Sowell: Social Morality and Social Causation

From A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, page 19.


Human actions were dichotomized by Godwin into the beneficial and the harmful, and each of these in turn was dichotomized into the intentional and the unintentional. The intentional creation of benefits was called “virtue,”38 the intentional creation of harm was “vice”,39 and the unintentional creation of harm was “negligence,” a subspecies of vice.40 These definitions can be represented schematically:

Sowell Schematic

The missing category was unintentional benefit. It was precisely this missing category in Godwin that was central to Adam Smith’s whole vision, particularly as it unfolded in his classic work The Wealth of Nations. The economic benefits to society produced by the capitalist, were, according to Smith, “no part of his intention.”41 The capitalist’s intentions were characterized by Smith as “mean rapacity”42 and capitalists as a group were referred to as people who “seldom meet together, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”43 Yet, despite his repeatedly negative depictions of capitalists,44 unrivaled among economists until Karl Marx, Adam Smith nevertheless became the patron saint of laissez-faire capitalism. Intentions, which were crucial in the unconstrained vision of Godwin, were irrelevant in the constrained vision of Smith. What mattered to Smith were the systemic characteristics of a competitive economy, which he saw as producing social benefits from unsavory individual intentions.

While Adam Smith and William Godwin have been cited as especially clear and straightforward writers espousing opposing visions, each is part of a vast tradition that continues powerful and contending for domination today. Even among their contemporaries, Smith and Godwin each had many intellectual compatriots with similar visions, differently expressed and differing in details and degree. Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 was perhaps the most ringing polemical application of the constrained vision. Thomas Paine’s equally polemical reply, The Rights of Man (1791), anticipated in many ways the more systematic unfolding of the unconstrained vision by Godwin two years later.

Godwin credited Rousseau with being “the first to teach that the imperfections of government were the only perennial source of the vices of mankind.”45 Rousseau was certainly the most famous of those who argued on the basis of a human nature not inherently constrained to its existing limitations, but narrowed and corrupted by social institutions—a vision also found in Condorcet and in Baron D’Holbach, among others of that era. In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill said that the “present wretched education” and “wretched social arrangements” were “the only real hindrance” to attaining general happiness among human beings.46 Mill’s most ringing rhetoric reflected the unconstrained vision, though his eclecticism in many areas caused him to include devastating provisos more consonant with the constrained vision.47

Much of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century liberalism (in the American sense) builds upon these foundations, modified and varying in degree, and applied to areas as disparate as education, war, and criminal justice. Marxism, as we shall see, was a special hybrid, applying a constrained vision to much of the past and an unconstrained vision to much of the future.

When Harold Laski said that “dissatisfaction” was an “expression of serious ill in the body politic,”48 he was expressing the essence of the unconstrained vision, in which neither man nor nature have such inherent constraints as to disappoint our hopes, so that existing institutions, traditions, or rulers must be responsible for dissatisfaction. Conversely, when Malthus attributed human misery to “laws inherent in the nature of man, and absolutely independent of all human regulations,”49 he was expressing one of the most extreme forms of the constrained vision, encompassing inherent constraints in both nature and man.

Godwin’s reply to Malthus, not surprisingly, applied the unconstrained vision to both nature and man: “Men are born into the world, in every country where the cultivation of the earth is practised, with the natural faculty in each man of producing more food than he can consume, a faculty which cannot be controlled but by the injurious exclusions of human institution.”50 Given the unconstrained possibilities of man and nature, poverty or other sources of dissatisfaction could only be a result of evil intentions or blindness to solutions readily achievable by changing existing institutions.

By contrast, Burke considered complaints about our times and rulers to be part of “the general infirmities of human nature,” and that “true political sagacity” was required to separate these perennial complaints from real indicators of a special malaise.51 Hobbes went even further, arguing that it was precisely when men are “at ease” that they are most troublesome politically.52

The constraints of nature are themselves important largely through the constraints of human nature. The inherent natural constraint of the need for food, for example, becomes a practical social problem only insofar as human beings multiply to the point where subsistence becomes difficult to achieve for a growing population. Thus this central constraint of nature in Malthus becomes socially important only because of Malthus’ highly constrained vision of human nature, which he saw as inevitably behaving in such a way as to populate the earth to that point. But Godwin, who readily conceded the natural constraint, had a very different vision of human nature, which would not needlessly overpopulate. Therefore, the possibility of a geometrical increase in people was of no concern to Godwin because “possible men do not eat, though real men do.” 53

Malthus, on the other hand, saw overpopulation not as an abstract possibility in the future but as a concrete reality already manifested. According to Malthus, “the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived . . . has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist.”54 It would be hard to conceive of a more absolute statement of a constrained vision. Where Malthus and Godwin differed was not over a natural fact—the need for food—but over behavioral theories based on very different visions of human nature. Most followers of the unconstrained vision likewise acknowledge death, for example, as an inherent constraint of nature (though Godwin and Condorcet did not rule out an eventual conquest of death), but simply do not treat this as a constraint on the social development of mankind, which lives on despite the deaths of individuals.

