7 JUNE 1873, Page 12


THERE is certainly a quality in books, even of pure discussion like the present, which makes them strong or weak quite independently of the amount of just intellectual discernment they embody. This is a very strong book, the expression of a very strong character, but it is a book so limited in its power of apprehension and judgment, even in relation to the subjects to which it is de- voted, that there is something almost grotesque in the general intellectual effect produced by its collective teachings, when we grasp them in a single whole. Mr. Stephen has been graphically described as a Calvinist with the bottom knocked out, and it is difficult to describe him better. Before..touching on the main subject of which he treats, in the heterogeneous conclusions of which we find both much to differ from and much to agree with, it may be just as well to group together the main positive features of Mr. Stephen's philosophical faith, so as to obtain as complete a picture as possible of the quaint, and as it seems to us, very ill- assorted details of his creed.

Mr. Stephen is a utilitarian in this sense, that he believes that the only ultimate test of right is the tendency of actions to produce hap-

* Liberty, Equality, Fraternity By James Fitzjames Stephen, Q.C. London : Smith, Elder, and Co. piness, though he admits that men have a derivative conscience, as a result of which they pass, at least as soon as their character is formed, *very strong moral judgments on their own actions and those of others, without having verified for themselves the issues in happi- ness or unhappiness which those actions are likely to have. More- over, Mr. Stephen, if we understand him aright, is a utilitarian of

Bentham's own school, and not of Mr. Mill's ; that is, he thinks every man always acts with a view to his own happiness and his own happiness solely, and that every other view is simply un- thinkable. "When, and in so far as we seek to please others," !he says, "it is because it pleases us to give them pleasure" '(p. 273), and he maintains that acts of self-sacrifice are mere misnomers, and do not mean acts of self-sacrifice at all (self- sacrifice being inconceivable) ; but what they do mean is, acts of an exceptionally constituted person, in which " the motives which have reference to others immediately and to self only mediately, happen to be stronger than the motives which have immediate reference to self and only a mediate relation to others." Mr. Stephen illustrates his meaning by saying that in ordinary society politeness is not self-sacrifice, because it has become much pleasanter to almost all men to consider others before themselves in trifling matters; but that if a man gives up a marriage on which he had set his heart in order to provide for destitute and disagreeable relations, that is called self-sacrifice, not because he really sacrifices himself, any more than the man who gives up the best seat to a lady, but because he is peculiarly constituted, and Ends his pleasure more in acts which please him only through the pleasure they give to others, than ordinary men. Men call such acts acts of self-sacrifice—so we infer from Mr. Stephen—be-

.cause if such acts were ever performed at all (which they never can be) by the majority of men, in them they would

be self-sacrifice. A taste so peculiarly formed as to suggest to ordinary men the notion that the doer prefers somebody else to himself,—an assumption as Mr. Stephen thinks, simply irrational—is the sole origin of the term. " That every human -creature ever, under any conceivable circumstances, acted other- wise than in obedience to that which for the time being was his -strongest wish, is to me an assertion as incredible and as unmean- ing as that on a particular occasion two straight lines enclosed a space." So far Mr. Stephen's philosophy is very simple, very old, and about as false and contrary to the testimony of human ex- perience as extremely simple theories of human nature usually are.

But here comes grotesque inconsistency number one. Having made it clear that men are always and everywhere driven hither and thither by their strongest wishes, and that such a thing as a will, in the sense of an independent source of force in human *nature, does not exist, Mr. Stephen is compelled to testify to a truth utterly inconsistent with his fundamental principle, which the does in the following fine passage. After quoting a character- istic passage from Carlyle about the transcendental self within the body,—the eloquence of which, only half-veracious and very self- conscious, as it seems to us, we confess we think Mr. Stephen over- eates,—Mr. Stephen continues thus :—

