Historical Threads

MacRae, Archibald Oswald. Essay. In New Social Teachings, 190–93. London: K. Paul, 1886.

We find that the State may interfere with every right of the individual, except such as harmonize with the general good. Thus the entire subordination of the individual is postulated, even though there be but little actual interference. The right of the State to obedience is unlimited, and the duty of obedience by the individual is also unlimited. We have seen, notwithstanding, that no sacrifice of individuality is thus affirmed. From a definitely ethical point of view we see the consequent relation with perfect clearness. Virtue has for meaning the “common good.” The moral life of the individual consists in complete subordination of himself to that end, so that it becomes his end. Thus the self-regarding impulses which would make the self's own interests the sole end require to be crucified, or rather transformed, so that they turn towards the common good as their end. Humanity becomes the larger self, whose true interests are now desired by the individual, and in whose life he lives, moves, and has his being. It, as the end of life, replaces the extinguished life of the private self.

Now our social life is not organized on the large scale of humanity, except in some very minor directions, nor will it be for many generations. Our humanity is our State, which, as has already been affirmed, reproduces the same situation and relations. The State is a number of human beings organized to realize the "common good;" and the "common good" is equivalent to virtue. Thus the life of the State is strictly a moral life. It is not merely analogous to the moral life of the individual; it is a portion of it —that portion, namely, which can be realized by the agency of public law. The individual, in so far as moral, sacrifices his private self to the "common good." He will, therefore, be morally bound to sacrifice that portion of his private interest which the State may demand, that portion of the selfish life which public law can effectively touch. The State laws in question being for the "common good," disobedience to which is not merely crime, but vice, the self which the State will coerce will be only the vicious, that is, the selfish self. Thus it is that selfish self alone whose "individualism" is checked by the State — the individualism of vice. The sphere demanded for its development is a sphere for the culture of ingenuity and organization of the bad against the interests of humanity, against right. On the other hand, public law, as the co-operation of all towards the end of virtue, will be the assistant of each one in the realization of his unselfish self, of his true self. It is the sympathy, the united hand and brain of the moral life of the whole community welded into one vast moral force, sustaining and realizing the deepest aspirations of every human being. The lines of law cease to be dull with the dullness of mere balanced interests, cease to express the individual's claim to certain cast-iron rights that regard himself alone. They glow with the fire of the enthusiasm of humanity.

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