Friday, September 16, 2016


M. Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, has put, for the moment, a new gloss on a very old topic. This topic is Society. What are the functions and duties of society? How ought it to discharge them? In what particulars does it fail to do so? Every one who is at all acquainted with the contemporary history of France knows the ardour with which these questions have been debated there for many years, and the strange, and at times incredibly extravagant, forms into which different speculators have thrown their conclusions. Definite schemes of this character are seldom if ever put before the public at the present day, at all events in our own country; but the spirit which prompted their construction is so far from being extinct, that it operates more widely than ever; and as those who are under its influence generally keep their enthusiasm on this side of extravagance, and are undoubtedly actuated by genuine benevolence, there is every reason to believe that in the progress of time they may come to exercise a most powerful influence over the thoughts and actions of the nation at large. It is thus important to try to get clear notions about the principles of a controversy which may at any moment be invested with immediate practical importance.

In all such inquiries the best evidence is commonly to be found in the ordinary usage of words. The common use of the word "society" implies that those who use it suppose that mankind forms a vast body corporate, the special function of which is to promote to the utmost the happiness of each of its individual members in every possible way, and that if any one's lot in the world does not correspond to his reasonable desires, "society" must be to blame if the particular person himself is not. The question, What desires are reasonable? is one on which few writers care to be distinct. Generally speaking, they appear to think that society is to blame if an able-bodied man, ready and willing to work, has no work, or if he is not paid a sufficient sum to maintain himself and his family in that degree of comfort to which the average members of his class are accustomed. They would also hold for the most part that the wish to have some degree of instruction—as much at least as will enable a man to use common opportunities of obtaining and improving this degree of comfort—is a reasonable desire. They would generally add that it is reasonable for a man to wish to be provided with a suitable sphere for the exercise of any special talents which he may possess, and that "society" ought to be so organized as to provide people with such spheres, or at least with the opportunity of reaching them, without efforts which most men would be unable to make, and good fortune which no one can be sure of commanding.

Probably the list of desires which would be considered reasonable by those who take the view of society just indicated might be, to some extent, enlarged, but those which have been mentioned are sufficiently, comprehensive to illustrate the theory in question. If such desires are not reasonable, none are. If they are reasonable, and if there is a body called society, which is under the obligation of making arrangements to satisfy them, its duties are sufficiently wide and important.

There is abundant evidence to show that this view of society and its functions is, in point of fact, taken by a large number of persons. The constant use of such expressions as "social injustice," "social duty," "social evil," proves that people consider that "society"—whatever that may be—has a code of laws which may be good or bad, and that these laws are sometimes enforced in an unjust or partial manner; that it has duties which may be neglected, and that the neglect of those duties produces bad results, for which it may properly be blamed. Thus we constantly hear it said that society has no right to permit a child to grow up in ignorance, and then to punish it for the crimes which it may commit in consequence; that society is extremely unjust to able men who have to lead lives of obscurity, whilst persons of much inferior ability rise to eminence; that if society leads people to form an exorbitant estimate of the importance of wealth and luxury, and so deters men from marrying young, it ought to be blamed for the consequences which follow to female virtue, and may be reproached with inconsistency and hypocrisy if it attaches severe penalties to all lapses from it.

Such is the view of the nature of society which the common use of language implies, and the most important questions which it suggests is, whether or not it is true. Is there any such great body corporate as the common language upon the subject suggests? If so, what is its constitution? What are its laws? Where are they recorded? How are, and how ought they to be administered?

The answer to the first question is obvious. The word "society" has no precise meaning at all. It is a mere abstraction, and even as an abstraction, is much less definite than many other abstract words, such, for example, as Church or Nation. There is a much nearer approach to a meaning in the assertion that the English nation acts unjustly, than in the assertion that society is to blame for crime and folly, though neither of the two expressions is really precise. On the other hand, the statement that the City of London has certain rights by charter, or that Trinity College, Cambridge, is the patron of such a living, is precise. The City of London and Trinity College are abstract terms, but the meaning of them is fixed with perfect accuracy. The City of London means, in some cases, the Lord Mayor, the Aldermen, and the Court of Common Council. In others, it means the Lord Mayor and the Aldermen only. Trinity College, Cambridge, means sometimes the Master and Fellows, sometimes the Master and the Senior Fellows, sometimes the Master alone; but the true sense of the expression, whatever it may be, in any particular case, can always be assigned with complete accuracy, and therefore a perfectly intelligible meaning can always be assigned to propositions into which it is introduced.

