Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Public and Private Morals

The most careless observer of the events at present passing in Europe can hardly have failed to observe that they give rise to an extraordinary number of moral problems of the most curious kind. The questions raised by the Thirty Years' "War suggested to Grotius the composition of the book which has exercised over one of the most important departments of human affairs a greater degree of influence than almost any other human composition. If the present generation does not produce another treatise on the laws of nations, at least equal in interest and importance, it will be for want of a Grotius to write it, and not for want of circumstances to suggest it. If we make the effort necessary to rise above mere party and national views, and try in good faith to consider the different questions raised by the recent history of France, Germany, and Italy, we shall find that most of the current phrases by the help of which we usually talk and write upon such subjects are so inadequate that we stand in need of an entirely new set of theories upon some of the most important of the relations in which men stand to each other. What are we to say of the coup d'etat of December, 1851? Was it, in perfect strictness of language, lying, conspiracy, and murder, or was it something else for which we have no definite name—and, if so, what ought it to be called? Was the crime of Orsini a murder in the same sense in which it is murder for a burglar to cut a man's throat for the sake of robbing him? Were the Austrians wrong when they invaded Piedmont, or the Piedmontese when they provoked them to do so, or the French when they crossed the Alps, or Garibaldi when he invaded Sicily, or Victor Emmanuel when he invaded the Papal States? — and, if so, who committed what offence, and why? We usually answer these questions according to our prejudices. We in England do not stand upon trifles when the object in view is the liberation of Italy from such a dynasty as that of the Neapolitan Bourbons. If Garibaldi or Count Cavour takes liberties with what is called international law, we utter a faint reproof, but substantially applaud and admire. On the other hand, no words are too hard for those who break through the very same rules in the very same way on the other side of the question. We praise the colluvies gentium who follow Garibaldi, but we stigmatize the foreign troops of the Pope by every means in our power. Perhaps this is not to be avoided in our present state of knowledge. Politically speaking this is an age of persecution. We have not yet learned to agree to differ upon international as we have upon theological questions; and, accordingly, we call actions done on our own side venial outbreaks of a generous enthusiasm, which, if they were done on the other side, Ave should stigmatize as atrocious violations of the most sacred principles of international law and eternal justice. To solve the questions thus raised would require the composition of a second treatise De Jure Belli et Pacis, founded upon the principles which the current events have brought into notice since the time of Grotius. A few observations may be made in this place as to the sort of considerations with which the author of such a book would have to deal.

All our common language about public events is the language of private morality. Several of the weaknesses of the English mind are flattered by the assertion, that to send out into the streets of a peaceful town a party of men dressed in uniform, with muskets and bayonets in their hands, and with orders to kill and plunder, is just as much murder and robbery as to break into a house with half-a-dozen companions out of uniform, and do the same things. There is a sham sturdiness, and an analogy to some useful and characteristic peculiarities of English law, about such language, which, to the average English mind, is very attractive. It is, however, altogether fallacious. Murder and robbery are technical words, and presume a settled state of society affording security to life and property. This is true of almost all the words which are employed to stigmatize particular acts. They all depend upon, and flow from, the private relations of life, and will be found to refer almost entirely to four or five great classes of rights and duties, such as personal rights, the rights of property, rights arising out of the relation of marriage, and the rights and duties which exist between States and their subjects. Almost all the common phrases of morality depend upon, and flow from, these rights. The second table of the Ten Commandments gives the best summary of them. Honour thy father and thy mother; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not covet. Each of these commandments, and the rights and duties which spring from it, assume a settled state of society. Perhaps, the two broadest and most conspicuous are, Thou shalt not kill, and Thou shalt not steal ; in other words, you shall respect your neighbour's life and property. Unless he were a member of some society, a man could not possess property; and if he were a mere solitary unit, unrelated to any other existing being, it cannot be said that it would be murder, in the proper sense of the word, for any other equally isolated being to kill him. We have no name for such an act, for all our language about human affairs proceeds upon an entirely different set of conceptions. We mean by murder the wilful, deliberate killing without just cause, and without certain specified excuses, of a man who comes under the protection of our municipal laws; and in all that is said about the atrocity of murder, there is a tacit reference to this state of things. The general doctrine as to both murder and theft may be said to be that, in the normal state of society, people ought—that is, it is highly expedient for them—to guarantee to each other the enjoyment of life and property against the attacks to which private passions usually expose them. This is the common settled course of human societies, and these are the principles which are applied to human affairs in an enormous majority of the cases which arise. In respect, however, to international relations, a different set of principles must be taken into account. In international affairs individuals, no doubt, act and suffer. Men risk, and sometimes lose, their lives, their liberties, and the whole or part of their fortune, in wars and civil commotions, but the motives which induce them to inflict or suffer loss are not individual. It is by no means the same thing whether a man is plundered and wounded by burglars or by the soldiers of an absolute king who is trying to sustain his authority. The sack of Perugia shocked the sensibilities of a great part of Europe, but if the Pope had privately poisoned one of his friends or servants from any purely personal motive, even the blindest religious zeal would have denounced him as a criminal unfit to live. A man must be a very bitter Liberal indeed who really maintains that the violation by a Sovereign of his promissory oath of office stands precisely on the same footing as deliberate perjury in an ordinary court of justice. The common sentiment of the world recognizes a deep though ill-defined difference between these two classes of acts, and the sentiment may be justified on the ground that public and private morality are, and will probably long continue to be, in a totally different condition,

