The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter XIII


§5. Since, then, the force of opinion and sentiment in the community as to the social duties of individuals is so valuable to the government, both as support and as supplement, and so dangerous in antagonism, it remains to inquire how far it is a proper function of government to take measures to stimulate and regulate this force.

The question, however, does not practically present itself in this simple form in the political societies of Europe and America; since in these societies the systematic teaching of morality to adults---and, to a great extent, the moral education of the young---are, by a firmly established custom, left in the hands of one or more of the different Christian churches: so that the problem of governmental interference for the moralisation of the citizens takes the form of a question as to the ``relations of Church and State''. Still, it seems desirable, in such a treatise as the present, to begin by considering the problem in a more general way.

Let us suppose, then, that we are dealing with a civilised community in which there is either no religion having general acceptance or important influence, or else only religions that have no important connection with morality;---I mean religions in which the objects of worship are mainly conceived to be propitiated otherwise than by the performance of social duty:---and let us ask whether government, under these circumstances, should undertake the business of teaching morality and stimulating moral sentiments. The answer to this question would seem to me to depend partly on the answer given to one of the most fundamental questions of moral philosophy: viz. whether the performance of social duty can be proved scientifically---with as strong a ``consensus of experts'' as we find in established sciences generally---to be certainly or most probably the means best adapted to the attainment of the private happiness of the agent.

I. If we answer this question in the affirmative, it does not indeed follow that morality ought to be based on self-interest alone; but it would dearly be an important gain to social wellbeing to correct the erroneous and shortsighted views of self-interest, representing it as divergent from duty, which certainly appear to be widely prevalent in the most advanced societies, at least among irreligious persons. Hence there are at any rate strong reasons for regarding it as the duty of government, in the case supposed, to aim at removing this widespread ignorance and error by providing teachers of morality: and such a provision might be fairly regarded as indirectly individualistic in its aim, since to diffuse the conviction that it is every one's interest to do what is right would obviously be a valuable protection against mutual wrong. It does not, however, follow that it would be expedient to have morality taught---to adults at least---by salaried servants of government. For unless we assume the harmony between duty and self-interest to be demonstrable to an untrained intellect, such teaching would only be efficacious if the teachers inspired confidence: and the analogy of the sanitary instruction imparted by the medical profession suggests that confidence, in the degree required, would be more readily given to moralists freely chosen by those whom they advised. Further, in any cases of doubt or dispute, in which it might seem to be the interest of governing persons that the governed should act in the manner recommended by the moralists, the latter would be liable to the suspicion that they were biassed by the prospect of advancement or fear of dismissal: so that they would give but a feeble support to Government---just, perhaps, when their support was most needed. On the other hand, if this danger were partially met by securing the teachers from dismissal, the service would be liable to be encumbered with unfit persons.

II. But the objections against governmental provision of professional moralisers become much stronger, if we regard it as impossible to prove by ordinary mundane considerations that it is always the individual's interest in the present condition of human society to do his duty; or if, granting the evident coincidence of self-interest and duty, it is still held that self-regard should not be the normal motive to moral action. For in either of these cases the only teaching likely to be effective is such as will powerfully affect the emotions of the taught, no less than their intellects; we should, therefore, generally speaking, need teachers who themselves felt, and were believed to feel, sincerely and intensely, the moral and social emotions that it was their business to stimulate; and governmental appointment and payment would hardly seem to be an appropriate method of securing instructors of this type. If a spirit of devotion to a particular society or to humanity at large, and readiness to sacrifice self-interest to duty, are to be persuasively inculcated on adults, the task should, generally speaking, be undertaken by persons who set an example of self-devotion and self-sacrifice; and therefore by volunteers, rather than by paid officers. The case would be somewhat different with the more malleable natures of children: it would still be clearly expedient that schoolmasters as well as parents should seriously endeavour to promote the growth of moral habits and sentiments in the youthful minds committed to their charge. But it seems very doubtful how far, in the circumstances supposed, this growth would be most effectively promoted by formal instruction; and not rather partly by steady enforcement of received rules, with such incidental explanations of their rationale as can be effectively given,---as polite manners are now ordinarily taught; and partly by stimulating social sentiments through a well-selected study of literature and history, as patriotism and public spirit are now mainly promoted.

Let us now turn from the purely hypothetical problem that we have been discussing, to consider the form which the question of governmental interference to promote morality actually takes in modem European communities. For ordinary members of such communities, the connection of any individual's interest with his duty is established by the traditional Christian teaching as to the moral government of the world, and the survival of the individual after his corporeal death. Accordingly, this traditional teaching---though it by no means relies solely on appeals to self-interest---still always includes in its store of arguments appeals of this kind, having irresistible cogency for all hearers who believe the fundamental Christian doctrines. So far as the rules of duty thus taught are those commonly accepted by thoughtful persons, the value of the aid given to the work of government by this supply of extramundane motives to the performance of social duty can hardly be doubted. But the expediency of governmental action to secure this aid is importantly affected by the fact that the teachers who give it are actually organised in independent associations called churches, whose lines of division differ from---and to an important extent cut across---the lines of division of political societies; and which for the most part would resist strongly any attempt to bring them directly and completely under the control of the secular government. The practical question therefore is, whether government should leave these churches unfettered---treating them like any other voluntary associations based on free contract---or should endeavour to obtain a partial control over them in return for endowments or other advantages. I do not propose in this treatise to enter upon the historical or the theological aspects of this controverted question: but it is easy to show that the settlement of it is likely to be at once difficult and of great importance to political wellbeing. For, so far as the priest or religious teacher seeks not merely to provide a harmonious and satisfying expression for religious emotion, but also to regulate the behaviour of man to his fellows in domestic and civil relations,---using as motives the hope of reward and fear of punishment from an invisible source,---his function obviously tends to become quasi-governmental; accordingly, where religious belief is strong, the power given to the priesthood by its control of these extra-mundane motives renders it not only a valuable auxiliary to the ordinary or secular government in the business of maintaining the general performance of civic duty, but also a most formidable rival, in case of any conflict between the priesthood and the organs of secular government. A similar rivalry and conflict is of course possible between a non-religious association among the members of any political community and the government of that community: and history affords some striking examples of such rivalry, though none comparable in extent and importance to the conflict for power between ``Church and State'' in Western Europe. I have accordingly thought it best to consider the question of governmental intervention in religious matters in a special chapter on the Relation of the State to Voluntary Associations, which will be more appropriately introduced after we have examined the organisation of secular government.

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