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Vices Are Not Crimes - V.
Written by Lysander Spooner   
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Vices Are Not Crimes
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Vices are usually pleasurable, at least for the time being, and often do not disclose themselves as vices by their effects until after they have been practiced for many years, perhaps for a lifetime. To many, perhaps most, of those who practice them, they do not disclose themselves as vices at all during life.

Virtues, on the other hand, often appear so harsh and rugged, they require the sacrifice of so much present happiness, at least, and the results, which alone prove them to be virtues, are often so distant and obscure, in fact, so absolutely invisible to the minds of many, especially of the young, that, from the very nature of things, there can be no universal, or even general, knowledge that they are virtues. In truth, the studies of profound philosophers have been expended — if not wholly in vain, certainly with very small results — in efforts to draw the lines between the virtues and the vices.

If, then, it became so difficult, so nearly impossible, in most cases, to determine what is, and what is not, vice — and especially if it be so difficult, in nearly all cases, to determine where virtue ends, and vice begins — and if these questions, which no one can really and truly determine for anybody but himself, are not to be left free and open for experiment by all, each person is deprived of the highest of all his rights as a human being, to wit, his right to inquire, investigate, reason, try experiments, judge, and ascertain for himself what is, to him, virtue, and what is, to him, vice — in other words: what, on the whole, conduces to his happiness, and what, on the whole, tends to his unhappiness. If this great right is not to be left free and open to all, then each man's whole right, as a reasoning human being, to "liberty and the pursuit of happiness," is denied him.

We all come into the world in ignorance of ourselves, and of everything around us. By a fundamental law of our natures we are all constantly impelled by the desire of happiness, and the fear of pain. But we have everything to learn, as to what will give us happiness, and save us from pain. No two of us are wholly alike, either physically, mentally, or emotionally — or, consequently, in our physical, mental, or emotional requirements for the acquisition of happiness and the avoidance of unhappiness.

No one of us, therefore, can learn this indispensable lesson of happiness and unhappiness, of virtue and vice, for another. Each must learn it for himself. To learn it, he must be at liberty to try all experiments that commend themselves to his judgment.

Some of his experiments succeed, and, because they succeed, are called virtues; others fail, and, because they fail, are called vices. He gathers wisdom as much from his failures as from his successes; from his so-called vices, as from his so-called virtues. Both are necessary to his acquisition of that knowledge — of his own nature, and of the world around him, and of their adaptations or nonadaptations to each other — which shall show him how happiness is acquired, and pain avoided. And, unless he can be permitted to try these experiments to his own satisfaction, he is restrained from the acquisition of knowledge, and, consequently, from pursuing the great purpose and duty of his life.

A man is under no obligation to take anybody's word, or yield to anybody's authority, on a matter so vital to himself, and in regard to which no one else has, or can have, any such interest as he. He cannot, if he would, safely rely upon the opinions of other men, because he finds that the opinions of other men do not agree.

Certain actions, or courses of action, have been practiced by many millions of men, through successive generations, and have been held by them to be, on the whole, conducive to happiness, and therefore virtuous. Other men, in other ages or countries, or under other conditions, have held, as the result of their experience and observation, that these actions tended, on the whole, to unhappiness, and were therefore vicious.

The question of virtue or vice, as already remarked in a previous section, has also been, in most minds, a question of degree — that is, of the extent to which certain actions should be carried — and not of the intrinsic character of any single act by itself. The questions of virtue and vice have therefore been as various, and, in fact, as infinite, as the varieties of mind, body, and condition of the different individuals inhabiting the globe. And the experience of ages has left an infinite number of these questions unsettled. In fact, it can scarcely be said to have settled any of them.

In the midst of this endless variety of opinion, what man, or what body of men, has the right to say, in regard to any particular action, or course of action, "We have tried this experiment, and determined every question involved in it. We have determined it, not only for ourselves, but for all others. And, as to all those who are weaker than we, we will coerce them to act in obedience to our conclusion. We will suffer no further experiment or inquiry by any one, and, consequently, no further acquisition of knowledge by anybody"?

