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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets
The text is taken from my copy of the fourth edition, 1842. This version of Political Justice, originally published in 1793, is based on the corrected third edition, published in 1798.



Question stated. -- Nature of voluntary action. -- Origin of benevolence. -- Operation of habit -- of opinion. -- Reflex operation of enjoyment. -- Complexity of motives. -- Of malevolence. -- Scheme of self-love incompatible with virtue. -- Conclusion.

The subject of the mechanism of the human mind, is the obvious counterpart of that which we are now to examine. Under the former of these topics we have entered, with considerable minuteness, into the nature of our involuntary actions; the decision of the latter will, in a great degree, depend upon an accurate conception of such as are voluntary. The question of self-love and benevolence, is a question relative to the feeings and ideas by which we ought to be goverened, in our intercourse with our fellow men, or, in other words, in our moral conduct. But it is universally admitted, that there can be no moral conduct, that we can be neither virtuous nor vicious, except in instances where our actions flow from intention, and are directed by foresight, or where they might have been so directed; and this is the defintion of voluntary actions1. The question therefore of self-love and benevolence, is a question of voluntary action.

The enquiry here proposed, is the same in effect, as the question, whether we are capable of being influenced by disinterested considerations. Once admit that we are, and it will not be disputed that it is by such considerations we ought to be influenced, in cases where our neighbour or the public is to be eminently benefited.

This question has been long and eagerly contested, and the majority of persons who are accustomed to give some attention to speculations of this sort, have ranged themselves on the side of self-love. Among the French, not a signle writer upon that nature of the human mind, is to be found, who does not, with more or less explicitness, declare for this hypothesis. Among ourselves, several authors of eminence, have undertaken to support the practicability of disinterested action2.

One of the writers who first contributed to render this enquiry a subject of general attention, was the duke de la Rouchefoucault. He asserted the system of self-love in its grossest form; and his exposition of it amounts to little less, than "that, in every action of our lives, we are directed by a calculation of personal interest." This notion has been gradually softened down by his successors; and the hypothesis of self-love is now frequently explained to mean only, "that, as every state of a percipient being has in it a mixture of pleasure or pain, the immediate sensation in either of these kinds is to be regarded as the sole, proper, and necessary cause of the subsequent action." This fluctuation among the adherents of self-love, has had the effect, of making some of the arguments with which their principle has been attacked, apparently inmapplicable to the newest state of the question. Let us see whether the point may not be put upon a simpler issue than has usually been attempted.

An unanswerable argument for the system of disinterestedness, is contained in a proposition so obvious, as for its very plainness to be exposed to the risque of contempt, viz. that the motive of every voluntary action, consists in the view present to the mind of the agent at the time of his determination,. This is an inference which immediately results from the nature of volition. Volition is an affair of foresight3. "No motion is voluntary, any further than it is accompanied with intention and design, and has for its proper antecedent the apprehension of an end to be accomplished. So far as it flows in any degree from another source, it is involuntary4." But if this be a just description of voluntary action, then the converse of this assertion must also be true; that whatever is proposed by the mind as an end to be accomplished, whether it be life or death, pleasure or pain, and relate to myself or my neighbour, has in it the true essence of a motive. -- To illustrate this in relation to the subject in hand.

Voluntary action cannot exist but as the result of experience. Neither desire nor aversion can have place, till we have had a consciousness of agreeable and disagreeable sensations. Voluntary action implies desire, and the idea of certain means to be employed for the attainment of the thing desired.

The things first desired by every thinking being, will be agreeable sensation, and the means of agreeable sensation. If he forsee any thing that is not apprehended to be pleasure or pain, or the means of pelasure or pain, this will excite no desire, and lead to no voluntary action.

