The popular argument is that society cares nothing for morality, because it will forgive any amount of moral obliquity to a man who is rich and lives splendidly. This short statement contains the pith of a mass of irony and invective which popular writers have poured out upon the world for the last thirty years. Mr. Thackeray's life has been passed in ringing the changes on it—sometimes pathetically, sometimes indignantly, sometimes with a forced calmness the effectiveness of which would have been wonderful, if there were any novelty in showing that by ingenious manipulation you can get out of a sovereign gold-leaf enough to paper a room. Short, however, as the statement is, it will be found, on examination, to consist of a false insinuation and several false assertions. The false insinuation is that the fault denounced is peculiar to, or at least specially characteristic of, the upper classes of society. This is by no means true. There is plenty of immorality in the lower walks of life, but labourers and mechanics are not in the habit of ostracising their intemperate or unchaste companions. A sailor is not sent to Coventry on board ship for getting drunk in harbour, or for having several wives in various parts of the world; and in many parts of the country a young woman's character suffers little from her having an illegitimate child. It would be easy to mention attorneys who have been guilty of fraud and perjury, farmers who are notorious for all the fashionable vices, and shopkeepers who keep a minority of the Ten Commandments, who are nevertheless received into the society of their equals with no sort of hesitation, and who have as little difficulty, in proportion to their means and manners, in finding willing daughters and obsequious mothers, as any member of the peerage whose name is written in the chronicles of Sir Cresswell Cresswell. It is, in fact, the universal habit of all classes of persons to notice but little the morals of their associates in the common intercourse of life, so long as they are not of such a nature as to make that intercourse unpleasant . It is undoubtedly true, that an immoral man who has a great deal to say for himself is more popular in society than a strictly moral man who is excessively dull; but as this is equally true of all classes, it is unfair to make it a special charge against the higher classes.
If the insinuation conveyed by the language under consideration is unfair, its direct assertions are false. They are, that the common practice of all classes shows an indifference to morality, and that its alteration would be desirable in a moral point of view. These assertions are made only because those who make them have never considered with accuracy what is the relation between society and morality, and by what principles their mutual relations ought to be regulated. Social penalties for immorality form, like all other penalties, a kind of system of criminal law. They ought to be inflicted only on occasions and in degrees in which they have some tendency to prevent particular evils; and the evil which social punishments are intended and calculated to prevent is the disturbance of the comfort of society. They pre-suppose the existence of an average condition, in which people associate together without conscious discomfort—they punish acts which tend to disturb that state of things—und they leave, and ought to leave, untouched and unpunished all acts which do not disturb it .
If this is the true object at which conventional morality aims, it is absurd to blame it for punishing people heavily for acts which are but slightly immoral, whilst it abstains from all notice of other acts which involve guilt of a heinous kind; for it is no more the object of conventional morality than it is the object of criminal law to establish a standard of Christian perfection. The law of the land allows one man with perfect impunity to let his father die of starvation in a ditch, whilst it sends another to gaol for stealing a loaf in order to give his starving parent a meal. Nor is there in this any impropriety; for it is the object of the criminal law to protect property, but it is not its object to make people honour their parents. In the same way, conventional morality does not punish incontinence in a man nor cowardice in a woman, though in the converse cases it is exceedingly severe. And the reason of this is that the normal repose—the average comfort —of social intercourse rests on the supposition that men are sufficiently brave to speak the truth, and to exact for themselves a certain degree of respect, and women sufficiently chaste to justify their mixing, without suspicion, in the common intercourse of society. The degree of virtue necessary to the maintenance of the average condition of things will, of course, vary widely in different times and countries, but where it is highest it will be indefinitely lower than the highest ideal of goodness attainable there; and thus the enforcement of the sanctions on which it depends will always be warranted by the common sense of the great bulk of mankind, whilst it will be a never-failing object of the contempt of those who think themselves philosophers because they have discovered that gilt cornices are not made of solid gold.
This proves the injustice of asserting that the persons who compose society are indifferent to immorality, because they do not punish it with social excommunication. It is precisely parallel to the injustice of saying that lawyers think there is no harm in ingratitude because it is not the subject of legal punishment . It is perfectly possible to dislike a man and to disapprove of his conduct without avoiding his society, and in a great number of cases it is absolutely necessary to do so. In almost every form of public or semi-public life, in trades, in professions, in every kind of official intercourse, this distinction is recognized and practised. Two barristers may meet constantly in court and on circuit, they may live in habits of almost confidential intercourse and rough familiarity in their professional capacity; but when their profession is laid aside they may hardly acknowledge each other's existence, and feel the greatest possible amount of mutual contempt and dislike. A similar rule applies between fellow-travellers. For the sake of common convenience, all sorts of people associate with the greatest freedom in an inn or on board of a steam packet, on the sole condition that they are acquainted with the elementary usages of civilized life; but when the momentary casual tie is broken, they immediately become strangers again, and it is only the consciousness that that event will take place so soon that enables them to display so much intimacy for the moment. If an archbishop met with an infidel lecturer in a railway carriage, they might talk comfortably enough about the harvest, the weather, and the newspapers, but it would be absurd to infer from this that the contrast in their religious opinions was a matter of indifference to them.
