In the first case nothing, according to common conceptions, could appear more certain than this, that a man has no right to borrow money under any circumstances, or for any purpose whatever, unless he is sure that he can pay, or, at least, has fully apprised the lender of the risk. In the second case, it seems equally clear that in the exercise of a public trust public duty ought to prevail over all private considerations, and that, though a man may be justified in abstaining from voting if the state fails to afford him protection against the tyranny of his landlord, he can not possibly be justified in voting
Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/787
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SCIENCE AND MORALITY.
others of his debtors by going to the wall may put him in further difficulties. Shall he ask a friend for a loan? On the one hand, is it not wrong forthwith to bring on himself, his family, and those who have business relations with him, the evils of his failure? On the other hand, is it not wrong to hypothecate the property of his friend, and lead him too, with his belongings and dependents, into similar risks? The loan would probably tide him over his difficulty; in which case would it not be unjust to his creditors did he refrain from asking it? Contrariwise, the loan would very possibly fail to stave off his bankruptcy; in which case is not his action in trying to obtain it practically fraudulent? Though in extreme cases it may be easy to say which course is the least wrong, how is it possible in all those medium cases where even by the keenest man of business the contingencies can not be calculated?. . . Take, again, the difficulties that not unfrequently arise from antagonism between family duties and social duties. Here is a tenant farmer whose political principles prompt him to vote in opposition to his landlord. If, being a Liberal, he votes for a Conservative, not only does he by his act say that he thinks what he does not think, but he may perhaps assist what he regards as bad legislation: his vote may by chance turn the election, and on a parliamentary division a single member may decide the fate of a measure. Even neglecting, as too improbable, such serious consequences, there is the manifest truth that, if all who hold like views with himself are similarly deterred from electoral expression of them, there must result a different balance of power and a different national policy: making it clear that only by adherence of all to their political principles can the policy he thinks right be maintained. But, now, on the other hand, how can he absolve himself from the responsibility for the evils which those depending on him may suffer if he fulfills what appears to be a peremptory public duty? Is not his duty to his children even more peremptory? Does not the family precede the state? and does not the welfare of the state depend on the welfare of the family? May he, then, take a course which, if the threats uttered are carried out, will eject him from his farm, and so cause inability, perhaps temporary, perhaps prolonged, to feed his children? The contingent evils are infinitely varied in their ratios. In one case the imperativeness of the public duty is great and the evil that may come on dependents small; in another case the political issue is of trivial moment and the possible injury which the family may suffer is great; and between these extremes there are all gradations. Further, the degrees of probability of each result, public and private, range from the nearly certain to the almost impossible. Admitting, then, that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the. state, and admitting that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the family, we have to recognize the fact that in countless cases no one can decide by which of the alternative courses the least wrong is likely to be done.