Professor Huxley on the Duties of the State

Nature (October 1871)

[495] We are able to give the following extracts from Prof. Huxley's address at Birmingham, to which we alluded last week:–The higher the state of civilisation the more completely did and must the action of one member of the social body influence all the rest; and the less possible was it for any one man to do a wrong thing without interfering more or less with the freedom of all his fellow-citizens. So that, even in its narrowest views, the functions of the State, it must be admitted should have a wider power than even those who, without the doctrine of administration, were willing to admit. It was urged, he was aware, that if the right of the State was conceded to assign limits at all, there would be no stopping it, and that the principles which justified the State in enforcing vaccination and education also justify it in prescribing his religious belief, and mode of carrying on his trade or profession, or in determining the number of courses he should have for his dinner, or the pattern of his waistcoat. But surely the answer was obvious, that on similar grounds the right of a man to eat when hungry might be disputed, because if he were allowed to eat at all he must be allowed to use that faculty which told him he must not surfeit himself. But in practice every one knew that a man left off when reason told him that he had had enough. And so, properly argued, the State, or governing body, would find out when reason was carried far enough. But so far as his acquaintance with those who carried on the business of Government went, it was that they were far less eager to interfere with the people while the people were keenly sensitive. He could not discover that Locke affected to put the doctrine of modern liberation–that the toleration of error was a good thing in itself, to be reckoned amongst the cardinal virtues; on the contrary, he was strongly opposed to this, and he laid it down that whenever it was necessary for the preservation of civil society that toleration should be withdrawn it ought to be withdrawn. . . . . There must be strong and cogent reasons for legislation on abstract matters, before the governing body entered upon such a course of legislative action as that of which he had spoken, and which might tend towards that state contemplated by the champions of Nihilism. He then quoted the doctrine laid down by Mr. Herbert Spencer, to the effect that the relations of political bodies have a strong resemblance to vertebrate animals in their organisation, and that as the brain was the guiding power of the animal, so in communities the Government answered the same purpose. . . . In fact, much of our social relations were based upon this simple law–that one man established his right to the one thing, and in another direction to abstain from doing another thing. In many cases government degenerated, and became a recognised system for effecting fraud and plunder; but wherever sound social relationships existed between different members composing the social life of a country, this was impossible. But to reach this every man, and the aggregation of men in communities, limited their independence. He next spoke on individual responsibility, and said that it was the duty of the individual to protect society; if the individual breaks all bonds, then society perishes. The welfare of the social organisation depended not only on the brain, or the government, but on the members; but unquestionably a good deal depended on what the functions of the government were. This touched at the root of social organism, and the problem which had presented itself to many minds was one not easy to solve. John Locke had furnished them with an answer which for a time sets the matter at rest. The end of a Government is the good of mankind. The good of mankind was not something which was an absolute fixed thing for all men, whatever their capacities. It was possible to maintain the individual freedom, and promote the higher functions that the government has translated into another sphere; but what ought we men in our corporate capacity to do in the way of restraining the free individual in that which was contrary to the existence of nature? John Locke had furnished them with the solution–true civitas Dei – in which every man's faculty was such as to allow him to control all those desires which ran counter to the good of mankind, and cherish those only which every man felt as sufficiently true to enable him to know what he ought to do. Society as now constituted consisted of a considerable number of the foolish and the ignorant–a small proportion of good genuine knaves and a sprinkling of capable and honest men, by whose efforts the former were kept in a reasonable restraint. Such being the case, he could not see how the limit could be laid down as to the question which, under some circumstances, the action of Government might be rightfully carried on. The question was where they ought to draw the line between those things which a State ought to do, and which they ought not to do. The difficulty with met the statesmen was the same as that which met all of them in individual life. Moore and Owen, and all the great modern Socialists, bear witness that Government might attain its end for the good of the people by some more effectual process than the very simple and easy one of letting all matters of enterprise alone. He thought that the science of politics was but imperfectly known; and that perhaps they would be able to get clearer notions of what a State might or might not do, if they estimated the truth of the proposition, that the end of government is the good of mankind. It was necessary to consider a little what the good of mankind really was. The good of mankind meant the admission of every man to all the happiness which he could enjoy without diminishing the happiness of his fellow men. Having dwelt at some length on this point, Mr. Huxley went on to say that it was universally agreed that it would be useless to admit the freedom of sympathy between man and man directly; but he could see no reason why the State might not do many things towards that end indirectly. He was not going to argue that there should be a State science, or a State organisation, such as they had seen in France, by which all scientific teaching was to be properly regulated. On the contrary, the State had left local enterprise to work out its own ends as soon as local intelligence and energy proved itself equal to the task. These local efforts not only benefited the localities; but every means of teaching, every stimulus given to intellectual life was so much positively added to the wealth and welfare of the nation, and as such deserved some equivalent modicum of support from the general purse. But if the positive advancement of the peace, wealth, and intellectual and moral development of its members were the objects which the representative of the corporate authority of society, the Government, might justly strive after in the fulfilment of its end, which was the good of mankind, then it was clear that the Government might undertake the education of the people, for education promoted peace by teaching men the realities of life, and the obligations which were involved in the very existence of society; and promoted the intellectual development, not only by training the individual intellect, but by sifting out from the mass of ordinary or inferior capacities whose which were competent to increase the general welfare by occupying higher positions; and lastly, it promoted morality and refinement by teaching men to discipline themselves, and leading them to see that the highest, as it was the only permanent, content was to be attained not by groveling in the rank stream of the foulest sense, but by continually striving towards those higher peaks where, resting in eternal calm, reason discerned the undefined but bright ideal of the highest good, "a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night."


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University