Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER II.: ANOTHER INDIRECT METHOD—HINDER THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE WHICH MAY BE RENDERED INJURIOUS. † - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law)
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CHAPTER II.: ANOTHER INDIRECT METHOD—HINDER THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE WHICH MAY BE RENDERED INJURIOUS. † - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 1 (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Fragment on Government, Civil Code, Penal Law) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 1.
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ANOTHER INDIRECT METHOD—HINDER THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE WHICH MAY BE RENDERED INJURIOUS.†
I only mention this policy to proscribe it: it has produced the censorship of books; it has produecd the inquisition; it would produce the eternal degradation of the human race.
I intend to show—1st, That the diffusion of knowledge is not hurtful upon the whole; crimes of refinement being less hurtful than those of ignorance: 2d, That the most advantageous method of combating the evil which may result from a certain degree of knowledge, is to increase its quantity.
I say at once, that the diffusion of knowledge is not hurtful upon the whole. Some writers have thought, or appeared to think, that the less men knew, the better they would be; that the less they knew, the fewer objects would they be acquainted with, as motives to, or instruments for doing evil. That fanatics have held this opinion, would not be surprising, seeing there is a natural and constant rivalry between the knowledge of useful and intelligible things, and the knowledge of things imaginary, useless, and unintelligible. But this style of thinking, with respect to the danger of knowledge, is sufficiently common among the mass of mankind. They speak with regret of the golden age—of the age when nothing was known. In order to exhibit the mistake upon which this manner of thinking is founded, a more precise method of estimating the evil of an offence, than has hitherto been employed, is required.
That the crimes of refinement have been considered more hateful than the crimes of ignorance, is not surprising. In judging of the grandeur of offences, the principle of antipathy has been more followed than the principle of utility: antipathy looks more at the apparent degradation of character indicated by the offence, than at any other circumstance. This, in the eyes of passion, is the salient point in every action; in comparison with which, the strict examination required by the principle of utility will always appear cold. Now, the greater the knowledge and refinement indicated by a crime, the greater the reflection exhibited on the part of its author, the greater the depravation of moral dispositions indicated also: but the evil of a crime, the only object, according to the principle of utility, is not solely determined by the depravity of character exhibited—it depends immediately upon the sufferings of the persons who are affected by the crime, and the alarm which results from it to society in general; and into this sum of evil, the depravity which the criminal has manifested, enters as an aggravation, but not as an essential circumstance.
The greatest crimes are those for which the slightest degree of knowledge is sufficient; the most ignorant individual always knows how to commit them.
Inundation is a greater crime than incendiarism, incendiarism greater than murder, murder than robbery, robbery than cheating. This might be demonstrated by an arithmetical process, by an inventory of the items of evil on both sides, by a comparison of the extent of evil done to each person injured, and by the number of persons who would be enveloped in such evil. But how much knowledge must be possessed, that an individual may be qualified to commit such acts? The most atrocious of all only requires a degree of information which is found among the most barbarous and savage of men.
Rape is worse than seduction or adultery; but rape is more frequent in times of ignorance; seduction and adultery in times of civilization.
The dissemination of knowledge has not augmented the number of crimes, nor even the facility of committing them: it has only diversified the means of their accomplishment. And how has it diversified them? by gradually substituting those which are less hurtful.
Is a new method of cheating invented? the inventor profits for a time by his discovery; but soon his secret is discovered, and we are upon our guard. He must then have recourse to a new method, which, like the first, will last only for a time, and pass away. All this time it is only cheating, which is less mischievous than theft, which itself is a less evil than highway robbery.* For what reason? The confidence of every one in his own prudence, in his own sagacity, hinders him from being alarmed so much by a case of cheating as by a robbery.
Let us, however, acknowledge that the wicked abuse every thing,—that the more they know, the greater will be their means of doing evil: what follows?
If the good and the wicked compose two distinct races, as those of the blacks and the whites, the one might be enlightened whilst the other was held in ignorance. But since it is impossible to distinguish them, and since good and evil are so frequently mingled in the same individuals, one law must be established for all: general illumination or general blindness; there is no medium.
The remedy springs out of the evil itself. Knowledge confers no advantage upon the wicked, except they exclusively possess it: a snare, when recognised, is no longer a snare. The most ignorant nations have known how to poison the points of their arrows; but it is only those nations which are far advanced in civilization, which are acquainted with all poisons, and can oppose antidotes to each.
All men are qualified to commit crimes: it is only the enlightened who are qualified to frame laws for their prevention. The less instructed a man is, the more is he led to separate his interests from those of his fellows. The more enlightened he is, the more distinctly will he perceive the union of his personal with the general interest.
Examine the history of past times: the most barbarous ages will present an assemblage of all crimes, and even crimes of cheating, as well as those of violence. The grossness given to some vices does not exclude a single one. At what period were false titles and false dotations most multiplied? When the clergy alone knew how to read—when, from the superiority of their knowledge, they regarded other men nearly as we regard horses, which we could no longer render submissive to the bit and the bridle, if their intellectual faculties were augmented. Why, at the same time, had they recourse to judicial duels, to proofs by fire and water, to all those species of trials which they called judgments of God? It was because, in the infancy of reason, they had no principles upon which to discern between true and false testimony.
