John Stuart Mill

Spoken in 1828, at the Debating Society

MR. PRESIDENT, if I had much anxiety to save my credit as a wise and practical person I should not venture to stand forth in defence of the progressiveness of the human mind. I know that among all that clam of persons who consider themselves to be par excellence the wise and the practical, it is esteemed a proof of consummate judgement to despair of doing good. I know that it is thought essential to a man who has any knowledge of the world to have an extremely bad opinion of it, and that whenever there are two ways of explaining any fact, wise and practical people always take that way which attributes most folly or most immorality to the mass of mankind. Sir, it is not for me to dispute the palm of practicality with these sage and cautious persons. Howsoever it may be with all other aberrations of the human intellect, there is one description of errors from which it would be uncandid to deny that they are wholly free, viz. all those which arise from immoderate benevolence or ill-regulated philanthropy. It behoves those who have discarded errors so pleasing, so encouraging, so ennobling to every virtuous mind, to be very certain that they have discarded them in favour of truth. Those who have stripped themselves so philosophically of every prejudice which acts as a stimulus to our duty should be very sure, that they have left no other prejudices of a more discreditable description behind. They may be assured that the errors of benevolence are by no means those from which human prosperity has most to apprehend, and however desirable it may be for the good of mankind that the love of virtue should never rise above temperate, we must be careful not to go on cooling it till it sinks to the freezing point. Sir, I do not feel my virtue to be of so warm and impetuous a character as to need any cooling, neither have I that confidence in my own judgement which would induce me to set up my opinion of truth in opposition to hopes and feelings which at least serve as a counteracting force against hopes and feelings far less pure, and I cannot but think far more pernicious. If we must err, at least let our errors not be on the side of selfishness ; it is not that part, that element of the human constitution which needs strengthening ; there is not the slightest danger that it should ever be weaker than the good of human society requires.

But is it indeed an error to suppose mankind capable of great improvement ? And is it really a mark of wisdom to deride all grand schemes of human amelioration as visionary ? I can assure hon. gentlemen that, so far from being a proof of any wisdom, it is what any fool can do as well as themselves, and I believe it is the fools principally who have attached to that mode of proceeding the reputation of wisdom. For an I have observed that if there is a man in public or private life who is so impenetrably dull that reason and argument never make the slightest impression on him, the dull people immediately set him down as a man of excellent judgement and strong sense; as if because men of talent and genius are sometimes deficient in judgement it followed that it was only necessary to be without one spark of talent or genius in order to be a man of consummate judgement. In the same manner because people an sometimes deceived by rash hopes I think I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope is admired by a large clan of persons as a sage, and wisdom is supposed to consist not in seeing further than other people, but in not seeing so far. I mean no disrespect to some highly estimable persons who are of a different opinion from myself on this question, but I am persuaded that a vast majority of those who laugh at the hopes of those who think that man can be raised to any higher rank as a moral and intellectual being, do so from a principle very different from wisdom or knowledge of the world. I believe that the great majority of those who speak of perfectibility as a dream, do so because they feel that it is one which would afford them no pleasure if it were realized. I believe that they hold the progressiveness of the human mind to be chimerical because they are conscious that they themselves are doing nothing to forward it, and are anxious to believe that great work impossible in which, if it were possible, they know it would be their duty to assist. I believe that there is something else which powerfully helps many persons to the same conlusion - consciousness that they do not wish to get rid of their own imperfections, and a consequent unwillingness to believe it practicable that others should throw off theirs. I believe that if persons ignorant of the world sometimes miscalculate from expecting to find mankind wiser and better than they are, those persons who most affect to know the world are incessantly miscalculating the opposite way, and confidently reckoning upon a greater degree of knavery and folly among mankind than really exists. These last indeed differ from the others in not being so ready to correct their error, since the same utter incapacity of taking any generous and enlarged views which caused their mistake prevents them from discovering it, and makes them impute those effects of the better part of man's nature which they did not calculate upon only to a different species of selfishness. I will even say that so far from its being a mark of wisdom to despair of human improvement there is no more certain indication of narrow views and a limited understanding, and that the wisest men of all political and religious opinions, from Condorcet to Mr. Coleridge, have been something nearly approaching to perfectibilians. Nay, further, that the antiperfectibility doctrine, far from having the sanction of experience, is brought forward in opposition to one of the clearest cases of experience which human affairs present, and that by all just rules of induction we ought to conclude that an extremely high degree of moral and intellectual excellence may be made to prevail among mankind at large, since causes exist which have confessedly been proved adequate to produce it in many particular instances.