The great evils of the world—war, poverty, and crime, for example—are seen in completely different terms by those with the constrained and the unconstrained visions. If human options are not inherently constrained, then the presence of such repugnant and disastrous phenomena virtually cries out for explanation—and for solutions. But if the limitations and passions of man himself are at the heart of these painful phenomena, then what requires explanation are the ways in which they have been avoided or minimized. While believers in the unconstrained vision seek the special causes of war, poverty, and crime, believers in the constrained vision seek the special causes of peace, wealth, or a law-abiding society. In the unconstrained vision, there are no intractable reasons for social evils and therefore no reason why they cannot be solved, with sufficient moral commitment. But in the constrained vision, whatever artifices or strategies restrain or ameliorate inherent human evils will themselves have costs, some in the form of other social ills created by these civilizing institutions, so that all that is possible is a prudent trade-off.

The two great revolutions in the eighteenth century—in France and in America—can be viewed as applications of these differing visions, though with all the reservations necessary whenever the flesh and blood of complex historical events are compared to skeletal theoretical models. The underlying premises of the French Revolution more clearly reflected the unconstrained vision of man which prevailed among its leaders. The intellectual foundations of the American Revolution were more mixed, including men like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, whose thinking was similar in many ways to that in France, but also including as a dominant influence on the Constitution, the classic constrained vision of man expressed in The Federalist Papers. Where Robespierre looked forward to the end of revolutionary bloodshed, “when all people will have become equally devoted to their country and its laws,”55 Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers regarded the idea of individual actions “unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good” as a prospect “more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”56 Robespierre sought a solution, Hamilton a trade-off.

The Constitution of the United States, with its elaborate checks and balances, clearly reflected the view that no one was ever to be completely trusted with power. This was in sharp contrast to the French Revolution, which gave sweeping powers, including the power of life and death, to those who spoke in the name of “the people,” expressing the Rousseauean “general will.” Even when bitterly disappointed with particular leaders, who were then deposed and executed, believers in this vision did not substantially change their political systems or beliefs, viewing the evil as localized in individuals who had betrayed the revolution.

The writers of The Federalist Papers were quite conscious of the vision of man that underlay the Constitution of checks and balances which they espoused:

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?57

To the Federalists, the evil was inherent in man, and institutions were simply ways of trying to cope with it. Adam Smith likewise saw government as “an imperfect remedy” for the deficiency of “wisdom and virtue” in man.58 The Federalist Papers said:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.59

To those without this constrained vision of man, the whole elaborate system of constitutional checks and balances was a needless complication and impediment. Condorcet condemned such “counterweights” for creating an “overcomplicated” political machine “to weigh upon the people.”60 He saw no need for society to be “jostled between opposing powers”61 or held back by the “inertia” of constitutional checks and balances.62

The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a more viable and beneficial trade-off. Adam Smith applied this reasoning not only to economics but also to morality and politics: The prudent reformer, according to Smith, will respect “the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people,” and when he cannot establish what is right, “he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong.” His goal is not to create the ideal but to “establish the best that the people can bear.”63

But Condorcet, expressing the unconstrained vision, rejected any notion that laws should “change with the temperature and adapt to the forms of government, to the practices that superstition has consecrated, and even to the stupidities adopted by each people. . . .”64 Thus he found the French Revolution superior to the American Revolution, for “the principles from which the constitution and laws of France were derived were purer” and allowed “the people to exercise their sovereign right” without constraint.65 Related to this is the question whether the institutions of one society can be transferred to another, or particular blueprints for better societies be applied to very different countries. Jeremy Bentham was noted for producing both specific reforms and general principles intended to apply in very different societies. Yet to Hamilton, “What may be good at Philadelphia may be bad at Paris and ridiculous at Petersburgh.”66 Each of these conclusions is consistent with the respective vision from which it came.

While the constrained vision sees human nature as essentially unchanged across the ages and around the world, the particular cultural expressions of human needs peculiar to specific societies are not seen as being readily and beneficially changeable by forcible intervention. By contrast, those with the unconstrained vision tend to view human nature as beneficially changeable and social customs as expendable holdovers from the past.

Ideals are weighed against the cost of achieving them, in the constrained vision. But in the unconstrained vision, every closer approximation to the ideal should be preferred. Costs are regrettable, but by no means decisive. Thomas Jefferson’s reply to those who turned against the French Revolution, because of the innocent people it had killed, exemplified this point:

My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.67

Belief in the irrelevance of process costs in the pursuit of social justice could hardly have been expressed more clearly or categorically. Yet, in the end, Jefferson too turned against the French Revolution, as its human cost increased beyond what he could continue to accept. Jefferson was not completely or irrevocably committed to the unconstrained vision.

The relative importance of process costs has continued, over the centuries, to distinguish the constrained and the unconstrained visions. Modern defenders of legal technicalities which allow criminals to escape punishment who declare, “That is the price we pay for freedom,” or defenders of revolutions who say, “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs,” are contemporary exemplars of an unconstrained vision which has historically treated process costs as secondary. At the other end of the philosophical spectrum are those who in essence repeat Adam Smith’s view of process costs: “The peace and order of society is of more importance than even the relief of the miserable.”68 The continuing battle between ideals and the costs of achieving them is only one part of the ongoing conflict of visions.

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