Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X.: PARADOXICAL ASSERTION—( ad judicium. ) - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 2
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CHAPTER X.: PARADOXICAL ASSERTION—( ad judicium. ) - 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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PARADOXICAL ASSERTION—(ad judicium.)
1. Dangerousness of the principle of utility. 2. Uselessness of classification. 3. Mischievousness of simplification. 4. Disinterestedness a mark of profligacy.
Exposition.—When of any measure, practice, or principle, the utility is too far above dispute to be capable of being impeached by reasoning, a rhetorician to whose interests or views it has appeared adverse, has in some instances, in a sort of fit of desperation, made this attack upon it; taking up the word or set of words commonly employed for the designation of it, without any such attempt as that of opposing it by any specific objection, he has assailed it with some vehement note of reprobation or strain of invective, in which the mischievousness or folly of it has been taken for granted, as if it were undeniable.
Exposure is a sort of process of which the device in question is scarce susceptible: but for the purpose of exposition, an example or two may have its use.
Utility, method, simplification, reason, sincerity. By a person unexperienced in the arts of political and verbal warfare, it would not readily be imagined that entities like these should, by any man laying claim to the distinguishing attribute of man, be pointed out as fit objects of hatred and contempt: yet so it is.
1. As to Utility.—Already has been named “a great character in a high situation,” by whom the principle of utility was pronounced a dangerous one.* A book might be mentioned, and one of no small celebrity,† in which the same principle—the principle of utility—has been pronounced useless:—the principle itself, and consequently every investigation in which, to the purposes of legislation or common life, application is endeavoured to be made of it.
What must be acknowledged is, that to make a right and effectual use of it, requires the concurrence of those requisites which are not always found in company:—invention, discernment, patience, sincerity—each in no inconsiderable degree; while, for the pronouncing of decisions without consulting it, decisions in the ipse dixit style, nothing is required but boldness.
Not that, on any occasion on which it promises to suit his purpose, and he feels in himself a capacity to apply it to that purpose, the most decided scorner of it ever fails to make use of it. It is only when, if consulted, its decisions would be against him, or he feels himself awkward at consulting it, that he ever takes upon him to do without it: and to prove anything to be right or wrong, thinks it sufficient for himself to say so.
Classification a bad thing—Good method a bad thing.
On the same occasion in which a convenience was found in pronouncing the principle of utility useless, the like convenience was found in professing the like contempt for that quality in discourse which goes by the name of good method, or simply, method, and that sort of operation called good classification, or simply, classification.
When the subject a man undertakes to write upon is to a certain degree extensive—as for example, the science of morals, or that of legislation—whether what a man says be clear or not of falsehood, will depend upon the goodness of the method in which the parts of it have been cast:—1. If, for example, snow and charcoal were both classed under the same name, and neither of them had any other,—if the question were asked, whether the thing known by that name were white or black, no inconsiderable difficulty would be found in answering it either by a yes or no. 2. And if, under favour of the identity of denomination, sugar of lead were to be used in a pudding instead of any of the sort of sugar usually applied to that purpose, practical inconveniences analogous to those which were experienced by Thornbury from eating pancake,‡ might probably be found to result from the mistake thus exemplified in the tactical branch of the art or science of life, call it which you please.
In the course of an attempt made∥ to cast the whole multitude of pernicious actions into apt classes,—as a fruit, and proof, and test of the supposed aptitude, about a dozen propositions were mentioned as being capable of being, without any deviation from the truth of things, ascribed to the pernicious acts respectively collected together under one denomination by the names respectively assigned to the four classes to which they were referred.
On the same occasion, intimation was likewise given, that in the system of law and law terms in use for the designation of offences among English lawyers, no such fair general denomination could be found, to the contents of which an equal number, and it might perhaps have been added, any number at all, of common propositions could, without error and falsehood, be ascribed. A system of classification and nomenclature which can never be employed without confounding, at every turn, objects which, to prevent practical and painful accidents, require to be distinguished, must, by every man who has not a decided interest in maintaining the contrary, be acknowledged to be very ill adapted to those which are, or at least which ought to be, its purposes.
Here, then, was an intimation given, that the whole system of English penal law is in an extreme degree ill adapted to what ought to be the purposes of every system of law; and an implied invitation to those, if any such there were, who being conversant in the subject of law, had any desire to see it well adapted to its professed purposes, to show that the system was not, in respect of the points indicated, a bad one—the radically bad one it was there represented to be,—or else to take measures for making it better. But it being the interest of every one who is most conversant with this subject, that the whole system, instead of being as good as it can be made, should be as bad as those who live under it will endure to see it, the invitation could not in either branch be accepted.