" I know of no statement which puts in so intense and impressive a ,form the belief which appears to me to lie at the very root of all morals whatever—the belief, that is, that I am one ; that my organs are not I; that my happiness and their well-being are different and may be incon- sistent with each other ; that pains and pleasures differ in kind as well as in degree ; that the class of pleasures and pains which arise from .virtue and vice respectively cannot be measured against those say of health and disease, inasmuch as they affect different subjects or affect the same subjects in a totally different manner. The solution of all moral and social problems lies in the answer we give to the questions, what am I? How am I related to others? If my body and I are one and the same thing—if, to use a phrase in which an eminent man of letters once summed up the opinions which he believed to be held by an eminent scientific man—we are all sarcoidous peripatetic funguses,' and nothing more, good health and moderate wealth are blessings infinitely and out of all comparison greater than any others. I think that a reasonable fungus would systematically repress many other so- 'called virtues which often interfere with health and the acquisition of a reasonable amount of wealth. If, however, I am something more than a fungus—if, properly speaking, the fungus is not I at all, but only my instrument, and if I am a mysteriously permanent being who may be entering on all sorts of unknown destinies—a scale is at once established among my faculties and desires, and it becomes natural to subordinate, and if necessary to sacrifice, some of them to others. To take a single instance. By means which may easily be suggested, every man can accustom himself to practise a variety of what are commonly called vices, and, still more, to neglect a variety of what are generally regarded as duties, without compunction. Would a wise man do this or not? If he regards himself as a spiritual creature, certainly not, because con- science is that which lies deepest in a man."

If every man always acts from the strongest wish, or complex • combination of wishes, impressed upon him at the moment, and can no other, where the room may be for this spiritual individuality and the power of choice which Mr. Stephen assigns to it, it is hard to see. Admitting there is a higher and lower class of pleasures, how can the former belong more to the essence of the man than the latter unless they actually conquer? Is it not self-contradiction itself to say that that which is vanquished and subdued is more of the essence of a necessary being,—which man not only is, but is by the very laws of thought itself, according to Mr. Stephen,—than that which vanquishes and subdues it? Surely the question of essence, in a necessary being, must be judged by the result ? If the pleasures of virtue are more of the essence of the man, they will come out in the man, and triumph over the lower pleasures. If, on the contrary, the pleasures of vice are more of the essence of the man, they will triumph over the higher pleasures. Whether "conscience is that which lies deepest in a man" can only be proved,—if man be a necessary being, —by the result. It is most inconsistent first to lay it down that a man from moment to moment is the mere victim of the strongest motive acting upon him, and then to speak of the conscience as that which is more of his essence than his other desires. If it conquers his other desires, doubtless so it is. If not, then it is not so. Mr. Stephen may assert an indestructible essence of higher desires for those whose higher desires get the victory, if he pleases. But he has no business at all to say that the higher desires are of the essence of the man of conscience, unless he also says that the lower desires are of the essence of the man of sense. He should stick to his Calvinistic scheme, in spite of the loss of its religious basis, if he would be consistent with him- self, and assert boldly that the elect' are those who have a spiritual essence, while ' the damned' are those who have a sensual or unspiritual essence. And in both cases the essence is not to be considered as ' will,' but simply as a constitution of latent pro- perties which is developed under the fitting external conditions, so as to display what was from the first implicitly contained in it.

Again, when Mr. Stephen asserts that ' right and wrong depend upon the tendency of actions to produce happiness,' and then goes on to tell us that we are to decide for men what sort of happiness they ought to desire, and to promote that, and that only, he is guilty of one of the most extraordinary of philosophical incon- sistencies, explicable only by reference to that broken-down Cal- vinism to which we have before referred. He tells us :— " For these reasons I should amend Mr. doctrine thus :—The