In the little which I intend to say I shall attempt little more than to expand and develop this last remark. There are others in this Society far more competent than myself to discuss in detail the past progress of the human mind, and the stages through which it is likely to pass in the road to further improvements. I leave it to them to point out how the difficulties are to be struggled with ; it is enough for me if I can establish on the ground of solid experience that these difficulties may be overcome.

I shall confine myself in the first instance to the question of moral improvement. I shall not ask you, Sir, to expect among mankind any degree of moral excellence that is without parallel. My standard shall be one which we all know, which we all believe in, with which we are all familiar in our own experience. I suppose it will not be denied that there are, and have been, persons who have possessed a very high degree of virtue. Now here I take my stand ; there have been such persons. I do not care how many nor who they were. If I were to name any person, any historical character to whom I think the designation applicable, without doubt that person might be cavilled at and something raked up to throw a doubt upon his virtue, for it is difficult to adduce evidence on such a point that shall leave no possibility of cavil : but will those persons who say that this man or that man was not virtuous go farther and say that nobody was ever virtuous ? I should think not. All they can say is that in the most virtuous there has been some frailty, some fault, a weakness which has rendered even the best of them less than perfect. Certainly all this may be safely admitted. I shall not affirm that men in general can be made better than the best men whom the human race has hitherto produced.

Well then, here is a fact; there have been virtuous men. Now what made them virtuous ? I call upon the gentlemen on the other side to answer this question, for if it should turn out that those who are virtuous are so from causes, which though they now act only upon a few, can be made to act upon all mankind, or the greater part, it is within the power of human exertion to make all or most men as virtuous as those are. I therefore challenge the hon. gentlemen to say to what they attribute the superior moral excellence of some persons. If they do not answer, I will. It is to the original influence of good moral education in their early years, and the insensible influence of the world, of society, and public opinion upon their habits and associations in after life. Here then is specific experience. It is distinctly proved that these two forces, education and public opinion, when they are both of them brought fairly into play and made to act in harmony with one another, are capable of producing high moral excellence ; and yet the greater part of the arguments which have been advanced against us this evening are intended to prove that moral education and public opinion are not capable of producing these effects.

Why then have these causes not produced the same effects upon all which they have upon some ? Because they have not acted upon all. No pains have been taken with the moral education of mankind in general. The great business of moral education, to form virtuous habits of mind, is I may say entirely neglected: the child is indeed punished for certain immoral acts, but as for going to the root of the evil and correcting the dispositions in which these acts originate, the thing is never thought of, or if it is thought of, nothing can he more ridiculously inefficacious than the means which are taken to effect it. And all this from sheer ignorance, for it is not that people do not set a sufficient value upon those habits of mind which lead to good habits of conduct; it is that they really do not know how such habits are generated, what they depend upon and what mode of education favours or counteracts them. While that education which is called education is in this deplorable state, that insensible education which is not called education is still worse, for almost everywhere the great objects of ambition, those which ought to be the rewards of high intellectual and moral excellence, are the rewards either of wealth, as in this country, or of private favour, as in most others ; and it is an established fact in the nature of man that whatever are the means by which the great recompenses of ambition are to be obtained, the person who possesses these means and can therefore pretend to these recompenses, is the person who exercises influence over the public mind; he is the person whose favour is courted, whose actions are imitated, whose opinions are adopted, and the contagion of whose failings is caught by the mass of mankind.

It is a very poor and ill-divided public opinion which can be formed out of an aggregate so ill-composed, and yet that public opinion which in the result of so bad a moral education is sufficient, whenever it is combined with a better moral education, to produce all the virtue which we see realized in some individuals of mankind as they now are.

