E. Belfort Bax

Essays in Socialism

A Bundle of Fallacies

From Essays in Socialism New & Old (1907), pp.79-85.

In one of Aesop’s fables it is related how in a congress of mice it was decided that the best way of averting the danger of capture by the cat was to hang a bell round the cat’s neck as a warning of its approach. The question then was, to decide who should be the plucky mouse to bell the cat. Now this fable will bear more, than one application. There are some who plume themselves on hunting up some personal squabble to be made or some personal nastiness to be said, and doing it or saying it, and consider this a heroic form of cat-belling. But it may be pointed out that every old washerwoman (i.e., the typical old washerwoman – no disrespect to the calling or to woman in general) is fertile in this particular quality of heroism, and in fact that anybody who likes making himself a fussy and cantankerous nuisance can practise belling the cat after this fashion; in other words, can always persuade himself that something nasty has to be said or done, and say or do it. But there is another and more useful way of belling the cat, although it makes no claim to heroics. This is to expose the fallacies and misuse of language which often serve as argument with those who discuss Socialism and the public questions arising out of it both from a friendly and a hostile point of view. In this way the jingle of the fallacy may be distinguished as it is coming along, and the fore-warned become forearmed against it.

(1) First of all let us consider the “question-begging appellative” or phrase with which it is sought to damage a principle with which you disagree by calling it a “fad.” Now the word “fad” means, according to Webster, “a hobby, freak, or whim,” and is connected with the old word to “faddle,” meaning to “fondle,” or to “play with.” A fad, therefore, really connotes a small or comparatively unimportant matter which engrosses a large, or at least unusual, share of attention. From this it has readily come to mean something to which an exaggerated estimate of importance is attached. But the word has now got to be divested of all meaning whatever by being applied as a term of abuse to any doctrine or principle the user of it dislikes or finds inconvenient. For instance, to take an extreme case, we have heard Socialism itself, and Atheism and Catholicism, respectively termed “fads.” Now, it is perfectly admissible to maintain that these things are all or severally either wrong or right, but in no case whatever can they be “fads.” Whether they be right or wrong, true or false, they are too comprehensive, and involve too vast issues for either them or their opposites ever to be legitimately designated as “fads.” An opinion zealously held may be utterly and preposterously absurd without being a “fad.” On the other hand another opinion may be perfectly sound and yet a fad. Where a man devotes his whole energies to (say) anti-vaccination, and by his words or acts gives it to be understood that the entire future of the world’s history depends on whether the laws as to compulsory vaccination are repealed or not, he may justly be styled a “faddist,” and anti-vaccination a “fad,” and this is quite irrespectively of whether we regard his views on the subject as in themselves well or ill founded. [1]

(2) Let us take another fallacy, this time traceable to a confusion of ideas, viz., the outcry against compelling a man to sever his connection with a party or organisation after he has (conscientiously, if you will) ceased to hold the principles for which it exists, or even after he has actively opposed those principles. Herr Eduard Bernstein was allowed to remain in the German Social-Democratic Party after he had denounced every Social-Democratic doctrine in turn and championed every move of capitalism in extremis, simply because the German Social-Democrats feared the cry of “heresy-hunter,” with allusions to the Inquisition, being raised against them by the bourgeois press. The doctrine of toleration was thus stretched to the insane point that a man must be tolerated in an organisation the principles of which he is opposing, lest those who turned him out should be accused of following the practice of the Christian Church. But, as a matter of fact, the odium attached to the heresy-hunting of the Church has its reason of being, not in the mere fact that men pronounced to be out of accord with the dogmas of the Christian Church were expelled or excommunicated from it, which was a perfectly logical and just proceeding, but in that this expulsion was made to involve pains and penalties on the part of the “secular arm.” It is on the latter fact alone that the eternal infamy of the Christian Church, in its dealings with heretics, lies. I would ask those who take the conventional view, by what conceivable right a man can consider himself as hardly done by when he is formally required to leave a body with whose principles he has proclaimed himself in disagreement? If he likes to pose as a martyr on account of being subject to this very logical and obvious proceeding, let him. And surely he is welcome to the “heartfelt sympathy” of all the congenital idiots he can persuade to take his view of the case.

