Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Government by Generalization
By Jeremy Bentham (17481832)
From A Critical Examination of the Declaration of Rights
THE DECLARATION OF RIGHTSI mean the paper published under that name by the French National Assembly in 1791assumes for its subject-matter a field of disquisition as unbounded in point of extent as it is important in its nature. But the more ample the extent given to any proposition or string of propositions, the more difficult it is to keep the import of it confined without deviation, within the bounds of truth and reason. If in the smallest corners of the field it ranges over, it fail of coinciding with the line of rigid rectitude, no sooner is the aberration pointed out, than (inasmuch as there is no medium between truth and falsehood) its pretensions to the appellation of a truism are gone, and whoever looks upon it must recognise it to be false and erroneous,and if, as here, political conduct be the theme, so far as the error extends and fails of being detected, pernicious.
In a work of such extreme importance with a view to practice, and which throughout keeps practice so closely and immediately and professedly in view, a single error may be attended with the most fatal consequences. The more extensive the propositions, the more consummate will be the knowledge, the more exquisite the skill, indispensably requisite to confine them in all points within the pale of truth. The most consummate ability in the whole nation could not have been too much for the taskone may venture to say, it would not have been equal to it. But that, in the sanctioning of each proposition, the most consummate ability should happen to be vested in the heads of the sorry majority in whose hands the plenitude of power happened on that same occasion to be vested, is an event against which the chances are almost as infinity to one.
Here, then, is a radical and all-pervading errorthe attempting to give to a work on such a subject the sanction of government; especially of such a governmenta government composed of members so numerous, so unequal in talent, as well as discordant in inclinations and affections. Had it been the work of a single hand, and that a private one, and in that character given to the world, every good effect would have been produced by it that could be produced by it when published as the work of government, without any of the bad effects which in case of the smallest error must result from it when given as the work of government.
The revolution, which threw the government into the hands of the penners and adopters of this declaration, having been the effect of insurrection, the grand object evidently is to justify the cause. But by justifying it, they invite it; in justifying past insurrection, they plant and cultivate a propensity to perpetual insurrection in time future; they sow the seeds of anarchy broadcast; in justifying the demolition of existing authorities, they undermine all future ones, their own consequently in the number. Shallow and reckless vanity!They imitate in their conduct the author of that fabled law, according to which the assassination of the prince upon the throne gave to the assassin a title to succeed him. People behold your rights! If a single article of them be violated, insurrection is not your right only, but the most sacred of your duties. Such is the constant language, for such is the professed object of this source and model of all lawsthis self-consecrated oracle of all nations.
The more abstractthat is, the more extensivethe proposition is, the more liable is it to involve a fallacy. Of fallacies, one of the most natural modifications is that which is called begging the questionthe abuse of making the abstract proposition resorted to for proof, a lever for introducing, in the company of other propositions that are nothing to the purpose, the very proposition which is admitted to stand in need of proof.
Is the provision in question fit in point of expediency to be passed into a law for the government of the French nation? That, mutatis mutandis, would have been the question put in England: that was the proper question to have been put in relation to each provision it was proposed should enter into the composition of the body of French laws.
Instead of that, as often as the utility of a provision appeared (by reason of the wideness of its extent, for instance) of a doubtful nature, the way taken to clear the doubt was to assert it to be a provision fit to be made law for all menfor all Frenchmenand for all Englishmen, for example, into the bargain. This medium of proof was the more alluring, inasmuch as to the advantage of removing opposition, was added the pleasure, the sort of titillation so exquisite to the nerve of vanity in a French heartthe satisfaction, to use a homely, but not the less apposite proverb, of teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. Hark! ye citizens of the other side of the water! Can you tell us what rights you have belonging to you? No, that you cant. Its we that understand rights: not our own only, but yours into the bargain; while you, poor simple souls! know nothing about the matter.
Hasty generalisation, the great stumbling block of intellectual vanity!hasty generalisation, the rock that even genius itself is so apt to split upon!hasty generalisation, the bane of prudence and of science!
In the British Houses of Parliament, more especially in the most efficient house for business, there prevails a well-known jealousy of, and repugnance to, the voting of abstract propositions. This jealousy is not less general than reasonable. A jealousy of abstract propositions is an aversion to whatever is beside the purposean aversion to impertinence.
The great enemies of public peace are the selfish and dissocial passions:necessary as they arethe one to the very existence of each individual, the other to his security. On the part of these affections, a deficiency in point of strength is never to be apprehended: all that is to be apprehended in respect of them, is to be apprehended on the side of their excess. Society is held together only by the sacrifices that men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government. What has been the object, the perpetual and palpable object, of this declaration of pretended rights? To add as much force as possible to these passions, already but too strong,to burst the cords that hold them in,to say to the selfish passions, thereeverywhereis your prey!to the angry passions, thereeverywhereis your enemy.
The logic of it is of a piece with its morality:a perpetual vein of nonsense, flowing from a perpetual abuse of wordswords having a variety of meanings, where words with single meanings were equally at handthe same words used in a variety of meanings in the same page,words used in meanings not their own, where proper words were equally at hand,words and propositions of the most unbounded signification, turned loose without any of those exceptions or modifications which are so necessary on every occasion to reduce their import within the compass, not only of right reason, but even of the design in hand, of whatever nature it may be:the same inaccuracy, the same inattention in the penning of this cluster of truths on which the fate of nations was to hang, as if it had been an oriental tale, or an allegory for a magazine:stale epigrams, instead of necessary distinctions,figurative expressions preferred to simple ones,sentimental conceits, as trite as they are unmeaning, preferred to apt and precise expressions,frippery ornament preferred to the majestic simplicity of good sound sense,and the acts of the senate loaded and disfigured by the tinsel of the playhouse.
In a play or a novel, an improper word is but a word, and the impropriety, whether noticed or not, is attended with no consequences. In a body of lawsespecially of laws given as constitutional and fundamental onesan improper word may be a national calamity, and civil war may be the consequence of it. Out of one foolish word may start a thousand daggers.
Imputations like these may appear general and declamatoryand rightly so, if they stood alone, but they will be justified even to satiety by the details that follow. Scarcely an article, which, in rummaging it, will not be found a true Pandoras box.
In running over the several articles, I shall on the occasion of each article point out, in the first place, the errors it contains in theory; and then, in the second place, the mischiefs it is pregnant with in practice.
The criticism is verbal:true, but what else can it be? Wordswords without a meaning, or with a meaning too flatly false to be maintained by anybody, are the stuff it is made of. Look to the letter, you find nonsense; look beyond the letter, you find nothing.