Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER V. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
1. Self-assumed Authority—(ad ignorantiam; ad verecundiam.)
2. The Self-trumpeter’s fallacy.
This fallacy presents itself in two shapes:—1. An avowal made with a sort of mock modesty and caution by a person in exalted station, that he is incapable of forming a judgment on the question in debate, such incapacity being sometimes real, sometimes pretended; 2. Open assertion, by a person so situated, of the purity of his motives and integrity of his life, and the entire reliance which may consequently be reposed on all he says or does.
I. The first is commonly played off as follows:—An evil or defect in our institutions is pointed out clearly, and a remedy proposed, to which no objection can be made; up starts a man high in office, and, instead of stating any specific objection, says, “I am not prepared” to do so and so, “I am not prepared to say,” &c. The meaning evidently intended to be conveyed is, “If I, who am so dignified, and supposed to be so capable of forming a judgment, avow myself incompetent to do so, what presumption, what folly, must there be in the conclusion formed by any one else!” In truth, this is nothing else but an indirect way of browbeating—arrogance under a thin veil of modesty.
If you are not prepared to pass a judgment, you are not prepared to condemn, and ought not, therefore, to oppose: the utmost you are warranted in doing, if sincere, is to ask for a little time for consideration.
Supposing the unpreparedness real, the reasonable and practical inference is—say nothing, take no part in the business.
A proposition for the reforming of this or that abuse in the administration of justice, is the common occasion for the employment of this fallacy.
In virtue of his office, every judge, every law-officer, is supposed and pronounced to be profoundly versed in the science of the law.
Yes; of the science of the law as it is, probably as much as any other man: but law as it ought to be, is a very different thing; and the proposal in question has for its avowed, and commonly for its real object, the bringing law as it is, somewhat nearer to law as it ought to be. But this is one of those things for which the great dignitary is sure to be at all times unprepared,—unprepared to join in any such design, everything of this sort, having been at all times contrary to his interest,—unprepared so much as to form any judgment concerning the conduciveness of the proposed measure to such its declared object: in any such point of view it has never been his interest to consider it.
A mind that, from its first entrance upon this subject, has been applying its whole force to the inquiry as to what are the most effectual means of making its profit of the imperfections of the system,—a mind to which, of consequence, the profit from these sources of affliction has been all along an object of complacency, and the affliction itself, at best, but an object of indifference,—a mind which has, throughout the whole course of its career, been receiving a correspondent bias, and has in consequence contracted a correspondent distortion,—cannot with reason be expected to exert itself with much alacrity or facility in a track so opposite and so new.
For the quiet of his conscience, if, at the outset of his career, it were his fortune to have one, he will naturally have been feeding himself with the notion, that if there be anything that is amiss, in practice it cannot be otherwise; which being granted, and, accordingly, that suffering to a certain amount cannot but take place, whatsoever profit can be extracted from it, is fair game, and as such belongs of right to the first occupant among persons duly qualified.
The wonder would not be great if an officer of the military profession should exhibit, for a time at least, some awkwardness if forced to act in the character of a surgeon’s mate: to inflict wounds requires one sort of skill—to dress and heal them requires another. Telephus is the only man upon record who possessed an instrument by which wounds were with equal dispatch and efficiency made and healed. The race of Telephus is extinct; and as to his spears, if ever any of them found their way into Pompeii or Herculaneum, they remain still among the ruins.
Unfortunately, in this case, were the ability to form a judgment ever so complete, the likelihood of co-operation would not be increased. None are so completely deaf as those who will not hear—none are so completely unintelligent as those who will not understand.
Call upon a chief-justice to concur in a measure for giving possibility to the recovery of a debt,—the recovery of which is in his own court rendered impossible by costs which partly go into his own pocket,—as well might you call upon the Pope to abjure the errors of the church of Rome. If not hard pressed, he will maintain a prudent and easy silence; if hard pressed, he will let fly a volley of fallacies—he will play off the argument drawn from the imputation of bad motives, and tell you of the profit expected by the party by whom the bill was framed, and petition procured, to form a ground for it. If that be not sufficient, he will transform himself in the first place into a witness giving evidence upon a committee; in the next place, after multiplying himself into the number of members necessary to hear and report upon that evidence, he will make a report accordingly.
He will report in that character, that when in any town a set of tradesmen have, on their petition, obtained a judicatory in which the recovery of a debt under 40s. or £5 is not attended with that obstruction of accumulated expense by which the relief which his judicatory professes to afford is always accompanied, it has been with no other effect than that of giving in the character of judges effect to claims which in the character of witnesses it was originally their design, and afterwards their practice, to give support to by perjury.
II. The second of these two devices may be called the self-trumpeter’s fallacy.
By this name it is not intended to designate those occasional impulses of vanity which lead a man to display or overrate his pretensions to superior intelligence. Against the self-love of the man whose altar to himself is raised on this ground, rival altars, from every one of which he is sure of discouragement, raise themselves all around.
But there are certain men in office, who in discharge of their functions arrogate to themselves a degree of probity which is to exclude all imputations and all inquiry; their assertions are to be deemed equivalent to proof; their virtues are guarantees for the faithful discharge of their duties; and the most implicit confidence is to be reposed in them on all occasions. If you expose any abuse, propose any reform, call for securities, inquiry, or measures to promote publicity, they set up a cry of surprise, amounting almost to indignation, as if their integrity were questioned, or their honour wounded. With all this, they dexterously mix up intimations that the most exalted patriotism, honour, and perhaps religion, are the only sources of all their actions.
Such assertions must be classed among fallacies, because—1. They are irrelevant to the subject in discussion; 2. The degree in which the predominance of motives of the social or disinterested cast is commonly asserted or insinuated, is, by the very nature of man, rendered impossible; 3. The sort of testimony thus given affords no legitimate reason for regarding the assertion in question to be true, for it is no less completely in the power of the most profligate than in that of the most virtuous of mankind; nor is it in a less degree the interest of the profligate man to make such assertions. Be they ever so completely false, not any the least danger of punishment does he see himself exposed to, at the hands either of the law or of public opinion.
For ascribing to any one of these self-trumpeters the smallest possible particle of that virtue which they are so loud in the profession of, there is no more rational cause, than for looking upon this or that actor as a good man, because he acts well the part of Othello, or bad, because he acts well the part of Iago.
4. On the contrary, the interest he has in trying what may be done by these means, is more decided and exclusive than in the case of the man of real probity and social feeling. The virtuous man, being what he is, has that chance for being looked upon as such; whereas the self-trumpeter in question, having no such ground of reliance, beholds his only chance in the conjunct effect of his own effrontery, and the imbecility of his hearers.
These assertions of authority, therefore, by men in office, who would have us estimate their conduct by their character, and not their character by their conduct, must be classed among political fallacies. If there be any one maxim in politics more certain than another, it is, that no possible degree of virtue in the governor can render it expedient for the governed to dispense with good laws and good institutions.*
[* ]Madame de Stael says, that in a conversation which she had at Petersburgh with the Emperor of Russia, he expressed his desire to better the condition of the peasantry, who are still in a state of absolute slavery; upon which the female sentimentalist exclaimed, “Sire, your character is a constitution for your country, and your conscience is its guarantee.” His reply was, “Quand cela serait, je ne serais jamais qu’un accident heureux.”—Dix années d'Exil, p. 313.