(3) We have all probably heard hard-put-to British champions argue, in the course of the Boer war, that because the Boers (as they express it) “stole the Transvaal from the natives,” therefore, the British have a right to steal it from the Boers, not, bien entendu, to give it back to the natives, but to keep it for themselves. Now, without challenging the initial statement itself, utterly and absolutely false as it is, a moment’s reflection shows the utter absurdity of the logic involved in the conclusion. I do not take refuge in the threadbare fallacy that “two blacks don’t make a white,” since, as I shall show directly, they very often do, albeit

it is undeniable that for two blacks to make a white, i.e., for the second black to cancel the first, the two blacks must stand in a certain definite relation to one another, which is not the case here. But to make the absurdity at once obvious it is only necessary to state an example. A, a garrotter, violently robs B, a peaceable wayfarer, of his watch. The counsel for the defence urges as plea for acquittal that the victim (or, to make the parallel more complete, the victim’s grandfather) had at some remote date acquired the watch by sharp practice, not from the garrotter or any one connected with the garrotter but from some one with whom the garrotter has no concern whatever. I would ask the reader whether he thinks this beautiful and original defence would stand the prisoner in stead before an average British jury, or whether it would strike any one as an extenuating circumstance for the judge to take into consideration in passing sentence. The best right to stolen property, so long as the institution of private property exists, clearly rests with the original owner, but the theft from the actual possessor by a third party having no claim to it, is quite as much a crime as was the original theft (if we assume the actual possessor to have obtained it by theft). Forcible or covert deprivation of an actual possessor of property held by him, however obtained, by a person who (ex hypothesi) has no claim to that property, furnishes a complete case of the crime of theft. All else is purely irrelevant. Yet it is this class of windy fallacy which, incredible as it may seem, actually imposed upon some bull-headed Britons.

(4) We are all familiar with the observation applied in a reproachful tone to any one reprobating the tyranny or cruelty of one dressed in authority whether a “little” and “brief” or otherwise – “but after all he was only doing his duty!” If a man can be assumed as acting within what is called his duty, that is supposed to be sufficient to exonerate him from all blame for his action. The application of this 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 forcibly resisting the “Pinkerton detectives,” and wound up with an expression of horror that the “Pinkertons” should be subjected to such treatment – men “who were doing nothing more than their duty.” Now it would be interesting to know what constitutes “ duty “ in the eyes of this leader-writer, who evidently deems any crime committed in the performance of so-called duty as ipso facto condoned. If it be the mere carrying out of functions delegated to a man 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 doing nothing more than his duty, when he successfully carries out that, according to popular judgment, reprehensible proceeding. Similarly, the Anarchist appointed in a 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. The “duty” of Torquemada was to extirpate heresy as the functionary appointed by the Church for that purpose. The Prussian sentry is doing his “duty” in firing ball-cartridge to the common danger along public thoroughfares at runaway soldiers, or at civilians who treat him with insufficient respect.

Again, is “duty” taken to mean an act performed in the ordinary course of a calling? If so, the burglar or the cut-purse, when “on the job,” might be said to be only doing his duty. To the theologian, “duty” means obedience to the alleged mandates of the supernatural power that he postulates. With some persons, once more, “duty” might almost seem to be definable as an act involving unpleasant consequences to oneself or others. Now we can discriminate, I submit, in these various possible conceptions of “duty” only one element in common – that of ought, or moral obligation. But the special determination of this element always involves matter of disputation according to the particular prepossessions of the speaker; according as the latter approves or disapproves of the presupposition at its basis will be his judgment of the act as to whether it is covered by the notion of “duty” or not. The assumption underlying the proposition of the Telegraph leader-writer, in the case given, was that of the desirability of supporting capital against labour. The Pinkerton detectives had enrolled themselves in an association, lending itself to this desirable object, and hence, in the opinion of the Telegraph leader-writer and the public he writes for, in shooting down strikers at the behest of the capitalist, they were obviously “doing no more than their duty.” But this same leader-writer and his public do not think the independence of Ireland a desirable object in itself, nor do they in general like to see governments representing capitalists’ interests overturned in an unceremonious manner. So, in their view, the Fenian or the Anarchist is doing anything but his duty in obeying the behests of his “circle” or “group.” The Fenian and Anarchist naturally take another view of the matter, and believing in their respective causes as righteous, feel they are only “doing their duty” in carrying out the mandates of their several organisations.

The result of all this is, then, 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. If so, it is undoubtedly just that the judge who is the instrument of putting a bad law in execution should be punished for so doing. The middle classes have set the example already, for the Counter-Revolution took this view in France in 1795, when, with the unanimous applause of public opinion, it guillotined Fouquier-Tinville and the judges of the “Revolutionary Tribunal,” for carrying out the instructions given them by the previous government of France. It is true, as a rule, that this can only happen when the continuity of governmental life is broken by some form of revolution, but, where it is possible, I submit there is no question of the justice of making a public functionary personally responsible for his action, and refusing to permit him to shield himself behind his office. It suited the purpose of the Thermidorian reactionists to punish Fouquier-Tinville, but they did not see what a dangerous precedent for their class they were creating in so doing.

