The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 3

General Principles of Legislation

§2. What then are the principles on which the laws defining the primary civil rights of private members of a civilised community should be constructed, or the criteria by which the goodness or badness of any actual body of such laws should be tested? In answering this question, I do not seek, as I said in my first chapter, to propound and establish any new principles, not recognized in ordinary political thought and discussion; my aim is merely to render somewhat more precise in conception the principles that I find commonly recognised, and to make their application to particular cases as clear and consistent as possible.

In the first place, we are all agreed that laws ought to be just or not unjust: and by this we do not merely mean that they ought to be justly administered---i.e. that the general rules of law ought to be impartially applied without ``respect of persons'' to the particular cases brought before the courts for judgment---but we mean also that these general rules themselves ought to be framed so as to avoid injustice. But when I try to give a definite signification to this principle, the only signification I can find which would really carry with it universal agreement is, that all arbitrary inequality is to be excluded: that persons in similar circumstances are to be treated similarly; and that, so far as different classes of persons receive different treatment from the legislator, such differences should not be due to any personal favour or disfavour with which the classes in question are regarded by him. This agreement therefore gives no positive guidance as to the plan on which our impartially framed laws are to be constructed: it does not enable us to say how far and on what grounds persons in different circumstances are to be treated differently.

I think, however, that we may go a step further, and claim general---if not universal---assent for the principle that the true standard and criterion by which right legislation is to be distinguished from wrong is conduciveness to the general ``good'' or ``welfare''. And probably the great majority of persons would agree to interpret the ``good'' or ``welfare'' of the community to mean, in the last analysis, the happiness of the individual human beings who compose the community; provided that we take into account not only the human beings who are actually living but those who are to live hereafter. This, at any rate, is my own view. Accordingly, throughout this treatise I shall take the happiness of the persons affected as the ultimate end and standard of right and wrong in determining the functions and constitution of government.

I draw special attention to the inclusion of posterity in my statement of the ultimate end of legislation: because it appears to me that whatever force there is in the arguments urged against the view that the end of government is the happiness of the individuals governed, depends on the conception of these individuals as present, actually existing, members of the particular community in question. I fully concede that there are crises of national life in which it is the duty of the present generation of citizens, the actually living human beings who compose any political community, to make important sacrifices of personal happiness for the ``good'' or ``welfare of their country'', and that this good or welfare cannot be completely analysed into private happiness of the individuals who make the sacrifices. I should add that there are cases in which it is the duty of the members of one political society to make sacrifices for the good or welfare of other sections of the human race. But I hold that if this good is not chimerical and illusory, it must mean the happiness of some individual human beings: if not of those living now, at any rate of those who are to live hereafter. And I have tried in vain to obtain from any writer who rejects this view, any other definite conception of the ``good of the State''.

If it is urged that there are many most important sources of the happiness of human beings with which government has little or nothing to do, and which it will only make a mistake if it tries to control---art, literature, and for the most part industry---the answer is, that it appears from this very argument that the limits of government interference in these departments are capable of being determined on utilitarian principles; for the argument is that interference beyond those limits will be demonstrably the reverse of useful---will be not conducive to the general happiness.

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