Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MORAL AND POLITICAL SCIENCE. J. B. Say, in the passages which we quote below, has defined the nature, object and utility of moral and political science in such a manner that there can be no need of our adding anything upon the subject.—"The general laws which constitute political and moral science exist in spite of disputes on the subject. This is so much the better for those who would discover these laws by means of judicious and continued observation, demonstrate their connection, and deduce the consequences which result from them. They flow from the very nature of things, just as certainly as the laws of the physical world; we do not imagine them, but find them; they govern the men who govern others, and can not be violated with impunity. The general laws which regulate the march of things are called principles, as soon as it is a question of applying them; that is to say, as soon as they are made use of to judge of circumstances, and serve as a rule of action. The knowledge of these principles alone insures the success of this march, which is constantly and successfully directed toward a good end."


—After defining the experimental method, the same writer adds: "The natural, physical and mathematical sciences must be the first to share the progress which method renders possible: the facts upon which they are based affect the senses more directly; it is more difficult to deny them; their investigation does not wound any interest; a man may study physics in the Austrian states without exciting the alarm either of the prince, the nobles, or the clergy. The same can not be said of moral and political science. Its study is proscribed in all countries that are governed in the interest of a few, and Napoleon prohibited it in all the institutions of France, as soon as he became all powerful. Vain effort! If moral and political science is, like other sciences, based upon realities, it shares in the progress which the human mind owes to experimental methods; but is it based upon realities? If we consult experience and repeated observations, many moral facts may acquire a certitude equal to that of many physical facts. We see them and see them repeated a thousand times; by means of analysis we know their nature, their formation and their results; we can not doubt their reality. After weighing gold and iron several times, we are convinced that gold is comparatively heavier than iron; this is an indubitable fact; but it is no less real a fact that iron is less valuable than gold. However, value is a purely moral quality and one which seems to depend upon the fleeting and changeable will of men. Nor is this all. The spectacle of the physical world presents to us a series of phenomena, linked one to another; there is no fact which has not one or several causes. All other things being equal, the same cause can not produce two different effects: the grain of corn which I plant does not produce at one time an ear of corn, at another a thistle; it always produces corn. When the land is mellowed by cultivation and fertilized by manure, the same field will, with an equally favourable season, produce more than if the land had not been treated in this way. Thus it is that like causes always produce like effects. Now, it may be readily perceived that the same is true in political economy. A fact is always the result of one or several facts which have gone before it, and are the causes of it. The events of to-day have been brought about by those of yesterday, and will exert an influence over those of to-morrow; all have been effects and will become causes, just as the grain of corn, which, being a product of last year, will produce the ear of corn of this year. To pretend that any effect whatever in either the moral or the physical would happens without a cause, is to pretend that a plant may grow without the seed having been sown; it is to suppose a miracle. Hence has originated the expression the chain of events, which proves that we regard events as links which are connected one with another.


—But what certainly have we that a fact which goes before is the cause of one which follows, and that a series of links connect these two with one another? We attribute an event which we witness to a certain circumstance that went before it; but may we not be mistaken? The circumstance that preceded the event was perhaps not the cause of it. It is because it does not know the true causes of events that the human mind seeks for supernatural causes, and has recourse to superstitious practices and charms, the use of which was so common in times of ignorance; useless and sometimes injurious practices, which always have the deplorable effect of turning men away from the only means whereby they can attain the end desired.


—A science is complete in its relations to a certain order of facts, in proportion as it is possible for us to point out the bond which unites these facts to one another, and to connect effects with their real causes. This is achieved by scrupulously studying the nature of each thing that plays any part whatever in the phenomenon which we desire to explain; the nature of things discloses to us the manner in which things act and the manner in which they support the actions of which they are the object: it shows us the relations and connections of facts one with another. Now the best way to ascertain the nature of a thing is to analyze it, to see in it everything that it contains, and nothing but what it contains.


—To produce values, we do not act upon insensible beings only, nor do we employ only material properties. We have more to do with men who have wants, desires and passions, and who are subject to the laws which are imposed upon them, some of them by their nature as men, others by society, of which they are members. To guide us in our labors all these laws must be known, and to be known they must be studied. This is the object proposed by moral and political science, whose end is to study moral and social man. These laws are very numerous in the social state, because in this state our relations with men and things are extremely numerous. This study embraces not only the laws which flow from our moral nature or our physical wants or from our means of satisfying them, but also the laws of the body politic, civil and criminal legislation.


—In speaking of the laws to which men and things are subject, note that I do not examine in virtue of what right such or such a law is imposed upon them, nor in virtue of what duty they submit to them. The fact and not the right is what we are considering here. I call law, whether in physics or in morality, every rule from whose influence we can not withdraw ourselves, without concerning myself with the question whether that rule be equitable or not, or whether it is baneful or beneficial, questions which are the object of a different study from that which we are now considering(political economy).


—The knowledge of the nature of things, moral and physical, and of the laws which flow therefrom, can be acquired only by numerous observations, repeated experiments, comparisons and combinations beyond number. All this requires profound meditation and assiduous study. The more science is extended and perfected, the longer and more difficult this study becomes; for a science extends because it comes to consist of a great number of observed relations and of a greater number of laws discovered or recalled to memory. When the branches of human knowledge are very numerous, the life of man is not long enough to learn even one single order of facts and laws, that is, one single science. A savant, therefore, is thought to have used his time and faculties well, and to have rendered sufficient service to his fellow-men, if he has thoroughly mastered a single branch of a single science. Pythagoras and Thales knew all that could be known in their time. Aristotle wrote the best books of his age on politics, morality, belles-lettres, and natural history; but if he lived in our day, not only would he have to renounce belles-lettres to study all there is to be learned of natural history, but, supposing that he wished to make himself a master of one single branch of natural history, such as botany or mineralogy, he would be obliged to limit himself to a superficial acquaintance with the other branches. To become famous in mineralogy, he would have to leave to other savants the study of animals and plants. Thus only could he hope to extend the sphere of that branch of knowledge which he had cultivated."

J. B. SAY.

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