one end, some ignorantly and some unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the hands of God.
The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social impulse which dates from so far back can be checked by the efforts of a generation? Is it credible that the democracy which has annihilated the feudal system and vanquished kings will respect the citizen and the capitalist? Will it stop now that it has grown so strong and its adversaries so weak? None can say which way we are going, for all terms of comparison are wanting: the equality of conditions is more complete in the Christian countries of the present day than it has been at any time or in any part of the world; so that the extent of what already exists prevents us from foreseeing what may be yet to come.
The whole book which is here offered to the public has been written under the impression of a kind of religious dread produced in the author’s mind by the contemplation of so irresistible a revolution, which has advanced for centuries in spite of such amazing obstacles, and which is still proceeding in the midst of the ruins it has made. It is not necessary that God himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of his will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature, and in the invariable tendency of events: I know, without a special revelation, that the planets move in the orbits traced by the Creator’s finger. If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.
The Christian nations of our age seem to me to present a most alarming spectacle; the impulse which is bearing them along is so strong that it cannot be stopped, but it is not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided: their fate is in their hands; yet a little while and it may be so no longer. The first duty which is at this time imposed upon those who direct our affairs is to educate the democracy; to warm its faith, if that be possible; to purify its morals; to direct its energies; to substitute a knowledge of business for its inexperience, and an acquaintance with its true interests for its blind propensities; to adapt its government to time and place, and to modify it in compliance with the occurrences and the actors of the age. A new science of politics is indispensable to a new world. This, however, is what we think of least; launched in the middle of a rapid stream, we obstinately fix our eyes on the ruins which may still be described upon the shore we have left, whilst the current sweeps us along, and drives us backwards towards the gulf. . . .
It appears to me beyond a doubt that sooner or later we shall arrive, like the Americans, at an almost complete equality of conditions. But I do not conclude from this that we shall ever be necessarily led to draw the same political consequences which the Americans have derived from a similar social organization. I am far from supposing that they have chosen the only form of government which a democracy may adopt; but the identity of the efficient cause of laws and manners in the two countries is sufficient to account for the immense interest we have in becoming acquainted with its effects in each of them.
It is not, then, merely to satisfy a legitimate curiosity that I have examined America; my wish has been to find instruction by which we may ourselves profit. Whoever should imagine that I have intended to write a panegyric will perceive that such was not my design; nor has it been my object to advocate any form of government in particular, for I am of opinion that absolute excellence is rarely to be found in any legislation; I have not even affected to discuss whether the social revolution, which I believe to be irresistible, is advantageous or prejudicial to mankind; I have acknowledged this revolution as a fact already accomplished or on the eve of its accomplishment; and I have selected the nation, from amongst those which have undergone it, in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and, if it be possible, to distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable. I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions, in order to learn what we have to fear or to hope from its progress.
1.15. UNLIMITED POWER OF MAJORITY, AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
The very essence of democratic government consists in the absolute sovereignty of the majority; for there is nothing in democratic States which is capable of resisting it. Most of the American Constitutions have sought to increase this natural strength of the majority by artificial means. . . .
The moral power of the majority is founded upon yet another principle, which is, that the interests of the many are to be preferred to those of the few. It will readily be perceived that the respect here professed for the rights of the majority must naturally increase or diminish according to the state of parties. When a nation is divided into several irreconcilable factions, the privilege of the majority is often overlooked, because it is intolerable to comply with its demands.
If there existed in America a class of citizens whom the legislating majority sought to deprive of exclusive privileges which they had possessed for ages, and to bring down from an elevated station to the level of the ranks of the multitude, it is probable that the minority would be less ready to comply with its laws. But as the United States were colonized by men holding equal rank amongst themselves, there is as yet no natural or permanent source of dissension between the interests of its different inhabitants.
There are certain communities in which the persons who constitute the minority can never hope to draw over the majority to their side, because they must then give up the very point which is at issue between them. Thus, an aristocracy can never become a majority whilst it retains its exclusive privileges, and it cannot cede its privileges without ceasing to be an aristocracy.
In the United States political questions cannot be taken up in so general and absolute a manner, and all parties are willing to recognize the right of the majority, because they all hope to turn those rights to their own advantage at some future time. The majority therefore in that country exercises a prodigious actual authority, and a moral influence which is scarcely less preponderant; no obstacles exist which can impede or so much as retard its progress, or which can induce it to heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path. This state of things is fatal in itself and dangerous for the future.
Tyranny of the Majority
I hold it to be an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do whatsoever it pleases, and yet I have asserted that all authority originates in the will of the majority. Am I then, in contradiction with myself?
A general law—which bears the name of Justice—has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are consequently confined within the limits of what is just. A nation may be considered in the light of a jury which is empowered to represent society at large, and to apply the great and general law of justice. Ought such a jury, which represents society, to have more power than the society in which the laws it applies originate?
When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right which the majority has of commanding, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. It has been asserted that a people can never entirely outstep the boundaries of justice and of reason in those affairs which are more peculiarly its own, and that consequently, full power may fearlessly be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this language is that of a slave.
A majority taken collectively may be regarded as a being whose opinions, and most frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another being, which is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength. And for these reasons I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow-creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to any one of them.
