In the Shadows of Vanity: Religion and the Debate over Hierarchy

By Hammond, J. Daniel | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, July 2008 | Go to article overview

In the Shadows of Vanity: Religion and the Debate over Hierarchy


Hammond, J. Daniel, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


   From our very infancy, on the knees of our mothers, we have been
   taught to believe, that to be a Catholic was to be a false, cruel,
   and bloody wretch; and "popery and slavery" have been wrung in our
   ears, till, whether we looked on the Catholics in their private or
   their public capacity, we have inevitably come to the conclusion,
   that they were every thing that was vicious and vile.

William Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland

I

Introduction

RELIGION IS IN THE SHADOWS of Sandra Peart and David Levy's excellent history of the debate between philosophers and scientists and economists and evangelicals over race and hierarchy in 19th-century Britain. Peart and Levy adapt the term "philosopher" from Adam Smith's statement that "the difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education" (Smith [1776] 1976: 1.2). In Peart and Levy's account, the philosophers are members of the English literary establishment, such as John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Charles Kingsley. Scientists include James Hunt, founder of the Anthropological Society of London and later professor at Columbia University, naturalist Charles Darwin, and a slew of Darwinists and eugenicists. There is considerable overlap between the Darwinists and eugenicists. Among the individuals who figure prominently are Leonard Darwin, Francis Galton, W. R. Greg, Thomas H. Huxley, and Karl Pearson. The philosophers and scientists believed that humankind is comprised of a hierarchy of races.

Classical economists who adopted Adam Smith's belief in natural equality include J. E. Cairnes, T. R. Malthus, Harriet Martineau, Nassau W. Senior, and, most prominently, J. S. Mill. These economists believed that humans come into the world as equals, and as equals share fundamental rights and capacities. The economists were joined in this belief by evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce, Hannah More, and other so-called Exeter Hall philanthropists. The practical issues for these groups were slavery, immigration, democracy, and birth control.

Peart and Levy understandably emphasize the debate between economists and their critics. The book's subtitle is From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics. It is their aim to explain why a generation of economists after the classical period went over to the side of natural heterogeneity and hierarchy. For instance, postclassical economists such as Frank A. Fetter, Irving Fisher, and A. C. Pigou enthusiastically served the cause of scientific eugenics. The evangelical Christians who were classical economists' allies in the debates over race and slavery play a supporting role to the economists' lead in Peart and Levy's history. Peart and Levy note the correspondence between the Golden Rule of Christianity and the greatest happiness principle of utilitarianism. But this is as far as religion enters the story. No religious groups other than the evangelicals play a role. Jews figure prominently, but as a racial group, not a religious group. Neither Judaism nor the Church of England nor the Roman Catholic Church merit index entries. So religion, which has much to say about what it means to be human, remains in the shadows of The "Vanity of the Philosopher."

The purpose of this paper is to make a start at casting light on the role of religion in the debate over race and hierarchy in 19th-century England.

II

Religion in Vanity

J. S. MILL WROTE in Utilitarianism:

   [T]he happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is
   right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all
   concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others,
   utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a
   disinterested and benevolent spectator. … 

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