Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: ANTI-RATIONAL FALLACIES—( ad verecundiam. ) - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER IX.: ANTI-RATIONAL FALLACIES—( ad verecundiam. ) - 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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ANTI-RATIONAL FALLACIES—(ad verecundiam.)
Exposition.—When reason is found or supposed to be in opposition to a man’s interests, his study will naturally be to render the faculty itself, and whatsoever issues from it, an object of hatred and contempt.
So long as the government contains in it any sort of abuse from which the members of the government, or any of them, derive in any shape a profit, and in the continuance of which they possess a proportionable interest, reason being against them, persons so circumstanced will be in so far against reason.
Instead of reason, we might here say thought. Reason is a word that implies not merely the use of the faculty of thinking, but the right use of it: but sooner than fail of its object, the sarcasm and other figures of speech employed upon the occasion are directed not merely against reason, but against thought itself; as if there were something in the faculty of thought that rendered the exercise of it incompatible with useful and successful practice.
1. Sometimes a plan, the adoption of which would not suit the official person’s interest, is without more ado pronounced a speculative one: and by this observation all need of rational and deliberate discussion,—such as objection to the end proposed, as not a fit one—objection to the means employed, as not being fit means,—is considered as being superseded.
To the word speculative, for further enforcement, are added or substituted, in a number more or less considerable, other terms, as nearly synonymous to it and to one another, as it is usual for words called synonymous to be; viz. theoretical, visionary, chimerical, romantic, utopian.
2. Sometimes a distinction is taken, and thereupon a concession made. The plan is good in theory, but it would be bad in practice; i. e. its being good in theory does not hinder its being bad in practice.
3. Sometimes, as if in consequence of a further progress made in the art of irrationality, the plan is pronounced to be too good to be practicable: and its being so good as it is, is thus represented as the very cause of its being bad in practice.
4. In short, such is the perfection at which this art is at length arrived, that the very circumstanee of a plan’s being susceptible of the appellation of a plan, has been gravely stated as a circumstance sufficient to warrant its being rejected: rejected, if not with hatred, at any rate with a sort of accompaniment, which to the million is commonly felt still more galling—with contempt.
“Looking at the House of Commons with these views,” says a writer on the subject of parliamentary reform, “my object would be to find out its chief defects, and to attempt the remedy of these one by one. To propose no system, no great project, nothing which pretended even to the name of a plan, but to introduce in a temperate and conciliatory manner . . . . one or two separate bills.”*
In this strain were these men proposed to be addressed, anno 1810, by Mr. Brougham: in this strain were they addressed, anno 1819, by Sir James Mackintosh, in moving for a committee on the penal laws. To give a man any chance of doing anything with them, in this same way they have ever been addressed, and must ever be addressed, till by radical reform (for it cannot be by anything less) the house shall have been purged of a class of men, of whom the most complete inaptitude in respect of every element of appropriate aptitude, is an essential characteristic. In the scale of appropriate probity—in the scale of appropriate intellectual aptitude, to find their level, a man must descend below that of the very dregs of the people. Oh what a picture is here drawn of them, and by so experienced a hand! How cutting, yet how unquestionably just, the perhaps unintended, perhaps intended satire! To avoid awakening the real terrors of some, the sham terrors of others, all consistency, all comprehensive acquaintance with the field of action, must be abjured. When idolatry in all its shapes shall have become extinct, and the words wise ancestors no longer an instrument of deception but a by-word, with what scorn will not ancestors such as these be looked back upon by their posterity!
Intimate as is the connexion between all these contrivances, there is however enough of distinction to render them, in this or that point of view, susceptible of a separate exposure.
Abuse of the words Speculative, Theoretical, &c.
Exposure.—On the occasion of these epithets, and the propositions of which they constitute the leading terms, what will be held up to view in the character of a fallacy, is—not the use of them, but merely the abuse.
It may be placed to the account of abuse as often as in a serious speech, without the allegation of any specific objection, an epithet of this class bestowed upon the measure is exhibited as containing the expression of a sufficient reason for rejecting it, by putting upon it a mark of reprobation thus contemptuous.
