In judging wisely the characters of men, one of the first things to be done is to understand their ideals. Try to find out what kind of men or of life; what qualities, what positions seem to them the most desirable. Men do not always fully recognise their own ideals, for education and the conventionalities of Society oblige them to assert a preference for that which may really have no root in their minds. But by a careful examination it is usually possible to ascertain what persons or qualities or circumstances or gifts exercise a genuine, spontaneous, magnetic power over them—whether they really value supremely rank or position, or money, or beauty, or intellect, or superiority of character. If you know the ideal of a man you have obtained a true key to his nature. The broad lines of his character, the permanent tendencies of his imagination, his essential nobility or meanness, are thus disclosed more effectually than by any other means. A man with high ideals, who admires wisely and nobly, is never wholly base though he may fall into great vices. A man who worships the baser elements is in truth an idolater though he may have never bowed before an image of stone.
The human mind has much more power of distinguishing between right and wrong, and between true and false, than of estimating with accuracy the comparative gravity of opposite evils. It is nearly always right in judging between right and wrong. It is generally wrong in estimating degrees of guilt, and the root of its error lies in the extreme difficulty of putting ourselves into the place of those whose characters or circumstances are radically different from our own. This want of imagination acts widely on our judgment of what is good as well as of what is bad. Few men have enough imagination to realise types of excellence altogether differing from their own. It is this, much more than vanity, that leads them to esteem the types of excellence to which they themselves approximate as the best, and tastes and habits that are altogether incongruous with their own as futile and contemptible. It is, perhaps, most difficult of all to realise the difference of character and especially of moral sensibility produced by a profound difference of circumstances. This difficulty largely falsifies our judgments of the past, and it is the reason why a powerful imagination enabling us to realise very various characters and very remote circumstances is one of the first necessities of a great historian. Historians rarely make sufficient allowance for the degree in which the judgments and dispositions even of the best men are coloured by the moral tone of the time, society and profession in which they lived. Men who have been themselves brought up amid all the comforts and all the moralising and restraining influences of a refined society, will often judge the crimes of the wretched pariahs of civilisation as if their acts were in no degree palliated by their position. They say to themselves 'How guilty should I have been if I had done this thing,' and their verdict is quite just according to this statement of the case. They realise the nature of the act. They utterly fail to realise the character and circumstances of the actor.
And yet it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the difference between the position of such a critic and that of the children of drunken, ignorant and profligate parents, born to abject poverty in the slums of our great cities. From their earliest childhood drunkenness, blasphemy, dishonesty, prostitution, indecency of every form are their most familiar experiences. All the social influences, such as they are, are influences of vice. As they grow up Life seems to them to present little more than the alternative of hard, ill-paid, and at the same time precarious labour, probably ending in the poor-house, or crime with its larger and swifter gains, and its intervals of coarse pleasure probably, though not certainly, followed by the prison or an early death. They see indeed, like figures in a dream, or like beings of another world, the wealthy and the luxurious spending their wealth and their time in many kinds of enjoyment, but to the very poor pleasure scarcely comes except in the form of the gin palace or perhaps the low music hall. And in many cases they have come into this reeking atmosphere of temptation and vice with natures debased and enfeebled by a long succession of vicious hereditary influences, with weak wills, with no faculties of mind or character that can respond to any healthy ambition; with powerful inborn predispositions to evil. The very mould of their features, the very shape of their skulls, marks them out as destined members of the criminal class. Even here, no doubt, there is a difference between right and wrong; there is scope for the action of free will; there are just causes of praise and blame, and Society rightly protects itself by severe penalties against the crimes that are most natural; but what human judge can duly measure the scale of moral guilt? or what comparison can there be between the crimes that are engendered by such circumstances and those which spring up in the homes of refined and well-regulated comfort?
