Immoral Agency.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  A GREAT portion of the moral evil in the world is the result, not so much of the intensity of individual wickedness, as of a general incompleteness in the practical virtue of all classes of men. If it were possible to take away misconduct from one half of the community and to add its amount to the remainder, it is probable that the moral character of our species would be soon benefited by the change. Now, the ill dispositions of the bad are powerfully encouraged by the want of upright examples in those who are better. A man may deviate considerably from rectitude, and still be as good as his neighbour. From such a man, the active to excellence which the constant presence of virtuous example supplies is taken away. So that there is reason to believe, that if the bad were to become worse, and the reputable to become proportionably better, the average virtue of the world would speedily be increased.

  One of the modes by which the efficacy of example in reputable persons is miserably diminished is by what we have called Immoral Agency,—by their being willing to encourage, at second-hand, evils which they would not commit as principals. Linked together as men are in society, it is frequently difficult to perform an unwarrantable action without some sort of co-operation from creditable men. This co-operation is not often, except in flagrant cues, refused; and thus not only is the commission of such actions facilitated, but a general relaxation is induced in the practical estimates which men form of the standard of rectitude.

  Since then so much evil attends this agency in unwarrantable conduct, it manifestly becomes a good man to look around upon the nature of his intercourse with others, and to consider whether he is not virtually promoting evils which his judgment deprecates, or reducing the standard of moral judgment in the world. The reader would have no difficulty in perceiving that if a strenuous opponent of the slave-trade should establish a manufactory of manacles, and thumb-screws, and iron collars for the slave merchants, he would be grossly inconsistent with himself. The reader would perceive, too, that his labour in the cause of the abolition would be almost nullified by the viciousness of his example, and that he would generally discredit pretensions to philanthropy. Now that which we desire the reader to do is, to apply the principles which this illustration exhibits to other and less flagrant cases. Other cases of co-operation with evil may be less flagrant than this, but they are not, on that account, innocent. I have read, in the life of a man of great purity of character, that he refused to draw up a will, or some such document, because it contained a transfer of some slaves. He thought that slavery was absolutely wrong; and therefore would not, even by the remotest implication, sanction the system by his example.1 I think he exercised a sound Christian judgment; and if all who prepare such documents acted upon the same principles, I know not whether they would not so influence public opinion as greatly to hasten the abolition of slavery itself. Yet where is the man who would refuse to do this, or to do things even less defensible than this?

  PUBLICATION AND CIRCULATION OF BOOKS. It is a very common thing to hear of the evils of pernicious reading, of how it enervates the mind, or bow it depraves the principles. The complaints are doubtless just. These books could not be read, and these evils would be spared the world, if one did not write, and another did not print, and another did not sell, and another did not circulate them. Are those then without whose agency the mischief could not ensue to be held innocent in affording this agency? Yet, loudly as we complain of the evil, and carefully as we warn our children to avoid it, how seldom do we hear public reprobation of the writers! As to printers, and booksellers, and library keepers, we scarcely bear their offences mentioned at all. We speak not of those abandoned publications which all respectable men condemn, but of those which, pernicious as they are confessed to be, furnish reading-rooms and libraries, and are habitually sold in almost every bookseller’s shop. Seneca says, “He that lends a man money to carry him to a bawdy-house, or a weapon for his revenge, makes himself a partner of his crime.” He too who writes or sells a book which will, in all probability, injure the reader, is accessory to the mischief which may be done: with this aggravation, when compared with the examples of Seneca, that while the money would probably do mischief but to one or two persons, the book may injure a hundred or a thousand. Of the writers of injurious book we need say no more. If the inferior agents are censurable, the primary agent must be more censurable. A printer or a bookseller should however reflect, that to be not so bad as another is a very different thing from being innocent. When we see that the owner of a press will print any work that is offered to him, with no other concern about its tendency than whether it will subject him to penalties from the law, we surely must perceive that be exercises but a very imperfect virtue. Is it obligatory upon us not to promote ill principles in other men? He does not fulfil the obligation. Is it obligatory upon us to promote rectitude by unimpeachable example? He does not exhibit that example. If it were right for my neighbour to furnish me with the means of moral injury, it would not be wrong for me to accept and to employ them.

