Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/February 1888/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
THE "ACT OF GOD" AND "HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY:"

NOW and again, amid the rush of modern progress, we catch a note or sign of reaction. Such a note we most distinctly have in the article published a couple of months ago in "Science" over the signature of Mr. Appleton Morgan, Mr. Morgan is a lawyer of distinction, whose talents have been largely employed by railway companies, and who has thus naturally contracted a sympathy, very allowable in its way, for those corporations. But to say that Mr. Morgan is a lawyer in active practice is almost tantamount to saying that his line of thought and argument on any given practical subject will be forensic rather than scientific—that is to say, that it will be skillfully adapted to lead up to a prearranged conclusion rather than to bring out all the truth that is obtainable in connection with the matter in hand. Mr. Morgan writes a clever article to prove that some railway accidents proceed from causes so far beyond human control that we might properly apply to them the old expression, "the act of God." The suggestion is that in such cases the railway companies should hardly be held accountable. What we are not given, however, is any clear principle of distinction by which accidents for which railway companies might, in Mr. Morgan's opinion, properly be held accountable may be separated from those where all responsibility fails, and "the act of God" must be invoked as the only hypothesis suited to the case. Yet, without some such clear principle of distinction, the whole of Mr. Morgan's labored argument rests in nubibus: it is very fine, from the special pleader's point of view, but we get no practical results from it.

We have spoken of this article as a note of reaction, and so, most emphatically, it is. The progress made in modern times has consisted very largely in the banishing from our thoughts and calculations of all faith in occult agencies, and in the establishment of the habit of tracing everything that happens to some intelligible, if not always controllable, cause. So long as sprites, goblins, and imps were seriously believed to interfere in human affairs, so long it was impossible to hold men to a strict responsibility for their actions; and when tilings went amiss, no truly scientific inquiry into the causes of the mischance was ever instituted. To say that it was "the act of God" was the easiest way out of the difficulty, and the most satisfactory, certainly, to those upon whom the blame might properly have fallen. But science has been teaching mankind to search out real causes, and to dismiss purely imaginary ones; and just as the disposition to do this has developed, and just as men have been taught that they can not put all their sins of omission and of commission on the shoulders of invisible agencies, have accidents and irregularities of all kinds diminished in number. Mr. Morgan admits this. He says that, up to a very recent date, courts of justice habitually saved time and routine labor by assuming accidents, the causes of which could easily have been arrived at, to be "acts of God." He tells ns that, in a very recent case, while the principle involved in the expression, "the act of God," was recognized by the court, it was held that a shipwreck, in order "to be a veritable act of God, must have occurred in extremely bad weather." We should rather have supposed that the "act of God," if recognizable at all, would have been recognized in the foundering of a ship in calm weather. It was the thunder-clap that he heard from a clear sky that so strongly affected, for a brief period, the not ordinarily very devout mind of the poet Horace; and Mr. Morgan seems so far to agree with that "sparing worshiper of the gods" as to hold that in the case of railway accidents the "act of God" is most visible, not when the conditions are unfavorable, but when, on the contrary, they are highly favorable, save in the one point in which a quasi-supernatural interference is exemplified.

