An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation

Chapter XII

Of the Consequences of a Mischievous Act

§1. Shapes in which the mischief of an act may show itself.

I. Hitherto we have been speaking of the various articles or objects on which the consequences or tendency of an act may depend: of the bare act itself: of the circumstances it may have been, or may have been supposed to be, accompanied with: of the consciousness a man may have had with respect to any such circumstances: of the intentions that may have preceded the act: of the motives that may have given birth to those intentions: and of the disposition that may have been indicated by the connexion between such intentions and such motives. We now come to speak of consequences or tendency: an article which forms the concluding link in all this chain of causes and effects, involving in it the materiality of the whole. Now, such part of this tendency as is of a mischievous nature, is all that we have any direct concern with; to that, therefore, we shall here confine ourselves.

II. The tendency of an act is mischievous when the consequences of it are mischievous; that is to say, either the certain consequences or the probable. The consequences, how many and whatsoever they may be, of an act, of which the tendency is mischievous, may, such of them as are mischievous, be conceived to constitute one aggregate body, which may be termed the mischief of the act.

III. This mischief may frequently be distinguished, as it were, into two shares or parcels: the one containing what may be called the primary mischief; the other, what may be called the secondary. That share may be termed the primary, which it sustained by an assignable individual, or a multitude of assignable individuals. That share may be termed the secondary, which, taking its origin from the former, extends itself either over the whole community, or over some other multitude of unassignable individuals.

IV. The primary mischief of an act may again be distinguished into two branches: 1. The original: and, 2. The derivative. By the original branch, I mean that which alights upon and is confined to any person who is a sufferer in the first instance, and on his own account: the person, for instance, who is beaten, robbed, or murdered. By the derivative branch, I mean any share of mischief which may befall any other assignable persons in consequence of his being a sufferer, and no otherwise. These persons must, of course, be persons who in some way or other are connected with him. Now the ways in which one person may be connected with another, have been already seen: they may be connected in the way of interest (meaning self-regarding interest) or merely in the way of sympathy. And again, persons connected with a given person, in the way of interest, may be connected with him either by affording support to him, or by deriving it from him.

V. The secondary mischief, again, may frequently be seen to consist of two other shares or parcels: the first consisting of pain; the other of danger. The pain which it produces is a pain of apprehension: a pain grounded on the apprehension of suffering such mischiefs or inconveniences, whatever they may be, as it is the nature of the primary mischief to produce. It may be styled, in one word, the alarm. The danger is the chance, whatever it may be, which the multitude it concerns may in consequence of the primary mischief stand exposed to, of suffering such mischiefs or inconveniences. For danger is nothing but the chance of pain, or, what comes to the same thing, of loss of pleasure.

VI. An example may serve to make this clear. A man attacks you on the road, and robs you. You suffer a pain on the occasion of losing so much money: you also suffered a pain at the thoughts of the personal ill-treatment you apprehended he might give you, in case of your not happening to satisfy his demands. These together constitute the original branch of the primary mischief, resulting from the act of robbery. A creditor of yours, who expected you to pay him with part of that money, and a son of yours, who expected you to have given him another part, are in consequence disappointed. You are obliged to have recourse to the bounty of your father, to make good part of the deficiency. These mischiefs together make up the derivative branch. The report of this robbery circulates from hand to hand, and spreads itself in the neighbourhood. It finds its way into the newspapers, and is propagated over the whole country. Various people, on this occasion, call to mind the danger which they and their friends, as it appears from this example, stand exposed to in travelling; especially such as may have occasion to travel the same road. On this occasion they naturally feel a certain degree of pain: slighter or heavier, according to the degree of ill-treatment they may understand you to have received; the frequency of the occasion each person may have to travel in that same road, or its neighbourhood; the vicinity of each person to the spot; his personal courage; the quantity of money he may have occasion to carry about with him; and a variety of other circumstances. This constitutes the first part of the secondary mischief, resulting from the act of robbery; viz. the alarm. But people of one description or other, not only are disposed to conceive themselves to incur a chance of being robbed, in consequence of the robbery committed upon you, but (as will be shown presently) they do really incur such a chance. And it is this chance which constitutes the remaining part of the secondary mischief of the act of robbery; viz. the danger.