A disposition to promote the benefit of another, my child, my friend, my relation, or my fellow being, is one of the passions; understanding by the term passion, a permanent and habitual tendency towrads a certain course of action. It is of the same general nature, as avarice, or the love of fame. The good of my neighbour could not, in the first instance, have been choen, but as the means of agreeable sensation. His cries, or the spectacle of his distresss importune me, and I am irresistibly impelled to adopt means to remove this importunity. The child perceives, in his own case, that menaces or soothing tend to stop his cries, and he is induced to employ, in a similar instance, that mode of the two which seems most within his reach. He thinks little of the sufferings endured, and is only uneasy at the impression made upon his organs. To this motive, he speedily adds the idea of esteem and gratitude, which are to be purchased by this beneficence. Thus the good of our neigbour, like the possession of money, is originally pursued for the sake of its advantage to ourselves.

But it is the nature of the passions, speedily to convert what at first were means, into ends. The avaricious man forgets the utility of money which first incited him to pursue it, fixes his passion upon the money itself, and counts his gold, without having in his mind any idea but that of seeing and handling it. Something of this sort happens very early in the history of every passion. The moment we becomne attached to a particular source of pleasure, beyond any idea we have of the rank it holds in the catalogue of sources, it must be admitted that it is loved for its own sake. The man who pursues wealth or fame with any degree of ardour, soon comes to concentre his attention in the wealth or the fame, without carrying his mind beyond, or thinking of any thing that is to result from them.

This is merely one case of the phenomena of habit5. All indulgence of the senses, is originally chosen, for the sake of the pleasure that accrues. But the quantity of accruing pleasure or pain, is continually chaning. This howevever is seldom adverted to; and when it is, the power of habit is frequently too strong to be thus subdued. The propensity to do again what we have been accustomed to do, recurs, when the motive that should restrain us has escaped from our thoughts. Thus the drunkard and the letcher continue to pursue the same course of action, long after the pains have outweighed the pleasures, and even after they confess and know this to be the real state of the case. It is in this manner that men will often, for the sake of that which has benome the object of a favourite passion, consent to sacrifice what they generally know to contain in it a greater sum of agreeable sensations. It is a trite and incontrovertible axiom, "that they will rather die, than part with it."

If this be the case in the passion of avarice or the love of fame, it must also be true in the instance of beneficence, that, after having habituated ourselves to promote the happiness of our child, our family, our country or our species, we are at length brought to approve and desire their happiness without retrospect to ourselves. It happens in this instance, as in the former, that we are occasionally actuated by the most perfect disinterestedness, and willingly submit to tortures and death, rather than see injury committed upon the object of our affections.

Thus far there is a parallel nature in avarice and benevolence. But ultimately there is a wide difference between them. When once we have entered into so auspicions a path as that of disinterestednes, reflection confirms our choice, in a sense in which it never can confirm any of the factitious passions we have named. We find by observation, that we are surrounded by beings of the same nature with ourselves. They have the same senses, are susceptible of the same pleasures and pains, capable of being raised to the same excellence, and employed in the same usefulness6. We are able in imagination to go out of ourselves, and become impartial spectators of the system of which we are a part. We can then make an estimate of our intrinsic and absolute value; and detect the imposition of that self-regard, which would represent our own interest as of as much value as that of all the world beside. The delusion being thus sapped, we can, from time to time at least, fall back in idea into our proper post, and cultivate those views and affections which must be most familiar to the most perfect intelligence.

It is admitted on all hands that it is possible for a man to sacrifice his own existence to that of twenty others. Here then is an action possessing various recommendations: the advantage to arise to twenty men; their tranquillity and happiness through a long period of remaining existence; the benefits they will not fail to confer on thousands of their contemporaries, and through them on millions of posterity; and lastly his own escape from uneasiness, and momentary exultation in an act of virtue. The advocates of the system of self-love are compelled to assert that the last consideration only is of any value with him; and that he perceives the real state of the case without feeling himself in the smallest degree directly and properly affected by it. He engages in an act of generosity without one atom of true sympathy, and wholly and exclusively influenced by considerations of the most selfish description.

