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DISINTERESTEDNESS OF HUMAN ACTION
(An argument from Hazlill.)
AN'S NATURE is originally and essentially disinterested: as a voluntary agent, he must be disinterested.
He could neither desire, nor will, nor pursue his own happiness, but for the possession of faculties which necessarily give him an interest out of himself, in the happiness of others.
Personal identity neither does nor can imply any positive communication between a man's future and present self; it does not give him a mechanical interest in his future being.
Man when he acts is always absolutely independent of and uninfluenced by the feelings of the being for whom he acts, whether this be himself or another. All morality, all rational and voluntary action, every thing undertaken with a distinct reference to ourselves or others must relate to the future,—that is, must have for object those things which can only act upon the mind by means of the imagination, and which must naturally affect it in the same manner whether they are thought of in connection with one's own future being or with that of others.
1-Will relates to the future.
All voluntary action,--that is, all action proceeding from a will or effort of the mind to produce a certain event,-must relate to the future.
The objects in which the mind is interested may indeed be either of the past, the present, or the future: but neither the past nor the present can be altered or affected by any effort of the will. Only the future can be the object of will, of rational or voluntary pursuit.
That which is yet to come (future) is unreal, a non-entity, without existence. It is an ideal only.
If real, or existing, it could no longer be an object of pursuit, could no longer excite man's wishes or exertions. Man pursues not that which he bas, but what he has not, the future.
That which is yet in the future, unreal, and not existing, can of itself excite no interest, nor act upon the mind in any way but by means of the imagination.
That is to say: not that the future exercises a real power over the imagination, for that which is not has no power; but that by means of the imagination we foresee the future--the probable or necessary consequences of things—and so are interested in it. The direct primary motive or impulse which determines the mind to the willing of anything must, therefore, in all cases depend upon
• Essays on the Principles of Human Action, etc., by the late William Hazlitt. Miller, Oxford Street, London,
the idea of that thing, as conceived by the imagination; not upon the thing itself, which yet has no existence, but solely upon the idea.
Now, I have a real, positive interest in my actual feelings, an interest which I have not in the feelings of others. But the actual-pleasure or pain-can not be the object of voluntary action, or pursuit. The actual is: there is no more room for willing.
But there is no such reality in the idea of future pleasure or pain. This is simply an idea, of what may happen: an unrealized idea. I can have no real, positive personal interest in a mere idea.
As a voluntary agent, one willing to act, and concerned in the future, I am moved to pursuit or avoidance, of pleasure or of pain, not by the pleasure or the pain, but by the idea conceived in my imagination. This abstract pleasure and pain, ideal and unreal, has no more relation to me than to another. It is only when pleasure or pain becomes real, real to me, and no longer within the scope of willing, that I can be said to be selfishly interested. The interest which I have in my idea of the future in no way depends upon any relationship to myself.
If it should be asked then, what difference it can make to me whether I pursue my own good or entirely neglect it, wbat reason I can have to be at all interested in it, I answer that according to the dogma of natural selfishness I do not see any. For that which is not has no relation to my existing self.
But if it is admitted that there is something in the very idea of good or evil, which naturally excites desire or aversion, which is in itself the proper motive of action, which impels the mind to pursue the one and to avoid the other by a true moral necessity,—then it can not be indifferent to me whether I believe that any being will be made happy or miserable in consequence of my action, no matter if the being be myself or another. I naturally desire and pursue my own good (in whatever this consists) simply from my having an idea of it sufficiently warm and vivid to excite in me an emotion of interest or passion; and I love and pursue the good of others, -of my family, of a neighbour, of my country, or of Humanity,--for just the same reason.
2--Man wills Good, not his own good.
The idea of Self is nothing more than the first and most distinct idea we have of a being capable of receiving pleasure and pain.
The reason why a child first distinctly wills or pursues his own good is, not because it is his, but because it is good. It is his first distinct idea of good.