VII. Let us see what this chance amounts to; and whence it comes. How is it, for instance, that one robbery can contribute to produce another? In the first place, it is certain that: it cannot create any direct motive. A motive must be the prospect of some pleasure, or other advantage, to be enjoyed in future: but the robbery in question is past: nor would it furnish any such prospect were it to come: for it is not one robbery that will furnish pleasure to him who may be about to commit another robbery. The consideration that is to operate upon a man, as a motive or inducement to commit a robbery, must be the idea of the pleasure he expects to derive from the fruits of that very robbery: but this pleasure exists independently of any other robbery.

VIII. The means, then, by which one robbery tends, as it should seem, to produce another robbery, are two. 1. By suggesting to a person exposed to the temptation, the idea of committing such another robbery (accompanied, perhaps, with the belief of its facility). In this case the influence it exerts applies itself, in the first place, to the understanding. 2. By weakening the force of the tutelary motives which tend to restrain him from such an action, and thereby adding to the strength of the temptation. In this case the influence applies itself to the will. These forces are, 1. The motive of benevolence, which acts as a branch of the physical sanction 2. The motive of self-preservation, as against the punishment that may stand provided by the political sanction. 3. The fear of shame; a motive belonging to the moral sanction. 4. The fear of the divine displeasure; a motive belonging to the religious sanction. On the first and last of these forces it has, perhaps, no influence worth insisting on: but it has on the other two.

IX. The way in which a past robbery may weaken the force with which the political sanction tends to prevent a future robbery, may be thus conceived. The way in which this sanction tends to prevent a robbery, is by denouncing some particular kind of punishment against any who shall be guilty of it: the real value of which punishment will of course be diminished by the real uncertainty: as also, if there be any difference, the apparent value by the apparent uncertainty. Now this uncertainty is proportionably increased by every instance in which a man is known to commit the offense, without undergoing the punishment. This, of course, will be the case with every offense for a certain time; in short, until the punishment allotted to it takes place. If punishment takes place at last, this branch of the mischief of the offense is then at last, but not till then, put a stop to.

X. The way in which a past robbery may weaken the force with which the moral sanction tends to prevent a future robbery, may be thus conceived. The way in which the moral sanction tends to prevent a robbery, is by holding forth the indignation of mankind as ready to fall upon him who shall be guilty of it. Now this indignation will be the more formidable, according to the number of those who join in it: it will be the less so, the fewer they are who join in it. But there cannot be a stronger way of showing that a man does not join in whatever indignation may be entertained against a practice, than the engaging in it himself. It shows not only that he himself feels no indignation against it, but that it seems to him there is no sufficient reason for apprehending what indignation may be felt against it by others. Accordingly, where robberies are frequent, and unpunished, robberies are committed without shame. It was thus amongst the Grecians formerly. It is thus among the Arabs still.

XI. In whichever way then a past offense tends to pave the way for the commission of a future Hence, whether by suggesting the idea of committing it, or by adding to the strength of the temptation, in both cases it may be said to operate by the force or influence of example.

XII. The two branches of the secondary mischief of an act, the alarm and the danger, must not be confounded: though intimately connected, they are perfectly distinct: either may subsist without the other. The neighbourhood may be alarmed with the report of a robbery, when, in fact, no robbery either has been committed or is in a way to be committed: a neighbourhood may be on the point of being disturbed by robberies, without knowing any thing of the matter. Accordingly, we shall soon perceive, that some acts produce alarm without danger: others, danger without alarm.

XIII. As well the danger as the alarm may again be divided, each of them, into two branches: the first, consisting of so much of the alarm or danger as may be apt to result from the future behaviour of the same agent: the second, consisting of so much as may be apt to result from the behaviour of other persons: such others, to wit, as may come to engage in acts of the same sort and tendency.

XIV. The distinction between the primary and the secondary consequences of an act must be carefully attended to. It is so just, that the latter may often be of a directly opposite nature to be the former. In some cases, where the primary consequences of the act are attended with a mischief, the secondary consequences be may be beneficial, and that to such a degree, as even greatly to outweigh the mischief of the primary. This is the case, for instance, with all acts of punishment, when properly applied. Of these, the primary mischief being never intended to fall but upon such persons as may happen to have committed some act which it is expedient to prevent, the secondary mischief, that is, the alarm and the danger, extends no farther than to such persons as are under temptation to commit it: in which case, in as far as it tends to restrain them from committing such acts, it is of a beneficial nature.

