THE VOICE OF UNDER THIRTY [To the Editor of THE
SPECTATOR.] SIR, --AS one who also sits at a desk in an engineering works well known throughout the world and whose age and origins are very similar to those of the author of your article, may I be permitted to criticise his point of view ?
In his attack on principles, he contends that we are not qualified to determine a way of living until we have had a reasonable experience of life. As far as that contention goes, I think he is perfectly right ; in making any major decision affecting ourselves or other people the value of experience will be undisputed. On the other hand, life has to be lived while experience is still lacking, and, short of suspending all action as well as all decisions until middle age is reached, one cannot ignore everyday actions and the motives which they entail.
It is not very difficult to criticise the political ideas or social habits of other people ; what is difficult is to decide on one's own, and the choice of a course of action from several alternatives necessitates a criterion. If the author of your article maintains that he is not concerned with ethical judge- ments, with right and wrong, then from where do his motives spring ? If he is determined to have no principles, then he is like the child in the sweet shop deciding what is nice and what is not. The riskiness of this policy is hardly offset by the advantage that one need not think. If he acts purely for his own advantage, or for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, which is probably what he does do, he has already adopted a principle in the very way which he so heartily deplores.
I fully admit that many young men start life with a ready- made philosophy and that it invariably lets them down. This is due not to the use of principles as such, but to the use of too many principles. I would suggest that the Kantian formula, " Treat every man as an end and not as a means," is quite sufficient for a start. Even if at middle age our experience tells us that we should have treated every man as a means and not as an end, I think we are no worse off than had we drifted with no principle at all, and we 'have at least had a reason for doing some things in preference to others. The author of your article seems to consider principles as complete suits ready to wear which must be put on in their entirety or not at all. One is either a Christian, a cricketer, or a Communist, and the types, he infers, are mutually exclusive. It is small wonder that he shrinks from principles.
Few of us would wish to construct a new society until we had had a lifetime's experience of people and things, but that is no argument against trying to decide now what is worth while and what not, however much our ideas may be modified in later life. It is no very great crime to make mistakes. Caution may forbid the consideration of aims and objects until middle age brings mature judgement, but discretion is not always the better part of valour. Whilst experience may change one's opinion of methods, ultimate aims are often retained from youth to old age, and in support of this I too would invoke " the records of many famous men."—Yours