Absolute Political Ethics

Absolute Political Ethics

[Originally published in The Nineteenth Century for January 1890. The writing of this essay was consequent on a controversy carried on in The Times between Nov. 7 and Nov. 27, 1889, and was made needful by the misapprehensions and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions embodied in that controversy. Hence the allusions which the essay contains. The last few paragraphs of it in its original form were mainly personal in their character; and, not wishing to perpetuate personalities, I have omitted them.]

Life in Fiji, at the time when Thomas Williams settled there, must have been something worse than uncomfortable. One of the people who passed near the string of nine hundred stones with which Ra Undreundre recorded the number of human victims he had devoured, must have had unpleasant waking thoughts and occasionally horrible dreams. A man who had lost some fingers for breaches of ceremony, or had seen his neighbour killed by a chief for behaviour not sufficiently respectful, and who remembered how King Tanoa cut off his cousin’s arm, cooked it and ate it in his presence, and then had him hacked to pieces, must not unfrequently have had “a bad quarter of an hour.” Nor could creeping sensations have failed to run through women who heard Tui Thakau eulogizing his dead son for cruelty, and saying that “he could kill his own wives if they offended him, and eat them afterwards.” Happiness could not have been general in a society where there was a liability to be one among the ten whose life-blood baptized the decks of a new canoe—a society in which the killing even of unoffending persons was no crime but a glory; and in which everyone knew that his neighbour’s restless ambition was to be an acknowledged murderer. Still, there must have been some moderation in murdering even in Fiji. Or must we hesitate to conclude that unlimited murder would have caused extinction of the society?

The extent to which each man’s possessions among the Biluchis are endangered by the predatory instincts of his neighbours, may be judged from the fact that “a small mud tower is erected in each field, where the possessor and his retainers guard his produce.” If turbulent states of society such as early histories tell of, do not show us so vividly how the habit of appropriating one another’s goods interferes with social prosperity and individual comfort, yet they do not leave us in doubt respecting these results. It is an inference which few will be hardy enough to dispute, that in proportion as the time of each man, instead of being occupied in further production, is occupied in guarding that which he has produced against marauders, the total production must be diminished and the sustentation of each and all less satisfactorily achieved. And it is a manifest corollary that if each pushes beyond a certain limit the practice of trying to satisfy his needs by robbing his neighbour, the society must dissolve: solitary life will prove preferable.

A deceased friend of mine, narrating incidents in his life, told me that as a young man he sought to establish himself in Spain as a commission agent; and that, failing by expostulation or other means to obtain payment from one who had ordered goods through him, he, as a last resource, went to the man’s house and presented himself before him pistol in hand—a proceeding which had the desired effect: the account was settled. Suppose now that everywhere contracts had thus to be enforced by more or less strenuous measures. Suppose that a coal-mine proprietor in Derbyshire, having sent a train-load to a London coal-merchant, had commonly to send a posse of colliers up to town, to stop the man’s wagons and take out the horses until payment had been made. Suppose the farm-labourer or the artisan was constantly in doubt whether, at the end of the week, the wages agreed upon would be forthcoming; or whether he would get only half, or whether he would have to wait six months. Suppose that daily in every shop there occurred scuffles between shopman and customer, the one to get the money without giving the goods, and the other to get the goods without paying the money. What in such case would happen to the society? What would become of its producing and distributing businesses? Is it a rash inference that industrial co-operation (of the voluntary kind at least) would cease?