There is a mistaken conception abroad that a judge, let us say, in seeking to secure a conviction, as is the wont of most judges, is necessarily acting disinterestedly, and therefore honestly. What personal motive, may it be asked, can he have for doing what he does? I will tell you: the enjoyment of the sense of power which conviction gives him over the prisoner in the dock. It is the prospect of enjoyment of the same kind which is the incentive to small boys, who are said to be of a cruel disposition, to kill flies, spin cockchafers, and hold up cats by their tails. “Duty” is only a relative expression, and the judge who gives effect to a bad or unjust law, the executioner who gives effect to the judge’s sentence, the general who “carries through” military operations of an oppressive character with the object of crushing another people or stealing their territory, are one and all criminals as much deserving of punishment (if only the opportunity occurs of inflicting it on them) as the member of the “long firm” who, in accordance with the decisions of his organisation as to “ringing the changes” or “shoplifting,” feels it his “duty” to obey; or the “partner” who feels it his “duty” to save the business with which he is connected, from financial ruin, by committing a forgery. There may certainly be considerations which change the normal character of an act under special circumstances, making a “black” a “white”; but merely tacking on the epithet “duty” to a deed of blood committed by a judge, executive officer, or military commander, is no more than a specious and impudent device, designed to shield the iniquities of a governing class and its tools.

The fact is, of course, that the logic of conscience cannot sanction the thesis that social or official position makes an unethical act ethical, or robs a crime of its criminality. On the contrary, it may well even aggravate its moral heinousness by importing into it an element hypocrisy and cowardice – hypocrisy, as implied in the plea of “duty”; cowardice because the individual usually acts in conscious immunity from the natural or legal dangers to himself otherwise attending such an act. The British soldier in Transvaal could pillage and murder without fear of any police.

(5) We come now to the favourite distinction between (justifiable) sentiment and sentimentalism. When lies this distinction? Most people assume that it is to be found in quantity; to wit, that sentimentalism is simply an excess of sentiment in other people over themselves. But it requires very little reflection to show that this is too personal and subjective to furnish a valid test of the distinction. If even it be extended so as to mean the average sentiment of one’s day and generation, this also will not hold water, for the reason that it entirely ignores the evolutionary or dynamic element in the notion, assuming it to have a fixed value, rather than, like everything else mental and physical, to be in a state of continual progress and change. Mediaeval, or even seventeenth century, sentiment would undoubtedly have voted opposition to rack and thumbscrew as gross sentimentalism, just as an influential section of public opinion to-day votes opposition to gallows and lash to be pernicious sentimentalism, and cannot conceive that a time will come when public opinion will view these institutions with as great abhorrence as modern public opinion does rack or thumbscrew.

I assume all along the validity of the distinction, i.e., that the distinction is real. But if the distinction between sentiment and sentimentality (or sentimentalism) be real and cannot consistently be reduced to a question of mere quantity, wherein does it lie? The answer, I take it, is that it lies in the distribution of the sentiment, The tendency of progress is toward a raising of the standard of sentiment, an increase in its quantity, in its tending to spread over areas hitherto unoccupied by it, and it is impossible to place an effective limit and say to sentiment – i.e., to sympathy and revulsion at the idea of suffering “Thus far shalt thou go and no farther!” since such a limit would be purely arbitrary. But where the sentiment gets concentrated at one point in excess of another, other things being equal, there you have sentimentalism, not because of the absolute amount of the sentiment present, but of its distribution, i.e., of its relative amount as regards its objects. Let us take two illustrations. There are some people whose abhorrence of cruelty to animals coincides with a comparative indifference to cruel punishment of children, and still more to the torturing of convicts by treadmill and lash. Or again, they will shudder with indignant horror at the beating of a dog or the overworking of a horse, and yet will hear without wincing of the horrors of an insanitary factory, or of unwholesome manufactures. I once knew a lady who, while violently opposing vivisection of animals, was prepared to allow its practice, if necessary in the interests of science, on criminals of a certain order. Now here, I conceive, we have clearly the right to describe such sensitiveness towards animal suffering as sentimentalism, not because it is necessarily excessive in itself, but because it is altogether out of proportion to the feeling for suffering in humans. Again, the feminist sentiment is almost pure sentimentalism, inasmuch as it is sentiment which, instead of being distributed over the whole of (at least) humankind, is congested on the female sex. If a man, driven mad by jealousy, or at his wit’s end for fear of blackmail, exposure, and ruin, murders his wife or mistress, scarce a voice will be raised against his being hanged; nay, the general verdict will be “Serve the brute right!” But on the occasion of Mary Ansell deliberately murdering her sister, by means of poison transmitted through the post, for the sake of her sister’s insurance money; or (if possible, still worse) on that of Louisa Masset butchering with the greatest brutality, in cold blood, her little five-year-old son, in order to disembarrass herself of the expense of his maintenance, we have superhuman efforts to obtain a reprieve backed by much pathetic talk about “the poor girl!” This is true sentimentalism. By all means oppose capital punishment as much as you will, but spare a little of the sentiment you so lavishly expend over the “poor girl” for the other, the “poor fellow,” who, we may imagine, just as little enjoys being hanged.