With the word "society" the case is different. It cannot be defined at all, and therefore, a certain degree of obscurity will always remain in every proposition into which it is introduced. It does not, however, follow that the word is unmeaning because it is indefinite. Abstract words of this kind are in the nature of guesses at truth. They are the means by which people give shape to the vague conjectures and impressions which come into their mind, and are the first steps towards solid knowledge of the subject matter to which they refer. This is probably true of all words whatever, if they are examined with sufficient strictness. Every one uses the word "I" with perfect confidence, and with a most vivid notion of his own meaning, but probably no one knows precisely what are the limits of his own meaning: what is the precise point at which he draws the line between himself and the circumstances by which he is surrounded. So again, every one who has occasion to do so, talks of "electricity," and there is a large and most important class of scientific facts, which it would be impossible to investigate at all without the use of that word; yet no one knows precisely what it means. The assignment of a precise signification to it will be the crowning achievement of the science which is concerned with the subject. Thus, the fact that the word "society" is continually used, and that no precise meaning can be attached to it, is not an argument against its use, but a reason for trying to ascertain what it ought to mean, by inquiring whether there are any facts to the description of which it might be conveniently restricted.

In the first place, Society is a noun of multitude, denoting men. Nouns of multitude relating to men generally denote all the persons who are connected together by some relation common to them all. For example, the word "family" denotes either the members of the same household, or the descendants of the same ancestors. "Nation" represents the subjects of the same sovereign. "Church" denotes all the persons who stand to each other in certain religious relations; and there are many other words of the same kind. In order to ascertain precisely, or approximately, the meaning of any one of them, it is necessary to ascertain specifically what are the relations which they assert to exist between those to whom they apply. For example, does the word "church" imply that all the persons whom it includes hold the same religious opinions, or that they join in the same worship, or that they are under the same spiritual government, or that they are animated by the same sentiments on religion? When we speak of a nation including the subjects of the same sovereign, in what sense do we use the word "sovereign?" Do the Austrian dominions form one nation? Is a foreigner resident in London—is a foreigner domiciled in London—is a French Canadian—is a native of the Ionian Islands, a member of the English nation? When we speak of a family as the members of the same household, or the descendants of common ancestors, where do we draw the line in either case? Is a visitor, staying in my house, a member of my family, or a lodger, or one who both boards and lodges with me? Is my son at a boarding-school, a member of my family? Would he cease to be a member of my family if he were sent to a reformatory? Is a man's married daughter a member of his family? Suppose she and her husband live in his house, does that make any difference? How is it if they pay for their board and lodging? If common descent from the same ancestor is the test, where does it stop before we get either to Noah or Adam? Is the descent, in both male and female lines, or in some only, and which? Such questions as these always arise when the words which suggest them are put to any definite use, and it is only when they have been carefully and consistently solved, that we have notions which are precise, and which may be useful if the answers are judicious. As to their truth, notions of this kind cannot be said to be either true or false. Men can use words in whatever sense they please, so long as they use them consistently; the propositions into which they form them may be equally true, but unless they are judiciously framed it is almost impossible to use them consistently, and they are sure to mislead those who use them otherwise.

The questions suggested by the word "society" are of the same kind as those suggested by the words church, nation, and family. Society may be defined as the name of men considered in their social relations to each other; and this suggests the question, whether there is any class of relations between men which may be distinguished from others by the epithet "social," and what is the common property in virtue of which they deserve that name? This question is to be answered by reference to the common use of language. It would be described as a social duty to instruct the ignorant, to relieve distress, in a word, to cultivate philanthropy. People also frequently assert on the one hand, and deny on the other, that it is a social duty in every man to spend a proportion of his means, regulated by the common opinion on the subject, on his style of living. For example, if a great nobleman dressed like a groom, he would be said to neglect a social duty. If he lived much less splendidly, and gave far fewer and less handsome entertainments than is usual with persons in his rank of life," it would be asserted by some persons, and eagerly denied by others, that he failed to perform what society had a right to expect of him; but those who affirmed and those who denied the obligation would both admit that it was a quiestion of social duty whether or not such expenses ought to be incurred. These are broad and familiar examples of what people do mean when they speak of social duties.