  I stand in a bookseller’s shop, and observe his customers successively coming in. One orders a lexicon, and one a work of scurrilous infidelity; one Captain Cook’s Voyages, and one a new licentious romance. If the bookseller takes and executes all these orders with the same willingness, I cannot but perceive that there is an inconsistency, as incompleteness, in his moral principles of action. Perhaps this person is so conscious of the mischievous effects of such books, that he would not allow them in the hands of his children, nor suffer them to be seen on his parlour-table, But if he thus knows the evils which they inflict, can it be right for him to be the agent in diffusing them? Such a person does not exhibit that consistency, that completeness of virtuous conduct, without which the Christian character cannot be fully exhibited. Step into the shop of this bookseller’s neighbour, a druggist, and there, if a person asks for some arsenic, the tradesman begins to be anxious. He considers whether it is probable the buyer wants it for a proper purpose. If he does sell it, he cautions the buyer to keep it where other cannot have access to it; and before he delivers the packet legibly inscribes upon it, Poison. One of these men sells poison to the body, and the other poison to the mind. If the anxiety and caution of the druggist is right, the indifference of the bookseller must be wrong. Add to which, that the druggist would not sell arsenic at all if it were not sometimes useful; but to what readers can a vicious book be useful?

  Suppose for a moment that no printer would commit such a book to his press, and that no bookseller would sell it, the consequence would be that nine-tenths of these manuscripts would be thrown into the fire, or rather that they would never have been written. The inference is obvious; and surely it is not needful again to enforce the consideration that although your refusal might not prevent vicious books from being published, you are not therefore exempted from the obligation to refuse. A man must do his duty, whether the effects of his fidelity be such as he would desire or not. Such purity of conduct might no doubt circumscribe a man’s bm1iness, and so does purity of conduct in some other professions: but if this be a sufficient excuse for contributing to demoralize the world, if profit be a justification of a departure from rectitude, it will be easy to defend the business of a pickpocket.

  I know that the principles of conduct which these paragraphs recommend lead to grave practical consequences: I know that they lead to the conclusion that the business of a printer or bookseller, as it is ordinarily conducted, is not consistent with Christian uprightness. A man may carry on a business in select works; and this, by some conscientious persons, is really done. In the present state of the press, the difficulty of obtaining a considerable business as a bookseller without circulating injurious works may frequently be great, and it is in consequence of this difficulty that we see so few booksellers among the Quakers. The few who do conduct the business generally reside in large towns, where the demand for all books is so great that a person can procure a competent income though he excludes the bad.

  He who is more studious to justify his conduct than to act aright may say that if a person may sell no book that can injure another, he can scarcely sell any book. The answer is, that although there must be some difficulty in discrimination, though a bookseller cannot always inform himself what the precise tendency of a book is,—yet there can be no difficulty in judging, respecting numberless books, that their tendency is bad. If we cannot define the precise distinction between the good and the evil, we can nevertheless perceive the evil when it has attained to a certain extent. He who cannot distinguish day from evening can distinguish it from night.

  The case of the proprietors of common circulating libraries is yet more palpable; because the majority of the books which they contain inflict injury upon their readers. How it happens that persons of respectable character, and who join with others in lamenting the frivolity, and worse than frivolity, of the age, nevertheless daily and hourly contribute to the mischief without any apparent consciousness of inconsistency, it is difficult to explain. A person establishes, perhaps, one of these libraries for the first time in a country town. He supplies the younger and less busy part of its inhabitants with a source of moral injury from which hitherto they had been exempt. The girl who till now possessed sober views of life, he teaches to dream of the extravagances of love; he familiarizes her ideas with intrigue and licentiousness; destroys her disposition for rational pursuits; and prepares her, it may be, for a victim of debauchery. These evils, or such as these, he inflicts, not upon one or two, but upon as many as he can; and yet this person lays his head upon his pillow as if, in all this, he was not offending against virtue or against man!

  INNS. When in passing the door of an inn I hear or see a company of intoxicated men in the “excess of riot,” I cannot persuade myself that he who supplies the wine and profits by the viciousness is a moral man. In the private house of a person of respectability such a scene would be regarded as a scandal. It would lower his neighbour’s estimate of the excellence of his character. But does it then constitute a sufficient justification of allowing vice in our houses, that we get by it? Does morality grant to a man an exemption from its obligations, at the same time as he procures his license? Drunkenness is immoral. If therefore when a person is on the eve of intoxication, the innkeeper supplies his demand for another bottle, he is accessory to the immorality. A man was lately found drowned in a stream. He had just left a public-house, where he had been intoxicated during sixty hours; and within this time the publican had supplied him (besides some spirits) with forty quarts of ale. Does any reader need to be convinced that this publican had acted criminally?—His crime however was neither the greater nor the lees because it had been the means of loss of life: no such accident might have happened; but his guilt would have been the same.