Men are born into the world with both wills and passions of varying strength, though in mature life the strength or weakness of each is largely due to their own conduct. With different characters the same temptation, operating under the same external circumstances, has enormously different strength, and very few men can fully realise the strength of a passion which they have never themselves experienced. To repeat an illustration I have already used, how difficult is it for a constitutionally sober man to form in his own mind an adequate conception of the force of the temptation of drink to a dipsomaniac, or for a passionless man to conceive rightly the temptations of a profoundly sensual nature! I have spoken in a former chapter of the force with which bodily conditions act upon happiness. Their influence on morals is not less terrible. There are diseases well known to physicians which make the most placid temper habitually irritable; give a morbid turn to the healthiest disposition; fill the purest mind with unholy thoughts. There are others which destroy the force of the strongest will and take from character all balance and self-control. It often happens that we have long been blaming a man for manifest faults of character till at last suicide, or the disclosure of some grave bodily or mental disease which has long been working unperceived, explains his faults and turns our blame into pity.
The true lesson is the extreme fallibility of our moral judgments whenever we attempt to measure degrees of guilt. Sometimes men are even unjust to their own past from their incapacity in age of realising the force of the temptations they had experienced in youth. On the other hand, increased knowledge of the world tends to make us more sensible of the vast differences between the moral circumstances of men, and therefore less confident and more indulgent in our judgments of others. There are men whose cards in life are so bad, whose temptations to vice, either from circumstances or inborn character, seem so overwhelming, that, though we may punish, and in a certain sense blame, we can scarcely look on them as more responsible than some noxious wild beast. Among the terrible facts of life none is indeed more terrible than this. Every believer in the wise government of the world must have sometimes realised with a crushing or at least a staggering force the appalling injustices of life as shown in the enormous differences in the distribution of unmerited happiness and misery. But the disparity of moral circumstances is not less. It has shaken the faith of many. It has even led some to dream of a possible Heaven for the vicious where those who are born into the world with a physical constitution rendering them fierce or cruel, or sensual, or cowardly, may be freed from the nature which was the cause of their vice and their suffering upon earth; where due allowance may be made for the differences of circumstances which have plunged one man deeper and ever deeper into crime, and enabled another, who was not really better or worse, to pass through life with no serious blemish, and to rise higher and higher in the moral scale.
Imperfect, however, as is our power of judging others, it is a power we are all obliged to exercise. It is impossible to exclude the considerations of moral guilt and of palliating or aggravating circumstances from the penal code, and from the administration of justice, though it cannot be too clearly maintained that the criminal code is not coextensive with the moral code, and that many things which are profoundly immoral lie beyond its scope. On the whole it should be as much as possible confined to acts by which men directly injure others. In the case of adult men, private vices, vices by which no one is directly affected, except by his own free will, and in which the elements of force or fraud are not present, should not be brought within its range. This ideal, it is true, cannot be fully attained. The legislator must take into account the strong pressure of public opinion. It is sometimes true that a penal law may arrest, restrict, or prevent the revival of some private vice without producing any countervailing evil. But the presumption is against all laws which punish the voluntary acts of adult men when those acts injure no one except themselves. The social censure, or the judgment of opinion, rightly extends much further, though it is often based on very imperfect knowledge or realisation. It is probable that, on the whole, opinion judges too severely the crimes of passion and of drink, as well as those which spring from the pressure of great poverty and are accompanied by great ignorance. The causes of domestic anarchy are usually of such an intimate nature and involve so many unknown or imperfectly realised elements of aggravation or palliation that in most cases the less men attempt to judge them the better. On the other hand, public opinion is usually far too lenient in judging crimes of ambition, cupidity, envy, malevolence, and callous selfishness; the crimes of ill-gotten and ill-used wealth, especially in the many cases in which those crimes are unpunished by law.
It is a mere commonplace of morals that in the path of evil it is the first step that costs the most. The shame, the repugnance, and the remorse which attend the first crime speedily fade, and on every repetition the habit of evil grows stronger. A process of the same kind passes over our judgments. Few things are more curious than to observe how the eye accommodates itself to a new fashion of dress, however unbecoming; how speedily men, or at least women, will adopt a new and artificial standard and instinctively and unconsciously admire or blame according to this standard and not according to any genuine sense of beauty or the reverse. Few persons, however pure may be their natural taste, can live long amid vulgar and vulgarising surroundings without losing something of the delicacy of their taste and learning to accept—if not with pleasure, at least with acquiescence—things from which under other circumstances they would have recoiled. In the same way, both individuals and societies accommodate themselves but too readily to lower moral levels, and a constant vigilance is needed to detect the forms or directions in which individual and national character insensibly deteriorate.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, E-text prepared by Delphine Lettau, Martin Pettit, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team)