“Why these absurd questions?” asks the impatient reader. “Surely everyone knows that murder, assault, robbery, fraud, breach of contract, &c., are at variance with social welfare and must be punished when committed,” My replies are several. In the first place, I am quite content to have the questions called absurd; because this implies a consciousness that the answers are so self-evident that it is absurd to assume the possibility of any other answers. My second reply is that I am not desirous of pressing the question whether we know these things, but of pressing the question how we know these things. Can we know them, and do we know them, by contemplating the necessities of the case? or must we have recourse to “inductions based on careful observation and experience”? Before we make and enforce laws against murder, ought we to inquire into the social welfare and individual happiness in places where murder prevails, and observe whether or not the welfare and happiness are greater in places where murder is rare? Shall robbery be allowed to go on until, by collecting and tabulating the effects in countries where thieves predominate and in countries where thieves are but few, we are shown by induction that prosperity is greater when each man is allowed to retain that which he has earned? And is it needful to prove by accumulated evidence that breaches of contract impede production and exchange, and those benefits to each and all which mutual dependence achieves? In the third place, these instances of actions which, pushed to extremes, cause social dissolution, and which, in smaller degrees, hinder social co-operation and its benefits, I give for the purpose of asking what is their common trait. In each of such actions we see aggression—a carrying on of life in a way which directly interferes with the carrying on of another’s life. The relation between effort and consequent benefit in one man, is either destroyed altogether or partially broken by the doings of another man. If it be admitted that life can be maintained only by certain activities (the internal ones being universal, and the external ones being universal for all but parasites and the immature), it must be admitted that when like-natured beings are associated, the required activities must be mutually limited; and that the highest life can result only when the associated beings are so constituted as severally to keep within the implied limits. The restrictions stated thus generally, may obviously be developed into special restrictions referring to this or that kind of conduct. These, then, I hold are a priori truths which admit of being known by contemplation of the conditions—axiomatic truths which bear to ethics a relation analogous to that which the mathematical axioms bear to the exact sciences.

I do not mean that these axiomatic truths are cognisable by all. For the apprehension of them, as for the apprehension of simpler axioms, a certain mental growth and a certain mental discipline are needed. In the Treatise on Natural Philosophy by Professors Thomson and Tait [1st ed.], it is remarked that “physical axioms are axiomatic to those only who have sufficient knowledge of the action of physical causes to enable them to see at once their necessary truth.” Doubtless a fact and a significant fact. A plough-boy cannot form a conception of the axiom that action and reaction are equal and opposite. In the first place he lacks a sufficiently generalized idea of action—has not united into one conception pushing and pulling, the blow of a fist, the recoil of a gun, and the attraction of a planet. Still less has he any generalized idea of reaction. And even had he these two ideas, it is probable that, defective in power of representation as he is, he would fail to recognize the necessary equality. Similarly with these a priori ethical truths. If a member of that Fijian slave-tribe who regarded themselves as food for the chiefs had suggested that there might arrive a time when men would not eat one another, his implied belief that men might come to have a little respect for one another’s lives, condemned as utterly without justification in experience, would be considered as fit only for a wild speculator. Facts furnished by every-day observation make it clear to the Biluchi, keeping watch in his mud-tower, that possession of property can be maintained only by force; and it is most likely to him scarcely conceivable that there exist limits which, if mutually recognized, may exclude aggressions, and make it needless to mount guard over fields: only an absurd idealist (supposing such a thing known to him) would suggest the possibility. And so even of our own ancestors in feudal times, it may be concluded that, constantly going about armed and often taking refuge in strongholds, the thought of a peaceful social state would have seemed ridiculous; and the belief that there might be a recognized equality among men’s claims to pursue the objects of life, and a consequent desistence from aggressions, would have been scarcely conceivable. But now that an orderly social state has been maintained for generations—now that in daily intercourse men rarely use violence, commonly pay what they owe, and in most cases respect the claims of the weak as well as those of the strong—now that they are brought up with the idea that all men are equal before the law, and daily see judicial decisions turning upon the question whether one citizen has or has not infringed upon the equal rights of another; there exist in the general mind materials for forming the conception of a régime in which men’s activities are mutually limited, and in which maintenance of harmony depends on respect for the limits. There has arisen an ability to see that mutual limitations are required when lives are carried on in proximity; and to see that there necessarily emerge definite sets of restraints applying to definite classes of actions. And it has become manifest to some, though not it seems to many, that there results an a priori system of absolute political ethics—a system under which men of like natures, severally so constituted as spontaneously to refrain from trespassing, may work together without friction, and with the greatest advantage to each and all.

“But men are not wholly like-natured and are unlikely to become so. Nor are they so constituted that each is solicitous for his neighbour’s claims as for his own, and there is small probability that they ever will be. Your absolute political ethics is therefore an ideal beyond the reach of the real.” This is true. Nevertheless, much as it seems to do so, it does not follow that there is no use for absolute political ethics. The contrary may clearly enough be shown. An analogy will explain the paradox.

