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4— Pain and Compensation
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Rational Benevolence

The new visibility of pain (and the rational solutions it called forth) might be studied in conjunction with a host of historical developments. Here, I begin with the rise of cities, which, especially in the nineteenth century, would confer on human suffering not only the status of a "problem" but, happily for all concerned, the status of a solvable problem .[47] "Why is it, my friends, that we are brought so near to one another in cities?" William Ellery Charming asked in an 1841 sermon. "It is, that nearness should awake sympathy; that multiplying wants should knit us more closely together; that we should understand one another's perils and sufferings; that we should act perpetually on one another for good."[48]

Nineteenth-century cities were scenes of moral action, in which nearness translated into sympathy, perils and sufferings into the desire to do good. Between 1800 and 1880, New York grew from a city of just 60,000 inhabitants to a metropolis of 1,100,000, with 600,000 more living across the East River in Brooklyn.[49] Other cities across the nation experienced similar rates of growth. By 1900, 60 percent of the inhabitants of the nation's twelve largest cities were either foreignborn or of foreign parentage, with the figure approaching and even exceeding 80 percent in some cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York.[50] With their miseries and mysteries of indigence, these new metropolises showcased human suffering as a sign, a symptom, a challenge to the explanatory powers of the new social sciences, and a challenge to the investigatory zeal of the new philanthropists.


Humanitarianism was thus very much an institutional presence in the nineteenth century, an organized experiment in rational benevolence. And most rational of all was the "Charity Organization Movement," which, first launched by S. Humphreys Gurteen in Buffalo, in 1877, quickly spread across the country in the 1880s. By the 1890s over l00 cities had charity organization societies, equipped with their own journals (Lend-a-Hand in Boston, Charities Review in New York, Charities Record in Baltimore) and convening once a year in the National Conference of Charities and Corrections.[51] Rejecting the traditional practice of public outdoor relief (which they saw as sentimental and haphazard), these new charities emphasized information gathering, the compilation of dossiers, and moral supervision by middleclass "visitors." In short, for these new-style philanthropists, the point was not simply to do good but to do so efficiently, scientifically, wasting no sentiment and no expense.[52] Josephine Shaw Lowell, founder of the New York City Charity Organization Society in 1882 and its guiding spirit for the next twenty-five years, personified this new development. Lowell distinguished between what she called mindless "benevolence" and vigilant "beneficence." Clearly an advocate of the latter, she argued that the proper goal of philanthropy was not to relieve suffering but rather to economize it, which is to say, to dispense it in such a way as to get the maximum result.[53] What was wrong with traditional almsgiving, she said, was that it was "indiscriminate," that it operated without "the intimate knowledge of the suffering people . . . necessary to all efficient help,"[54] and that, far from minimizing suffering, it actually perpetrated it:

The argument which always has the most weight in favor of continuing public out-door relief is that many deserving poor persons may suffer should it be cut off. It has already been proved by experience, however, that not only many suffer, but all suffer , by the continuance of a system which undermines the character of those it pretends to relieve, and at the same time drags down to their level many who never, but for its false allurements, would have been sufferers at all.[55]

With a kind of accusatory compulsion, then, Lowell called attention, over and over again, to the pain caused by inefficient philanthropy. "Almsgiving and dolegiving are hurtful," she insisted; they are "injurious act[s]"; they not only "injure" the recipients by destroying their character but "are hurtful even to those who do not receive them,"


because the "moral harm" they propagate is so "infectious" as to afflict the entire community.