  Probity is not the only virtue which it is good policy to practise. The innkeeper, of whom it was known that he would not supply the means of excess, would probably gain by the resort of those who approved his integrity, more than he would lose by the absence of those whose excesses that integrity kept away. An inn has been conducted upon such maxims. He who is disposed to make proof of the result, might fix upon an established quantity of the different liquors, which he would not exceed. If that quantity were determinately fixed, the lover of excess would have no ground of complaint when he had been supplied to its amount. Such honourable and manly conduct might have an extensive effect, until it influenced the practice even of the lower resorts of intemperance. A sort of ill fame might attach to the house in which a man could become drunk; and the maxim might be established by experience, that it was necessary to the respectability, and therefore generally to the success, of a public-house, that none should be seen to reel out of its doors.

  PROSECUTIONS. It is upon principles of conduct similar to those which are here recommended, that many persons are reluctant, and some refuse, to prosecute offenders when they think the penalty of the law is unwarrantably severe. This motive operates in our own country to a great extent: and it ought to operate. I should not think it right to give evidence against a man who had robbed my house, if I knew that my evidence would occasion him to be hanged. Whether the reader may think similarly is of no consequence to the principle. The principle is, that if you think the end vicious and wrong, you are guilty of “immoral agency” in contributing to effect that end. Unhappily, we are much less willing to act upon this principle when our agency produces only moral evil than when it produces physical suffering. He that would not give evidence which would take a man’s life, or even occasion him loss of pain, would with little hesitation be an agent of injuring his moral principles: and yet perhaps the evil of the latter case is incomparably greater than that of the former.

  POLITICAL AFFAIRS. The amount of immoral agency which is practiced in these affairs is very great. Look to any of the continental governments, or to any that have subsisted there: how few acts of misrule, of oppression, of injustice, and of crime have been prevented by the want of agents of the iniquity! I speak not of notoriously bad men: of these, bad governors can usually find enough: but I speak of men who pretend to respectability and virtue of character, and who are actually called respectable by the world. There is perhaps no class of affairs in which the agency of others is more indispensable to the accomplishment of a vicious act than in the political. Very little—comparatively very little of—oppression and of the political vices of rulers should we see, if reputable men did not lend their agency. These evils could not be committed through the agency of merely bad men; because the very fact that bad men only would abet them, would frequently preclude the possibility of their commission. It is not to be pretended that no public men possess or have possessed sufficient virtue to refuse to be the agents of a vicious government,—but they are few. If they were numerous, especially if they were as numerous as they ought to be, history, even very modem history, would have had a far other record to frame than that which now devolves to her. Can it be needful to argue upon such things? Can it be needful to prove that neither the commands of ministers, nor “systems of policy,” nor any other circumstance, exempts a public man from the obligations of the moral law? Public men often act as if they thought that to be a public man was to be brought under the jurisdiction of a new and a relaxed morality. They often act as if they thought that not to be the prime mover in political misdeeds was to be exempt from all moral responsibility for those deeds. A dagger, if it could think, would think it was not responsible for the assassination of which it was the agent. A public man may be a political dagger, but he cannot, like the dagger, be irresponsible.

  These illustrations of Immoral Agency, and of the obligation to avoid it, might be multiplied, if enough had not been offered to make our sentiments, and the reasons upon which they are founded, obvious to the reader. Undoubtedly, in the present state of society, it is no easy task, upon these subjects, to wash our hands in innocencv. But if we cannot avoid all agency, direct or indirect, in evil things, we can avoid much; and it will be sufficiently early to complain of the difficulty of complete purity, when we have dismissed from our conduct as much impurity as we can.

1 One of the publications of this excellent man contains a paragraph much to our present purpose: “In all our concerns, it is necessary that nothing we do may carry the appearance of approbation of the worn of wickedness, make the unrighteous more at ease in unrighteousness, or occasion the injuries committed against the oppressed to be more lightly looked over.”—Considerations on the true Harmony of Mankind, c. 3, by John Woolman.

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