There exists a division of physical science distinguished as abstract mechanics or absolute mechanics—absolute in the sense that its propositions are unqualified. It is concerned with statics and dynamics in their pure forms—deals with forces and motions considered as free from all interferences resulting from friction, resistances of media, and special properties of matter. If it enunciates a law of motion, it recognizes nothing which modifies manifestation of it. If it formulates the properties of the lever it treats of this assuming it to be perfectly rigid and without thickness—an impossible lever. Its theory of the screw imagines the screw to be frictionless; and in treating of the wedge, absolute incompressibility is supposed. Thus its truths are never presented in experience. Even those movements of the heavenly bodies which are deducible from its propositions are always more or less perturbed; and on the Earth the inferences to be drawn from them deviate very considerably from the results reached by experiment. Nevertheless this system of ideal mechanics is indispensable for the guidance of real mechanics. The engineer has to deal with its propositions as true in full, before he proceeds to qualify them by taking into account the natures of the materials he uses. The course which a projectile would take if subject only to the propulsive force and the attraction of the Earth must be recognized, though no such course is ever pursued: correction for atmospheric resistance cannot else be made. That is to say, though, by empirical methods, applied or relative mechanics may be developed to a considerable extent, it cannot be highly developed without the aid of absolute mechanics. So is it here. Relative political ethics, or that which deals with right and wrong in public affairs as partially determined by changing circumstances, cannot progress without taking into account right and wrong considered apart from changing circumstances—cannot do without absolute political ethics; the propositions of which, deduced from the conditions under which life is carried on in an associated state, take no account of the special circumstances of any particular associated state.

And now observe a truth which seems entirely overlooked; namely, that the set of deductions thus arrived at is verified by an immeasurably vast induction, or rather by a great assemblage of vast inductions. For what else are the laws and judicial systems of all civilized nations, and of all societies which have risen above savagery? What is the meaning of the fact that all peoples have discovered the need for punishing murder, usually by death? How is it that where any considerable progress has been made, theft is forbidden by law, and a penalty attached to it? Why along with further advance does the enforcing of contracts become general? And what is the reason that among fully civilized peoples frauds, libels, and minor aggressions of various kinds are repressed in more or less rigorous ways? No cause can be assigned save a general uniformity in men’s experiences, showing them that aggressions directly injurious to the individuals aggressed upon are indirectly injurious to society. Generation after generation observations have forced this truth on them; and generation after generation they have been developing the interdicts into greater detail. That is to say, the above fundamental principle and its corollaries arrived at a priori are verified in an infinity of cases a posteriori. Everywhere the tendency has been to carry further in practice the dictates of theory—to conform systems of law to the requirements of absolute political ethics: if not consciously, still unconsciously. Nay, indeed, is not this truth manifest in the very name used for the end aimed at—equity or equalness? Equalness of what? No answer can be given without a recognition—vague it may be, but still a recognition—of the doctrine above set forth.

Thus, instead of being described as putting faith in “long chains of deduction from abstract ethical assumptions” I ought to be described as putting faith in simple deductions from abstract ethical necessities; which deductions are verified by infinitely numerous observations and experiences of semi-civilized and civilized mankind in all ages and places. Or rather I ought to be described as one who, contemplating the restraints everywhere put on the various kinds of transgressions, and seeing in them all a common principle everywhere dictated by the necessities of the associated state, proceeds to develop the consequences of this common principle by deduction, and to justify both the deductions and the conclusions which legislators have empirically reached by showing that the two correspond. This method of deduction verified by induction is the method of developed science at large. I do not believe that I shall be led to abandon it and change my “way of thinking” by any amount of disapproval, however strongly expressed.

Are we then to understand that by this imposing title, “Absolute Political Ethics,” nothing more is meant than a theory of the needful restraints which law imposes on the actions of citizens—an ethical warrant for systems of law? Well, supposing even that I had to answer “Yes” to this question (which I do not), there would still be an ample justification for the title. Having for its subject-matter all that is comprehended under the word “Justice,” alike as formulated in law and administered by legal in­stru­men­tal­i­ties, the title has a sufficiently large area to cover. This would scarcely need saying were it not for a curious defect of thought which we are everywhere led into by habit.

