Thursday, March 29, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part II, Chapter 1





The first step toward the solution of any question is to learn the character of the materials we have to deal with; and, as the problem we have set out to solve involves the relations of men one to another in society, it is of the first importance to understand aright man himself.

If an engineer is called upon to repair or reconstruct a bridge that is failing into decay, it is very necessary that he know the qualities of the material he must use: its weight, its tensile and tarsal strength, the action upon it of cold and heat, and its resistance to decay. These things being known, with the load it is expected to bear, he can calculate the strain, and determine the size and form of the parts. Without this knowledge it is impossible for him to proceed. It is to a want of such knowledge of man, the material with which they have to deal, that I attribute much of the confusion of thought existing among writers on social topics. Not that it is possible, or even necessary, to find all the springs which modify and determine different men’s actions under different circumstances; but there are certain facts common to all men, which, given their due weight, render human action an open book which may be read and understood by all men.

Such a fact is selfishness.[1] It is the first manifestation [96] of awakening intelligence in the new-born babe as it comes wailing into the world; and throughout life, it is the motive power which communicates itself to all the intricate machinery, and actuates every thought and every impulse. Necessarily it is the only motive; because, if another were introduced, it would be an obstruction, if working in antagonism to it, and useless if in harmony, unless the first proved inadequate. No man puts a second engine into his works to drive the machinery the other way from what the first one propels it; nor to help do the work if the first is sufficient. That selfishness is a sufficient motive I will attempt to show.

When the new-born child makes its appearance, its first sensations have reference to its bodily needs. It instinctively tries to satisfy the cravings of hunger. No one will claim that it is actuated by other than the most narrowly selfish desires. Its knowledge is even more limited than its desires, for it depends upon instinct rather than knowledge. Through the whole period of its infancy the manifestations of gross selfishness are but slightly modified. Those modifications begin to show themselves in exact ratio to its increase of intelligence. A child learns that by dividing his apple with another, he is likely to secure a like division in his favor when the other has apples, and he has none. And besides, he finds that such a course will secure him the friendship and comradeship of his fellows at play, which ministers to other desires that his increasing knowledge has awakened. These lessons must be impressed upon him at many times, and in many ways, before he sufficiently realizes them to induce him to voluntarily share his apple. He finally does it because he expects, in one way or another, to obtain greater pleas than he foregoes. It is an exchange by which he profits, or expects to, just as certainly as I do when I give something I want little, for what I want more. I expect the [97] thing I get to gratify more desires than what I gave would do. And with growth of the child there is an increasing knowledge, which brings into activity increasing and more refined desires, just in proportion to that knowledge. Just as knowledge and desires increase, the child is brought to realize that to secure their gratification he must seek the pleasure and happiness of others. And because he does it, he does not therefore pursue an unselfish course. He is just as selfish as before. The thing that has taken place is that his knowledge has become greater, resulting in more refined desires, and requiring greater consideration for others, in order to secure their gratification. We may apply the same thing to men of the most narrow and brutal desires, or to those of the most exalted benevolence. When we have expressed the difference between them we have only said that one is ignorant, and the other intelligent; and that they are both equally selfish.

Let no one misunderstand my meaning. When I speak of intelligence I do not mean that intellectual drill which crams the mind with a mass of facts unrelated, unappreciated, and not understood. What kind of carpenter would he be who, in order to learn his trade, should pack his chest with all kinds of tools of the most improved patterns, should learn their names, and be able to tell you their uses, and yet who had not acquired the skill to put one of them to use? But this is the kind of educated men our schools are turning out, and this is what stands to-day for education. Such men are not, however, what I mean by intelligent. They are almost as likely to exhibit in their intercourse with others those grosser forms of selfishness which indicate sensual and brutal desires, and which are always the distinguishing marks of ignorance.

The love of distinction, manifestly a purely selfish trait, and yet one of the loftiest and most stimulating: [98] the one that spurs men to the highest endeavor to seem, or to be, begins to develop at an early age, and seldom, if ever, becomes extinct during life. It is doubtful if any human being ever sunk so low as to become insensible to the regard of all other men. Even the most hopeless despair is largely an expression of a want for that regard; and its victims often commit suicide to escape from the hell which this unsatisfied desire produces.

But evidently, men’s desires cannot rise above their ability to appreciate; and such ability is always the boundary line of their intelligence—their understanding. Here is a man who is gross and brutal; whom the unthinking call selfish; who appears to have no desires beyond the gratification of his grosser appetites and passions; and who pursues those gratifications with utter disregard for the proprieties which commonly obtain among men. His love of distinction is manifested in efforts to attract attention by loud talk, coarse jests, abrupt and self-asserting manners, and in loud and flashy garments and ornaments. When however, he extends his knowledge, even if it is only a little way, so as to enable him to perceive the disgust his manners excite, the same love of distinction, the same selfish propensity impels him to modify his manners toward others; and, by curbing his passions and appetites, seek to obtain for himself a greater degree of respect and regard than he before enjoyed.

