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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Liberty and Opportunity

Liberty and Opportunity

Among popular beliefs whose existence is manifested in current discussion and which ought not to pass unchallenged, is the notion that a chance in life is a positive and certain gain or advance. A chance, however, is a chance, and nothing more. Every chance involves a possibility of two opposite issues. If a chance or opportunity is used one way it results in gain or advantage; if it is used the other way it issues in loss or disadvantage. A chance, therefore, has no moral quality or value; the moral question is: what will be done with it? Hence the fallacy of all the captivating suggestions about ethics in economic or other strictly impersonal social forces. The moral relations are in the personal domain.

Capital has no moral quality; it is a chance, a power, an opportunity. Capital means tools, weapons, food, etc. A pistol has no moral quality; it can be used for good or for ill, as men count good and ill. The same may be said of an axe, a spade, or a locomotive; it may also be said of food, for a man possessing a store of energy derived from food may spend it in benefit or in mischief. Food furnishes energy to a laborer or a murderer indifferently; the morals are in the man, not in the bread; they go with the intelligence, or with the intelligent responsibility, and turn on the question: what will he do with it?

All capital, therefore, is power; it furnishes a chance to do something. It brings with itself, however, the double possibility as to the use to which it will be put. The man who has tools, weapons, or food, is able to accomplish far more in any direction in which he determines to apply it than the man who has no capital; but then the question how he will use it has become so much the more serious; his power for mischief is enhanced just as much as his power for good. As to himself, the chance is no less serious; he has power to make far more of himself than if destitute of capital, and he has power to hurry himself to personal ruin and destruction so much the faster.

The same may be said of education. The moralists have never been satisfied with the old adage that knowledge is power. They felt the lack of the moral element in it, that is to say, they felt the lack of the element which it was their business to supply. The adage, however, was true; knowledge is power, and, in itself considered, it is nothing more. The notion that knowledge makes men good is one of the superstitions of the nineteenth century. Knowledge only gives men power and it furnishes a chance; it brings with it, however, the grim alternative already cited: will the man who has it use it for good or for ill? That is a moral question. It finds its answer in the springs of character, and the independent self-determination which lies deepest in the essential elements of each man's personality. This, by the way, is one of the reasons why there is no sound social or personal strength which is not founded on the training of the individual; it is the reason why individual character is the spring of all good in man or the state, and why all socialism is profoundly immoral. Wherever collective standards, codes, ideals, and motives take the place of individual responsibility, we know from ample experience that the spontaneity and independent responsibility which are essential to moral vigor are sure to be lost.

The things which men call "goods," therefore, because they are means or powers, are not positive gains; they only open the lists and give the chance for a struggle.

Leaving the matter of morals now, and turning back to the practical utilities for which men value all "goods," we find that every chance which is opened means gain or loss according to the wisdom with which it is employed. Very few men of fifty can look back on their lives and see anything but chances misapprehended, opportunities lost, and errors in the use of powers. It is simply a wild speculation to guess what a hundred men would attain to if they should correctly understand and use every opportunity in life which opened before them, and should exploit it to the utmost of which it was capable without any mistake. The suggestion of such a thing will suffice to show how far we are from anything of the sort. It is said that the great reason why savage tribes remain in their low state is that they cannot keep what they gain and use it to get more, but are constantly slipping back and beginning over again, but in truth, the most civilized societies are only slightly better. Methodical, regular, and rhythmical progress is a dream as yet.

There is a new and useful line of work yet to be opened which will consist in an examination of biography, as a comparative and analytical study, in order to note and generalize the conditions of successful use of opportunity, and to perceive the effects of opportunity misunderstood or abused. An opportunity missed may be a mere negative loss, but an opportunity abused becomes a cause of positive harm or of ruin. The career of every man who wins distinction affords ample proof of all phases of these observations, because opportunities present themselves over and over again. Every time that an opportunity presents itself a new decision must be made, and the perils of mistake must be incurred again. Like every other social fact, this one also is intensified in our time. Our fathers attained to routine which was adequate for all the opportunities or chances which came to them, and they were able to generalize rules which embody "the good old way," and were in fact in those days correct and adequate wisdom; but we cannot live that way if we would. The rules do not hold; the cases are more various; the elements are all the time changing, or at least recombining. If a man makes a correct judgment once, that is more likely to lead him astray the next time, because he will have confidence in his experience and will not note the differences in the cases. Throughout the business world this observation forces itself on our attention.

I have gathered these observations together in order to lead up to a more correct apprehension, as I think, of the purpose and achievement which we have a right to expect from civilization. Civilization does nothing but open chances. It does nothing to guarantee their advantageous effect. Between the chance and its effect lies the all-important question: what will he do with it? Personal liberty is nothing but a name for a series of chances, or for a life to which chances have access; civil liberty is nothing but social security for such use of the chances, within the limits which are set by the criminal law, as the subject of them sees fit to make. Neither affords any security that the use will be a wise one or that it will issue in a result which the individual will later regard with satisfaction. If he gets his liberty he must take his responsibility; for he may be assured that if he finds any one else to take the responsibility, he will speedily lose the liberty and with it the chances.

The sanctions of virtue and wisdom are, therefore, all the time increasing, and above all they are all the time increasing for the mass of mankind. It must be reiterated over and over again, that it is the greatest of all delusions to suppose that we can make what we call gains without meeting with attendant ills. The added power which mankind has won within a century or two brings with it all the peril of the alternative which has been described for each of us and for our society. We take the new powers and opportunities at the peril of correctly understanding them and using them. If the masses are to take the social power, they will have to look to themselves how they use it. No revolution in social order has ever been brought about by the oppression, or folly, or wickedness of the rulers—if such things as that could cause revolutions there would be little else but revolution in history. Revolutions have been caused by holding out hopes of bliss which the ruling powers were not able to bring to pass. Democracy will take power subject to the same penalty; it must wield power under the same conditions. So far it has been lavish with its promises and has had no responsibility because it has only been applied in new countries where there were no hard social problems. It has, in general, promised not that men should have more chances, but that they should realize greater fulfilment of what their hearts desire with less need of study, training, and labor. I hold that that is the very opposite of the truth, and that all the new social movements, including democratic political institutions, demand, and demand especially of the masses, painstaking, knowledge, philosophical power, and labor far beyond what has ever hitherto been necessary. The reason for this opinion is in the fact that the latest social movements have issued in increase of social power, and that all such increase involves an alternative which can be successfully solved only by added mental and moral power, and by more work.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.