Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: SNAIL'S-PACE ARGUMENT.—( ad socordiam. ) - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER IV.: SNAIL’S-PACE ARGUMENT.—( ad socordiam. ) - 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.
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SNAIL’S-PACE ARGUMENT.—(ad socordiam.)
“One thing at a time! Not too fast! Slow and sure!”
Exposition.—The proposed measure being a measure of reform, requiring, that for the completion of the beneficial work in question a number of operations be performed, capable, all or some of them, of being carried on at the same time, or successively without intervals, or at short intervals, the instrument of deception here in question consists in holding up to view the idea of graduality or slowness, as characteristic of the course which wisdom would dictate on the occasion in question. For more effectual recommendation of this course, to the epithet gradual are commonly added some such eulogistic epithets as moderate and temperate; whereby it is implied, that in proportion as the pace recommended by the word gradual is quickened, such increased pace will justly incur the censure expressed by the opposite epithets, immoderate, violent, precipitate, extravagant, intemperate.
Exposure.—This is neither more nor less than a contrivance for making out of a mere word an excuse for leaving undone an indefinite multitude of things, which the arguer is convinced, and cannot forbear acknowledging, ought to be done.
Suppose half a dozen abuses, which equally and with equal promptitude stand in need of reform—this fallacy requires, that without any reason that can be assigned, other than what is contained in the pronouncing or writing of the word gradual, all but one or two of them shall remain untouched.
Or, what is better, suppose that, to the effectual correction of some one of these abuses, six operations require to be performed—six operations, all of which must be done ere the correction can be effected,—to save the reform from the reproach of being violent and intemperate, to secure to it the praise of graduality, moderation, and temperance, you insist, that of these half-a-dozen necessary operations, some one or some two only shall be talked of, and proposed to be done;—one, by one bill to be introduced this session, if it be not too late (which you contrive it shall be;) another, the next session; which time being come, nothing more is to be said about the matter—and there it ends.
For this abandonment, no one reason that will bear looking at can be numbered up, in the instance of any one of the five measures endeavoured to be laid upon the shelf; for if it could, that would be the reason assigned for the relinquishment, and not this unmeaning assemblage of three syllables.
A suit which, to do full justice to it, requires but six weeks, or six days, or six minutes in one day—has it been made to last six years? That your caution and your wisdom may not be questioned, by a first experiment reduce the time to five years; then if that succeeds, in another parliament, should another parliament be in a humour (which it is hoped it will not,) reduce it to four years; then again to three years; and if it should be the lot of your grandchildren to see it reduced to two years, they may think themselves well off, and admire your prudence.
Justice—to which in every eye but that of the plunderer and oppressor, rich and poor have an equal right—do nine-tenths of the people stand excluded from all hope of, by the load of expense that has been heaped up. You propose to reduce this expense. The extent of the evil is admitted, and the nature of the remedy cannot admit of doubt; but by the magic of the three syllables gra-du-al, you will limit the remedy to the reduction of about one-tenth of the expense. Some time afterwards you may reduce another tenth, and go on so, that in about two centuries, justice may, perhaps, become generally accessible.
Importance of the business—extreme difficulty of the business—danger of innovation—need of caution and circumspection—impossibility of foreseeing all consequences—danger of precipitation—everything should be gradual—one thing at a time—this is not the time—great occupation at present—wait for more leisure—people well satisfied—no petitions presented—no complaints heard—no such mischief has yet taken place—stay till it has taken place:—such is the prattle which the magpie in office, who, understanding nothing, understands that he must have something to say on every subject shouts out among his auditors as a succedaneum to thought.
Transfer the scene to domestic life, and suppose a man who, his fortune not enabling him without running into debt to keep one race-horse, has been for some time in the habit of keeping six: to transfer to this private theatre the wisdom and the benefit of the gradual system, what you would have to recommend to your friend would be something of this sort:—Spend the first year in considering which of your six horses to give up; the next year, if you can satisfy yourself which it shall be, give up some one of them: by this sacrifice, the sincerity of your intention and your reputation for economy will be established; which done, you need think no more about the matter.