It will of course be said that although good moral education and the operation of public opinion produce so much excellence in some persons, it does not follow that they can in all. I maintain on the contrary that there in much less difficulty in producing it in all than there has been to produce it in some. Whatever of moral excellence now exists has been produced in spite of a thousand obstacles ; in spite of systems of education which if the names were altered, and they were reported to us as existing in some far distant country, would be considered incredible from the absolute fatuity, the utter abnegation of intellect which they exhibit ; in spite of laws which in a hundred ways inflict evil upon one man for the benefit of another, and generate a spirit of domination and oppression on one side, of cringing and servility, mixed with bitter and vindictive resentment, on the other ; in spite of systems of judicial procedure which seem devised on purpose to give right and wrong an equal chance, and in which every possible encouragement is held out to the vice of insincerity ; in spite of political institutions which in this at least the most civilized country in the world, render wealth the only acquisition which is desired, poverty almost the only evil that is dreaded. All these evils might be remedied by the hand of God. If notwithstanding all these things the best moral education which the present circumstances of mankind admit of has produced in those to whom it is given so much excellence, what may not be expected if we remove these obstacles, and when they are taken away, give even as good a moral education to the greater portion of mankind- why not to all mankind, for moral excellence does not suppose a high order of intellectual cultivation, since it is often found in greatest perfection in the rudest minds? With respect to such doctrines as have been advanced this evening on the other side, some of them, I must confess, have surprised me. We have been told that it is impossible to diminish the amount of vice because vice arises from the passions, and it is impossible to vanquish the passions. Now, Sir, I demur to this : first, that it in taking a very narrow view of the principles of morals and the nature of the human mind to suppose that it is necessary for any good purpose to vanquish the passions. There is not one of the passions which by a well-regulated education may not be converted into an auxiliary of the moral principle ; there is not one of the passions which may not be as fully and much more permanently gratified by a course of virtuous conduct than by vice. And if this be the case, surely it would be the worst of policy even looking to moral excellence without regarding happiness in the least, to eradicate the passions, because it is they which furnish the active principle, the moving force ; the passions are the spring, the moral principle only the regulator of human life.

But further, this very assertion that the passions cannot be vanquished may be taken as a specimen of the shallow philosophy of these gentlemen and their very superficial experience of mankind. They who profess to know human nature so well seem to be very little aware what it is capable of. Have we not seen that men have lain for their whole lives upon beds of spikes; that they have stood all their lives upon the tops of pillars; that they have remained all their lives without stirring for one moment from a certain posture because they have willed it ? Have they not swung by hooks drawn through their backs, and suffered themselves to be crushed by chariot wheels, and laid themselves voluntarily on funeral piles to be burned ? Have not these things been done, not by heroes and philosophers, but thousands and millions of common men, commonly educated; and then these gentlemen come and give us arguments which, if they prove anything, prove the impossibility of all this. We could do none of these things: why ? Because we have never been accustomed to fix our imaginations on these things long enough for our first horror of them to wear off. But what caused them surprising achievements ? It must have been either religion, conscience, or public opinion. Gentlemen may choose ; it shall be any one of the three. We have heard the force of each of the three separately explained away, and very plausible arguments adduced to prove that no one of them is strong enough to produce these effects, and yet let me ask these gentlemen $he reason why the effects are produced. I will give up any two of the forces to them, but they must grant me the third. If they ask my own opinion it is that all helped, but that the proximate motive had most influence, that derived from public opinion ; and some lion. gentlemen who have sometimes wondered at hearing public opinion spoken of in this Society as the immense force that it is, may perhaps now see from these instances why it is so spoken of. (Introduce a passage from Combe.) [George Combe (1788-1858), phrenologist. The reference is probably to his Constitution of Man]

But if such is the force of public opinion, what is wanting to produce that high state of general morality which we aspire to ? Simply that public opinion should be well directed in respect of morality ; that such a system of education should exist as will give to the man of mankind not learning but common-sense practical judgement in ordinary affairs, and shall enable them to see that a thing is wrong when it is wrong, as shall make them despise humbug, see through casuistry and imposture, not to accept a subterfuge and excuses for neglecting a duty, and not think the same thing laudable under a fine name and blamable under a vulgar one ; for instance, not to think, like some persons in this room, that giving a man money, or money's worth, for voting against his conviction is criminal when called bribery, but laudable when called legitimate influence of property; to judge of men by the manner in which they act, not by the manner in which they talk ; not to estimate a man's moral excellence by the quantity of grimace which he exhibits in his own person, or by the quantity of hypocrisy which he exacts from his family and dependents ; not to give men any credit for making great sacrifices at other people's expense, or for being philanthropic at a distance and prudent at home ; not to think that charity consists in making laws to take away bread from the poor and subscribing a few pounds annually to some institution for giving it to them ; and in short not see a great many other nice distinctions which the refined and cultivated people of the present day are able to see and very ready to act upon. And there is another thing that is requisite : to take men out of the sphere of the opinion of their separate and private coteries and make them amenable to the general tribunal of the public at large ; to leave no clan possessed of power sufficient to protect one another in defying public opinion, and to manufacture a separate code of morality for their private guidance ; and so to organize the political institutions of a country that no one could possess any power save what might he given to him by the favourable sentiments, not of any separate class with a separate interest, but of the people.