For the same reason he prefers his own gratification to that of others : not because he loves himself better than others; but because he has a clearer idea of his own wants and pleasures than of theirs.
A child is insensible to the good of others, not from any want of good-will toward them, or an exclusive attachment to self, but for want of knowing better. He can be attached to neither his own interest nor that of others, but in consequence of knowing what that interest is. And in the order of life he must learu his own first: the difference is in time.
We are not born benevolent : that is, we are not born with a desire of we know not what, and good wishes for we know not whom, (neither in this sense are we born selfish, for the idea of self has also to be acquired); but we are born with a disposition to benevolence: which natural disposition does not mean that the mind possesses any innate abstract idea of good in general, or an instinctive desire of general, indefinite, unknown good; but that there is a natural connection between the idea of perception of good and the desire of it, independently of any attachment to the person who is to feel it, whether one's self or another.
It is necessary to bear in mind this distinction, between the general love of good which implies knowledge of it, and a general disposition to the love of good, which does not imply knowledge. It is the general property or disposition of iron to be attracted by the loadstone : but this attraction can only take place when the loadstone is brought near enough,
So the actual desire of good is not inherent in the mind of man: for he is not born with the knowledge of what good is. His desire must be brought out by certain accessory objects or ideas. But the disposition itself, the property of the mind, that which makes bim liable to be so affected by certain objects, which makes him capable of the desire,—this is inherent in him and a part of his nature : as sensibility to pleasure and pain is natural to man, tbough the actual feelings of pleasure and pain can only be excited by the impression of certain objects.
The love of my own particular good must precede that of the particular good of others, because I am first acquainted with it; the love of particular must precede that of general good, whether my own or another's or the general good of mankind, for the same reason.
I do not therefore originally love my own particular positive good as a portion of general good, nor with a distinct reference in my mind to the good of the whole: for I have originally no idea of nor any concern about the whole. But I love my own particular good, that is to say the first conception I have of some one desirable object, for the same reason for which I afterwards love any other known good, whether my own or another's: and that is, because it possesses, or seems to me to possess, that essential property common to all good, without which it would cease to be good, and which has a general tendency to excite certain affections in the mind.
The knowledge of many different sorts of good must lead to the love or desire of all these. The law is not confined to any one sort, called mine or another's.
It is in virtue of this disposition to be attracted by good, that man seeks his own happiness. It is good which he seeks, even in his narrowest and absurdest searchings. If therefore he had no power of perceiving good (which interests him on account of its nature, not of its relation to bimself) he would be unable to seek it even for himself.
3—Personal identity refers only to past and present.
Almost every one has a notion that he has a real interest in promoting his own good; but that his interest in the good of others is imaginary, a matter of sentiment, or at least not so real as the other.
His interest in the first is presumed to be absolute, and independent of himself, to exist with the same force whether he feels it or not, whether he pursues or neglects it; to be a part of himself, a bond from which he can not free himself without changing his being.
His interest in the second is said to be voluntary, existing only so long as felt. His interest in his own good, it is thought, must, however distant, affect him equally at present, since he is really the same being who will enjoy or suffer hereafter ; but with respect to the enjoyments or sufferings of others, he neither has any direct present interest, nor can have an indirect future interest in them, they are nothing to bim.
This notion is utterly false and groundless. For the mind can take no interest in any thing, that is, in any object of will and practical pursuit, -except in strictly imaginary interest. It is absurd to suppose that it can have a real interest in any such object directly, whether relating to ourselves or others (this has been already shown): neither can the reality of my future interest in any object give me a real present interest in it, unless it can be shown that in consequence of my being the same individual I have a necessary sympathy with my future sensations of pleasure or pain, by which means they produce in me the same mechanical impulses as if their objects were really present.
An irritation in the extremity of one of the nerves is felt throughout the whole nerve; a violent pain in any of the limbs disorders the whole frame: nothing that passes in any part of my body can be indifferent to me. Here is a distinct idea of a real individuality of person and consequent identity of interests.
