E. Belfort Bax

Last Words on “Blacks and Whites”

(September 1901)

E. Belfort Bax, Last Words on “Blacks and Whites”, Social Democrat, September 1901, pp.265-67.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Although I think most of the readers of the Social-Democrat will agree that comrade Coombe’s forte, as he himself seems to half suspect, is rather that of the bard than of the sage, yet, as I always endeavour to answer an argument seriously stated – even although its plausibility may not seem to be of a nature likely to lead many souls into error – I beg to offer a few belated and final words anent Coombe’s remarks in the May number of the Social-Democrat on this by no means unimportant topic.

The fundamental fallacy running through his article is, I think, the very common one known as “confusion of categories.” Our friend has forgotten that in the original article criticised by him I was discussing Right and Wrong (in the metaphorical terminology used, White and Black), not Good and Evil. It was with the moral aspect of actions (in the narrower sense of the word) that I was concerned, not with their hedonistic character or with their general relation to human well-being. Now I contend that an action may, as Coombe says, involve the lesser of two evils, and be none the less, therefore, itself an evil, and nevertheless that it may be wholly right. Right and wrong, although they may be in the last resort covered by good and evil, are not necessarily so in the detail of life. Good and evil are, throughout this detail, relative terms, capable, as Coombe points out, of a more-and-less predication. With right and wrong it is not the same. It may be a disputed point as to whether a given action (assuming it to be susceptible of an ethical predication at all) be right or wrong, hut there can be no question but that it is either right or wrong. In judging of an action, after having taken all the circumstances into account, there is no greater of two “rights” or lesser of two “wrongs.” There may be a lesser of two evils, but when there is no alternative but between these two evils, the action involving the lesser of the two evils is ex hypothesi the absolutely right action, i.e., it is the ethically best action to pursue under the circumstances. And it is this ethically best in given circumstances which is what we mean by. concrete right or righteousness. Thus I hold that knocking down a fellow-creature in the shape of a highwayman is a lesser evil than the only other alternative, letting him rob and injure me. Holding this view I am forced to admit my knocking him down to be a righteous or a “white” action. Abstractly considered the knocking down of a fellow-creature in the road is a wrong or a “black” action. It only becomes right or “white” by appearing in a determinate sequel of causation to another wrong or “black” action. Again, I consider reprisals in war the lessor of two evils, the other being letting murder and barbarity run riot unchecked on one side.

Holding this view I consider that which per se is the blackest of “black” acts, viz., the shooting of prisoners, may conceivably become (undoubted evil though it be), nevertheless, ethically considered, as “white” as driven snow. Thus given two “black” actions per se in a definite causal relation and they invariably do and must make a “white.” The only logically consistent believer in Coombe’s metaphysico-abstract morality, that each species of action is per se and under all circumstances wrong, or per se and under all circumstances right, is unquestionably Tolstoy. He alone is prepared to go the “whole hog” of the theory that “two blacks don’t make a white.” Pace friend Coombe, I most emphatically insist that no one can logically maintain the thesis that “two blacks don’t make a white” except a follower of Tolstoy’s doctrine of non-resistance.

Now as to the other point raised. I observed in my original article that it is no use in estimating the relative goodness or badness of two parties to take into account the good or bad qualities they have in common, as these mutually cancel each other for the purposes of the judgment. This I alleged as another instance in which (without straining the metaphor too far) two blacks may, in a sense, be said to make a white, since for the purposes of the judgment by the fact of cancelling each other they lose their character of blackness. The same applies to the good qualities possessed in common (i.e., those tending to righteousness) since they similarly, for the object of comparison, lose their “whiteness” by cancelling each other. To take an instance. In a discussion as to the relative merits or demerits of Boer and Briton, if it could be shown that (say) the treatment of the natives was equally good or bad on either side, this question must properly be ruled out of the discussion, since the point in dispute is not the absolute goodness or badness of either race, but their relative goodness or badness as compared with each other. I further pointed out that it was only those qualities of goodness or badness which are in excess of the other side in the comparison – or if there is no special object of comparison, in excess of average human nature, having regard to time and place – which can be imputed for special righteousness or special wickedness. This I illustrated by reference to a Catholic dogma, a circumstance which very much shocked friend Coombe. Nevertheless, I claim the right to take my illustrations from any source I please, provided they are, as this one was, apposite, and for the purpose of argument. I am prepared to exploit, if need be, the Vedanta, the Enneals of Plotinus, the Koran, and even the Catholic Church. But the point in question I admit was in itself so simple and obvious as hardly to need any illustration, and if Coombe cannot see it I am afraid I cannot make it any clearer to him.

Coombe observes in his penultimate paragraph, that if my position is sound, “then any action which we may feel compelled on occasion to adopt is not merely justifiable but good.” Most certainly I hold that any action we are compelled to adopt as the least of two, only alternative, evils is – I will not say good because this term is ambiguous and may be used hedonistically no less than ethically – but morally right. And qua that particular action it is not relatively but absolutely right as representing the only rightness possible under the given circumstances, inasmuch as in these given circumstances ex hypothesi any other form of action would be wrong.

I quite agree with Coombe that this discussion is not mere hair-splitting of no practical value, for I am convinced that many a comrade defending a righteous cause has been at times nonplussed for the moment by the apparently crushing retort, “two blacks don’t make a white”! Let him the next time boldly lay hold of this wretched controversial tag by the beard and proclaim the truth that two blacks very often do make a white in the economy of human affairs, and that his opponent daily recognises this truth when it suits his purpose; let him do this and a point in the propagation of just views will have been scored!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.5.2005