Another man who is refined and sensitive, who instinctively shrinks from everything vulgar, whose delight is in promoting the happiness of those around him, who bestows his goods to relieve want and suffering in the most unostentatious manner, and whom men call unselfish, is he really so? I think not. His knowledge is simply extended. It has taught him of pleasures to which he was before a stranger. Under its refining influence he has become sensitive to the feelings of others, That sensitive [99] nature is pained at the sight of suffering. He has learned the pleasures which come from deeds of mercy; and whether he knows it or not, he loves the distinction, and the public estimation which his conduct brings him. To say that he is insensible to it is to contradict human love, human sympathy, human aspiration, and all the promptings of human nature. His conduct is still actuated by the same motive—the one that impels the boy to divide his apple, and that prompts the grossly vulgar to modify his manners toward others. The only difference between any of them is a difference in the knowledge that stimulates and shapes the desires.

Men say that love and sympathy are wholly at variance with human selfishness; and that they can not exist where selfishness rules. But let us see! Outwardly there is a wide difference, but that difference is no greater than that between the blossom on the rose-bush, and the wooded stalk which supports it. Love and sympathy may be likened to the blossom which appears upon the rough and prickly stalk of human selfishness, and the stem upon which it grows is the love of distinction. In all the varied manifestations of human relations and development, there is not a kindly act, a generous deed, a throb of sympathy, or a noble impulse, which has not its promptings wholly in selfishness; and which has not the same personal object—the happiness of the individual. These acts and sentiments are not shown until a certain degree of intelligence has been attained: in other words, until advancing knowledge has taught the man that they best promote his own happiness. He learns from experience “whatsoever he would that men should do unto him, to do even so to them ; because such a course brings him the love and esteem others, and promotes general good will and happiness, while the opposite conduct excites resentments, heart-burnings, and strife, that are destructive of happiness. [100]

A moment’s consideration will show that selfishness has not been lessened, but it has really been strengthened; and that it is more needed now, under a high development, than ever before.

Selfishness looks to the preservation and development of the individual; the making and the being of that individual all that lies within the scope of its powers. And by the individual I mean, his personality, made up as it is of his likes and dislikes, his conceptions, sensations, aspirations, and all that enters into his being. As that personality becomes refined and elevated in thought and purpose, it becomes more delicate in its constitution, and more sensitive to unfavorable conditions; so that h has none the less need of the preserving power of selfishness, to maintain that development, but rather more; for, as it is lifted above the level of other and grosser individuals, were that preserving force weakened, the tendency to decay would at once appear. It could not maintain itself when exposed to the attacks of other individuals of a lower development, but of a grosser and more vigorous selfishness. The making of individual character—the supreme end and purpose of human existence—is the point toward which selfishness constantly propels men; and the question of how far in this direction the man will go depends wholly upon the favoring circumstances in which he finds himself, and the strength and persistence of this power which drives him, At no point in the life history of man can he safely dispense with selfishness as the one great motive force of his existence.

A failure to recognize this principle, in judging of the conduct of men, and in estimating the value of human institutions, has been the means of setting up false and artificial standards of morality; of investing some acts with a virtue and others with a vice, a basis for which distinction there is no existence in nature; and of keeping alive false hopes, [101] and perpetuating the subjection of some men, to the rule of other men. As long as people can be made to believe that others are actuated by unselfish motives, and that they are therefore purer and better in their lives and acts than others who are more grossly selfish, they will continue to invest their words and deeds with a greater authority, and permit them to trespass more upon their rights than they otherwise would do. As long as they continue their artificial standards of morality, they will punish with public opprobrium, and possibly something worse, violations of them. Let them once understand that every man’s acts, whether saint or sinner, wise man or foolish, priest or layman, philosopher or politician, patriot or criminal, are actuated by one single motive, that of selfishness, and they will estimate them more nearly at their true worth.

They will cease to insist upon the observance by others of a code of morals of their own making, or to accord to pharisaical purists the superstitious reverence they now accord them. Proudhon says: "Whoever talks to me of God has designs upon my liberty, or my purse."

If we but observe the arguments popularly used for and against reformers, and reform projects, we shall see how this misconception of men’s motives tends to block progress, and perpetuate ignorance. One side, opposing the reform, thinks it has advanced a strong argument against it when it has called in question the motives, or character of the reformer, or his followers; and if it can prove some act which would give color to a selfish motive, or show that his personal character is bad, it regards its case as won; while the other side feels called upon to come to his defense, or the defense of his supporters, and clear him, or them, from unjust aspersions. Thus the contest is carried on on lines which have no more to do with the question at issue than the question of who wrote Shakespeare has to do with the protective tariff. [102]

If the reader will pardon the vulgarity of a reference to myself, I will here admit, for the benefit of those who may hereafter wish to charge me with sinister, or selfish motives, that in writing this book, I am actuated purely by selfish desires, and that I care nothing for any other person in this world except as that person may, in some manner, minister to my happiness. With this admitted, the discussion must shift to the truth or falsity of the question I shall raise, which are the real ones at issue.

[1] “Selfishness,” as used in this work, stands for the totality of individual desires. It is not intended to imply disregard for the well-being of others; and indeed, as will appear later, in its highest development, it is not only perfectly in harmony with the most exalted benevolence, but it must promote that benevolence in order to realize its own fruition. For a fuller understanding of the sense in which this term is used see references to “selfishness” in index at the end of this volume.

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