What is altogether out of dispute is, that many and many a measure has been proposed, to which this class of epithets, or some of them, would be justly applicable. But a man’s conceptions must be wofully indistinct, or his vocabulary deplorably scanty, if, be the bad measure what it may, he cannot contrive to give intimation of what, in his view, there is bad in it, without employing an epithet, the effect of which is to hold out, as an object of contempt, the very act of thinking—the operation of thought itself.
The fear of theory has to a certain extent its foundation in reason. There is a general propensity in those who adopt this or that theory, to push it too far; i. e. to set up a general proposition which is not true until certain exceptions have been taken out of it—to set it up without any of those exceptions—to pursue it without regard to the exceptions,—and thence, pro tanto, in cases in which it is false, fallacious, repugnant to reason and utility.
The propensity thus to push theory too far is acknowledged to be almost universal.
But what is the just inference? Not that theoretical propositions—i. e. propositions of considerable extent—should from such their extent be concluded to be false in toto; but only, that in the particular case inquiry should be made, whether, supposing the proposition to be in the character of a general rule generally true, there may not be a case in which, to reduce it within the limits of truth, reason, and utility, an exception ought to be taken out of it.
Every man’s knowledge is, in its extent, proportioned to the extent as well as number of those general propositions, of the truth of which, they being true, he has the persuasion in his own mind: in other words, the extent of these his theories comprises the extent of his knowledge.
If, indeed, his theories are false, then, in proportion as they are extensive, he is the more deeply steeped in ignorance and error.
But from the mere circumstances of its being theoretical, by these enemies to knowledge its falsehood is inferred as if it were a necessary consequence—with as much reason as if, from a man’s speaking, it were inferred as a necessary consequence, that what he speaks must be false.
One would think, that in thinking there were something wicked or else unwise: every body feels or fancies a nece-sity of disclaiming it. “I am not given to speculation”—“I am no friend to theories.” Speculation—theory,—what is it but thinking? Can a man disclaim speculation, can he disclaim theory, without disclaiming thought? If they do not mean thought, they mean nothing; for, unless it be a little more thought than ordinary, theory, speculation, mean nothing.
To escape from the imputation of meditating destruction to mankind, a man must disclaim everything that puts him above the level of a beast.
A plan proposes a wrong end—or, the end being right, proposes a wrong set of means. If this be what a man means, can he not say so? Would not what he says have somewhat more meaning—be a little more consistent with the principles of common sense, with common honesty, than saying of it that it is theoretical—that it is speculative?
As to the epithet utopian, the case in which it is rightly applied seems to be that in which, in the event of the adoption of the proposed plan, felicitous effects are represented as about to take place, no causes adequate to the production of such effects being to be found in it.
In Sir Thomas More’s romance, from which the epithet utopian has its origin, a felicitous state of things is announced by the very name.
Considering the age in which he lived, even without adverting to the sort of religion of which he was so honest and pertinacious an adherent, we may be sufficiently assured that the institutions spoken of by him as having been productive of this effect, had, taking them altogether, very little tendency to produce it.
Such, in general, is likely enough to be the case with the portion of political felicity exhibited in any other romance: and thus far the epithet romantic is likely enough, though not certain, to be found well applied to any political plan, in the conveyance of which to the notice of the public, any such vehicle is employed. Causes and effects being alike at the command of this species of poet in prose, the honour of any felicitous event is as easily ascribed to uninfluencing circumstances, or even to obstacles, as to causes.
If the established state of things, including the abuse which in so many shapes is interwoven in it, were anything like what the undiscriminating defenders of it represent it as being—viz. a system of perfection—in this actually established system (real in so far as abuse and imperfection are ascribed to it—imaginary in so far as exemption from such abuse and imperfection is ascribed to it)—might indeed be seen an utopia—a felicitous result, flowing from causes not having it in their nature to be productive of any such effects, but having it in their nature to be productive of contrary effects.
In every department of government, say the advocates of reform, abuses and imperfections are abundant; because the hands in which the powers of government are reposed, have, partly by their own artifice, partly by the supineness of the people, been placed in such circumstances, that abuse in every shape is a source of profit to themselves.
Under these circumstances, if any expectation were really entertained that by these hands any considerable defalcation from the aggregate mass of abuse will ever be made,—to no other expectation can the charge of utopianism be with more propriety applied: effects so produced, would be produced against the force of irresistible obstacles, as well as absolutely without a cause.