Compare the effects produced under those governments which have restrained the publication of thought, and those which have allowed it a free course. You have, on the one side, Spain, Portugal, Italy; you have, on the other side, England, Holland, and Northern America. Where are the most civilized manners and the greatest happiness? where are the most crimes committed? where is society most gentle and most secure?
Those institutions have been too much celebrated, in which their heads have monopolized all knowledge. Of this kind was the priesthood of ancient Egypt, the caste of the Bramins in Indostan, the societies of the Jesuits in Paraguay. Upon these institutions it is proper to make two observations: the first, that if their conduct have merited eulogium, it is with respect to the interest of those who have invented these forms of government, not with respect to the interest of those who have been subject to them. It may be admitted that the people have been tranquil and docile under these theocracies: have they been happy? This cannot be believed, if it be admitted that abject servitude, vain terrors, useless obligations and mortifications, painful privations and gloomy opinions, are obstacles to happiness.
The second observation is, that they have less completely obtained their design in maintaining natural ignorance than in spreading prejudices and propagating errors. The chiefs themselves have always finished by becoming the victims of this narrow and pusillanimous policy. Nations which have been retained in a state of constant inferiority by institutions which were opposed to all kinds of progress, have at length become the prey of other nations, who have obtained a comparative superiority. These nations, become old in their infancy, under tutors who prolonged their imbecility in order more easily to govern them, have always offered an easy conquest, and, once subjugated, have known no change but in the colour of their chains.
But it may be said, there is no question among us of leading men back to ignorance: all governments feel the necessity of illumination. What excites their fears, is the liberty of the press. They are not opposed to the publication of books of science; but have they not reason to oppose the publication of immoral and seditious writings, with regard to which there is no longer any opportunity of preventing their mischief, when once they are issued? To punish a guilty author may perhaps prevent the guilt of those who may be tempted to imitate him; but to prevent, by the institution of a censorship, the publication of evil books, is to stop the poison at its source.
The liberty of the press has its inconveniences, but the evil which may result from it is not to be compared with the evil of the censorship.
Where shall that rare genius, that superior intelligence, that mortal accessible to all truth and inaccessible to all passions, be found, to whom to confide this right of supreme dictation over all the productions of the human mind? Would a Locke, or a Leibnitz, or a Newton, have had the presumption to undertake it? And what is this power that you are obliged to confide to ordinary men? It is a power which, by a singular necessity, collects together in its exercise all the causes of prevarication, and all the characters of iniquity. Who is the censor? He is an interested judge—a sole, an arbitrary judge, who carries on a clandestine process, condemns without hearing, and decides without appeal. Secresy, the greatest of all its abuses, is essential to a censorship: publicly to plead the cause of any book would be to publish it, in order to determine whether it were fit for publication.
Whilst as to the evil which may result from it, it is impossible to estimate it, since it is impossible to say what it arrests. It is nothing less than the danger of arresting the progress of the human mind in every career. Every interesting and new truth must have many enemies, because it is interesting and new. Is it to be presumed that the censor will belong to that infinitely small number who rise above established prejudices? were he to possess this elevation of mind, would be possess boldness sufficient to compromise himself by discoveries of which he would not possess the glory? There is only one course of safety for him: it is to proscribe all but ordinary ideas—to pass his blasting scythe over every thing which rises above the ordinary level. He risks nothing by prohibition; he risks every thing by permission: by doubt he does not suffer; it is truth which is stifled.
If it had depended upon men invested with authority to regulate the progress of the human mind, where should we now have been? Religion, legislation, natural philosophy, morals, would still be all in darkness.
The proof of these well-known facts need not here be repeated.
The true censorship is that of an enlightened public, which will brand dangerous and false opinions, and will encourage useful discoveries. The boldness of a libel in a free country will not save it from general contempt; but, by a contradiction easily to be explained, the indulgence of the public in this respect is proportioned always to the rigour of the government.
[† ]Knowledge, though commonly considered as distinct from power, is really a branch of it. It is a branch of power, whose seat is in the mind. Before a man can perform any act, he must know two things: the motives for doing it, and the means of doing it. These two kinds of knowledge may be distinguished into that of motives, and that of means: the first constitutes inclination, the second constitutes a part of power.
[* ]I always suppose that the damage of the crime is the same: for, in one point of view, cheating may prove worse; since a greater sum may be obtained by fraud than by highway robbery. For proof of the superiority of modern manners over those of ancient times, reference may be made to Hunter’s Essay on Population: for proof of their superiority over the Gothic ages, to Voltaire’s General History, Robertson’s Introduction to Charles V., Barrington’s Observations on the English Statutes, and the Treatise of Le Chevalier de Chastelleux on Public Happiness—a work well designed, but indifferently executed.