I do not think that it is possible to combine several principles in the same government, so as at the same time to maintain freedom, and really to oppose them to one another. The form of government which is usually termed mixed has always appeared to me to be a mere chimera. Accurately speaking there is no such thing as a mixed government (with the meaning usually given to that word), because in all communities some one principle of action may be discovered which preponderates over the others. England in the last century, which has been more especially cited as an example of this form of Government, was in point of fact an essentially aristocratic State, although it comprised very powerful elements of democracy; for the laws and customs of the country were such that the aristocracy could not but preponderate in the end, and subject the direction of public affairs to its own will. The error arose from too much attention being paid to the actual struggle which was going on between the nobles and the people, without considering the probable issue of the contest, which was in reality the important point. When a community really has a mixed government, that is to say, when it is equally divided between two adverse principles, it must either pass through a revolution or fall into complete dissolution.
I am therefore of opinion that some one social power must always be made to predominate over the others; but I think that liberty is endangered when this power is checked by no obstacles which may retard its course, and force it to moderate its own vehemence.
Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.
In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny.
When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the evil of which you complain may be, you must submit to it as well as you can.
If, on the other hand, a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions; an executive, so as to retain a certain degree of uncontrolled authority; and a judiciary, so as to remain independent of the two other powers; a government would be formed which would still be democratic without incurring any risk of tyrannical abuse.
I do not say that tyrannical abuses frequently occur in America at the present day, but I maintain that no sure barrier is established against them, and that the causes which mitigate the government are to be found in the circumstances and the manners of the country more than in its laws.
2.4.6. WHAT SORT OF DESPOTISM DEMOCRATIC NATIONS HAVE TO FEAR
I had remarked during my stay in the United States, that a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism; and I perceived, upon my return to Europe, how much use had already been made by most of our rulers, of the notions, the sentiments, and the wants engendered by this same social condition, for the purpose of extending the circle of their power. This led me to think that the nations of Christendom would perhaps eventually undergo some sort of oppression like that which hung over several of the nations of the ancient world. A more accurate examination of the subject, and five years of further meditations, have not diminished my apprehensions, but they have changed the object of them. No sovereign ever lived in former ages so absolute or so powerful as to undertake to administer by his own agency, and without the assistance of intermediate powers, all the parts of a great empire: none ever attempted to subject all his subjects indiscriminately to strict uniformity of regulation, and personally to tutor and direct every member of the community. The notion of such an undertaking never occurred to the human mind; and if any man had conceived it, the want of information, the imperfection of the administrative system, and above all, the natural obstacles caused by the inequality of conditions, would speedily have checked the execution of so vast a design. When the Roman emperors were at the height of their power, the different nations of the empire still preserved manners and customs of great diversity; although they were subject to the same monarch, most of the provinces were separately administered; they abounded in powerful and active municipalities; and although the whole government of the empire was centred in the hands of the emperor alone, and he always remained, upon occasions, the supreme arbiter in all matters, yet the details of social life and private occupations lay for the most part beyond his control. The emperors possessed, it is true, an immense and unchecked power, which allowed them to gratify all their whimsical tastes, and to employ for that purpose the whole strength of the State. They frequently abused that power arbitrarily to deprive their subjects of property or of life: their tyranny was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the greater number; it was fixed to some few main objects, and neglected the rest; it was violent, but its range was limited.
But it would seem that if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question, that in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands, and might interfere more habitually and decidedly within the circle of private interests, than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do. But this same principle of equality which facilitates despotism, tempers its rigor. We have seen how the manners of society become more humane and gentle in proportion as men become more equal and alike. When no member of the community has much power or much wealth, tyranny is, as it were, without opportunities and a field of action. As all fortunes are scanty, the passions of men are naturally circumscribed—their imagination limited, their pleasures simple. This universal moderation moderates the sovereign himself, and checks within certain limits the inordinate extent of his desires.
Independently of these reasons drawn from the nature of the state of society itself, I might add many others arising from causes beyond my subject; but I shall keep within the limits I have laid down to myself. Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger: but these crises will be rare and brief. When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather guardians. I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words “despotism” and “tyranny” are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it.
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described, might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom; and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.
I do not however deny that a constitution of this kind appears to me to be infinitely preferable to one, which, after having concentrated all the powers of government, should vest them in the hands of an irresponsible person or body of persons. Of all the forms which democratic despotism could assume, the latter would assuredly be the worst. When the sovereign is elective, or narrowly watched by a legislature which is really elective and independent, the oppression which he exercises over individuals is sometimes greater, but it is always less degrading; because every man, when he is oppressed and disarmed, may still imagine, that whilst he yields obedience it is to himself he yields it, and that it is to one of his own inclinations that all the rest give way. In like manner I can understand that when the sovereign represents the nation, and is dependent upon the people, the rights and the power of which every citizen is deprived, not only serve the head of the State, but the State itself; and that private persons derive some return from the sacrifice of their independence which they have made to the public. To create a representation of the people in every centralized country, is therefore, to diminish the evil which extreme centralization may produce, but not to get rid of it. I admit that by this means room is left for the intervention of individuals in the more important affairs; but it is not the less suppressed in the smaller and more private ones. It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other. Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity. I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations which have introduced freedom into their political constitution, at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution, have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted—the people are held to be unequal to the task, but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the playthings of their ruler, and his masters—more than kings, and less than men. After having exhausted all the different modes of election, without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed, and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they remark did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. A constitution, which should be republican in its head and ultra-monarchical in all its other parts, has ever appeared to me to be a short-lived monster. The vices of rulers and the ineptitude of the people would speedily bring about its ruin; and the nation, weary of its representatives and of itself, would create freer institutions, or soon return to stretch itself at the feet of a single master.
Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835-1840), tr. Henry Reeve
Questions for Review
Questions for Analysis