It is not easily to conceive an hypothesis more singular than this. It is in direct opposition to experience, and what every man seems to know of himself. It undertakes to maintain that we are under a delusion of the most extraordinary sort; and which would appear to a person not trained in a philosophical system of all others the most improbable. It affirms that we are wholly incapable of being influenced by motives which seem to have an absolute power; that the philanthropist has no love for mankind, nor the patriot for his country; in a word that, when we imagine we are most generously concerned for another, we have no concern for him, but are anxious only for ourselves. Undoubtedly a thesis of this sort is in need of very cogent arguments to support it.

It must be admitted indeed as characteristic of every determination of the mind that, when made, we feel uneasiness in the apprehension of any obstacle, and pleasure in indulging the desire, and seeing events turn out conformably to the desire. But it would be absurd to say: 'that the motive of our proceeding, in this case, is impatience and uneasiness, and that we are impelled to the sacrifices which are frequently made, by the mere wish to free ourselves from intolerable pain'. Impatience and uneasiness are only generated by obstacles to the attainment of our desires; and we often fulfil our purposes with a swiftness and impetuosity that leave no leisure for the recurrence of pain. The uneasiness of unfulfilled desire implies the desire itself as the antecedent and parent of the uneasiness. It is because I wish my neighbour's advantage that I am uneasy at his misfortune. I should no more be uneasy about this than about the number of syllables contained in the present paragraph, if I had not previously loved it for its own sake.

This pleasure and pain however, though not the authors of my determination, undoubtedly tend to perpetuate and strengthen it. Such is conspicuously the case in the present instance. The man who vigilantly conforms his affections to the standard of justice, who loses the view of personal regards in the greater objects that engross his attention, who, from motives of benevolence, sits loose to life and all its pleasures, and is ready without a sigh, to sacrifice them to the public good, has an uncommonly exquisite source of happiness. When he looks back, he applauds the state of his own affections; and, when he looks out of himself, his sensations are refined, in proportion to the comprehensiveness of his sentiments. He is filled with harmony within; and the state of his thoughts is uncommonly favourable to what we may venture to style the sublime emotions of tranquillity. It is not to be supposed that an experience of the pleasures of benevolence should not tend to confirm in us a benevolent propensity.

The hypothesis of disinterestedness would never have had so many adversaries if the complexity of human motives had been sufficiently considered. To illustrate this, let it be recollected that every voluntary action has in it a mixture of involuntary.7 In the sense in which we have used the word motive in an early part of this work,8 it is equally descriptive of the cause of action in both cases. Motive may therefore be distinguished, according to its different relations, into direct and indirect; understanding by the direct, that which is present to the mind of the agent at the time of his determination, and which belongs to every voluntary action, and to so much of every action as is voluntary; and by the indirect, that which operates without being adverted to by the mind, whether in the case of actions originally involuntary, or that have become so, in whole, or in part, by the force of habit. Thus explained, it is incontrovertibly evident that the direct motive to many of our actions is purely disinterested. We are capable of self-oblivion, as well as of sacrifice. All that is strictly voluntary, in the beneficence of a man habitually generous and kind, commences from this point: if other considerations intervene in the sequel, they are indebted for their intervention to the disinterested motive. But, at the same time that this truth is clearly established, it is not less true, first, that the indirect and original motive, that which laid the foundation of all our habits, is the love of agreeable sensation. Secondly, it is also to be admitted that there is probably something personal directly and perceptibly mixing itself with such of our beneficent actions as are of a sensible duration. We are so accustomed to fix our attention upon agreeable sensation that we can scarcely fail to recollect, at every interval the gratitude we shall excite, or the approbation we shall secure, the pleasure that will result to ourselves from our neighbour's well-being, the joys of self-applause, or the uneasiness that attends upon ungratified desire. Yet, after every deduction that can be made, the disinterested and direct motive, the profit and advantage of our neighbour, seems to occupy the principal place. This is at least the first, often the only, thing in the view of the mind, at the time the action is chosen. It is this from which, by way of eminence, it derives the character of voluntary action.

