Charles Dickens, morality, ethics, and utilitarianism

The connection between religion and morality has always been tenuous. The connection is contingent rather than necessary. But the great worry of traditionalists is that if we drop religion we will have to drop morality. If there is no God, everything is permitted. But this is clearly untrue. There is still ethics. Aristotle’s Ethics was written long before Christ. In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1852), James Mill (1773-1836), and John Stuart Mill delinked morality from religion.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) also argues forcefully against the immorality of urban, capitalist England–the society wholly dominated by economic incentives. But Dickens made his arguments indirectly, in fiction. He entertained, warned, and scolded his readers at the same time. Yet, through the quality of his art, he avoided crude didacticism. In order to be effective, he had to focus on his literary work and let the moral teaching happen indirectly. Any sign of moral didacticism ruins art, if art is understood as its own autonomous social system. Art, in this sense, cannot be the servant of religion, education, philosophy, science or any other kind of communication. These other systems can only use art parasitically.

Dickens also ridiculed (and caricatured) philosophers. In Oliver Twist, the word philosopher or philosophy appears seventeen times. Here are a couple of examples, both from chapter 2:

Everybody knows the story of [the] experimental philosopher who had a great theory about a horse being able to live without eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his own horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to have had his first comfortable bait of air. 

. . .

The members of this board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered—the poor people liked it! It was a regular place of public entertainment for the poorer classes; a tavern where there was nothing to pay; a public breakfast, dinner, tea, and supper all the year round; a brick and mortar elysium, where it was all play and no work.

Here is a passage from Hard Times (1854),

. . . Bless thee.  Good night.  Good-bye!’

It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a sacred remembrance to these two common people.  Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog’s-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you.  Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you .

In a journal article on Hard Times, Efraim Sicher discusses Bentham and the opposition between fact and fancy:

The text’s own performance shows that what Dickens calls Fancy is doing its work and doing it usefully. Far from merely subscribing to a status quo sugared by compassion, it shows through exemplary stories that (pace Martineau) a Benthamite rational egoism cannot be a fit training for life and that there are other elements left out of Bentham’s sum of human motivation, foremost among them, as J. S. Mill had also noted, the role of the imagination in the formation of moral personality. The fallacious opposition of Fact and Fancy is recognizable in Mill’s acknowledgment in his Autobiography that poetry helped him through his mental crisis after an upbringing in Facts and made the “cultivation of the feelings . . . one of the cardinal points in [his] ethical and philosophical creed” (1909: 95)

Sicher, Efraim. “Dickens and the Pleasure of the Text: The Risks of Hard Times.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 9, no. 2 (2011): 311-30.


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