Charles Dickens, morality, ethics, and utilitarianism

The connection between religion and morality has always been tenuous. The connection is contingent rather than necessary, meaning there is no reason morality ever had to become associated with religion. But the great worry of religionists is that if we drop religion we will have to drop morality, as if they must rise and fall together. 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. However, Bentham and the other utilitarians replaced religion with philosophy. Ideas of social justice or social reform replaced religious morality.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) went further by ridiculing 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 rapacious 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.

Dickens 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.

Here is a passage from Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times,

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 .

Dickens appears to be warning these learned people that they must cultivate “fancies and affections” in the poor; otherwise, in the end the poor will destroy them.

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 [Benthamite] 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.

In this context, fancy means imagination or creativity; it is an affect. Ethics without feeling would be a very dry, useless kind of ethics. It is the kind of ethics Dickens targets.

Dostoevsky also took aim at Benthamite utilitarianism and a rationalism that under-appreciated human complexity. The utilitarian, rationalist notion that we can create good, happy people by creating a good society or enlightened political system was laughable for Dostoevsky. The human being is far too complex for that. Dostoevsky makes this argument in Notes from the Underground. In terms of system’s theory, we can say that Dostoevsky was defending the autonomy of the psychic system, arguing that this system cannot be directly changed by any social system. I will go more into these ideas in a new post.


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