(6) There is a familiar form of fallacy which consists in attempting to smuggle in a doctrine or policy under cover of a recognised principle on the basis of a superficial appearance of such a doctrine or policy being involved in the principle in question, when it is in reality in no way connected with it. An instance of this occurs to me in connection with the woman-suffrage agitation. The possession of the franchise by women may be for aught I care a postulate of eternal justice descending straight from heaven upon men, or it may be a subtle scheme to confound progress emanating direct from the bottomless pit. All I am here concerned to show is, that one argument ad hominem often used by woman’s righters is a delusive fallacy. It is commonly represented that the political democrat or the Social-Democrat must necessarily, if he be consistent, be an advocate of woman-suffrage. Now I submit that whether right or wrong in itself, woman-suffrage is in no way whatever necessarily involved in a (political) democratic or Social-Democratic programme. Democracy, whether political or whether Socialistic, is only necessarily concerned with the abolition of class-restrictions and distinctions, in the one case political, in the other economic and social as well. This has always been the meaning of democracy up till quite recently. But now, a new question, that of sex, is sought to be introduced. It is pretended that the principle of equality involved in the democratic idea necessarily includes the acceptance of a particular version of sex-equality. Now, sex-equality may be a very good thing, but I insist that it has absolutely no connection with democracy, which has always referred to class-distinction and in no way to sex-distinction. And hence a man may be a perfectly sound political democrat or Socialist respectively and yet a vehement opponent of the extension of the franchise to women as well as certain other claims advanced by woman’s rights advocates.

(7) We come finally to an important, because so very common, fallacy. I refer to the saying that “two blacks don’t make a white.” It is, of course, true that two actions each divorced from its surroundings and both from each other, do not affect each other – an obvious and harmless proposition enough. But in the concrete moral world furnished us by this vale of tears, things are presented in mutual connection and not in isolated abstraction as “metaphysical entities.” Viewed, then, as a part of the real world of human conduct, we find that two “blacks” very often do “make a white” – i.e., that in a world where actions possess in practice no absolute value, but are conditioned by one another, one of two actions, either of which when taken per se would be reprehensible, becomes just and right. Viewed as part of a connected whole, the second action, conditioned as it is by the first, loses its abstract character of wrongness or “blackness,” and by the very fact of its conditioning or connection becomes “white,” that is, justified. Of course, this obvious truth is recognised and acted on every day by persons who dispute it, when it suits their purpose, in controversy. The whole theory of criminal law indeed is based on its recognition. Yet there is no argument supposed to be so crushing to an opponent as flinging this utterly threadbare fallacy at his head.

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 knock the revolver out of his hand I may hurt his hand, and two wrongs don’t make a right, eh? Acting on the principle that two wrongs don’t make a right, the Hindoo refuses to destroy the most noxious animal, 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 “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, when one would think it would be most applicable, namely, in the case of criminals in the hands of justices 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 Terrorists and such-like, who punish ruffians of a different stamp, that they are disposed to deprecatingly observe that however bad the latter 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 may not, as such, always make a right, yet that brought into a certain relation with each other, they do, in so far as the second “wrong” in annulling the first loses its original character of wrongness and becomes, ipso facto, right. This is 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-resistance, 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. Whether any particular “two wrongs” make a right or not, must be solely determined by the circumstances of the particular case in question.



1. Of course, there are cases in which it may be open to discussion whether a particular clause as advocated by a particular person may be justly termed a “fad” or not, but the general principle of what constitutes a “fad” is clear enough.


Last updated on 13.1.2006