Utilitarianism Explained and Exemplified in Moral and Political Government (by Charles Tennant, 1864)
Reviewing certainly resembles misfortune in the character of the introductions which it furnishes. It makes the critic acquainted with strange specimens of literature, and enables him, after some practice, to acquire a certain facility in estimating the general character of a book at an early stage of his acquaintance with it. Utilitarianism Explained and Exemplified is intended, as its author informs us, to be an answer to Mr. John Stuart Mill’s work under a similar title, and the preface concludes by saying, “The impartial judgment of the public is now invited between an author of deservedly high repute and an author without a name.” The author without a name appears to be one of those people who every now and then indulge themselves by writing a little book on a great subject, without caring whether or not they are really competent to add anything to the discussion. His book is an odd medley not much worth the trouble of being understood, but serving, it is to be hoped in a satisfactory manner, the purpose of a receptacle for the author's crotchets.
The question of Utilitarianism has been so thoroughly discussed, and has been worn into such a threadbare condition, that it is hardly possible to say anything new about it. The different systems of morals in which people can believe, and the practical consequenccs which may be deduced from them, are as well understood by those who care for such inquiries as any branch of speculation whatever, and it is a weary task to recur once more to the old thrusts and the old parries. The task in this instance is particularly weary, because the author who wishes to answer Mr. Mill differs from him in a manner so recondite, and upon questions which to others than himself will probably appear so unimportant, that it is difficult to understand whether he really does differ from him at all on any question of practical moment. Mr. Mill’s doctrine is, that happiness is the ultimate object of human action, and that actions which generally tend to increase it are good, and those which generally tend to diminish it bad. Mr. Mill’s critic spends a, great many pages in spinning phrases about the difference between happiness and pleasure or convenience, and whilst he explicitly admits that “happiness is the ultimate end," he denies that utility is related or conducive to it. There is a great deal about the “utilities of nature,” and the identity between happiness and virtue, which it is extremely difficult and tiresome to follow, but which appears, on the whole to be meant to assert that the inward satisfaction and peace which good men enjoy--and which it may be hoped they will enjoy in a fuller and more perfect way hereafter-are generically different from all other feelings of a pleasurable kind, are only indirectly related to them, and are to be sought and obtained in a different way and on different principles. If this is what is meant, it is in no way inconsistent with the Utilitarian theory, and the question is only one of words; for Mr. Mill and his predecessors would fully admit that the satisfaction arising from the discharge of duty and the possession of a good conscience is an important element, perhaps the most important element, of happiness, and that habits of conduct which tend to produce that feeling are on that very account highly useful to the person who follows them. They would view the question, “What is happiness? as a question of fact to be determined by observation on experience. The characteristic part of their system is, that the estimate the moral character of actions by their tendency to produce an external end shown by experience to be desirable, and not by that which they usually describe as the fanciful and arbitrary standard of sympathy and antipathy. It is unnecessary to go through the curious arguments by which the author works his theory about, or to discuss the different question which he raises as to particular points in Mr. Mills book. He is constantly labouring to show that the Utilitarian view is wicked and irreligious, though he acknowledges that those who maintain it do not admit the consequences which he deduces from their reasoning, and to prove that his own view is thoroughly Christian and orthodox. It would be hold to deny the latter proposition, as his theory is so complicated that it would probably cover almost any s stern. It finds a place for revelation, a place for moral sense, and a place for expediency. To do justice to it we must cite the author's own words:
‘The principle of utility . . . is a safe guide to follow when it can be seen in conformity with the Divine Will as revealed, and . . . although it have no necessary relation to happiness, a due observance of the utility of things may help to lead human beings to happiness. Beyond this the principle of utility can never be carried for good, and to attempt to carry it further is a vain attempt to make it a substitute for the Christian doctrine.'
This is a good specimen of the sort of confused hash in which a crotchet-hunter generally ends. Mr. Mill would very likely be quite satisfied with the admission that “a due observance of the utility of things may help to lead human beings to happiness;” and unless his critic can show that he has taught that it can be useful, under any circumstances, to disobey what is recognized as an express Divine command, there is no opposition between any theory of his and the rest of his critic’s principle.