Admit the principle in question at all, however, and we are back in the dark ages; we cease, indeed, to be fit to run railways. It is one thing to bow with resignation to a calamity after it has happened, and quite another to anticipate that calamities will result from the "act of God," and so far make provision for them beforehand. How is the "act of God" to be checked? How are we to prescribe the frequency with which such acts are to be performed? If, in the presence of such acts, we really find ourselves outside of the bounds of human responsibility, why try, by any human means, to guard against their recurrence? We venture to say, however, that no railway accident ever occurred that was not followed by more or less strict inquisition into its cause, and that did not give rise to measures intended to prevent the same thing happening again in the same way. Some of the facts mentioned by Mr. Morgan himself tend to show how little need there is to have recourse to divine intervention to explain the occurrence of any class of railway accidents. He tells us that until within a very few months the strides made by science "seemed to have happily abolished—in the United States—the great railroad disasters of the past." Fifteen or twenty years ago there were a number of frightful accidents, but since that time accidents involving great loss of life have been very infrequent. Now we plunge once more into an era of disasters. But what does this suggest, if not that prolonged immunity from accident due, as Mr. Morgan says, to the strides of science and to skillful organization, had led to a less vivid realization of the dangers attendant on railway traffic, and a consequent relaxation of vigilance. This is just what would naturally happen, so why invoke the "act of God" to explain what natural principles are quite sufficient to account for? All things tend more or less to move in cycles; all action, we might almost say, tends more or less to polarize itself and so to check or reverse its current. Thus prolonged immunity from disaster tends to weaken that very realization of danger which is the first condition of safety. Hence follows, in natural sequence, a relaxation of the rigorous discipline to which safety had been due; and then we have not long to wait for such accidents as Mr. Morgan would fain persuade us are to bo classed as "acts of God." Again, Mr. Morgan tells ns that "however we may explain it, it happens to be one of the most persistent of truths that accidents are of more frequent occurrence upon bankrupt or non-dividend paying, than upon solvent and dividend paying, railroads." Truths are very apt to be persistent when they rest upon some permanent principle; and in this case the explanation of the truth mentioned by Mr. Morgan is very obvious. The solvent and flourishing railroads can afford to pay for, and do pay for, better service than the bankrupt and decaying ones; and the better service gives better results in point of safety—leaves less opportunity for "acts of God." If Mr. Morgan's "truth" was not so persistent, or if it was persistent the other way; and if it could be shown either that the ratio of accident did not depend at all upon vigor of management, or that the more vigorous the management the greater the number of unaccountable accidents, then there would indeed be something to say for the "act-of-God" theory. It is strange that Mr. Morgan should dwell with such emphasis upon a truth that tends so directly and persistently to contradict his own thesis.

But what are the railway companies to do, it may be asked, if things naturally move in cycles, and if accidents are therefore liable to follow in ordinary course upon a period of freedom from accidents? We answer that it is for man in the maturity of his intellectual development so to take account of the action of natural laws as to provide against their injurious results. It is a law of Nature that metal expands with heat and contracts with cold, but the pendulums of clocks meant to keep accurate time are not left on that account to undergo all the vicissitudes of temperature. The voltaic cell is not left to polarize itself out of all usefulness, nor the furnace-fire to quench itself with its own ashes. In every such case, as soon as the law is observed, measures are devised, with more or less success, to introduce such compensations or rectifications as may be required; and we refuse to believe that compensatory measures of an entirely analogous kind could not be introduced in the railway service of the country to prevent safety from polarizing itself into disaster.

We quite fail to see what Mr. Morgan hopes to gain for his argument by remarking, as he does more than once, that the disasters he cites—those, namely, at Republic, at White River Junction, at Forest Hills, at Chatsworth, and at Kouts' Station—happened "from the simplest natural causes," and might have happened equally to the rudest vehicular contrivances of primeval or prehistoric man. As to the natural causes, of course they are simple enough: a bridge that is half burned away can not be expected to possess the strength of one in perfect order; nor can one constructed on bad principles and of inferior material be expected to keep itself in position after all the strength it ever had has been jarred out of it by several years' traffic. Nothing, indeed, could be simpler than all this; but how is the responsibility of the railway companies of to-day to be lessened by the reflection that the rude ox-teams of prehistoric man were also subject to vicissitudes? No doubt a badly-made ox-cart would be liable to break down, just like a badly-built bridge of modern days; but what bearing has that on the present question? Mr. Morgan tells us of a certain Philares (by which we suspect he means Phalaris) who used to roast his subjects for his amusement in the interior of a brazen bull; and he says, no doubt with great truth, that the railway companies are not of this disposition, and moreover that a modern railway accident, considered as a means of cremation, is very costly—much more so than the half-cord or so of wood used for heating up the brazen bull. All very true. We quite admit that the companies would like to avoid accidents and save costs of all kinds; but we say that nothing will hold them to a determination to do so, so far as the utmost exertion of vigilance and the employment of the very best appliances can avail for the purpose, so much as the knowledge that, if their system breaks down at any point, they are responsible to the last dollar. We quite agree with Mr. Morgan that newspaper declamation as to the "greed" of companies is often wide of the mark and quite undeserved; but we also believe that such declamation, even when it is most out of place, is not calculated to do half as much harm as his reactionary plea for a division of responsibility for rail way accidents between the companies and some occult agency wholly inaccessible to human prediction and to human control.