It is equally easy to give broad illustrations of what they do not mean. No one would say that to abstain from breaking the Ten Commandments is a social duty. They would describe the obligations which they impose as religious, moral, or legal, according to circumstances. Yet duties do not need to be social because they happen also to be religious, moral, and even legal. For example, abstinence from profane swearing is a legal duty (though it is never enforced); it is also a religious and a moral duty, and, under particular circumstances, it is a social duty also. It is a legal duty, because there is an Act of Parliament which inflicts penalties on all persons who profanely curse and swear. It is a religious and a moral duty because it is enjoined by Divine command and by established moral rules, and the sphere of each of these obligations is nearly co-extensive, for the Act forbids "profane cursing and swearing" in perfectly general terms, and there can be no doubt that the religious and moral obligation would not only reach the case of swearing in private conversation, but also the case of a man swearing to himself, or in the company of persons who could not be either offended or impressed by his language. With regard to social duty, the case is different. No one would say that a man who swore to himself, or in a private room, where no one could hear him, committed any social offence, and it might be contended with considerable force that profane swearing in the company of persons who did not dislike and could not be injured by it, was no breach of social duty, though it would be both a religious and also a moral offence. It might, on the other hand, be said that every one is under a social obligation to make his conversation as beneficial as possible to his company, though he is not under any religious, legal, or moral obligation to that effect.

From this and other illustrations of the same kind (which might be multiplied to any extent), a twofold inference may be drawn as to the specific nature of the social relations. In the first place, they are founded on the benevolent part of human nature, and, in the second place (which is a consequence of this), they are, for the most part, positive. This supplies the distinction between them, and moral and religious duties. Religious, moral, and legal duties are always enforced by commands; they are for the most part negative, and are founded partly on fear, partly on respect for superiors, and partly on all the various feelings which are included under the word self-interest, when that word is used in its widest sense, so as to apply not merely to the wish to obtain external satisfaction, but also to the wish, which every one ought to feel, to see his own character developed upon as large and good a scale as possible.

These observations on the nature of social duty make it possible to assign a meaning to the word "society" sufficiently definite for practical purposes. Society means men viewed in those relations to each other which are founded upon the benevolent sentiments. This mode of using the word is perfectly consistent with its common employment in a much narrower sense. Society is often used to mean a small part of mankind assumed to be distinguished from the rest of it by the circumstance that those who belong to it are more than usually dependent upon, or devote a greater part than usual of their time, or employ themselves more skilfully in Communicating together, merely for the sake of the pleasure which that pursuit gives them. For example, a man is said to be in society when he forms one of a small number of people who habitually invite each other to parties of different kinds, which are supposed to be superior to all other parties of the same kind, either by reason of the rank, the manners, the fashion, or some other quality of the guests. The word in this case is used in its proper sense, though the application of it is confined. The "society" referred to is a body of people who communicate together for the sake of pleasing themselves and each other. The primary object of their association is the production of pleasure, though a man may, and, no doubt, often does, wish to form a member of it for other reasons; but the pleasure, and not the collateral objects (such as ambition, or the transaction of business), is the foundation on which the system rests. A man who was invited to such parties merely as a mark of respect due to his official dignity would hardly be considered as a member of "society." During one part of his reign, William IV. used to be said to be "out of society;" and absurd as the phrase both seemed and was, the manner in which the word "society" was used in it was perfectly correct. The other members of the body in question ceased, for the time being, to receive him into their houses, or to go to his court, as a matter of pleasure. They acted, or rather professed to act, as a matter of duty; they obeyed his commands as king, instead of accepting his invitation.