It never appears to strike the persons who are most glib with the usual sarcasms against conventionality, that tremendous evils would be involved in an attempt to increase in any considerable degree the severity of conventional morality considered as a penal code. It would involve nothing less than the dissolution of almost every social relation; for if we did not take the average comfort of society as the standard by which the enforcement of social penalties is to be regulated, no other standard could be found except that of ideal goodness. It is barely possible to imagine what a society would be like in which any serious attempt was made to enforce such a standard as this. If it were universally understood that disapproval was to be felt and expressed in substantial forms—not on account of the tendency which the actions disapproved of might have to interfere with the comfort of others, but because they implied that the person performing them fell short of that degree of virtue which his neighbours required of him—the most powerful of all repressive forces would be brought to bear upon human conduct. A system of prohibitions as severe as those of the narrowest religious fanaticism would be brought into constant activity—an activity the more serious because it would be unostentatious, and, to the generality of men, imperceptible.
The moral standard which public opinion would thus enforce would, of necessity, be imperfect in two vital respects. In the first place, it would be exclusively negative. It would take account only of specific bad actions. It could never weigh the influence of circumstances upon individuals, nor could it notice those elements of human nature which are not embraced under the categories of moral good and evil. It would place under a social ban all men of impulsive and original characters, in whom good and bad impulses take determinate forms, and it would tend to foster that passionless mediocrity which makes large bodies of people into moral Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold, and entitled to little other praise or blame than that of being more or less prudent. In the second place, the standard thus raised would not only be negative, but narrow and trivial. It would represent nothing but the average feelings of the majority, and these average feelings, though good in their way, are despicable if they are regarded as a measure of the moral relations in which men might and ought to stand to each other. We often hear that morality is a simple matter, level to the comprehension of every one; and no doubt there is something that goes by the name of which this is true, but the distance between this something and the ultimate theory of human conduct is infinite. To take the great question hinted at above, what do the conceptions of ordinary men teach us as to what may be called moral set-offs? Was Lord Nelson a better or a worse man than a clerk in a London bank who passed his life in a moral torpor, without sufficient energy or temptation to do anything very right or very wrong? No one has ever settled the question satisfactorily, or even done anything considerable towards stating its elements; but if society were to take upon itself the censorship of private character, it would be dealt with in the narrowest and most mischievous way. Social penalties are indispensable for the comparatively humble purpose of maintaining social decency and comfort; but they would be mischievous in the extreme if they were inflicted on the principle that the common opinions of average men ought to mould the characters of mankind. It is one of the great evils of the day that they have already far too strong an influence in that direction.
Society would have to inflict these penalties without satisfactory evidence, and without any reasonable form of procedure. The penalty would be social excommunication; the evidence, popular report. Such a man, it would be said, has been unchaste, such another ungrateful, a third is a spendthrift, and a fourth an Atheist; therefore, let all who regard the decencies of life join in abstaining from all intercourse with them. Under the present system, which is considered lax and hollow, such assertions would not be regarded. Except in some case of well-ascertained and notorious scandal, society does not interfere, because its comfort is not disturbed, but if it took up the function which the attacks made upon it imply that it ought to take up, it would have to examine such charges, and to decide upon them according to the impression made by loose gossip and tattle.
The inconsistency and weakness of sarcastic and sentimental writers is well illustrated by the fact that those who inveigh most bitterly against the hypocrisy of conventional morality are so far from being in favour of more strictness, that they would wish for more indulgence, and suppose that the course which they take is likely to procure it. Their sneers always fall into forms like these:—" You are terribly virtuous against the poor woman who breaks the seventh commandment, but you have nothing to say to my lord who tempts her to do so. The starving wretch who steals to satisfy his wants you call a thief; but if a man gambles in stocks and shares, you are only too proud to see him at your table. If your servant tells you a single falsehood, you discharge him; but the lawyer who makes his fortune by coining lies and selling them is your honoured guest." The ingenuous persons who preach this doctrine with such charitable acrimony are, in reality, scandalized, not at the impunity of the successful, but at the punishment of the weak. They have no wish to hurt the lawyer, the stock-jobber, or the adulterer, but they are shocked at the hardships inflicted on humbler offenders. They do not see that the only practical effect of their outcry would be to increase the stringency of the social code against persons whom at present it does not affect, without relieving those whom it at present punishes. They worship equality whilst they are indifferent to liberty. "Let us all be slaves to society together," is their sentiment—"we do not, indeed, love slavery, but we hate exceptions." It never occurs to their narrow and undisciplined minds that any arrangements can have partial objects, and that it is no more the object of conventional morality to form human character than it is the object of parish rates to pay the interest on the National Debt. It is as absurd to argue that society is indifferent to moral good and evil because it does not visit all moral offences with a degree of punishment proportioned to their moral enormity, as it would be to argue that the commissioners of a turnpike trust had no sense of religion or of architectural beauty, because they took tolls for the purpose of maintaining the roads, whilst the parish church fell into decay for want of repairs.
Saturday Review, August 13, 1859.