The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 1

Scope and Method of Politics

§3. On the whole, then, I think that, for the purpose of general political reasoning that has a practical aim, induction from the political experiences which history records can only be employed in a secondary way. But if this be so, by what other rational method can we deal with the questions of Practical Politics? The method commonly adopted in political reasoning that appeals to general principles is the following: we assume certain general characteristics of social man---characteristics belonging not to mankind universally, but to civilised man in the most advanced stage of his development: and we consider what laws and institutions are likely to conduce most to the welfare of an aggregate of such beings living in social relations. The present work is an attempt to render this method more systematic and precise: the practical principles defined and applied in it are accordingly based on certain general assumptions as to human motives and tendencies, which are derived primarily from the ordinary 'experience of civilised life, though they find adequate confirmation in the facts of the current and recent history of our own and other civilised countries. These propositions, it should be observed, are not put forward as exactly or universally true, even of contemporary civilised man; but only as sufficiently near the truth for practical purposes. As instances of these fundamental assumptions, I may give what Bentham lays down as ``propositions upon which the good of Equality is founded'', viz. that, generally speaking, ``each portion of wealth has as corresponding to it a portion''---or, more exactly, a ``certain chance''---of happiness: that ``of two individuals, with equal fortunes, he that has the most wealth has the greatest chance of happiness''; but that ``the excess in happiness of the richer will not be so great as the excess of his wealth''. Of these propositions the last, as Bentham says, is not likely to be disputed: but the first two, if universally stated, any one with any wide experience of human beings will probably be disposed to contradict; it is easy to find both persons to whom it has manifestly been a misfortune to have been made suddenly richer, and persons who have not appreciably lost happiness by having become suddenly poorer. But it remains true that---other things being equal---an overwhelming majority of sensible and reasonable persons would always prefer a larger income to a smaller, both for themselves and for those whom they desire to benefit, and all that Bentham is concerned to maintain---all that he requires to assume for the establishment of general rules of legislation---is that this great majority of sensible persons would be right in the great majority of cases.

As another of these fundamental assumptions, let us take a proposition of J. S. Mill's, viz. that ``each person is the only safe guardian of his own rights and interests''. This proposition, of course, is only intended by Mill to apply to sane adults---and, to avoid controversy, I will for the present suppose (what, I hardly need say, is not Mill's view) that it is only applicable to adult males: since it is not clear that the common sense of mankind considers women generally to be the safest guardians of their own pecuniary interests. Even among male adults it is not difficult to find instances of persons not insane, who are so recklessly passionate or self-indulgent, or so easily deluded, that a wise parent or friend would prefer to place any gift or bequest intended for their benefit in the hands of trustees. Still it remains broadly and generally true that this proposition is, as Mill says, an ``elementary maxim of prudence'' on which men commonly act without hesitation in their private affairs: and it is primarily on this ground of common experience that he maintains the validity of this maxim as a principle for the construction of the ``ideally best polity''; though he appeals for confirmation to the specifically political experience which the history of oppressed classes in different ages and countries abundantly furnishes.

These and other fundamental assumptions of deductive politics we shall have to discuss more fully in subsequent chapters: in which I shall consider carefully the limitations and exceptions to which they ought to be taken as subject. Here I will only say that, while it is a grave and not uncommon error to treat generalisations as to human conduct which are only approximately true as if they were universally and absolutely true, it is a no less serious mistake---and perhaps it is at the present time the more prevalent and dangerous mistake---to throw a rule aside as valueless, or treat it as having only a vague and indefinite validity, because we find it subject to important limitations and exceptions. Whereas the truth is, that in most cases our knowledge, in any real and important sense, of a general truth relating to human action and its motives and effects, develops along with our knowledge of its limitations and exceptions: until we have a definite and clear apprehension of the latter, we cannot have a firm grasp of the former. This will, I think, be abundantly illustrated in the exposition of political principles that follows: I have said enough for the present to illustrate the general nature, and to give, a prima facie justification, of the method which I shall be mainly engaged in developing. For myself, while I regard this method as useful and even indispensable, I quite admit the importance of bearing constantly in mind its inevitable limitations and imperfections. It must never be forgotten that no particular nation is composed of individuals having only the few simple and general characteristics which are all we can include in our conception of the civilised man to whom our abstract political reasoning relates. An actual nation consists of persons of whom the predominant number have, besides the general characteristics just mentioned, a certain vaguely defined complex of particular characteristics which we call the ``national character'' of Englishmen, Frenchmen, etc.; among which sentiments and habits of thought and action, formed by the previous history of the nation, must always occupy a prominent place: and a consideration of these particular characteristics may properly modify to an important extent the conclusions arrived at by our general reasoning. Thus I may conclude, from the point of view of abstract theory, that by taking twelve plain men and shutting them up in a room till they are unanimous, I am likely to get but a blunt and clumsy instrument for the administration of criminal justice: but this defect may be more than compensated by the peculiar confidence placed in this instrument by a people whom the unbroken tradition of centuries has taught to regard trial by jury as the ``palladium of its liberties''. So again, no one constructing a legislative organ, composed of two chambers, for a newly-founded community of modern civilised men, would be likely to propose that membership of the second or revising chamber should be handed down from father to son, like a piece of private property: but, in a country that has long been led by hereditary aristocracy, a chamber so appointed may have valuable power of resistance to dangerous popular impulses which it may be difficult to obtain by any other mode of appointment.

These are questions which we shall afterwards have to discuss: I only refer to them now by way of illustration; and in order to warn the reader that, in my opinion, no questions of this kind---regarded as practical problems presented for solution to a particular nation at a particular time---can be absolutely and finally determined by the method which I shall try to work out in subsequent chapters. At the same time, this general treatment of the subject cannot fail, in my opinion, to be useful, provided that we are not misled into regarding it as complete and final; useful, not merely as a preparatory exercise, but because considerations of the general kind with which we shall be concerned must always form an important part of the discussion of any question of practical politics, though they have to be combined with---and to a varying extent overruled by---considerations of a more special kind.

[Back to:] [Forward to:] [Up to:]