Erewhon HTML version
I confess that I felt rather unhappy when I got home, and thought more closely over the
trial that I had just witnessed. For the time I was carried away by the opinion of those
among whom I was. They had no misgivings about what they were doing. There did not
seem to be a person in the whole court who had the smallest doubt but that all was
exactly as it should be. This universal unsuspecting confidence was imparted by
sympathy to myself, in spite of all my training in opinions so widely different. So it is
with most of us: that which we observe to be taken as a matter of course by those around
us, we take as a matter of course ourselves. And after all, it is our duty to do this, save
upon grave occasion.
But when I was alone, and began to think the trial over, it certainly did strike me as
betraying a strange and untenable position. Had the judge said that he acknowledged the
probable truth, namely, that the prisoner was born of unhealthy parents, or had been
starved in infancy, or had met with some accidents which had developed consumption;
and had he then gone on to say that though he knew all this, and bitterly regretted that the
protection of society obliged him to inflict additional pain on one who had suffered so
much already, yet that there was no help for it, I could have understood the position,
however mistaken I might have thought it. The judge was fully persuaded that the
infliction of pain upon the weak and sickly was the only means of preventing weakness
and sickliness from spreading, and that ten times the suffering now inflicted upon the
accused was eventually warded off from others by the present apparent severity. I could
therefore perfectly understand his inflicting whatever pain he might consider necessary in
order to prevent so bad an example from spreading further and lowering the Erewhonian
standard; but it seemed almost childish to tell the prisoner that he could have been in
good health, if he had been more fortunate in his constitution, and been exposed to less
hardships when he was a boy.
I write with great diffidence, but it seems to me that there is no unfairness in punishing
people for their misfortunes, or rewarding them for their sheer good luck: it is the normal
condition of human life that this should be done, and no right-minded person will
complain of being subjected to the common treatment. There is no alternative open to us.
It is idle to say that men are not responsible for their misfortunes. What is responsibility?
Surely to be responsible means to be liable to have to give an answer should it be
demanded, and all things which live are responsible for their lives and actions should
society see fit to question them through the mouth of its authorised agent.
What is the offence of a lamb that we should rear it, and tend it, and lull it into security,
for the express purpose of killing it? Its offence is the misfortune of being something
which society wants to eat, and which cannot defend itself. This is ample. Who shall limit
the right of society except society itself? And what consideration for the individual is
tolerable unless society be the gainer thereby? Wherefore should a man be so richly
rewarded for having been son to a millionaire, were it not clearly provable that the
common welfare is thus better furthered? We cannot seriously detract from a man's merit