This tedious and ill-written part of the book is the least characteristic portion of it. The rest is made up of applications of the principle of Utility to a great variety of subjects, and certainly, for a man who objects to Utilitarians, the author has a sufficient degree of confidence in his own notions about what is useful. After a flourishing protest against such phrases as “the rights of man,” he proceeds to discover the tacit commands of God on the subject of property by reference to the principle of Utility; and within two pages of his protest against such “unmeaning abstractions and senseless fictions” as rights, inalienable liberties, eternal justice, and the like, he proceeds to use all these phrases himself. He informs his readers that “all human beings come into this world with equal rights.” He also declares it to be the Divine will “that all creation should be for the equal good of all created beings.” He proceeds to say that no existing society recognizes this fact, that the poor find their share of the common property miserably small. “They attribute this to injustice, to unequal and unjust laws, and in this they are quite right.” He then goes into detail, and explains what are they unjust laws which have produced this result, and it appears that the unjust laws are summed up in two little words – Indirect Taxation. “Every customs and excise duty must be swept away; and not only those duties, but also every other tax which is now levied, with the solitary exception of the postage stamp, which, for obvious reasons, is excluded.” He has a little crotchet of his own about raising the revenue, which, as appears from an advertisement at the end of the book, is to be seen in another work called, The People’s Bluebook. Not having had the curiosity to procure this work, we must abstain from any expression of opinion about its merits. To find that there is a Divine law against duties on tobacco and gin, and that this confers a “natural right,” and that the phrase “rights of man” is a senseless abstraction, is to acquire a very singular addition to one’s knowledge. We are further mystified by discovering that the “right” to direct taxation is not the only one which we possess, for we are told a little further on that it is a question “how far a government is justified in encroaching upon the natural right or liberty of the subject;” and it is added that “to compel education by law is an interference with a natural right which must ever fail in the desired object.” In like manner, we are told that “the right to take and use the gifts of nature is a universal and inalienable right conferred by the Deity on all mankind.”
There are a great many other surprising applications of the principle of Utility in this work. There is an immense deal about taxation which appears, as far as it is worth trying to understand it, to mean that the rich ought to pay all the taxes and enjoy all the political power, and that the poor ought to pay only a poll-tax for the protection of their persons from violence. If this includes foreign as well as domestic violence, what is to be done about the interest of the national debt? and the annual charge of the army and navy? Probably The People’s Bluebook would tell us, but it is hardly worth while to look. There is a long chapter about Colonies and Dependencies, of which the less need to be said, as they may be described as a sort of soup which Mr. Goldwin Smith’s able and powerful writings serve as the stock, the writer without a name representing an ill-instructed cook. We are to give up the colonies, and so do away with the income-tax and malt-tax, and reduce our army and navy. This will enable us to substitute a tax of 10 per cent “on all realized property” for all customs and excise duties, and all other existing taxes; and this would produce such prosperity that in five or seven years the tax might be reduced to 5 per cent. This is a curious instance of the superfoetation of crotchets. The British Empire is, however, too narrow a field for this gentleman’s principles. He applies his principle of Utility to the whole civilized world. He feels that the map of Europe must be re-arranged, and that it is our part to help in re-arranging it. A variety of obvious steps are to be taken for this purpose. Prussia is to be dismembered, Belgium and Holland each taking one part, and France another part. Poland and Hungary are to be restored; Russia is to lose Finland, which is to go to Sweden; England and France in some strange way, are to govern the Turkish Empire “for a long time.” The smaller German States are to be used as material for compensation to the larger ones. Their natural rights are at a sad discount. “Why should Prussia, that sneaking little satellite of barbarous and despotic Russia, be allowed to hold territories and fortresses on the western side of the Rhine?” “For what purpose of good can the existence of such feeble little kingdoms as Bavaria, Wurtemberg, and Hanover, or such contemptible little principalities as Nassau, Homburg, and Baden, be prolonged?” This is a slight sketch of the means. The ends is “the disarmament of peace of Europe on the principle of general utility.” There is somewhere in the volume a little scheme for the pacification of America, which Anonymous is perfectly ready to undertake at the very shortest notice.
It would be superfluous to add anything to this. These proposals speak for themselves, and are a stronger commentary than any remarks of ours could be on the fitness of their author for the task which he has undertaken of refuting Mr. Mill. The book is remarkable chiefly as an instance of the lengths to which crotchet-mongers are capable of going when they have ample room to say what they please, and the means of getting it printed.
Saturday Review, April 30, 1864.