Against such multiplication of injuries, the Charity Organization Society offered itself, by contrast, as a veritable economy of pain: it would "bring less suffering to the innocent and less injury to the community."[56] It would do so, however, not by eliminating pain but by instrumentalizing it, which is to say, by inflicting it and utilizing it in the short run in order to minimize it in the long run. On this point, of course, Lowell was simply echoing Herbert Spencer, her guiding spirit in every respect. Spencer had argued that "the well-being of existing humanity" could only be "secured by that same beneficent, though severe discipline[,] . . . a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering." There was such a thing as "salutary suffering," he insisted, and the challenge was to put it to good use.[57] Following his lead, Lowell too never doubted for a moment that humanity "must suffer"; the "only question" was "as to the kind of suffering." On this point she had no doubts either: salutary suffering must be purgative suffering, directed at its cause, for "the process of cure . . . will be painful to all alike." And so, "finding fellow beings in want and suffering, the cause of the want and suffering are [sic ] to be removed if possible even if the process be as painful as plucking out an eye or cutting off a limb."[58]

Lowell's emphasis on the cause of suffering—and her determination to eradicate that cause, even when it means plucking out an eye or cutting off a limb—casts an interesting light on a recent debate among historians about causation and humanitarianism, a debate that has ignited the pages of the American Historical Review . What occasioned the debate was an important theoretical essay by Thomas Haskell, "Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility." Haskell argues that a particular form of moral sensibility, in this case a capacity for humanitarian action, is most likely to flourish within the causal universe of a particular form of economic life, in this case capitalism. Capitalism rewards those who can think in terms of distant events, who can connect things across space and time, and in doing so it helps to enlarge not only "the range of causal perceptions" but also the range of assumed responsibilities. What capitalism accomplishes is not just an economic revolution but, even more crucially, a cognitive revolution, a drastic broadening of our causal


horizons. Out of this revised causality, Haskell suggests, a "new moral universe" is born, where "failing to go to the aid of a suffering stranger might become an unconscionable act." Against the usual assumption that capitalism encourages greed and selfishness, then, Haskell argues that the opposite is just as true. Indeed, according to him, "the emergence of a market-oriented form of life gave rise to new habits of causal attribution that set the stage for humanitarianism."[59]

Haskell's argument is partly designed to outrage his colleagues, but, polemics aside, his remains an intriguing hypothesis. Indeed, we only have to think of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations to see that there is in fact a vital link between capitalism and humanitarianism. Haskell's paradigm is invaluable in foregrounding a historical conjunction between a form of economic life and a form of moral action, and in theorizing it as a cognitive conjunction, a shared set of assumptions about time and space, about distance and connectedness, about causation and responsibility. And yet, readers of Sophocles must wonder whether remote causation really did begin with capitalism, whether its prospect and terror might not already have cast a large shadow over, say, Oedipus the King .[60]

Rather than seeing capitalism as the "origin" of humanitarianism, then, it might be more helpful to think about the relation between the two as one of cognitive affinity (not one of inaugural entailment). Both might be seen, that is, as expressions of a rationality with a longer and more complex genealogy: a rationality predicated on the commensurability between the moral and the economic, a rationality that, in this instance, would underwrite not only the moral claims of capitalism but also the economic claims of humanitarianism. In short, what seems most striking to me in the historical conjunction of capitalism and humanitarianism is the extent to which morality in the nineteenth century was always understood to be a cognate of the economic, compatible with and translatable into the most exacting standards of bookkeeping. S. Humphreys Gurteen and Josephine Shaw Lowell, vigilant philanthropists that they were, were no less emphatic about the money-saving virtues of their charities. "To cure paupers and make them self-supporting, however costly the process," Lowell said, "must always be economical as compared with a smaller but constantly increasing and continual outlay for their maintenance."[61] Gurteen, meanwhile, even had statistics at his fingertips. "The saving to the city, in out-door relief alone during the first year of


the Society's work," he proudly reported, "amounted, in round numbers, to $48,000, and the average saving, during the past three years, has been somewhat over $50,000 per annum."[62]

This supposed commensurability between the moral and the economic—the supposed ease with which one translated into the other—led not only to the peculiar institutional landscape of the nineteenth century, its many projects of rational benevolence, but also to some of its deepest anxieties and bewilderments. What was one to do when the moral and the economic turned out to be less than equatable, when the translation between them turned out to be less than complete, less than recuperative? These were the questions that would come to haunt the realist novel in a rather conspicuous way, just as, less conspicuously but perhaps no less persistently, they would also come to haunt the precincts of tort law and of social theory. It was not altogether fortuitous, perhaps, that the word "responsibility"—a word with resonances in all three fields, and with both moral and economic implications—would emerge as one of the most deeply conflictual words in the nineteenth century, its scope subject to contrary definition, its boundaries and limits being matters of dispute.