Who are the men who have the right to say this? Certainly there are none such. The men who really do say it are either shameless impostors and tyrants, who would stop the progress of knowledge, and usurp absolute control over the minds and bodies of their fellow men — and are therefore to be resisted instantly, and to the last extent — or they are themselves too ignorant of their own weaknesses, and of their true relations to other men, to be entitled to any other consideration than sheer pity or contempt.

"It is a natural impossibility that a government should have a right to punish men for their vices; because it is impossible that a government should have any rights except such as the individuals composing it had previously had as individuals."We know, however, that there are such men as these in the world. Some of them attempt to exercise their power only within a small sphere, to wit, upon their children, their neighbors, their townsmen, and their countrymen. Others attempt to exercise it on a larger scale.

For example, an old man at Rome, aided by a few subordinates, attempts to decide all questions of virtue and vice — that is, of truth or falsehood, especially in matters of religion. He claims to know and teach what religious ideas and practices are conducive, or fatal, to a man's happiness, not only in this world, but in that which is to come. He claims to be miraculously inspired for the performance of this work — thus virtually acknowledging, like a sensible man, that nothing short of miraculous inspiration would qualify him for it.

This miraculous inspiration, however, has been ineffectual to enable him to settle more than a very few questions. The most important to which common mortals can attain is an implicit belief in his (the pope's) infallibility! and, secondly, that the blackest vices of which they can be guilty are to believe and declare that he is only a man like the rest of them!

It required some 1500 or 1800 years to enable him to reach definite conclusions on these two vital points. Yet it would seem that the first of these must necessarily be preliminary to his settlement of any other questions; because, until his own infallibility is determined, he can authoritatively decide nothing else.

He has, however, heretofore attempted or pretended to settle a few others. And he may, perhaps, attempt or pretend to settle a few more in the future, if he shall continue to find anybody to listen to him. But his success, thus far, certainly does not encourage the belief that he will be able to settle all questions of virtue and vice, even in his peculiar department of religion, in time to meet the necessities of mankind.

He, or his successors, will undoubtedly be compelled, at no distant day, to acknowledge that he has undertaken a task to which all his miraculous inspiration was inadequate; and that, of necessity, each human being must be left to settle all questions of this kind for himself. And it is not unreasonable to expect that all other popes, in other and lesser spheres, will some time have cause to come to the same conclusion.

No one, certainly, not claiming supernatural inspiration, should undertake a task to which obviously nothing less than such inspiration is adequate. And, clearly, no one should surrender his own judgment to the teachings of others, unless he be first convinced that these others have something more than ordinary human knowledge on this subject.

If those persons, who fancy themselves gifted with both the power and the right to define and punish other men's vices, would but turn their thoughts inwardly, they would probably find that they have a great work to do at home — and that, when that shall have been completed, they will be little disposed to do more toward correcting the vices of others than simply to give to others the results of their experience and observation. In this sphere their labors may possibly be useful; but, in the sphere of infallibility and coercion, they will probably, for well-known reasons, meet with even less success in the future than such men have met with in the past.

It is now obvious, from the reasons already given, that government would be utterly impracticable, if it were to take cognizance of vices and punish them as crimes. Every human being has his or her vices. Nearly all men have a great many. And they are of all kinds — physiological, mental, emotional, religious, social, commercial, industrial, economical, etc., etc. If government is to take cognizance of any of these vices, and punish them as crimes, then, to be consistent, it must take cognizance of all, and punish all impartially.

The consequence would be that everybody would be in prison for his or her vices. There would be no one left outside to lock the doors upon those within. In fact, courts enough could not be found to try the offenders, nor prisons enough built to hold them. All human industry in the acquisition of knowledge, and even in acquiring the means of subsistence, would be arrested: for we should all be under constant trial or imprisonment for our vices. But even if it were possible to imprison all the vicious, our knowledge of human nature tells us that, as a general rule, they would be far more vicious in prison than they ever have been out of it.