In any other branch of science that can be named—medicine, chemistry, natural history in all its branches, the progress made in every other respect is acknowledged to be commensurate to, and at once effect and cause, in relation to the progress made in the art of classification: nor in any one of those branches of science, would it perhaps be easy to find a single individual by whom the operation of classification would be spoken of as anything below the highest rank in the order of importance. Why this difference? Because in any one of these branches of science there is scarce an individual to whose interest the advancement of the science is opposed: whereas among the professors of the law there exists not an individual to whose interest the advancement of the art of legislation is not opposed—is not either immediately detrimental or ultimately dangerous.
By the opposite vice, complication, every evil opposite to the ends of justice,—viz. uncertainty of the law itself, unnecessary delay, expense, and vexation, in respect of the execution—is either produced or aggravated.* Consequently, to every one by whom any wish is entertained of seeing the mass of these evils reduced, a fervent desire is entertained of seeing the virtue of simplification infused into the system of law and judicial procedure. On an occasion that took place not long ago, if the account of the debates can be trusted, a gentleman was found resolute and frank enough to stand up and rank this virtue,—if after that, such it may be called—among the worst of vices: the use of it was evidence of Jacobinism—evidence of the circumstantial kind indeed, but sufficiently conclusive.
If, on a declaration to that effect, any sentiment of disapprobation were visible in the language or deportment of that Honourable House, none such are, at least, recorded, and if none such really were perceptible, this circumstance alone might afford no inconsiderable ground for the desire expressed by some, of seeing the character of that Honourable House undergo a thorough change.
Disinterestedness a mark of profligacy.
In his pamphlet on his Official Economy Bill, to give up official emolument is by Edmund Burke pronounced, in so many words, to be “a mark of the basest profligacy.”
On somewhat more defensible grounds might this position itself be pronounced as strong a mark as ever was exhibited, or ever could be exhibited, of the most shameless profligacy.
An assumption contained in it, besides others too numerous to admit of their being detailed here, is—that in the eyes of man there is nothing that has any value—nothing that is capable of actuating and giving direction to his conduct, but the matter of wealth: that the love of reputation and the love of power are themselves, both of them, without efficient power over the human heart.
So opposite is this position of his to the truth, that the less the quantity of money which, in return for his engagement to render official service, a man, not palpably unfit for the business of it, is content to accept, the stronger is the proof, the presumptive evidence thereby afforded, of his aptitude in all points with relation to the business of that office: since it is a proof of his relish for the business—of the pleasure he anticipates from the performance of it.†
Blinded by his rage, in this his frantic exclamation, wrung from him by the unquenched thirst for lucre,—this madman, than whom none perhaps was ever more mischievous—this incendiary, who contributed so much more than any other to light up the flames of that war, under the miseries occasioned by which the nation is still groaning,—poured forth the reproach of “the basest profligacy” on the heads of thousands, before whom, had he known who they were, he would have been ready to bow the knee. Not to mention the whole magistracy of the empire, whose office is that of justice of the peace,—among other persons before whom he was in the habit of prostrating himself, of the verbal filth he thus casts around him, one large mass falls upon the head of the Marquess Camden, and from his rebounds upon those other official heads, from which the surrender made of the vast mass of official emolument drew forth the stream of eulogium which the documents of the day present us with.
How to turn this fallacy to account.
To let off a paradox of this sort with any chance of success, you must not be anything less than the leader of a party. For if you are, instead of gaping and staring at you, men will but laugh at you, or think of something else without so much as laughing at you; because there is no laughing at anything without thinking of it.
Moreover, a thing of this sort succeeds much better in a speech, than in a book or pamphlet—and that for several reasons.
The use of a speech is to carry the measure of the moment; and if the measure be but carried, no matter for the means. The measure being carried, the paradox is seen to be no less absurd and mischievous than it is strange: no matter—the measure is carried: war is declared, or a negotiation for peace broken off. Peace you will have some time or other, but in the meantime the paradox has had its effect. A law has passed; and that law an absurd and mischievous one: some day or other, the mischief may receive a remedy; but that day may not arrive these two or three hundred years.*
In a speech, too, it is all profit—no loss: your point may be gained, or not gained; your reputation remains where it was. It is your speech, or not your speech, whichever is most convenient. To A, who under the notion of its being yours, admires it, it is your speech; to B, who, because it is yours, or because it is an absurd and mischievous one, spurns at it, it is not your speech. If the words of your paradox are ambiguous, as they will be if they are well and happly chosen,—susceptible of two senses, an innoxious and a noxious one—this is exactly what is wanted. A, who on your credit is ready to take it, and to adopt it in the noxious one which suits your purpose, is suffered silently to take it in that noxious one: but if B, taking it in the noxious one, attacks you and pushes you too hard, then some adherent of yours (not you yourself, for it would be weak indeed for you to appear in the matter,) some adherent of yours brings out the innocent sense, vows and swears it was that meaning that was yours, and belabours poor B with a charge of calumny.