But can the same be shown with regard to present and future? Is there any diffusive conscious principle producing a real connection between my future sensations and present impulses; collecting and uniting the different successive moments of my being in one general representative feeling of self-interest, in the same manner as the impressions made on different parts of my body are all conveyed to one common principle of thought? Till this is shown, it is in vain to tell me that I have the same interest in my future sensations as if they were present, because I am the same individual. So long as there is an absolute separation, an insurmountable barrier, between the present and the future, so that I can not possibly be affected now by what I may feel hereafter, I am not to any moral or practical effect the same being. I am the same being as regards my past, but not as regards the unknown future.
The origin of that wide and absolute distinction which the mind feels in comparing itself with others is confined to two faculties sensation (or consciousness) and memory. The operation of both these faculties is of a perfectly exclusive and individual nature; and so far as their operation extends (but no farther) is man a personal, or, if you will, a selfish being.
The sensation excited in me by a piece of red-hot iron striking against any part of my body is simple, absolute, and terminating in itself; not representing any thing beyond itself, nor capable of being represented by any other sensation, or communicated to any other being. The same kind of sensation may indeed be excited in another by the same means, but this sensation does not imply any reference to or conciousness of mine : there is no communication between my nerves and another's brain, by means of which he can be affected with my sensations as I am myself. The only notion or perception which another can have of this sensation in me, or which I can have a similar sensation in another, is through the imagination. I can form an imaginary idea of that pain as existing out of myself: but I can only feel it as a sensation when it is actually impressed
on myself. Any impression made on another can neither be the cause nor the object of sensation to me.
The impression or idea left on my mind by this sensation, and afterwards excited, either by seeing iron in the same state, or by any other means, is properly an idea of memory. This idea necessarily refers to some previous impression in my own mind, and can only exist in consequence of that impression : it cannot be derived from any impression made on another. I do not remember the feelings of any one but myself. I may remember the object which caused such feelings in others, or the outward signs of passion which accompanied them: this, however, is but the recollection of my own immediate impressions of what I saw or heard; and I can only form an idea of the feelings themselves after they have ceased, as I must do at the time, by means of the imagination.
But though we should take away all power of inagination from the human mind, my own feelings must leave behind them certain traces, or representations of themselves, retaining the same properties, and having the same immediate connection with the conscious principle. On the other hand, if I wish to anticipate my own future feelings, whatever these may be, I must do so by means of the same faculty by which I conceive of those of others, whether past or future. I bave no distinct or separate faculty on which the events and feelings of my future being are impressed beforehand, and which shows, as in an enchanted mirror, to me and me alone, the reversed picture of my future life. It is absurd to suppose that the feelings which I am to have hereafter should before they exist excite certain corresponding impressions or presentiments of themselves, or act mechanically upon my mind by a secret sympathy. I can only abstract myself from my present, and take an interest in my future being, in the same sense and manner in which I can go entirely out of myself and enter into the minds and feelings of others.
In short, there neither is nor can be any principle belonging to the individual which antecedently gives him the same sort of connection with his future being that he has with his past, or that reflects backwards the impressions of his future feelings with the same kind of consciousness by which his past feelings are transmitted forwards through the channels of memory. The size and taste of the river depend upon the water that has already fallen into it. It can not roll back its course; nor can the spring be affected by the water that afterwards falls into the lower stream. Yet we call both the same river. Such is the nature of personal identity.
It follows that, those faculties which may be said to constitute self, and whose operations convey that idea to the mind, draw all their materials from the past and present.
But all voluntary action must relate solely and exclusively to the future.
That is to say,—all those impressions or ideas with which selfish, or more properly speaking, personal feelings are naturally connected, are just those which have nothing at all to do with the motives of action.
The only proper objects of voluntary action are, of necessity, future events; these can excite no possible interest in the mind but by means of the imagination; and they make the same direct appeal to that faculty whether they relate