XV. Thus much with regard to acts that produce positive pain, and that immediately. This case, by reason of its simplicity, seemed the fittest to take the lead. But acts may produce mischief in various other ways; which, together with those already specified, may all be comprised by the following abridged analysis.

Mischief may admit of a division in any one of three points of view. 1. According to its own nature. 2. According to its cause. 3. According to the person, or other party, who is the object of it 1. With regard to its nature, it may be either simple or complex[*] 2: when simple, it may either be positive or negative: positive, consisting of actual pain: negative, consisting of the loss of pleasure. Whether simple or complex, and whether positive or negative, it may be either certain or contingent. When it is negative, it consists of the loss of some benefit or advantage: this benefit may be material in both or either of two ways: 1. By affording actual pleasure: or, 2. By averting pain or danger, which is the chance of pain: that is, by affording security. In as far, then, as the benefit which a mischief tends to avert, is productive of security, the tendency of such mischief is to produce insecurity. 2. With regard to its cause, mischief may be produced either by one single action, or not without the concurrence of other actions: if not without the concurrence of other actions, these others may be the actions either of the same person, or of other persons: in either case, they may be either acts of the same kind as that in question, or of other kinds. 3. Lastly, with regard to the party who is the object of the mischief, or, in other words, who is in a way to be affected by it, such party maybe either an assignable individual, or assemblage of individuals, or else a multitude of unassignable individuals. When the object is an assignable individual, this individual may either be the person himself who is the author of the mischief, or some other person. When the individuals who are the objects of it, are an unassignable multitude, this multitude may be either the whole political community or state, or some subordinate division of it. Now when the object of the mischief is the author himself, it may be styled self-regarding: when any other party is the object, extra-regarding: when such other party is an individual, it may be styled private: when a subordinate branch of the community, semi-public: when the whole community, public. Here, for the present, we must stop. To pursue the subject through its inferior distinctions, will be the business of the chapter which exhibits the division of offenses.

The cases which have been already illustrated, are those in which the primary mischief is not necessarily otherwise than a simple one, and that positive: present, and therefore certain: producible by a single action, without any necessity of the concurrence of any other action, either on the part of the same agent, or of others; and having for its object an assignable individual, or, by accident an assemblage of assignable individuals: extra-regarding therefore, and private. This primary mischief is accompanied by a secondary: the first branch of which is sometimes contingent and sometimes certain, the other never otherwise than contingent: both extra-regarding and semi-public: in other respects, pretty much upon a par with the primary mischief: except that the first branch, viz. the alarm, though inferior in magnitude to the primary, is, in point of extent, and therefore, upon the whole, in point of magnitude, much superior.

XVI. Two instances more will be sufficient to illustrate the most material of the modifications above exhibited.

A man drinks a certain quantity of liquor, and intoxicates himself. The intoxication in this particular instance does him no sort of harm: or, what comes to the same thing, none that is perceptible. But it is probable, and indeed next to certain, that a given number of acts of the same kind would do him a very considerable degree of harm: more or less according to his constitution and other circumstances: for this is no more than what experience manifests every day. It is also certain, that one act of this sort, by one means or other, tends considerably to increase the disposition a man may be in to practise other acts of the same sort: for this also is verified by experience. This, therefore, is one instance where the mischief producible by the act is contingent in other words, in which the tendency of the act is no otherwise mischievous than in virtue of its producing a chance of mischief. This chance depends upon the concurrence of other acts of the same kind; and those such as must be practiced by the same person. The object of the mischief is that very person himself who is the author of it, and he only, unless by accident. The mischief is therefore private and self-regarding.

As to its secondary mischief, alarm, it produces none: it produces indeed a certain quantity of danger by the influence of example: but it is not often that this danger will amount to a quantity worth regarding.

