Happiness and Aggression

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Happiness and Aggression.

To the editor of Liberty:

Although, as I understand, you do not believe in a God or in anything corresponding to the idea of a God, I have much respect for your opinions, and therefore ask the following questions. It may be that the answers could be gleaned from "Instead of a Book," but that is too long for me, though I have read much of it. I suppose that you had not time to make it shorter.

(1) What evidence is there that aggression is inexpedient, and that the law of liberty will result in the greatest happiness?

(2) Even if it is, in the long run, inexpedient, why, if there is no power that "makes for righteousness," should anyone subordinate the gratification of his present desires to the good of the race by refraining from coercing an individual? I am familiar with Spencer's argument in "Social Statics," and personally I attach much weight to it, but it appears to me that all the discussions as to whether liberty is ethically right or not are begging the question, at least from your point of view. The question seems to me to be one of evolution,-viz., how did the race come to its present stage of development, and what are the qualities that have enabled certain types to survive and to prevail? I do not think that the most ardent supporter of liberty will say that devotion to freedom has been the main factor. At least, if so, the argument here should be the synthetic one of tabulating facts and considering them historically. If universal experience showed that non-aggression resulted in more pleasure to the individual than aggression, It seems to me that men would have become non-aggressive. The complaint of the ages, from Job down, is that the wicked and violent prosper and have eyes standing out with fatness. Your arguments, I think, are purely a priori.

(3) Are not the qualities which have enabled the race to prevail: first, what the Romans called Equanimity,-that is, courage and personal independence; second, Honesty,-that is, reliability in their dealings; and, third, Sympathy, developed in the particular form that they are willing to help each other? It appears to me that nations like the Russians, the Germans, the Turks, the Egyptians, and others have attained, mainly by means of these, to the very highest phases of civilization, with almost no regard for personal liberty or the rights of the individual.

(4) It is by no means clear to me that aggression upon the individual and the utter sacrifice of the exercise of facu1ty by some individuals has not resulted, and may not still result, in the greatest Sum of Happiness, and I do not think that I could show, without calling upon a "God," that it is more important or better or more moral that two persons should have a certain amount of happiness rather than have the less developed one killed and the other have three times as much happiness. Could you?

While I think it is true that society had better not attempt to punish anything short of an aggression, it is also true that society had better not punish many things which are aggressions. It seems to me to be ridiculous to say that anything is justifiable which does not constitute an aggression.

If I see a man drowning and neglect to throw him a convenient life-belt, I have committed no aggression. Yet you know that I am a bad citizen and the public conscience will condemn me, knowing that a race of men like that could not have survived, and that, if such traits developed, the community could never reach a high social development. Do what you will, I believe that the very qualities which make voluntary social organization possible will make any society increasingly inclined to punish men who seduce women or who buy votes, although it can be clearly shown that no "aggression" has been committed.

Yours truly,

Bolton Hall.

New York City, November 21, 1895.

  • Bolton Hall, “Happiness and Aggression,” Liberty 11, no. 20 (February 8, 1896): 6.