There is an observation arising in this place which it seems of some importance to mention. Pure malevolence is the counterpart of disinterested virtue; and almost all the considerations that prove the existence of the one are of equal avail to prove the existence of the other. It is not enough to say, I choose the pleasure or pain of my neighhour for the sake of the gratification I have in contemplating it. This only removes the difficulty a single step, and will not account for the phenomenon of habit in either case. Both the one and the other are originally chosen with a view to agreeable sensation; but in both cases the original view is soon forgotten. It is as certain that there are human beings who take pleasure in shrieks and agony, without a prospect to anything further or different; as that the miser comes at last to regard his guineas with delight, independently of a recollection of the benefits they may purchase.

There is one further remark which, though by no means so conclusive as many that have been adduced, ought not to be omitted. If self-love be the only principle of action, there can be no such thing as virtue. Benevolent intention is essential to virtue.9 Virtue, where it exists in any eminence, is a species of conduct modelled upon a true estimate of the different reasons inviting us to preference. He that makes a false estimate, and prefers a trivial and partial good to an important and comprehensive one, is vicious. Virtue requires a certain disposition and view of the mind, and does not belong to the good which may accidentally and unintentionally result from our proceeding. The creditor that, from pure hardness of disposition, should cast a man into prison who, unknown to him, was upon the point of committing some atrocious and sanguinary action, would be not virtuous but vicious. The mischief to result from the project of his debtor was no part of his motive; he thought only of gratifying his inordinate passion. Just so, in the case stated a little before, the public benefactor, upon the system of self-love, prefers a single individual to twenty, or to twenty millions. So far as relates to the real merits of the case, his own advantage or pleasure is a very insignificant consideration, and the benefit to be produced, suppose to a world, is inestimable. Yet he falsely and unjustly prefers the first, and regards the latter, separately taken, as nothing. If there be such a thing as justice, if I have a real and absolute value upon which truth can decide, and which can be compared with what is greater or less, then, according to this system, the best action that ever was performed may, for anything we know, have been the action, in the whole world, of the most exquisite and deliberate injustice. Nay, it could not have been otherwise, since it produced the greatest good, and therefore was the individual instance in which the greatest good was most directly postponed to personal gratification. Such is the spirit of the doctrine we have endeavoured to refute.

On the other hand, the just result of the arguments above adduced is that men are capable of understanding the beauty of virtue, and the claims of other men upon their benevolence; and, understanding them, that these views, as well as every other perception which has relation to sensitive existence, are of the nature of motives, sometimes overpowered by other considerations, and sometimes overpowering them, but always in their own nature capable of exciting to action, when not counteracted by pleas of a different sort. Men are capable, no doubt, of preferring an inferior interest of their own to a superior interest of others; but this preference arises from a combination of circumstances and is not the necessary and invariable law of our nature.10

There is no doctrine in which the generous and elevated mind rests with more satisfaction than in that of which we are treating. If it be false, it is no doubt incumbent upon us to make the best of the small remnant of good that remains. But it is a discouraging prospect for the moralist, who, when he has done all, has no hope to persuade mankind to one atom of real affection towards any one individual of their species. We may be made indeed the instruments of good, but in a way less honourable than that in which a frame of wood, or a sheet of paper, may be made the instrument of good. The wood, or the paper, is at least neutral. But we are drawn into the service with affections of a diametrically opposite direction. When we perform the most benevolent action, it is with a view only to our own advantage, and with the most sovereign and unreserved neglect of that of others. We are instruments of good, in the same manner as bad men are said to be the instruments of providence, even when their inclinations are most refractory to its decrees. In this sense, we may admire the system of the universe, where public utility results from each man's contempt of that utility, and where the most beneficial actions, of those whom we have been accustomed to term the best men, are only instances in which justice and the real merits of the case are most flagrantly violated. But we can think with little complacence of the individuals of whom this universe is composed. It is no wonder that philosophers whose system has taught them to look upon their fellow men as thus perverse and unjust have been frequently cold in their temper, or narrow in their designs. It is no wonder that Rousseau, the most benevolent of them, and who most escaped the general contagion, has been driven to place the perfection of virtue in doing no injury.11 Neither philosophy, nor morality, nor politics will ever show like itself till man shall be acknowledged for what he really is, a being capable of rectitude, virtue and benevolence, and who needs not always be led to actions of general utility, by foreign and frivolous considerations.

