The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 3

General Principles of Legislation

§3. We have thus arrived at the utilitarian doctrine that the ultimate criterion of the goodness of law, and of the actions of government generally, is their tendency to increase the general happiness. The difficult question how far, if at all, the interests of any one community are to be postponed by its government to the interests of other sections of humanity is one that it will become necessary to deal with at a later stage but we are hardly called upon to consider it when we are discussing the internal functions of government---the principles of its action in relation to the governed. The happiness then of the governed community will be assumed as the ultimate end of legislation, throughout the nine chapters that follow. But even the acceptance of this principle gets us very little way towards a system of legislation: since we find it admitted equally by persons differing profoundly in their political aims and tendencies: indeed, there is scarcely any widely spread political institution or practice---however universally condemned by current opinion---which has not been sincerely defended as conducive to human happiness on the whole. Hence, when we have agreed to take general happiness as the ultimate end, the most important part of our work still remains to be done: we have to establish or assume some subordinate principle or principles, capable of more precise application, relating to the best means for attaining by legislation the end of Maximum Happiness.

Now when we consider the different ways in which the happiness of individuals may be promoted by laws, the most fundamental distinctions appear to be two.

I. In the first place, legal control may be exercised in the interest et the, person controlled, or of other persons: the government may either aim at making each of the individuals to whom its commands are addressed promote his own happiness better than he would without interference, or it may aim at making his conduct more conducive to the happiness of others. So far as the former is the avowed aim of government, its control resembles that properly exercised by a father over his children: accordingly this kind of governmental interference is commonly spoken of as ``paternal''; and I shall adopt this as the most convenient name for it. The term is used with more or less sarcasm, because such interference---as applied to sane adults---is commonly regarded as being in general undesirable in modern civilised communities. The grounds for this opinion are chiefly these: (1) that men, on the average, are more likely to know what is for their own interest than government is, and to have a keener concern for promoting it, so that, even supposing paternal legislation would be generally obeyed, its direct effects are likely to be on the whole mischievous---taking into account the annoyance caused by coercion; and (2) that, even if its direct effects are beneficial, its indirect effects in the way of weakening the self-reliance and energy of individuals, and depriving them of the salutary lessons of experience, are likely to outweigh the benefit: while (3) such laws are specially liable to evasion, since, in cases where they are felt to be coercive, there will usually be no private individuals who feel directly interested in the effectiveness of the coercion---the persons whom the laws are primarily designed to benefit being the very persons who require to be coerced. It is further held that, even if any little good were done by this kind of legislation, it would not be worth the expense entailed by it both of money and of the energies of statesmen needed for other functions: and finally, that there is a serious political danger in the increase of the power and influence of government that would be involved in a consistent application of the ``paternal'' principle. I shall consider hereafter how far these arguments are valid to the complete exclusion of this principle: at present it is enough to say that neither in current political reasoning nor in the actual facts of legislation is anything more than a very subordinate place now ever allowed or claimed for its application. We are all agreed that, in the main, the coercion of law is and ought to be applied to adult individuals in the interest primarily of other persons.

II. But here a second fundamental distinction suggests itself. The services which an individual is legally bound to render to others may be positive or negative: they may consist in doing useful acts, or in forbearing to do mischievous acts. Now there is no doubt that the constant rendering of reciprocal positive services is indispensable to the production of the greatest attainable happiness for the human beings who compose a modem civilised community; all agree, indeed, that such exchange of services has continually to become more complex and elaborate, if we are to realise the economic advantages of that development of industry which the progress of the arts continually renders possible. And most of us would readily accept, as a moral ideal, what I may call ethical as contrasted with political socialism; that is, the doctrine that the services which men have to render to others should be rendered, as far as possible, with a genuine regard to the interests of others: that, as J. S. Mill, after Comte, lays down, ``every person who lives by any useful work should be habituated to regard himself, not as an individual working for his private benefit, but as a public functionary'', working for the benefit of society; and should regard ``his wages of whatever sort … as the provision made by society to enable him to carry on his labour''. But it is widely held that it is the business of the moralist and the preacher, not of the legislator, to aim at producing in the community this habit of thought and feeling; and that it will be on the whole conducive to the general good to leave the terms of positive social co-operation---except so far as it is needed to prevent aggression---to be settled by private agreement among the persons co-operating. It is held, in short, that what one sane adult is legally compelled to render to others should be merely the negative service---of non-interference, except so far as he has voluntarily undertaken to render positive services; provided that we include in the notion of non-interference the obligation of remedying or compensating for mischief intentionally or carelessly caused by his acts---or preventing mischief that would otherwise result from some previous act. This principle for determining the nature and limits of governmental interferences is currently known as ``Individualism'', and I shall refer to it by this name; the requirement that one sane adult, apart from contract or claim to reparation, shall contribute positively by money or services to the support of others I shall call ``socialistic''. I shall also apply this term to any limitation on the freedom of action of individuals in the interest of the community at large, that is not required to prevent interference with other individuals, or for the protection of the community against the aggression of foreigners.

The legislation of modern civilised communities then, is, in the main, framed on an Individualistic basis; and an important school of political thinkers are of opinion that the coercive interference of government should be strictly limited to the application of this principle. I propose, accordingly, in subsequent chapters, to trace in outline the chief characteristics of the system of Law that would result from the consistent application of the Individualistic principle to the actual conditions of human life in society. I shall then examine certain difficulties and doubts that arise when we attempt to work out such a consistent and exclusive individualistic system: I shall analyse the cases in which, in my judgment, it tends to be inadequate to produce the attainable maximum of social happiness: and I shall consider to what extent, and under what carefully defined limitations, it is expedient to allow the introduction of paternal and socialistic legislation, with a view to remedy these inadequacies.

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