Just as, when talking of knowledge, we ignore entirely that familiar knowledge of surrounding things, animate and inanimate, acquired in childhood, in the absence of which death would quickly result, and think only of that far less essential knowledge gained at school and college or from books and conversation—just as, when thinking of mathematics, we include under the name only its higher groups of truths and drop out that simpler group constituting arithmetic, though for the carrying on of life this is more important than all the rest put together; so, when politics and political ethics are discussed, there is no thought of those parts of them which include whatever is fundamental and long settled. The word political raises ideas of party-contests, ministerial changes, prospective elections, or else of the Home-Rule question, the Land-Purchase scheme, Local Option, or the Eight-Hours movement. Rarely does the word suggest law-reform, or a better judicial organization, or a purified police. And if ethics comes into consideration, it is in connexion with the morals of parliamentary strife or of candidates’ professions, or of electoral corruptions. Yet it needs but to look at the definition of politics (“that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity”), to see that the current conception fails by omitting the chief part. It needs but to consider how relatively immense a factor in the life of each man is constituted by safety of person, security of house and property, and enforcement of claims, to see that not only the largest part but the part which is vital is left out. Hence the absurdity does not exist in the conception of an absolute political ethics, but it exists in the ignoring of its subject-matter. Unless it be considered absurd to regard as absolute the interdicts against murder, burglary, fraud and all other aggressions, it cannot be considered absurd to regard as absolute the ethical system which embodies these interdicts.

It remains to add that beyond the deductions which, as we have seen, are verified by vast assemblages of inductions, there may be drawn other deductions not thus verified—deductions drawn from the same data, but which have no relevant experiences to say yes or no to them. Such deductions may be valid or invalid; and I believe that in my first work, written forty years ago and long since withdrawn from circulation, there are some invalid deductions. But to reject a principle and a method because of some invalid deductions, is about as proper as it would be to pooh-pooh arithmetic because of blunders in certain arithmetical calculations.

I turn now to a question above put—whether, by absolute political ethics, nothing more is meant than an ethical warrant for systems of law—a question to which, by implication, I answered No. And now I have to answer that it extends over a further field equally wide if less important. For beyond the relations among citizens taken individually, there are the relations between the incorporated body of citizens and each citizen. And on these relations between the State and the man, absolute political ethics gives judgments as well as on the relations between man and man. Its judgments on the relations between man and man are corollaries from its primary truth, that the activities of each in pursuing the objects of life may be rightly restricted only by the like activities of others: such others being like-natured (for the principle does not contemplate slave-societies or societies in which one race dominates over another); and its judgments on the relations between the man and the State are corollaries from the allied truth, that the activities of each citizen may be rightly limited by the incorporated body of citizens only as far as is needful for securing to him the remainder. This further limitation is a necessary accompaniment of the militant state; and must continue so long as, besides the criminalities of individual aggression, there continue the criminalities of international aggression. It is clear that the preservation of the society is an end which must take precedence of the preservation of its individuals taken singly; since the preservation of each individual and the maintenance of his ability to pursue the objects of life, depend on the preservation of the society. Such restrictions upon his actions as are imposed by the necessities of war, and of preparedness for war when it is probable, are therefore ethically defensible.

And here we enter upon the many and involved questions with which relative political ethics has to deal. When originally indicating the contrast, I spoke of “absolute political ethics, or that which ought to be, as distinguished from relative political ethics, or that which is at present the nearest practicable approach to it;” and had any attention been paid to this distinction, no controversy need have arisen. Here I have to add that the qualifications which relative political ethics sets forth vary with the type of the society, which is primarily determined by the extent to which defence against other societies is needful. Where international enmity is great and the social organization has to be adapted to warlike activities, the coercion of individuals by the State is such as almost to destroy their freedom of action and make them slaves of the State; and where this results from the necessities of defensive war (not offensive war, however), relative political ethics furnishes a warrant. Conversely, as militancy decreases, there is a diminished need both for that subordination of individuals which is necessitated by consolidating them into a fighting machine, and for that further subordination entailed by supplying this fighting machine with the necessaries of life; and as fast as this change goes on, the warrant for State-coercion which relative political ethics furnishes becomes less and less.

Obviously it is out of the question here to enter upon the complex questions raised. It must suffice to indicate them as above. Should I be able to complete Part IV. of The Principles of Ethics, treating of “Justice,” of which the first chapters only are at present written, I hope to deal adequately with these relations between the ethics of the progressive condition and the ethics of that condition which is the goal of progress—a goal ever to be recognized, though it cannot be actually reached.