The system of disinterested benevolence proves to us that it is possible to be virtuous, and not merely to talk of virtue; that all which has been said by philosophers and moralists respecting impartial justice is not an unmeaning rant; and that, when we call upon mankind to divest themselves of selfish and personal considerations, we call upon them for something they are able to practise. An idea like this reconciles us to our species; teaches us to regard, with enlightened admiration, the men who have appeared to lose the feeling of their personal existence, in the pursuit of general advantage; and gives us reason to expect that, as men collectively advance in science and useful institution, they will proceed more and more to consolidate their private judgement, and their individual will, with abstract justice, and the unmixed approbation of general happiness.

What are the inferences that ought to be made from this doctrine with respect to political institution? Certainly not that the interest of the individual ought to be made incompatible with the part he is expected to take in the interest of the whole. This is neither desirable, nor even possible. But that social institution needs not despair of seeing men influenced by other and better motives. The true politician is bound to recollect that the perfection of mind consists in disinterestedness. He should regard it as the ultimate object of his exertions to induce men to estimate themselves at their just value, and neither to grant to themselves, nor claim from others, a higher consideration than they deserve. Above all, he should be careful not to add vigour to the selfish passions. He should gradually wean men from contemplating their own benefit in all that they do, and induce them to view with complacence the advantage that is to result to others. Great mischief, in this respect, has probably been done by those moralists who think only of stimulating men to good deeds by considerations of frigid prudence and mercenary self-interest, and never apply themselves to excite one generous and magnanimous sentiment of our natures. This has been too much the case with the teachers of religion, even those of them who are most eager in their hostility to religious enthusiasm.

The last perfection of the sentiment here vindicated consists in that state of mind which bids us rejoice as fully in the good that is done by others, as if it were done by ourselves. The man who shall have attained to this improvement will be actuated neither by interest nor ambition, the love of honor, nor the love of fame. He has a duty indeed obliging him to seek the good of the whole; but that good is his only object. If that good be effected by another hand, he feels no disappointment. All men are his fellow laborers, but he is the rival of no man. Like Pedaretus in ancient story, he is ready to exclaim: 'I also have endeavored to deserve; but there are three hundred citizens in Sparta better than myself, and I rejoice.'


1 Book I, Chap. V, p. 119, 127
2 Particularly Shaftesbury, Butler, Hutcheson and Hume. The active and ardent spirit of the founders of religion, has perhaps always carried them into the liberal system. See MATT. ch. xxii. ver. 37-41
3 Book I, Chap. V, p. 119
4 Book IV, Chap. VII, p. 376*
5 Book I, Chap. V, p. 64*
6 Book II, Chap. III, p. 146*
7 Book I, Chap. V, p. 127
8 Book I, Chap. V, p. 119
9 Book II, Chap. IV
10 Some persons, friendly to the doctrine of this chapter, have objected to the remark that 'upon the system of self-love, there can be no such thing as virtue', as too broad, or too incautiously expressed. Undoubtedly it was not intended in this place to assert that the different tendencies of actions would not remain upon both systems, or that habits conducive to the general welfare would not deserve to be sedulously cultivated, in ourselves and others, however mean and ignoble might be the motives from which they sprung.
11 'La plus sublime vertu est négative; elle nows instruit de ne jamais faire du mal à personne.' Emile, Liv. II.
To Book IV, Chapter XI.
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