When the word is used in its wider sense, it would be convenient to apply it in the same manner, and to denote by it the aggregate of those relations between men which arise from the benevolent sentiments to the exclusion of all others. If this were done consistently, it would become easy to affix a clear meaning to a variety of expressions which are at present made the occasion of a great deal of vague declamation, and to arrive at some conclusion as to the degree of truth which those expressions as they are generally used convey. The commonest and most important of these expressions are those which have been already mentioned. They are the justice and injustice of society, the duty of society, the evils of society. Assuming that the word society is to be used in the sense just assigned, the phrases justice and injustice of society, or (which is the same thing) social justice or injustice, will mean the partiality or impartiality with which men, in such of their relations as spring from the benevolent feelings, apply those rules upon the subject which, if generally acted on, would, under the existing circumstances of the human race, generally produce the greatest amount of happiness. This phrase is unavoidably complicated and difficult, but the thought which it expresses is, in reality, simple enough, when it is a little expanded. Some of the relations in which people stand to each other arise from feelings of benevolence. For example, meeting a man in a railway carriage, I begin to talk to him for the sake of the mutual pleasure which we shall both derive from conversation. This creates a relation, namely the relation of two persons engaged in casual conversation, and as this relation grows out of the benevolent feelings, it is a social relation. Now, there are a variety of rules, well understood by mankind in general, by the general observance of which a maximum of pleasure to both parties may generally be obtained in the course of a casual conversation. If I observe these rules throughout, I do social justice to the person to whom I talk. If I do not observe them, I commit a breach of the rules, and so commit a social injustice.

This is a trifling example; others of much greater importance will readily occur to the mind. For example, there are sufficiently well-known rules by which people could, if they pleased, greatly diminish nearly every known form of suffering by diminishing its causes, such as ignorance, vice, and extreme poverty. Such rules may intelligibly be said to impose social duties. Their partial application would amount to social injustice, and the objects toward which they might be directed may be appropriately called social evils, that is, evils which the exercise of the benevolent sentiments would diminish, or possibly abolish.

Thus speaking broadly, it may be said that the general meaning of the phrases under consideration is to assert that the persons to whom they are applied are not so benevolent as the interests of the world at large would require them to be; and the question whether, on the whole, society can fairly be described in the language which is so often applied to it, resolves itself into the further question, whether the benevolent sentiments hold as large a place and perform as great a part in life as they ought. In other words, how much benevolence ought there to be in the world? How much is there?

Of these two questions the first may appear to be absurd. It may seem like asking how much health, or how much long life ought there to be in the world, questions which would generally be shortly answered by saying, the more the better. For some practical purposes this is no doubt quite true. When there is any specific thing to be done, any distress to be remedied, any evil to be avoided, any mistake to be set right, it would, of course, be in the last degree absurd to stop to consider whether benevolence had not gone far enough, and whether it was not desirable to let matters alone, on the ground that there was already as great an amount of benevolence and happiness in the world as was desirable for the human race. There are, however, other practical purposes besides those which have the diminution of suffering for their object, and in relation to these, the question, how much benevolence there ought to be in the world, is anything but idle. It is, for example, a most important object that men should not be unreasonably dissatisfied with themselves, their pursuits, or the world in which they live; that they should not allow themselves to be frightened by chimeras on the one hand, or to neglect real dangers on the other; in a word, that they should go about their common vocations with a quiet mind and with a settled conscience. These objects are deeply involved in the question, how much benevolence there ought to be in the world, for it is conceivable that answers might be given to it which would make it a crime to be comfortable. Indeed, such answers often are given, and the present question is whether or not they are true.