If in the choice of your expression you have been negligent or unfortunate, so that no more than one sense, and that one indefensible, can with any colour of reason be ascribed to it, you thus lose part of your advantage. But still no harm can happen to you: you disavow—that is, your adherent for you disavows—the very words:—and thus everything is as it should be.
Thus it is that from speeches—spoken and unminuted speeches—you derive much the same sort of advantage as is derived from that sort of sham law (which, in so far as it is made by anybody, is made by judges, and is called common or unwritten law) by lawyers: thundering all the while the charge of insincerity or folly in all who have the assurance to ascribe to it either a different word or a different meaning. To the supposed speech, as to the supposed law, they give what words they please, and then to those words they give what meaning they please. The law, indeed, neither has, nor ever had, any determinate form of words belonging to it; whereas the speech could not have been spoken, unless it had had a set, and that a complete one, of determinate words belonging to it. But in the speech—the words never having been committed to writing, or if they have been, evidence of their being the same words not being producible,—the speech-maker is as safe as if he had never uttered any one of those words.
In the intellectual weakness of those on whom, in this form, imposition is endeavoured to be practised—in this degrading weakness, and in the state of servitude in which they are accordingly held by the shackles of authority,† may be seen the cause of that success, and thence of the effrontery and insolence which this species of imposition manifests. In proportion as intellect is weaker and weaker, reason has less and less to hold upon it; authority, fortified by the appearance, real or fallacious, of strong persuasion, more and more.
It is in this way that, strange as at first mention it cannot but appear—it is in this way—and when addressed to minds of such a texture, the more flagrant and outrageous the absurdity, the stronger its persuasive force. Why? Because, without the strongest ground, a persuasion—so strong a persuasion—of the truth of a proposition, at first sight at least so adverse to truth, it is taken for granted, could not have been formed.
When the terrors of which religion is the source, are the instruments employed for inculcating it, the strength of the persuasion thus inspired presents little cause for wonder. In the intensity of the exertion made for the purpose of believing—the greater the difficulty, the greater is, in case of success, the merit. Hence that most magnanimous of all conclusions, credo quia impossibile est. Higher than this, the force of faith—the force, and consequently the merit—cannot go: by this one bound, the pinnacle is attained; and whatsoever reward Omnipotence has in store for service of this complexion, is placed out of the reach of failure.
Be the absurdity ever so flagrant—the nature of man considered, and how absolute the dominion which is exercised over him by the passions of fear and hope—be the absurdity ever so flagrant, cause of just wonder can never be afforded by any acceptance which it receives, with the support afforded to it by the most irresistible of the passions:
The understanding is not the source—reason is of itself no spring of action: the understanding is but an instrument in the hand of the will: it is by hopes and fears that the end of action is determined;—all that reason does, is to find and determine upon the means:
But where, at the mere suggestion of a set of men with gowns of a certain form on their backs—where at their mere suggestion (unsupported by any motive of a nature to act on the will), we see men living and acting under the persuasion, that in the vice of lying there is virtue to metamorphose into justice the crime of usurpation;—here, it is not the will that is confounded and overwhelmed: it is the understanding that is deluded.*
[* ]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.
[† ]The Edinburgh Review.
[‡ ]In the pancake in question, which, at a table at the Cape of Good Hope was served up to a company, of which Thornbury, better known by his travels in Japan, was one, white lead was employed instead of flour:—some recovered, and some died.
[∥ ]In a book written anno 1780, published anno 1789, under the title of Introduction to Morals and Legislation.—(See Vol. I. of this collection.)
[* ]See Scotch Reform, Vol. V. Delay and Complication Tables.
[† ]See Bentham par Dumont. Théorie des Peines et des Récompenses: (Rationale of Punishment, Vol. I. p. 388, and Rationale of Reward, antea, p. 189, et seq.) and Defences of Economy against Edmund Burke and George Rose, Vol. V. p. 278, et seq.
[* ]Till lately, the country has suffered in a variety of ways by the law made in the reign of Elizabeth to prevent good workmanship: the effect is felt; the cause, men cannot bear to look at.
[† ]See Ad Verecundiam, Part I. Fallacies of Authority.
[* ]To form a ground for decision, a judge asserts, as true, some fact which to hisknowledge is not true—some fact, for the assertion of which, if, in the station of a witness, and without having for his protection the power of a judge, a man were to venture the assertion of, he would by this same judge be punished with imprisonment and infamy. To screen it from the abhorrence due to [Editor: illegible word] this lie, exceeding in wickedness the most wicked of the assertions commonly brought into view under that name, is decked up in the same appellation, fiction, which is employed in bringing to view the innoxious and amusing pictures of ideal scenes for which we are indebted to the poetic genius. What you are thus doing with the lie in your mouth,—had you power to do it without the lie?—your lie is a foolish one. Have you no such power?—it is a flagitious one. In this mire may be seen laid the principal part of the foundation of English common law.