Ernest Belfort Bax

Two Question-Begging Saws

(15 April 1893)

Two Question-Begging Saws, Justice, 15th April, 1893, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are all familiar with the observation applied in a reproachful tone to anyone reprobating by word or deed, especially by deed, the tyranny or the cruelty of one dressed in a little brief authority “but after all he was only doing his duty”. This is supposed to be a conclusive whitewashing of every inhumanity. If it can be assumed that a man is acting within what is called his duty, that is supposed to be quite sufficient to exonerate him from all unpleasant consequences of his action. The application of the theory reached a climax when the Daily Telegraph, in an indignant “leader” on the Homestead riots, denounced the wickedness of Mr. Carnegie’s workmen in giving the “Pinkerton” detectives “beans,” and wound up with an expression of horror that the strikers should have subjected to such treatment “men who were doing nothing more than their duty.”

Now “duty” is a very funny thing. It would be interesting to know what constitutes “duty” in the eyes of gentlemen who consider that any crime committed in the performance of so-called “duty” is thus ipso facto condoned. If it be the mere carrying through by a man of functions delegated to him by some other person or body of persons, then the Fenian who is told off by his circle to blow up the Houses of Parliament is “only doing his duty” when he successfully carries out that reprehensible proceeding (as it is usually deemed). Similarly the Anarchist, appointed in a recent conclave of his party to blow up the Café Véry, was only “doing” his duty As the trusted member of his group (regarding themselves as the rightful avengers of the disinherited of the earth when he carefully deposited his bomb under the counter. Does “duty,” again mean an act performed in the ordinary course of a calling? If so, the burglar and the cutpurse, when on the job, may be said to be only “doing their duty.” No, it is plain we have not got to the bottom of duty yet. As frequently used, one might almost define duty “an act unpleasant to oneself or others. But this would also be rather too vague. To the theologian duty means obedience to the mandates of the supernatural power he postulates.

Again, the duty of Torquemada was to extirpate heresy as the functionary appointed by the Church for the purpose. The Prussian sentry is performing his duty in firing ball-cartridge along public thoroughfares when he deems himself insulted, or at runaway soldiers. We can discriminate – in these multiform possible conceptions of the special form which duty takes only one element common to all – that of ought or obligation. The determination of this fundamental element always involves matter of disputation according to the special pre-supposition the speaker has in his mind. The behest to be performed may come from any source, and may involve several pre-suppositions, and, according as we approve or disapprove them, we shall call their resultant act duty or not.

Now, the particular pre-supposition underlyrng the proposition of the Telegraph leader-writer was that of the necessity or desirability of supporting capital against labour. The Pinkerton detectives had enrolled themselves in an association lending itself to this desirable object, and hence in obeying the call of the capitalist they were only doing their duty”. The Telegraph leader-writer and the public he writes for don’t think the independence of Ireland a desirable object in itself, nor do they in general like to see governments representing capitalist interests overturned in au unceremonious manner. Hence, in their view, tie Fenian agent or other revolutionary character is not doing his duty in obeying the behests of his “circle” or “group.” The revolutionists of course, per contra takes another view of the matter, and believing in his cause as a righteous one, feels he is only doing his duty in carrying out the orders of his organisation.

Even the Anarchist, we may presume, has as much right to claim he is only doing his duty in propagandising by deed as the judge who condemns him. This whole question of duty is double-edged. If the mere fact of a man discharging a function which he has assumed or which has been delegated to him is s valid excuse for any ill deed it may involve, we are bound, I repeat, to admit that from his own point of view every dynamitic terrorist is doing his duty; and hence should escape blame.

The Telegraph leader-writer must, perforce, of course in the last resort openly beg the question, and admit that he and his public approve of the object which the Pinkerton detectives had in view, and that, on this ground alone he asserts that “they were only doing their duty,”

The result of all this is, that, that, unless we are prepared to exonerate the dynamiter, it follows that the mere performing of a recognised function ought not of itself to exempt the performer from condemnation or even punishment. Hence it is undoubtedly just that the judge who is the instrument of putting a bad law in execution should be punished for so doing. It is true he could only be so in the case of a revolution when the continuity of governmental life was broken, but given such a case there is no question of the rectitude of making the man personally responsible for his action, and refusing to permit him to shield himself behind his office. A bad or mistaken “duty” is the worst and vilest of crimes, compared with which a common law crime is venial.

The second of the saws favoured by reactionists is the common saying that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or as it is sometimes put, that “two blacks don’t make a white.” Now, as a matter of fact, in a certain sense most actions generally regarded as right are compounded of elements which, taken by themselves would be deemed wrong. Asked in the abstract, “Is it wrong to injure a fellow creature,” one would answer yes. But supposing a fellow creature confronts me in a menacing attitude in a narrow passage with a revolver. It is undoubtedly wrong of him to do this, but if I raise my stick and knock the revolver out of his hand, I may hurt his hand, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Acting on the principle that two wrongs don’t make a right, the Hindoo refuses to destroy the most noxious animal, a snake, or a tiger, though it be working havoc and ruin in his village. Acting on the same principle Tolstoi would not rescue a little child from the clutches of a murderer or a drunkard as in so doing he might injure the murderer or drunkard, and, says he, “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Singularly enough the persons who apply this “law” against “violence” as coming from revolutionists, never dream of such an application, where one would think it would be most applicable, namely, to the case of criminals in the hands of justice. They for the most part approve of torturing convicts when they are no longer in a position to do any harm, hanging murderers and flogging other classes of offenders. Against the common criminal, unlike the logical Tolstoi, they are quite convinced apparently that two wrongs DO make a right. It is only against Nihilists and such-like who punish ruffians of a different stamp that they are disposed to deprecatingly observe that however bad the former may have been, nevertheless “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

As regards this question of two wrongs making or not making a right we may definitely assert that though two wrongs don’t, as each, necessarily make a right, yet that brought into a certain relation with each other, they invariably do, in so far as the second “wrong” in annulling the first loses its character of wrongness and becomes ipso facto right. This a the truth that enthusiasts like Tolstoi do not recognise in their abstract and unreal way of regarding human relations, and therefore for them the “saw” may have an intelligible significance. But for those who do not adopt this logical attitude of passive non-violence, it is the baldest and most impudent piece of disingenuous question-begging. Regarding human relations from a concrete point of view, it is manifest that two wrongs often do make a right. When any two particular “wrongs” make a right or not must be solely determined by the circumstances of the particular case in question.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.6.2004