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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

January 7th, 2001.

"Ethics & Economics."

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen put it this way:

"If A places his greatest happiness in promoting that which he regards as B's greatest happiness, B never having asked him to do so, and A having no other interest in the matter than general feelings of sympathy, it is a hundred to one that B will tell A to mind his own business. If A represents a small class of men of quick feelings and lively talents, and B a much larger class of ignorant people, who, if they were let alone, would never have thought of the topics which their advisers din into their ears, the probability is that the few will by degrees work up the many into a state of violence, excitement, discontent, and clamorous desire for they know not what - which is neither a pleasant state in itself nor one fruitful of much real good to any one whatever.
... a man who has a disinterested love for the human race - that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind - is an unaccountable person with whom it is difficult to deal upon any well-known and recognized principles, and who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular."1

Stephen makes reference to the man whose primary interest is in himself and in his family:

"Such a person can be content to let sleeping dogs lie. He can say, 'I wish for my own good; I wish for the good of my family and friends; I am interested in my nation; I will do acts of good nature to miscellaneous people who come in my way; ... but as to calling all human creatures indiscriminately my brothers and sisters, I will do no such thing. I have far too much respect for real relations to give these endearing names to all sorts of people of whom I [do not] know...'"

As Stephen states:

"It means the expenditure of time and trouble in the direct relief of specific misfortune, or the direct production of specific benefits to individuals or to classes...The whole apparatus of charitable and philanthropic undertakings... are all recognized as organs for doing good; but the ordinary pursuits of life - trades, professions, and occupations of every kind - with one or two exceptions, are not."

It is, as Stephen continues to point out, an entirely wrong notion to invest a particular class (do-gooders) with a degree of credit to which, in fact, it has little or no claim. Members of this class think themselves better than men who till the ground and distribute its produce.

"If all these functions [the practical matters to clothe, feed and house mankind] are properly discharged, the whole body corporate is in a healthy condition; and thence it follows that whoever contributes to the full and proper discharge of any one of these functions is contributing to the general good of the whole body so that a person occupied in them is doing good in the strictest sense of the words."

Stephen continues:

"Human society is a vast and intricate machine, composed of innumerable wheels and pulleys. Every one has his special handle to grind at - some with great and obvious effects, others with little or no assignable result; but if the object ultimately produced by the combined efforts of all is in itself a good one, it cannot be denied that whatever is essential to its production is good also. ... The insinuation is injurious principally because it has a strong practical tendency to discredit the common occupations of life, and it does this in two ways. In the first place, it assumes that the motives which urge people to the diligent and successful prosecutions of their various callings are, generally speaking, mean and petty. It insinuates that the mainspring of professional zeal is personal ambition; that commerce and agriculture are mere embodiments of avarice; and that, in a word, selfishness is the vital principle of almost every part of society."

We do not operate in a corrupt and detestable system as so many of the do-gooders suggest. All, from doctors, university professors and bureaucrats who run social programs; to street sweepers and alike, are actuated primarily to make a living. Some, especially those initially enumerated, enjoy their work. However, it is interesting to note that usually these professional jobs which carry the most respect and earn the most amount of money, while being important to civil life, can be dispensed with much more easily than those who provide services as a butcher or a baker or a trucker.

Those who have taken it upon themselves the job of administering "social programs" often have "the habit of looking upon our neighbours from a position of conscious and avowed superiority [which] has a direct tendency to make sympathy impossible." All too often these people develop a superior attitude when they are officially charged with the business of improving the life of others.

"He is more exposed than almost any other person to the danger of becoming pedantic and petty, and of trying to realize his own conceptions of what people ought to be and to do, instead of learning how slight and narrow these conceptions are. Benevolence is constantly cultivated by philanthropists at the expense of modesty, truthfulness, and consideration for the rights and feelings of others; for by the very fact that a man devotes himself to conscious efforts to make people happier and better than they are, he asserts that he knows better than they what are the necessary constituent elements of happiness and goodness. In other words, he sets himself up as their guide and superior. Of course, his claim to do this may be well founded; but the mere fact that it is made does not prove its justice. On the contrary, it often arises from a domineering self-sufficiency of disposition, associated with a taste for interfering in other people's affairs. The habit of not only doing this, but looking upon it as the one course of life which is worthy of admiration - as the one laudable employment which redeems the vulgarity and selfishness of the rest - can hardly be favourable to the mental constitution of those who indulge in it."



1 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1873. See around page p. 297.

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Peter Landry

January, 2001 (2019)