But in that same system there has all along been preserved, by the many, a faculty—and that a faculty every now and then, though much too seldom and too weakly, exercised,—of creating, and without very considerable inconvenience or danger to themselves, uneasiness, more or less considerable, to these their rulers. In the state of things thus described, there is nothing of utopianism; for it is matter of universally notorious fact; and in this faculty on the part of the many of creating uneasiness in the bosoms of the few—in this faculty on the part of those who suffer by the abuses of creating uneasiness in the bosoms of those who profit by them,—in this invaluable, and, except in America, unexampled faculty—rests the only chance, the only source of hope.
Good in theory, bad in practice.
Even in the present stage of civilization, it is almost a rare case, that by reason, looking to the end in view, matters of government are determined: and the cause is, the existence of so many institutions, which being adverse to the only proper end, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, are maintained, because favourable to the interests of the ruling few. Custom, blind custom, established under the dominion of that separate and sinister interest, is the guide by which most operations have been conducted. In so far as the interest of the many has appeared to the governing few to coincide with their own separate interests, in so far it has been pursued—in so far as it has appeared incompatible with those interests, it has been neglected or opposed.
One consequence is, that when by accident a plan comes upon the carpet, in the formation of which the only legitimate end of government has been looked to, if the beaten track of custom has in ever so slight a degree been departed from, the practical man, the man of routine, knows not what to make of it: its goodness, if it be good—its badness, if it be bad, are alike removed out of the sphere of his observance. If it be conducive to the end, it is more than he can see; for the end is what he has not been used to look to.
In the consideration of any plan, what he has not been used to, is to consider what, in the department in question, is the proper end of every plan that can be presented, and whether the particular plan in question be conducive to that end: what he has been used to, is, to consider whether in the matter and form it be like what he has practised. If in a certain degree unlike, it throws him into a sort of perplexity. If the plan be a good one, and in the form of reasons, the points of advantage whereby it is conducive to the proper end in view have been presented,—and in such sort that he sees not any, the existence of which he feels himself able to contest, nor at the same time any disadvantages which he can present in the character of preponderant ones,—he will be afraid so far to commit himself as to pronounce it a bad one. By way of compounding the matter, and to show his candour, if he be on good terms with you, he will perhaps admit it to be good—viz. in theory. But this concession made,—it being admitted and undeniable that theory is one thing and practice another, he will take a distinction, and, to pay him for his concession, propose to you to admit that it is not the thing for practice; in a word, that it is good in theory, bad in practice.
That there have been plans in abundance which have been found bad in practice, and many others, which would, if tried, have proved bad in practice, is altogether out of dispute.
That of each description there have been many which in theory have appeared, and with reference to the judgment of some of the persons by whom they have been considered, have been found plausible, is likewise out of dispute.
What is here meant to be denied, is, that a plan, which is essentially incapable of proving good in practice, can with propriety be said to be good in theory.
Whenever, out of a number of circumstances the concurrence of all of which is necessary to the success of a plan, any one is, in the calculation of the effects expected from it, omitted, any such plan will, in proportion to the importance of the omitted circumstance, be defective in practice; and if such be the degree of importance, bad—upon the whole, a bad one; the disadvantageous effects of the plan not finding a compensation in the advantageous ones.
When the plan for the illumination of the streets by gas-lights was laid before the public by the person who considered himself, or gave himself out for the inventor, one of the items in the article of expense—one capital article, viz. that of the pipes, was omitted. On the supposition that the pipes might all of them have been had for nothing, and that in the plan so exhibited no other such imperfections were to be found, the plan would, to the persons engaged in the undertaking, be not merely advantageous, but advantageous in the prodigious degree therein represented. If, on the contrary, the expense of this omitted article were such as to more than countervail the alleged balance on the side of profit, then would the plan, with reference to the undertakers, prove disadvantageous upon the whole, and in one word, a bad one.
But whatever it prove to be in practice, in theory, having so important an omission in it, it cannot but be pronounced a bad one; for every plan in which, in the account of advantages and disadvantages—of profit and losses, any item is on the side of disadvantage or loss omitted, is, in proportion to the magnitude of such loss, a bad one, how advantageous soever upon trial the result may prove upon the whole.
