However pleasant it may be to assume the position of the Pharisee, no one exactly likes to see his newspaper do it for him. The particular sin in question is one of those which, to be pleasant, ought to be unconscious. As soon as we see the thing in print, the unconsciousness is gone, and a certain feeling not altogether unrelated to contempt takes the place of it. It is very questionable whether we do care more for human life than other people, and it is still more questionable whether its value is not generally rather over than under rated. In the first place, what is the value of the comparison between the Americans and ourselves? We are more impressed by a railway accident than they are by a great battle. Suppose it were so, this would prove only that our imaginations at the present moment are more susceptible than theirs upon this particular point, and that fact shows nothing but want of practice on our part. If there were a civil war for the independence of Ireland, we should soon come to take the news of the death of large numbers of people with considerable equanimity, and, as it is, we do not really care much for the number of people who are killed in an accident. If we were to hear that a hundred Persons had been blown up by a colliery explosion, and that two hundred and fifty had been lost in an emigrant vessel, our feelings as to the two events would not materially differ. If in the first case there were affecting incidents graphically described, and if in the second nothing reached us in a curt announcement of the fact, no one can doubt that the second would cause far less emotion than the first. So, if twenty-five persons were killed on the platform of the Paddington terminus of the Great Western Railway, it would cause far more emotion amongst the readers of the Times newspaper than the blowing up of a hundred miners, or the news which we received the other day that certain districts of India were devastated by a plague which swept off thousands of natives. This, and scores of other illustrations, prove only that the human imagination is not so constructed as to be affected by events in the direct proportion of their tendency to diminish or increase the total mass of human happiness—a truth about as familiar as that the human eye is not so constructed as to convey to the mind at once, and without intermediate calculation, accurate information as to the exact size of objects without reference to their distance and position. But the inference from this very unpretending truth is, that there is nothing remarkable in the behaviour of the Federals under their present circumstances. People become habitually indifferent to any state of things which lasts long enough to seem normal for the time being. There is perhaps as much human misery of one sort or another within ten miles of St. Paul's as there is in all the hospitals in Virginia and Washington, but who is really much the sadder for it? How many people are consciously sad about it at all? and who, the world being what it is, would much care or wish to be so?
If, then, it is unjust to tax the Americans with being in reality very different from ourselves in respect of the value which they set upon human life, it is natural to ask whether they, or we, are altogether reasonable in our common language on the subject. Few phrases are oftener on our lips than “the sacredness of human life.” It is used on both sides, for instance, in the argument about capital punishments, and on almost all occasions it asses muster as the expression of an accredited maxim which it is impossible either to misunderstand or deny to be true. It is not, however, easy to assign to it a meaning which fulfils both these conditions by plainly asserting an indisputable truth. To assert that human life is sacred, in the sense of being the only opportunity afforded to men for performing their moral and religious duties, is to turn the phrase into a very, empty platitude which, to do them justice, those who use it cannot be fairly charged with wishing to repeat. To take it as an assertion that actual physical existence should never under any circumstances be voluntarily abridged, is to turn it into an obvious untruth. Probably no one ever really doubted that it is right for people to kill in certain cases— as, for instance, in the case of self-defence. The fairest interpretation of it probably is, that there is a mystery about human life which we do not thoroughly understand, and that the existence of this mystery to some extent ties our hands in dealing with it. This, no doubt, is true, and the connexion between this truth and religious belief is obvious. So long as men believe that they were created by and owe duties to God, they will of necessity feel more or less forcibly the truth of the ancient maxim, that a man ought no more to consider his own life with exclusive reference to the personal satisfaction which it gives to him than a soldier ought to consider his conduct in a campaign from the same point of view. The force of this sentiment, the extent to which it prevails, and the degree of obedience which is paid to it, are amongst the most curious of the facts relating to human nature, and form perhaps the strongest testimony that can be derived from experience to the tacit, informal religious convictions of mankind. It is wonderful to think of the number of cases in which, if we were quite sure that men stand on precisely the same footing with the inferior animals, we should be inclined to destroy their lives. Yet the number of cases in which people act upon that principle is so small, and the shock given to the general sentiment when it is acted upon is so great, that they may be considered as mere exceptions proving the existence of the general rule by the surprise and indignation which they excite. In a large proportion of cases, infanticide or equivalent processes would