XVII. Again. A man omits paying his share to a public tax. This we see is an act of the negative kind. Is this then to be placed upon the list of mischievous acts? Yes, certainly. Upon what grounds? Upon the following. To defend the community against its external as well as its internal adversaries are tasks, not to mention others of a less indispensable nature which cannot be fulfilled but at a considerable expense. But whence is the money for defraying this expense to come? It can be obtained in no other manner than by contributions to be collected from individuals; in a word, by taxes. The produce then of these taxes is to be looked upon as a kind of benefit which it is necessary the governing part of the community should receive for the use of the whole. This produce, before it can be applied to its destination, requires that there should be certain persons commissioned to receive and to apply it. Now if these persons, had they received it, would have applied it to its proper destination, it would have been a benefit: the not putting them in a way to receive it, is then a mischief. But it is possible, that if received, it might not have been applied to its proper destination; or that the services, in consideration of which it was bestowed, might not have been performed. It is possible, that the under-officer, who collected the produce of the tax, might not have paid it over to his principal: it is possible that the principal might not have forwarded it on according to its farther destination; to the judge, for instance, who is to protect the community against its clandestine enemies from within, or the soldier, who is to protect it against its open enemies from without: it is possible that the judge, or the soldier, had they received it, would not however have been induced by it to fulfil their respective duties: it is possible, that the judge would not have sat for the punishment of criminals, and the decision of controversies: it is possible that the soldier would not have drawn his sword in the defense of the community. These, together with an infinity of other intermediate acts, which for the sake of brevity I pass over, form a connected chain of duties, the discharge of which is necessary to the preservation of the community. They must every one of them be discharged, ere the benefit to which they are contributory can be produced. If they are all discharged, in that case the benefit subsists, and any act, by tending to intercept that benefit, may produce a mischief. But if any of them are not, the benefit fails: it fails of itself: it would not have subsisted, although the act in question (the act of non-payment) had not been committed. The benefit is therefore contingent; and, accordingly, upon a certain supposition, the act which consists in the averting of it is not a mischievous one. But this supposition, in any tolerably-ordered government, will rarely indeed be verified. In the very worst ordered government that exists, the greatest part of the duties that are levied are paid over according to their destination: and, with regard to any particular sum, that is attempted to be levied upon any particular person upon any particular occasion, it is therefore manifest, that, unless it be certain that it will not be so disposed of, the act of withholding it is a mischievous one.

The act of payment, when referable to any particular sum, especially if it be a small one, might also have failed of proving beneficial on another ground: and, consequently, the act of nonpayment, of proving mischievous. It is possible that the same services, precisely, might have been rendered without the money as with it. If, then, speaking of any small limited sum, such as the greatest which any one person is called upon to pay at a time, a man were to say, that the non-payment of it would be attended with mischievous consequences; this would be far from certain: but what comes to the same thing as if it were, it is perfectly certain when applied to the whole. It is certain, that if all of a sudden the payment of all taxes was to cease, there would no longer be anything effectual done, either for the maintenance of justice, or for the defence of the community against its foreign adversaries: that therefore the weak would presently be oppressed and injured in all manner of ways, by the strong at home, and both together overwhelmed by oppressors abroad. Upon the whole, therefore, it is manifest, that in this case, though the mischief is remote and contingent, though in its first appearance it consists of nothing more than the interception of a benefit, and though the individuals, in whose favour that benefit would have been reduced into the explicit form of pleasure or security, are altogether unassignable, yet the mischievous tendency of the act is not on all these accounts the less indisputable. The mischief, in point of intensity and duration, is indeed unknown: it is uncertain: it is remote. But in point of extent it is immense; and in point of fecundity, pregnant to a degree that baffles calculation.

XVIII. It may now be time to observe, that it is only in the case where the mischief is extra-regarding, and has an assignable person or persons for its object, that so much of the secondary branch of it as consists in alarm can have place. When the individuals it affects are uncertain, and altogether out of sight, no alarm can be produced: as there is nobody whose sufferings you can see, there is nobody whose sufferings you can be alarmed at. No alarm, for instance, is produced by nonpayment to a tax. If at any distant and uncertain period of time such offence should chance to be productive of any kind of alarm, it would appear to proceed, as indeed immediately it would proceed, from a very different cause. It might be immediately referable, for example, to the act of a legislator, who should deem it necessary to lay on a new tax, in order to make up for the deficiency occasioned in the produce of the old one. Or it might be referable to the act of an enemy, who, under favour of a deficiency thus created in the fund allotted for defense, might invade the country, and exact from it much heavier contributions than those which had been thus withholden from the sovereign.

As to any alarm which such an offence might raise among the few who might chance to regard the matter with the eyes of statesmen, it is of too slight and uncertain a nature to be worth taking into the account. {Tertiary effects}

[IPML, Chapter XI, Part 2] [IPML, Chapter XII, §2]