utilitarian standard is not the greatest amount of happiness altogether (as might be the case if happiness was as distinct an idea as bodily health), but the widest possible extension of the ideal of life formed by the person who sots up the standard A friend of mine was once remonstrating with an Afghan chief on the vicious habits which he shared with many of his countrymen, and was pointing out to him their enormity according to European notions. My friend,' said the Afghan, ' why will you talk about what you do not understand ? Give our way of life a fair trial, and then you will know something about it.' To say to a man who is grossly sensual, false all through, coldly cruel and un- grateful, and absolutely incapable of caring for any one but himself, We, for reasons which satisfy us, will in various ways discourage and stig- matise your way of life, and in some cases punish you for living according to your nature, is to speak in an intelligible, straightforward way. To say to him, We act thus because we love you, and with a view to your own happiness, appears to me to bo a double untruth. In the first place, I for one do not love such people, but hate them. In the second place, if I wanted to make them happy, which I do not, I should do so by pam- pering their vices, which I will not."

In other words, Mr. Stephen thinks that the test of a true moral rule is not its tendency to promote the actual happiness even of whole races for long periods of time, but to promote a type of character to which he knows (by secret criteria of his own), that a higher kind of happiness must ultimately belong. Well, but this is not utilitarianism in any sense whatever, unless be is willing to admit that the revealed will of God, accompanied by a revelation of the happy consequences of obedience and the unhappy consequences of disobedience, is the basis of this secret knowledge. If that be so, why, of course, Mr. Stephen is still a good utilitarian, going, like Paley, on the basis of an explicit revelation. If not, —and be sedulously hides from his readers whether there really be such a thing, in his opinion, as a revelation or not,—nothing can be more absurdly inconsistent than his claim for the moralist of the right to impose on men, out of his own self-consciousness, rules of conduct which he admits will not promote their happiness, or thatof even their immediate descendants, and the origin of which can only be a sort of absolute caprice,—for he will not admit an original moral faculty apart from the calculation of happiness ;—so that men are to be compelled to do what will make them and their posterity unhappy or far less happy than they might be, on the strength of the ipse dixit of a person who first tells you that happiness is the true test of morality, and then enjoins you to prefer an indefinitely lesser happiness attained by a particular set of rules, to an in- definitely greater amount attained by another set of rules. Is it not perfectly evident that in his heart Mr. Stephen assumes that he knows a shorter cut to the highest moral type of man, than can be found by any elaborate calculation of happiness? Yet if he does, he is either not a utilitarian at all, but a man who holds that the conscience is ultimate,—which he denies,—or he is a utilitarian only because he believes that God has revealed that certain modes of life will result in certain eternal consequences, which far outweigh the temporary consequences ; but if he believes that, he should confess it, and base his moral principles at once upon revelation, as lying at their very root. But Mr. Stephen throughout his book, while most eloquent on the hypo- thetical importance of Revelation to human morality, elects to leave the truth of the hypothesis perfectly open. There, again, his system is Calvinistic, minus its foundations. It relies on the threat of damnation for its moral power, but declines to say whether that threat is true or false.

Once more, Mr. Stephen is always urging that morality must, in a large degree, depend on religious belief. He holds the theolo- gical creed to be the basis of conduct in a sense specially appropriate to the utilitarian, who, as we have seen, can only overrule the conclusions to be derived from definite calculations of human happiness by a divine revelation as to some otherwise unknown results of those actions. He therefore argues, and argues most eloquently, that if States are to take any regard at all to morality, or the type of character which they should aim at producing, they must more or less assume the truth of some creeds and the falsehood of others :—

