Book 8, Chapter 04 : Objection to this System from the Frailty of the Human Mind
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Book 8, Chapter 04
Recapitulation. - Objection stated. - General answer to his objection. - Particular answer. - Influence of public opinion upon the conduct of individuals.
HAVING proceeded thus far in our investigation, it may be proper to recapitulate the principles already established. The discussion, under each of its branches, as it relates to the equality of men,1 and the inequalities of property, 2 may be considered as a discussion either of right or duty; and, in that respect, runs parallel to the two great heads of which we treated in our original development of the principles of society.3 I have a right to the assistance of my neighbor; he has a right that it should not be extorted from him by force. It is his duty to afford me the supply of which I stand in need; it is my duty not to violate his province in determining, first, whether he is to supply me, and, secondly, in what degree.
Equality of conditions, or, in other words, an equal admission to the means of improvement and pleasure, is a law rigorously enjoined upon mankind by the voice of justice. All other changes in society are good, only as they are fragments of this, or steps to its attainment. All other existing abuses are to be deprecated, only as they serve to increase and perpetuate the inequality of conditions.
We have however arrived at another truth not less evident than this. Equality of conditions cannot be produced by individual compulsion, and ought not to be produced by compulsion in the name of the whole. There remains therefore but one mode of arriving at this great end of justice and most essential improvement of society, and that consists in rendering the cession by him that has to him that wants an unrestrained and voluntary action. There remain but two instruments for producing this volition, the illumination of the understanding and the love of distinction.
These instruments have commonly been supposed wholly inadequate to their object. It has usually been treated as 'the most visionary of all systems, to expect the rich to "sell all that they have, and give to the poor".4 It is one thing to convince men that a given conduct, on their part, would be most conducive to the general interest, and another to persuade them actively to postpone, to considerations of general interest, every idea of personal ambition or pleasure. The sober calculator will often doubt whether it be reasonable, in consistence with the nature of a human being, to expect from him such a sacrifice: and the man of a lively and impetuous temper, even when satisfied that it is his duty, will be in hourly danger of deserting it, at the invitation of some allurement, too powerful for mortal frailty to resist.'
There is certainly considerable force in this statement; and there is good reason to believe, though the human mind be unquestionably accessible to disinterested motives,5 that virtue would be in most instances an impracticable refinement; were it not that self-love and social, however different in themselves, are found upon strict examination to prescribe the same system of conduct.
But this observation by no means removes the difficulty intended to be suggested in the objection. 'Though frugality, moderation and plainness may be the joint dictate of these two authorities, yet it is the property of the human mind to be swayed by things present more than by things absent. In affairs of religion, we often find men indulging themselves in offenses of small gratification, in spite of all the threats that can be held out to them of eternal damnation. It is in vain that, for the most part, you would preach the pleasures of abstinence amid the profusion of a feast; or the unsubstantialness of fame and power to him who is tortured with the goadings of ambition. The case is similar to that of the exacerbations of grief, the attempt to cure which by the consolations of philosophy has been a source of inexhaustible ridicule.'
The answer to these remarks has been anticipated.6 The ridicule lies in supposing the endeavor to cure a man of his weakness to consist in one phlegmatic and solitary expostulation, instead of conceiving it to be accompanied with the vigor of conscious truth, and the progressive regularity of a course of instruction.
Let us take up the subject in a view, in some degree varying from that in which it was formerly considered. We have endeavored to establish, in the commencement of the present book, the principles of justice, relative to the distribution of the goods of fortune. Let us inquire Whether the principles there delivered can be made productive of conviction to the rich; whether they can be made productive of conviction, in cases not immediately connected with personal interest; and whether they can be made productive of conviction to the poor?
Is it possible for a rich man to see that the costly gratifications in which he indulges are comparatively of little value, and that he may arrive at everything that is most essential in happiness or pleasure, by means of the three other sources formerly enumerated,7 subsistence, unexpensive gratifications, and the means of intellectual and moral improvement? Is it possible for him to understand the calculation, 'in every glass that he drinks, and every ornament that he annexes to his person', of 'how many individuals have been condemned to slavery and sweat, incessant drudgery, unwholesome food, continual hardships, deplorable ignorance and brutal insensibility, that he may be supplied with these luxuries'?8 Is it possible for a man to have these ideas so repeatedly suggested to his mind, so strongly impressed, and so perpetually haunting him, as finally to induce a rich man to desire, with respect to personal gratifications, to live as if he were a poor one? It is not conceivable but that every one of these questions must be answered in the affirmative.
Be it observed by the way that the motives for a rich man to live as if he were a poor one are very inferior now to what they would be when a general sympathy upon this subject had taken place, and a general illumination had diffused itself.
If then it be possible for a rich man, from the mere apprehensions of justice, voluntarily to desire to live as if he were a poor one, we shall have still less hesitation in affirming that a sentiment of justice in this matter may be made productive of conviction, in cases not immediately connected with personal interest, and of conviction to the poor.
Undoubtedly an apprehension of the demands of justice in this respect has some tendency to the instigation of violence and tumult, were we not to suppose the gradual development of this impression to be accompanied with a proportionable improvement of the mind in other respects, and a slow, but incessant, melioration of the institutions and practices of society. With this supposition, it could not however fail to happen that, in proportion as the prejudices and ignorance of the great mass of society declined, the credit of wealth, and the reverent admiration with which it is now contemplated, must also decline. But, in proportion as it lost credit with the great mass of society, it would relax its hold upon the minds of those who possess it, or have the means of acquiring it. We have already seen9 that the great incitement to the acquisition of wealth is the love of distinction. Suppose then that, instead of the false glare which wealth, through the present puerility of the human mind, reflects on its possessor, his conduct in amassing and monopolizing it were seen in its true light. We should not then demand his punishment, but we should look on him as a man uninitiated in the plainest sentiments of reason. He would not be pointed at with the finger, or hooted as he passed along through the resorts of men, but he would incited to the same assiduity in hiding his acquisitions then as he employs in displaying them now. He would be regarded with no terror, for his conduct would appear too absurd to excite imitation. Add to which, his acquisitions would be small, as the independent spirit and sound discretion of mankind would allow but little chance of his being able to retain them in his service, as now, by generously rewarding them with a part of the fruit of their own labotirs. Thus it appears, with irresistible probability, when the subject of wealth shall be understood, and correct ideas respecting it familiarized to the human mind, that the present disparity of conditions will subside, by a gradual and incessant progress, into its true level.
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