The meaning of the question, how much benevolence there ought to be in the world, is, what proportion of human affairs would be transacted under the direct influence of the benevolent sentiments, if human affairs were so conducted as to produce a maximum of human happiness, taking the word in its largest sense, and the first point to be noticed is that no definite answer to the question is possible. The quantity of happiness which can be obtained for mankind is a mere matter of conjecture, and even for conjecture there are hardly any reasonable grounds. It is absurd to set up an ideal standard of happiness as the right of mankind, and then to debit the want of benevolence with the deficiency. For aught we know, the highest pitch of perfection that could possibly be attained in the different arrangements of life, would leave a vast deal of wretchedness still existing, and might not only fail to provide people with any exalted objects of desire, but might disclose to them the fact that no such objects existed, and so stamp human affairs with ineffable littleness and insufferable tedium. It appears, however, that even if the attainment by mankind of the utmost possible amount of happiness be assumed, an immense proportion, perhaps the great bulk of it, would arise from other sources than benevolence. At least, if this were not so, human life, as it then stood, would differ from its present condition not merely in degree, but in kind. The sphere of benevolence in the present day is assignable in general terms, though not specifically. It has two great functions: first, it is the natural instrument for making most of the relations pleasant in which people stand to each other. Love between the sexes, or between relations, friendship in all its shapes, kindly feeling between superiors and inferiors, are all forms of benevolence. Secondly, it is one of the influences by which evils which admit of it are either remedied or mitigated, and, in this department it is suicidal, for it constantly tends to supersede the necessity for its own existence. Should suffering ever be reduced to a minimum, benevolence would have deprived itself of one of its two great functions, and would be restricted to that department in which it procures direct satisfaction, not only for its object, but also for its subject. It is thus clear that human life is not based upon benevolence. It is not the foundation, but a part of the superstructure, and a part which owes its present prominence and importance to the imperfection of the building. It is not, and cannot be the food of man, except to a limited extent. In one of its functions, it is nothing more than a medicine which our present infirmities render indispensable.

Hence may be inferred part of the answer to the question—how much benevolence ought there to be in the world? There ought to be as much as is wanted to sweeten certain relations of life, and to stop certain leaks; but what are the relations to which benevolence is thus to be applied? They are the great constituent elements of life, the motive powers by which the system is worked. It would be an abuse of terms to describe these powers as benevolent: they are desires seeking their own satisfaction without reference to anything else; such are the desire to live, the desire to act (which is another form of the same thing), all the personal individual desires by which the great mass of all the affairs of life are set on foot and carried out—in a word, the self-regarding passions in all their different shapes. Out of these passions, and out of the various restraints which are enforced by them, by religion, and morality, spring all the great institutions which play the chief share in human life—nations, churches, governments, armaments, and the like. Recurring to the definition of society given above (that it is the name of men as they stand related to each other by the benevolent affections), it will appear that society itself is but a part of a whole; that it is not, as many people seem to suppose, the foundation out of which religion, law, science, and government spring, but something dependent upon, springing out of, and limited by these things, both in its powers and in its objects. Its function is to do so much of what they leave undone as will not interfere with their being efficiently conducted. The great functions of life must be carried on vigorously, whatever happens, and before anything else is provided for. Whatever else they are to be, men must be men, and active ones, and they must, in a very large sense of the words, be just before they are generous: that is, they must bear in mind the fact that ploughing and sowing, buying and selling, making and executing laws, and a thousand other occupations as old as the race itself, must all be set going and kept going at full speed, and notwithstanding the vast amount of individual hardship and wretchedness which they may produce before benevolence comes in to set things to rights. A man must live, and must have been living to some purpose, and must also have fallen ill in the course of his living before he sends for the doctor, and if the doctor is a wise man he will bear in mind the fact that the best he can ever hope to do for his patient is to remit him to the baker and butcher.

A man who has once succeeded in fully grasping the essentially relative and dependent character of benevolence, will find it comparatively easy to deal with the second of the two questions stated above: "Is there as much benevolence as there ought to be?" In one sense of the word "ought," of course there is not. Of course it is true that the amount of kind feeling which exists in any given nation, certainly in this nation, is not great enough at any given time to stop all the leaks which are produced by the play of those great permanent passions by which life is carried on. This, however, is a mere commonplace, and answers the question in one sense, and that a sense in which no one would think of asking it. It may bear a totally different sense, and require a totally different answer, for it may be meant to ask whether people who live, as busy and prosperous men usually do live in this country, are, as a general rule, open to blame for the course which they take in regard to benevolence. Ought they to be in the main content with the course which they usually take with regard to it, or ought they so far to change their ordinary way of life as to make the specific relief of distress a far more prominent object than they do at present? This is a question which frequently forces itself upon thinking men when they read of the misery in which considerable classes of the population are involved, and of the efforts which are being made for the relief of it.