certainly be resorted to but for this feeling; and the same may be said of the victims of a number of incurable diseases and congenital deformities. There is an admirable institution — the only one, unhappily, of its kind—called the Hospital for Incurables. When there is to be an election of a candidate for the advantages which it affords to the poor wretches for whom it was intended, an abstract of the cases of the claimants is circulated amongst the subscribers by the managers. There are generally some sixty or seventy candidates, and it would be hard to imagine anything more impressive than the long list of hideous sufferings which is there chronicled in concise official language. It is obvious enough that nearly, if not quite, every person mentioned in that list must lead a life of agony which can be prolonged at best, or perhaps at worst, for only a few years by extreme care and attention. Their lives can involve nothing but suffering. They are utterly unable to occupy themselves in any useful or agreeable manner. As a rule, they are absolutely, or all but absolutely, friendless; yet not only does no one think of killing them, nor do they think of killing themselves, but it is considered a good and charitable action to establish at great expense a hospital in which their lives are prolonged as far as science and kindness can prolong them. And this appears so natural and obvious a course that, of the kind people who built this hospital, probably no single one ever reflected that five pounds' worth of prussic acid or belladonna would put an end to the whole of the misery which is merely alleviated and protracted by an annual expenditure of thousands. It must be unnecessary to say that we do not advocate the more economical course, nor wish to cast the slightest reflection on an excellent institution; but the singularity of the fact itself, and the singularity of the further circumstance that no one is surprised at it, certainly deserve notice. There is no lack of examples of a similar kind. Probably no accusation against Napoleon was more popular, or gave more scandal, than the accusation that he poisoned the soldiers who had the plague at Jaffa. Yet what could he do? They must have died at all events; the Turks would have massacred them if the plague had spared them. All that he did was to procure them an easy death by a dose of laudanum. Such instances happen in private life. Even in the extreme case of hydrophobia, when a man may injure his nearest relatives, and when the only question is whether he shall spend more or less time in hideous agony, he is left to live until death comes in the natural course of things. The agony must not be shortened though its hopelessness is obvious. A physician knew that he must die of an utterly incurable disease. He also knew that by repeated doses of brandy his life might be prolonged for many hours. When he felt the last stage of his illness approaching, he begged not to have the brandy, and he extorted a promise to that effect—he said he had seen so much pain inflicted by it. His friends, however, kept him alive all night by pouring brandy down his throat. In all these and in many other cases of the same kind, the same sentiment may be recognised. Men have a feeling that human life is something beyond and above them; they will not trust their own reason to act in relation to it as they would with almost anything else; and they express this general sentiment by the phrase under consideration.
A sentiment, especially if it is general, and on the whole beneficent, is a very good thing in its way; but it is always necessary to set bounds to it, and the difficulty is to discover the principle on which the bounds should be set. The sentiment about human life does not prevent war; it does not prevent the destruction of life in self-defence, or for some other reasons; and it is a moot point whether or not it ought in all cases to prevent capital punishment. All sensible people would agree that it ought to prevent the substitution of a gratuitous distribution of poison, under proper regulations, for a hospital of incurables, and that it ought not to prevent war. Why is this? It is admitted that no reason, except deference to an obscure sentiment, can be alleged for not poisoning an idiot hideously deformed and hopelessly diseased. It is admitted that the same sentiment is even more strongly opposed to war, and it certainly is opposed to capital punishment; yet capital punishment is generally practised, and is defended upon excellent grounds by many persons who would not poison the idiot. How is this? Where are we to begin to reason, and how far ought we to trust our reason in this matter? This is one of the many questions which show the impossibility of regarding morality as a fixed and definite science. It does and must vary slightly from time to time. All that can be said is, that the morality of a given age is a set of rules based upon and expressing a compromise between different sets of feelings and wishes. One set of passions prompt us to destroy human life under certain circumstances, another set prompt us to spare it under all circumstances. The moral rules which obtain at a given time and place define that mode of guiding and indulging the passions which then and there appears on the whole best calculated to promote the general good as it is then and there conceived. We English in the nineteenth century draw the line just below hanging. Perhaps in the twentieth we shall regulate infanticide, and poison people who suffer under hydrophobia; perhaps, on the other hand, we shall abolish capital punishment; perhaps we shall all, in time, profess Quakerism. All casuistry leads to the conclusion that there is no such thing as what is vaguely called absolute morality. You can make nothing of it except a more or less systematic mass of assumptions.
Saturday Review, June 25, 1864.