In the line of political economy, most plans that have been adopted and employed by government for enriching the community by money given to individuals, have been bad in practice.
But if they have been bad in practice, it is because they have been bad in theory. In the account taken of profit and loss, some circumstance that has been necessary to render the plan in question advantageous upon the whole, has been omitted.
This circumstance has been the advantage, which from the money employed would have been reaped, either in the way of addition to capital by other means, or in the way of comfort by expenditure.
Of the matter of wealth, portions that by these operations were but transferred from hand to hand, and commonly with a loss by the way, were erroneously considered as having been created.
Too good to be practicable.
There is one case in which, in a certain sense, a plan may be said to be too good to be practicable—and that case a very comprehensive one. It is where, without adequate inducement in the shape of personal interest, the plan requires for its accomplishment that some individual or class of individuals shall have made a sacrifice of his or their personal interest to the interest of the whole. Where it is only on the part of some one individual, or very small number of individuals, that a sacrifice of this sort is reckoned upon, the success of the plan is not altogether without the sphere of moral possibility; because instances of a disposition of this sort, though extremely rare, are not altogether without example: by religious hopes and fears, by philanthropy, by secret ambition, such miracles have now and then been wrought. But when it is on the part of a body of men or a multitude of individuals taken at random, that any such sacrifice is reckoned upon, then it is that in speaking of the plan the term utopian may without impropriety be applied.
In this case,—if, neglecting the question of practicability,—on the mere consideration of the nature of the results, the production of which is aimed at by the plan, it can with propriety be termed a good one, the observation, too good to be practicable, cannot justly be accused of want of truth.
But it is not any such intimation that, by those in whose mouths this observation is most in use, is meant to be conveyed. The description of persons by whom chiefly, if not exclusively, it is employed, are those who, regarding a plan as being adverse to their interests, and not finding it on the ground of general utility exposed to any preponderant objection, have recourse to this objection in the character of an instrument of contempt, in the view of preventing those from looking into it, who might otherwise have been so disposed.
It is by the fear of seeing it practised, that they are drawn to speak of it as impracticable.
In the character of opposers of a plan, of the goodness of which—that is, of its conduciveness to the welfare of the whole community taken together—they are themselves persuaded, it cannot be their intention or wish to exhibit themselves: it is not, therefore, in any such property of the plan that it can be their aim to engage those on whom it depends, to look for the cause of the impracticability which they impute to it.
Under favour of such observation as may have been made of the instances in which plans—the goodness of which, supposing them carried into effect, has been beyond dispute—have failed of success, what they aim at is the producing, in superficial minds, the idea of a universal and natural connexion between extraordinary and extensive goodness and impracticability: that so often as upon the face of any plan the marks of extraordinary and extensive utility are discernible, these marks may, as it were by a signal, have the effect of inducing a man to turn aside from the plan, and, whether in the way of neglect and non-support, or in the way of active opposition, to bestow on it the same treatment that he would be justified in bestowing upon a bad one.
“Upon the face of it, it carries that air of plausibility, that, if you were not upon your guard, might engage you to bestow more or less of your attention upon it. But were you to take the trouble, you would find that, as it is with all these plans that promise so much, practicability would at last be wanting to it. To save yourself from this trouble, the wisest course you can take, is, therefore, to put the plan aside, and think no more about the matter.”
There is a particular sort of grin—a grin of malicious triumph—a grin made up of malicious triumph, with a dash of concealed foreboding and trepidation at the bottom of it—that forms a natural accompaniment of this fallacy, when vented by any of the sworn defenders of abuse: and Milton, instead of cramming all his angels of the African complexion into the divinity school disputing about predestination, should have employed part of them at least in practising this grin, with the corresponding fallacy, before a looking-glass.
Proportioned to the difficulty of persuading men to regard a plan as otherwise than beneficial, supposing it carried into effect, is the need of all such arguments or phrases as present a chance of persuading them to regard it as impracticable: and according to the sort of man you have to deal with, you accompany it with the grin of triumph, or with the grimace of regret and lamentation.