In order to answer it consistently with the principles stated above, it is necessary to describe in general terms the conduct which, as a rule, would be pursued by members of the class in question. A prosperous Englishman is, generally speaking, a busy, and not an unkind man. Supposing him to be a man of average health and strength, he usually spends the whole of his working day on his business, whatever that may be, and it may be assumed that few such men could be expected, reasonable regard being had to their health and efficiency, to make a very material increase either in the length or in the number of their working days. Of this time the whole, or nearly the whole, is systematically directed, exceptions excepted, to the personal objects of the man himself and those of his family; the merchant tries to make money, the professional man struggles for success, and reputation as well; and the politician for distinction and power. In addition to this, most men so situated would give a certain amount of personal time and trouble, more or less, to charitable objects, and almost every one would give money; as much, probably, as would not interfere with his settled plans and special objects in life. Probably there are very few people who live altogether on a cheaper scale, or follow less expensive amusements, than they would if there were neither poverty nor vice in the world. Waiving, however, all questions of the positive amount of time and money devoted to such objects, what is to be said of the general principle? Taking into account the facts with which we are all familiar about the wretchedness and degradation of considerable sections of the community, is this way of life justifiable, or ought those who adopt it to make considerable changes in their way of life for the express purpose of devoting themselves systematically to benevolent objects. The practical answer to this question is not likely to be doubtful. In fact, it is already answered in the negative by the existence of that uniform practice, the propriety of which it calls in question. But ought it; that is, is it for the general good that it should be so answered? The principles explained above appear to show that it ought. The general good is composed of the good of all the members who go to make it up; and if it be true that the individual desires supply the framework, or rather supply the material, out of which the framework of nations and all other bodies of men are made, it inevitably follows that the principal part of each individual person's life must be occupied by efforts to satisfy those desires, and that his efforts to satisfy the benevolent desires must be exceptional and occasional.

It may appear needless to take the trouble to explain the theoretical grounds of a proposition which is generally accepted unconsciously and as a matter of course, but it is one of vast practical importance, for it exposes the fallacy of the view of society which is described at the beginning of this essay, a view as common as it is fallacious, and which has more than once caused great calamities when it has been enthusiastically embraced. This view, as has been shown from the phraseology of those who hold it, appears to be that human society—using the word not as it has been used throughout the body of this essay for men considered in certain relations, but as the name for the aggregate of all the relations in which men stand to each other—is a vast corporation which ought to give every one a fair chance of obtaining satisfaction for all his reasonable desires, especially the desire of being instructed and of maintaining himself and his family in comfort by employments suitable to his natural capacity. The answer to this is that the larger part, indeed the largest and most important part of the life of every human being, is occupied, in fact, and with an eye to the general interest ought to be occupied, by individual pursuits, that we can tell nothing of the ultimate objects for which mankind exists, or of the degree of happiness which they may be ultimately capable of attaining, but that in any state of things sufficiently like our own for us to be able to reason or even to think about it, benevolence must be the adjective, and the self-regarding passions and desires the substantive, part of our nature.

The practical inferences from these two views of the nature and functions of society (which may be called without offence the socialist and the individualist) would not differ much in any particular case. Produce, for example, an ignorant and vicious child, and both the socialist and the individualist would agree that it is an object of great importance that it should be properly taught to earn its living and do its duty. Yet they would say so on very different grounds. The one would say the child is the victim of a social wrong. Society ought not to have left it in this state. It is its duty to save it from that state, and if it does not do so it must thank itself for the consequences. The other would content himself with saying, here is an evil which can be remedied, or at any rate alleviated. Let us do so accordingly. But he would not invent any abstraction for the sake of laying the blame upon it. The importance of this is that in practice the abstraction "society" always comes to be identified with people who are well off in the world, and who are accordingly supposed to have profited by the iniquitous arrangements which "society" is supposed to have made; and this would be true, or at least intelligible, if those who hold this view could get over the preliminary difficulty of showing what particular constitution of things they understand by the word "society;" on what grounds they formed their conception; and when, how, and by whom, that model had been debased so as to produce the bad results which excite their indignation. Till they can do that, they must be content to take the world as they find it, to assume that it will remain substantially what it is, and to use such means as it affords for the remedy or alleviation of its misfortunes as the opportunity for doing so arises.

Cornhill Magazine, January 1863.

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