" The object of forbidding men to deny the existence of God and a future life would be to cause those doctrines to be universally believed, and upon my principles this raises three questions-1. Is the object good ? 2. Are the means proposed likely to be effective ? 3. What is the comparative importance of the object secured and of the means by which it is secured? That the object is good if the doctrines are true, admits, in my opinion, of no doubt whatever. I entirely agree with the common-places about the importance of these doctrines. If these beliefs are mere dreams, life is a very much poorer and pettier thing ; men are beings of much less importance ; trouble, danger, and physical pain are much greater evils, and the prudence of virtue is much more questionable than has hitherto been supposed to be the case. If men follow the advice so often pressed upon them, to cease to think of these subjects otherwise than as insoluble riddles, all the existing conceptions of morality will have to be changed, all social tendencies will be weak- ened. Merely personal inclinations will be greatly strengthened. Men who say 'to-morrow we die,' will add ' let us eat and drink.' It would be not merely difficult, but impossible in such a state of society to address any argument save that of criminal law (which Mr. Mill's doctrine about liberty would reduce to a minimum) to a man who had avowed to himself that ho was consistently bad. A few people love virtue for its own sake. Many have no particular objection to a mild, but useful form of it, if they are trained to believe that it will answer in the long run ; but many, probably most of them, would like it dashed with a liberal allowance of vice, if they thought that no risk would be run by making the mixture. A strong minority, again, are so viciously dis- posed that all the considerations which can be drawn from any world, present or future, certain or possible, do not avail to hold them in. Many a man too stupid for speculative doubt or for thought of any kind says, ' I've no doubt at all I shall be damned for it, but I must, and I will.' In short, all experience shows that almost all men require at times both the spur of hope and the bridle of fear, and that religious hope and fear are an effective spur and bridle, though some people are too hard-mouthed and thick-skinned to care much for either, and though others will now and then take the bit in their teeth and rush where passion carries them, notwithstanding bath. If, then, virtue is good, it seems to me clear that to promote the belief of the fundamental doctrines of religion is good also, fOr I am convinced that in Europe at least the two must stand or fall together."

We confess that seems to us quite unanswerable, as far as it goes. Why should not polygamy, or polyandry, or any other such insti- tution, be legalised, if there be no moral evil involved in it ? But the most that Mr. Stephen does assume in this book is not that any religious creed whatever is true,—even the faith in a God who has proclaimed a simple moral code, and one in which the obedience to that code is to work happiness and disobedience un- happiness,—but only that in all probability one or two creeds, —especially, one might infer, Roman Catholicism, Mahometanism, and Hindooism,—are false. But how will the assumption that Roman Catholicism or any other religion is false help Mr. Stephen in his legislation on moral questions? Roman Catholicism and Mahometanism may clearly be false, and all the Ten Command- ments fictions also. There is nothing in the falsehood of any of these religions to offer any presumption of the truth of Christian morality,—rather the reverse. Mr. Stephen tells us explicitly that there are races which, in his opinion, won't be made any happier by our European morality. How, then, can we be justi- fied in imposing upon them our morality, unless we are sure that it does represent God's eternal laws ? Here, again, his view breaks down entirely, in consequence of the bottom being lost out of his Calvinism. He believes in no intuitive morality to embody in legislation ; he is dependent for his justification of any morality on the evidence that it will promote human happiness. He wants, nevertheless, to embody the law of our own social state in our legislation for lower races, but he is quite uncertain whether, after all, it is a divine law. Nothing would suit him better than Calvin's conception of what law ought to be as embodied in his Genevan legislation,—only Mr. Stephen has lost his grasp of Calvin's faith. He wants the State to- be placed on a religious basis, if only he knew which religion were- true. As he does not, he is content with pleading feebly that one or two religions are certainly false, and they may be dis- couraged. Grant it. How will that justify what is being con- tinually done in India,—which Mr. Stephen seems to admit is not for the happiness of the natives in any sense in which we can make it clear even to ourselves that it is so,—and which assumes a. definite morality to be obligatory even in case it does not conduce to the happiness of the present or any very near generation ?' From the beginning to the end of his book Mr. Stephen writes on the basis of belief in a hypothetical creed,—a creed of pitiless. necessarianism garnished by threats and bribes which serve to dis- criminate the elect from the damned,—which he wishes he held, but is tolerably well aware he does not hold. And this gives a. most ludicrous air of intellectual helplessness, and sometimes almost intellectual imbecility, to one of the strongest books by one- of the strongest men of our day.