There is a class of predictions, the tendency and object of which is to contribute to their own accomplishment; and in the number of them is the prediction involved in this fallacy. When objections on the ground of utility are hopeless, or have been made the most of, objections on the ground of practicability still present an additional resource: by these, men who, being convinced of the utility of the plan, are in ever so great a degree well-wishers to it, may be turned aside from it: and the best garb to assume for the purpose of the attempt, is that of one who is a well-wisher likewise.
Till the examples are before his eyes, it will not be easy for a man who has not himself made the observation, to conceive to what a pitch of audacity political improbity is capable of soaring—how completely, when an opportunity that seems favourable presents itself, the mask will sometimes be taken off—what thorough confidence there is in the complicity or in the imbecility of hearers or readers.
If to say a good thing is a good thing is nugatory, and, as such, foolish language—what shall we say of him who stands up boldly and says, to aim at doing good is a bad thing?
In so many words, it may be questioned whether any such thing has yet been said: but what is absolutely next to it, scarce distinguishable from it, and in substance the same thing, has actually been said over and over. To aim at perfection, has been pronounced to be utter folly or wickedness; and both or either at the extreme. To say that man (the species called man) has so much as a tendency to better himself, and that the range of such tendency has no certain limits,—this has been—speculation: propositions or observations to that effect have also been set down as a mark of wickedness. “By Priestley, an observation to this effect has somewhere or other been made: by Godwin, an observation to this effect has somewhere or other been made: by Condorcet, or some other Frenchman or Frenchmen of the class of those who, for the purpose of holding them up to execration, are called philosophers, an observation to this effect has somewhere or other been made.
“By this mark, with or without the aid of any other, these men, together with other men of the same leaven, have proved themselves the enemies of mankind: and you too, whosoever you are, if you dare to maintain the same heresy, you also are an enemy to mankind.”
In vain would you reply to him, if he be an official man:—Sir, Mr. Chalmers who, like yourself, was an official man, has maintained this tendency, and written a book, which from beginning to end is a demonstration of it as clear and undeniable as Euclid’s: and Mr. Chalmers is neither a madman nor an enemy to mankind.
In vain would you reply to him, if he call himself a Christian:—Sir, Jesus said to his disciples, and to you if you would be one of them, “Be ye perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect;” and in so doing, has not only assumed the tendency, but commanded it to be encouraged and carried to its utmost possible length.
By observations such as these, may the sort of man in question be perhaps for a moment silenced: but neither by this, nor anything, nor anybody, though one rose from the dead, would he be converted.
To various descriptions of persons, over and above those who are in the secret, a fallacy of this class is in a singular degree acceptable and conciliating:—
1. To all idle men—all haters of business; a considerable class, where a share in the sovereignty of an empire such as ours is parcelled out into portions which are private property—where electors’ votes are free in appearance only, and scarcely in appearance—and where the votes that are sold for money are in fact among the freest that are to be found.
2. All ignorant men—all who, for want of due and appropriate instruction, feeling themselves incapable of judging on any question on its own merits, look out with eagerness for such commodious and reputation-saving grounds.
3. All dull and stupid men;—in whose instance, information—reading—such as has fallen to their lot, has not yet been sufficient to enable them to determine a question on its own merits.
When a train of argument—when but a single argument, is presented, that requires thought—an operation so troublesome and laborious as that which goes by the name of thought,—an expression of scorn levelled at the author or supposed author of this trouble, is as far as it goes, a just, howsoever scanty and inadequate, punishment for the disturbance attempted to be given to honourable repose.
Under the name of theory, &c., what is it that to men of this description is so odious? What but reference to the end—to that which, on that part of the field of thought and action which is in question, is, or at any rate ought to be, the end pursued, and thence, in every case, the end in view—(how often must it, and ever in vain, be repeated?)—the greatest happiness of the greatest number? But were reference made to this end—to this inflexible standard—everything almost they do—everything almost they support—would stand condemned. What, then, shall be the standard? Custom—custom: custom being their own practice, blindly imitating the practice of men in the same situations, put in motion and governed by the same sinister interests.
[* ]This was Brougham: the time about June 1810. Reference is made to the Government periodical called the Satirist (by Manners,) June 1810, No. 33, p. 570. But that wretched performance is now pretty well forgotten.