Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Virtues of Vice
By George Berkeley (16851753)
NEXT morning, Alciphron and Lysicles said the weather was so fine that they had a mind to spend the day abroad, and take a cold dinner under a shade in some pleasant part of the country. Whereupon, after breakfast, we went down to a beach about half a mile off; where we walked on the smooth sand, with the ocean on one hand, and on the other wild broken rocks, intermixed with shady trees and springs of water, till the sun began to be uneasy. We then withdrew into a hollow glade, between two rocks, where we had no sooner seated ourselves than Lysicles, addressing himself to Euphranor, said:I am now ready to perform what I undertook last evening, which was to show that there is nothing in that necessary connection which some men imagine between those principles you contend for, and the public good. I freely own that, if this question were to be decided by the authority of legislators or philosophers, it must go against us. For these men generally take it for granted that vice is pernicious to the public; and that men cannot be kept from vice but by the fear of God, and the sense of a future state: whence they are induced to think the belief of such things necessary to the wellbeing of human kind. This false notion hath prevailed for many ages in the world, and done an infinite deal of mischief, being in truth the cause of religious establishments, and gaining the protection and encouragement of laws and magistrates to the clergy and their superstitions. Even some of the wisest among the ancients, who agreed with our sect in denying a Providence and the immortality of the soul, had nevertheless the weakness to be under the common prejudice that vice was hurtful to societies of men. But England hath of late produced great philosophers who have undeceived the world, and proved to a demonstration that private vices are public benefits. This discovery was reserved to our times, and our sect hath the glory of it.
Crito. It is possible some men of fine understanding might in former ages have had a glimpse of this important truth; but it may be presumed they lived in ignorant times and bigoted countries, which were not ripe for such a discovery.
Lysicles. Men of narrow capacities and short sight, being able to see no further than one link in a chain of consequences, are shocked at small evils which attend upon vice. But those who can enlarge their view, and look through a long series of events, may behold happiness resulting from vice, and good springing out of evil in a thousand instances. To prove my point I shall not trouble you with authorities or far-fetched arguments, but bring you to plain matter of fact. Do but take a view of each particular vice, and trace it through its effects and consequences, and then you will clearly perceive the advantage it brings to the public.
Drunkenness, for instance, is by your sober moralists thought a pernicious vice, but it is for want of considering the good effects that flow from it. For, in the first place, it increases the malt-tax, a principal source of his Majestys revenue, and thereby promotes the safety, strength, and glory of the nation. Secondly, it employs a great number of hands, the brewer, the maltster, the ploughman, the dealer in hops, the smith, the carpenter, the brasier, the joiner, with all other artificers necessary to supply those enumerated with their respective instruments and utensils. All which advantages are procured from drunkenness in the vulgar way, by strong beer. This point is so clear it will admit of no dispute. But while you are forced to allow this much, I foresee you are ready to object against drunkenness occasioned by wines and spirits, as exporting wealth into foreign countries. But you do not reflect on the number of hands which even this sets on work at home; the distillers, the vintners, the merchants, the sailors, the shipwrights, with all those who are employed towards victualling and fitting out ships, which, upon a nice computation, will be found to include an incredible variety of trades and callings. Then, for freighting our ships to answer these foreign importations, all our manufacturers throughout the kingdom are employed, the spinners, the weavers, the dyers, the wool-combers, the carriers, the packers. And the same may be said of many other manufactures, as well as the woollen. And if it be further considered, how many men are connected by all the forementioned ways of trade and business, and the expenses of these men and their families, in all the several articles of convenient and fashionable living, whereby all sorts of trades and callings, not only at home, but throughout all parts wherever our commerce reaches, are kept in employment; you will be amazed at the wonderfully extended scene of benefits which arise from the single vice of drunkenness, so much run down and declaimed against by all grave reformers. With as much judgment your half-witted folks are accustomed to censure gaming. And indeed (such is the ignorance and folly of mankind) a gamester and a drunkard are thought no better than public nuisances, when, in truth, they do each in their way greatly conduce to the public benefit. If you look only on the surface and first appearance of things, you will no doubt think playing at cards a very idle and fruitless occupation. But dive deeper, and you shall perceive this idle amusement employs the card-maker, and he sets the paper-mills at work, by which the poor rag-man is supported; not to mention the builders and workers in wood and iron that are employed in erecting and furnishing these mills. Look still deeper, and you shall find that candles and chair-hire employ the industrious and the poor, who by these means come to be relieved by sharpers and gentlemen, who would not give one penny in charity. But you will say that many gentlemen and ladies are ruined by play, without considering that what one man loses another gets, and that consequently as many are made as ruined: money changeth hands, and in this circulation the life of business and commerce consists. When money is spent, it is all one to the public who spends it. Suppose a fool of quality becomes the dupe of a man of mean birth and circumstance, who has more wit; in this case what harm doth the public sustain? Poverty is relieved, ingenuity is rewarded, the money stays at home, and has a lively circulation, the ingenious sharper being enabled to set up an equipage and spend handsomely, which cannot be done without employing a world of people. But you will perhaps object that a man reduced by play may be put upon desperate courses, hurtful to the public. Suppose the worst, and that he turns highwayman; such men have a short life and a merry. While he lives, he spends, and for one that he robs makes twenty the better for his expense. And when his time is come, a poor family may be relieved by fifty or a hundred pounds set upon his head. A vulgar eye looks on many a man as an idle or mischievous fellow whom a true philosopher, viewing in another light, considers as a man of pleasant occupation who diverts himself, and benefits the public; and that with so much ease, that he employs a multitude of men, and sets an infinite machine in motion, without knowing the good he does, or even intending to do any; which is peculiar to that gentleman-like way of doing good by vice. I was considering play, and that insensibly led me to the advantages which attend robbing on the highway. O the beautiful and never-enough-admired connection of vices! It would take too much time to show how they all hang together, and what an infinite deal of good takes its rise from every one of them. One word for a favourite vice, and I shall leave you to make out the rest yourself, by applying the same mode of reasoning to all other vices. A poor girl, who might not have the spending of half-a-crown a week in what you call an honest way, no sooner hath the good fortune to be a kept mistress, but she employs milliners, laundresses, tire-women, mercers, and a number of other trades, to the benefit of her country. It would be endless to trace and pursue every particular vice through its consequences and effects, and show the vast advantage they all are of to the public. The true springs that actuate the great machine of commerce, and make a flourishing state, have been hitherto little understood. Your moralists and divines have for so many ages been corrupting the genuine sense of mankind, and filling their heads with such absurd principles, that it is in the power of few men to contemplate real life with an unprejudiced eye. And fewer still have sufficient parts and sagacity to pursue a long train of consequences, relations, and dependences, which must be done in order to form a just and entire notion of the public weal. But, as I said before, our sect hath produced men capable of these discoveries, who have displayed them in full light, and made them public for the benefit of their country.