Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter two: On the Value Attributed to Errors - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter two: On the Value Attributed to Errors - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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On the Value Attributed to Errors
There is no doubt that the apparent consequence of an error can be very useful; that is, the effect which seems bound to result from it naturally can appear very advantageous. The real difficulty, however, is that nothing guarantees that the moral effect of an error will be such as one supposes or wishes. The supporters of useful errors fall into a misapprehension which we have pointed out elsewhere.2 They bring into their calculations only the purpose and do not consider the effect of the means used to secure it. They consider such error only as something established in isolation, forgetting the danger of giving man the habit of error. Reason is a faculty which improves or deteriorates. Imposing error on man causes the faculty to deteriorate. You break the connectedness of his thought. Who can guarantee it will not break again when it comes to the application of the error you  have inculcated in him? If it were given to man to invert, just once, the order of the seasons, whatever advantage he might derive from this privilege in a particular circumstance, he would nonetheless experience as a result an incalculable disadvantage, in that subsequently he would no longer be able to rely on the uniform sequence and unvarying regularity which serve as a base for his working activities. Moral nature is like physical nature. Any error distorts the mind, since to penetrate it, error must stop it moving according to its purpose, from principle to consequence. Whose assurance have you that this operation will not constantly repeat itself? Who can trace the path a mind which has abandoned reason’s path must follow? An error is an impetus, its direction incalculable. In creating that impetus and by the very operation you had to perform to create it, you have placed yourself outside the ability to control it. Therefore you must fear the thing seeming least likely to result from it. It is by a petitio principii that you say: such and such an error is favorable to morality. Not so, since in order for that error truly to be favorable to morality it would be necessary for the man who had falsely reasoned in adopting that error, to reason rightly in departing from that given point, and nothing is less certain. A mind you have got used to reasoning falsely on such and such an occasion, when the imperfection of his logic seemed convenient to you and fitted in with your views, will reason falsely on another such occasion and then the viciousness of his reasoning will run counter to your intentions. A particular man may adopt absurd ideas on the nature of a supreme being. He imagines Him incomprehensible, vindictive, jealous, capricious, and so on. If he nevertheless went on to reason well henceforth on the basis of these givens, despite their absurdity they could still regulate his behavior usefully. He would say to himself: “this all-powerful being, often bizarre, sometimes cruel, nevertheless wills the maintenance of human societies, and in our uncertainty as to his particular wishes, the surest way of pleasing him is justice, which satisfies his general will.” But instead of this kind of reasoning, this mind, sufficiently misled to have adopted an absurd initial premise, will probably go from supposition to supposition, from mystery to mystery, from absurdity to absurdity, until he has forged himself a morality utterly contrary to the kind we believed we had entrusted to the safekeeping of religion. Therefore it is not advantageous to deceive men, even when a momentary advantage can be gained from this expedient. The general who tells his troops that the thunderbolt’s roar presages victory,  risks seeing his soldiers take to flight if some more cunning deceiver persuades them that this terrible noise signifies the anger of the gods. Similarly, those enormous animals which barbarous peoples put in the vanguard of their armies to drive them onto their enemies would suddenly recoil, terror-struck or overcome with fury, and failing to recognize their masters’ voice, crush or scatter the very battalions which were expecting their salvation and triumph to come from them. But here is quite another difficulty. The errors you call useful necessitate a series of ideas different from the sequence for which nature intended us. Should chance uncover some truth for us, that false series is broken. What will you do then? Reestablish it by force? There you will be, carried back to prohibitive laws, whose impotence and danger we have demonstrated elsewhere.3
Moreover, this would be a great inconsistency on your part. Having asserted on principle that man is not up to being governed by truth and that error, by subjugating the mind, absolves us from forcible means, straightaway you are going to use them to uphold the very same error whose advantage ought to be that it makes them superfluous. To maintain public order you have recourse to what you call illusions, and you are lost in admiration of this expedient, so much gentler according to you, and no less efficacious, than penal laws. Doubt is cast, however, on your tutelary illusions. You cannot defend them by ideas of like nature: the sanction itself is attacked. Will you call the law to your aid? That severity which in the name of public peace you recently boasted of not employing, will you now invoke it in support of the errors you believe necessary to that peace? You might as well have saved yourself this long detour, it seems to me, and merely been harsh on the crime, which would have spared you the odium of persecuting thought. Your task would have been easier, for thought will escape you a thousand times more readily than actions would have. Finally, one objection to the usefulness of errors presents itself, one we have already given an account of in this book4 and will for that reason make do with a sketch of. The discredit which attaches to proven error also comes back, by way of blind fanaticism and clumsy reasoning, on the  truth associated with that error. “Men of good will,” says Bentham,5 “think one should never remove from morality any one of its props, even when it is out of true. . . . But when a man of depraved mind has triumphed by means of a false argument, he always thinks he has triumphed over morality itself.” Errors are always fatal, both because of the effect they produce on the mind itself and because of the means indispensable, to put it succinctly, to secure their durability. The errors which seem most salutary to you are only scourges in disguise. You want a government maintained. You thrust aside the truths opposed to the principles on which this government rests. You encourage the errors contrary to these truths. But a government can be overthrown by a thousand unpredictable causes. Then, the more the errors you have encouraged have put down deep roots, the more the truths you have rebuffed will be unknown. The less men are prepared for what will have to be put in place of that which no longer exists, the more violence, misfortune, and disorder there will be in the overthrow and its consequences.
It can be affirmed with confidence that whenever people believe they have observed an abuse attributable to enlightenment, in fact enlightenment has been in short supply. Always when truth is accused of wrongdoing, this evil has been the effect not of truth but of error. Providence has numbered among men’s needs the search for truth. To say truth can be dangerous is to proffer a terrible accusation against providence. This hypothesis sees providence as having marked out for the human race a route it is condemned to follow by irresistible impulsion, a route which finishes in an abyss.
Moreover, truth is unitary and errors countless.6 What are your means for choosing among the host of errors? Error is to truth as Machiavellianism is to morality. If you abandon truth in order to plunge into the cunning schemes of Machiavellianism, you are never sure of having chosen the best among these schemes. If you renounce the search for truth, you are never certain of having chosen the most useful error.
 Truth is not just good to know; it is good to search for. Even when we go wrong in that search, we are happier than in renouncing it. The idea of truth is peace for the spirit, as the idea of morality is for the heart.
[2. ]In Book III, Ch. 5.
[3. ]In Book XII, Ch. 4.
[4. ]In Book I, Ch. 3: “For as long as reason is not convinced, error is ready to reappear at the first event which unleashes it.”
[6. ]See De la force du gouvernement, Ch. 7, p. 94, note: “Truth is one, but error is multiform.”
[A. [Refers to page 300.]]Principes de législation publiés par Dumont, Tome II, p. 211.