Private morality has been reduced to system in every human society; and though there is a considerable degree of difference between the morality of different ages and nations, there is a sufficient degree of resemblance between them to enable people living in different ages of the world, and in countries very remote from each other, to pass a decisive, and, on the whole, not an unjust judgment on each other's conduct. Public morality, on the other hand has not yet passed beyond the stage of sentiment. When we hear that diplomatists habitually say one thing and mean another; that absolute kings massacre their subjects; that mobs plunder, burn, and destroy; that men who have no concern at all in the affairs of particular nations, let themselves out from mere cupidity as mercenary soldiers to enforce the commands of rulers to whom they owe no allegiance, we receive the same sort of shock, and feel the same kind of disapproving sentiment, as is excited by the news of an ordinary falsehood, murder, or robbery in private life. The difference between the two cases is, that with regard to private wrongs we do not stop at mere sentiment. We say of a lie, for example, that it is a perjury, a malignant slander, a simple untruth, little more than a joke, a mere exaggeration, or a conventional phrase, as the case may be; and for certain purposes—especially for legal purposes—we classify particular acts with extraordinary minuteness. For example, a purse containing £10 is stolen. If it was dropped on the floor of a railway carriage, the offence is simple larceny. If it was in a man's pocket, it was stealing from the person. If in his house, it was stealing above the value of £5 in a dwelling-house. If the thief opened the house door to get in, it was house-breaking; if he did so after nine o'clock at night, and before six in the morning, it was burglary. Private morality, though not so precise as law, has still a considerable degree of precision; but in public morality there is nothing in the least degree approaching to this. No one for the last two centuries has framed anything like a theory of the rights and duties of sovereigns and subjects, or of the relations of nations to each other, sufficiently accurate to furnish anything approaching to an accurate classification of the different acts which they may perform towards each other. One or two phrases exist which indicate by their extreme vagueness the obscurity in which the subject is involved, whilst they point to the possibility of the attainment at some future time of greater clearness. "Revolution" and "coup d'etat" are specimens. Most people would say that each is, under certain circumstances, justifiable; and that, when justifiable, each would justify a certain degree of violence, either to person, to property, or to previous engagements; but what are these circumstances, and what is the degree of violence which might justify and be justified? By answering these questions in a tolerably full and accurate manner, we should be able to turn into a system of morality what at present is a mere sentiment. In the meantime, we must confine ourselves to expressing our sentiments in the words which appear to embody them most nearly, and we must call people of whose acts we disapprove murderers, liars, and robbers, not because we really and fully mean what we say, but because no other words so nearly express our meaning.

Saturday Review, December 24, 1860.

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