In an 1887 essay called "The Shifting of Responsibility," for example, William Graham Sumner complained bitterly about a new concept of responsibility, which he found "immoral to the very last degree." According to this immoral concept,

the employer becomes responsible for the welfare of the employees. . . . The employee is not held to any new responsibility for the welfare of the employer; the duties are all held to lie on the other side. The employer must assure the employed against the risks of his calling, and even against his own negligence; the employee is not held to assure himself. . . . [H]e is released from responsibility for himself.[63]

Sumner's semantic usage was less than consistent, no doubt because he was choking over the very sound of "responsibility." But his point, at least, was consistent enough. For him, responsibility as a relational concept—responsibility as an obligation to others—was clearly a travesty of the term. The word has only one legitimate usage, a reflexive usage, as in a man's "responsibility for himself."

Such vitriolic outbursts over the definition of responsibility were clearly fueled by more than just a semantic interest. Sumner, as always, did not mince words about what was at stake. He condemned


responsibility of the "immoral" sort, he said, because it imposed obligations not only between individual human beings but, more specifically, between different classes of human beings: human beings differently endowed, differently situated, and differently entitled. In a short work with a self-explanatory title, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), Sumner took it upon himself "to find out whether there is any class in society which lies under the duty and burden of fighting the battles of life for any other class."[64] The answer, to no one's surprise, was a resounding no. No obligations exist, Sumner concluded, and no obligations ought ever to exist, for, as he explained in "The Forgotten Man," his well-known essay published the same year, society works by "the balance of the account," and the "advantage of some is won by an equivalent loss of others." It follows, then, that "if you give a loaf to a pauper," you are in effect "trampling on the Forgotten Man," that "clean, quiet, virtuous, domestic citizen" who is the "victim" of the "idle, the intemperate, the extravagant," who is "weighted down with the support of all the loafers," who is made to pay "the penalty while our minds were full of the drunkards, spendthrifts, gamblers."[65] In short, all social obligations must be seen as unfair impositions, for, according to Sumner, each of us has only "one big duty," namely, "to take care of his or her own self."[66]

Sumner's recommendations here are only to be expected, given his reputation. It would be a mistake, however, to see his teachings solely as an expression of Social Darwinism. The scope of responsibility was a matter of concern to a much more diverse group of commentators and in a much more diverse set of contexts. As early as 1838, Francis Wayland was already publishing a popular text in moral philosophy entitled The Limitations of Human Responsibility . Wayland argued that whereas "our responsibility for the temper of mind is unlimited and universal, our responsibility for the outward act is limited and special."[67] In other words, as far as our intentions are concerned, unlimited responsibility applies; as far as our actions are concerned, however, that responsibility must be set within judicious boundaries.

Wayland was writing in the context of slavery, which for the North made the question of moral responsibility especially thorny. If slavery was indeed an abomination, as most Northerners believed, wasn't one morally obligated to put an end to it? And wouldn't that obligation commit one to abolition, civil war, perhaps even the dissolution


of the union? Wayland's answer was exquisitely tempered. "Granting all that may be said of the moral evil of this institution," he reasoned, "the question still remains to be decided, what is our duty in respect to it; and, what are the limitations." It was those "limitations" that he proposed to dwell on. In the end, the only "practical duty" he counseled was that of moral suasion, which is to say, the duty of imparting to our Southern "friends and acquaintances . . . the truth which we believe to be conducive to their happiness."[68] Wayland clearly had a genius for moderation. Even so, that did not prevent his book or its predecessor, The Elements of Moral Science (1835), from stirring up a storm of controversy. The sales figures for both books were "phenomenal," according to Joseph Blau.[69] Moral responsibility was a best-selling topic in the nineteenth century.

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