As all psychological ideas have their necessary root in physical ones, one source of delusion in psychological arguments consists in giving an improper extension to some me taphor which has been made choice of.
It would be a service done to the cause of truth, if some advocate for the gradual system would let us into the secret of the metaphor or physical image, if any, which he has in view, and in the same language give us the idea of some physical disaster as the result of precipitation. A patient killed by rapid bleeding—a chariot dashed in pieces by runaway steeds—a vessel overset by carrying too much sail in a squall,—all these images suppose a degree of precipitation which, if pursued by the proposers of a political measure, would be at once apparent, and the obvious and assignable consequence of their course would afford unanswerable arguments against them.
All this while, though by a friend to the measure no such word as above will be employed in the character of argument, yet cases are not wanting in which the dilatory course recommended may be consented to, or even proposed by him.
Suppose a dozen distinct abuses in the seat of legislative power, each abuse having a set of members interested in the support of it,—attack the whole body at once, all these parties join together to a certainty, and oppose you with their united force. Attack the abuses one by one, and it is possible that you may have but one of these parties, or at least less than all of them, to cope with at a time. Possible? Yes: but of probability, little can be said. To each branch of the public service belongs a class of public servants, each of which has its sinister interest, the source of the mass of abuses on which it feeds; and in the person and power of the universal patron, the fountain of all honour and of all abuse, all those sinister interests are joined and embodied into one.
This is a branch of science in which no man is ever deficient; this is what is understood—understood to perfection, by him to whom nothing else ever was or can be clear,—Hoc discunt omnes, unto alpha et beta puelli.
If there be a case in which such graduality as is here described can have been consented to, and with a reasonable prospect of advantage, it must have been a case in which, without such consent, the whole business would be hopeless.
Under the existing system, by which the door of the theatre of legislation is opened by opulence to members in whose instance application of the faculty of thought to the business about which they are supposed to occupy themselves would have been an effect without a cause, so gross is the ignorance, and in consequence, even where good intention is not altogether wanting, so extreme the timidity and apprehension, that on their part, without assurance of extreme slowness, no concurrence to a proposal for setting one foot before another, at even the slowest pace, would be obtained at all; their pace, the only pace at which they can be persuaded to move, is that which the traveller would take, whose lot it should be to be travelling in a pitch-dark night over a road broken and slippery, edged with precipices on each side. Time is requisite for quieting timidity: why? Because time is requisite for instructing ignorance.
Lawyers; their interest in the employment of this fallacy.
In proportion to the magnitude of their respective shares in the general fund of abuse, the various fraternities interested in the support of abuses have each of them their interest in turning to the best account this as well as every other article in the list of fallacies.
But it is the fraternity of lawyers, who (if they have not decidedly the most to gain by the dexterous management of this or of other fallacies) have, from the greatest quantity of practice, derived the greatest degree of dexterity in the management of it.
Judicature requiring reflection, and the greater the complication of the case, the greater the degree and length of reflection which the case requires: under favour of this association, they have succeeded in establishing a general impression of a sort of proportion in quantity, as well as necessity of connexion, between delay and attention to justice. Not that, in fact, a hundredth part of the established delay has had any origin in a regard for justice; but—for want of sufficient insight into that state of things by which, in persons so circumstanced in power and interest, the general prevalence of any such regard has been rendered physically impossible—in his endeavours to propagate the notion of a sort of general proportion between delay and regard for justice, the man of law has, unhappily, been but too successful. And it is, perhaps, to this error in respect to matters of fact, that the snail’s-pace fallacy is indebted, more than to any other cause, for its dupes. Be this as it may, sure it is, that in no track of reform has the rate of progress which it is the object of this fallacy to secure, been adhered to with greater effect. By the statute-book, if run over (and little more than the titles would be necessary) in this view, a curious exemplification of the truth of this observation is afforded. An abuse so monstrons, that, on the part of the judicial hands by which it was manufactured, the slightest doubt of the mischievousness of it was absolutely impossible;—generation after generation groaning under this abuse;—and at length, when, by causes kept of course as much as possible out of sight, the support of the abuse has been deemed no longer practicable, comes at length a remedy. And what remedy? Never anything better than a feeble pailiative.