H. L. Mencken and the Good-in-Itself

I just ran across an editorial by the Sage of Baltimore in his American Mercury that should be required reading for students of good and evil.  In the piece, which appeared in the issue of November 1926, Mencken encapsulates facts about the nature of morality that have been obvious to some of our best thinkers since at least the time of Aristotle, but about which academic and professional “experts” on the subject in the 21st century seem hopelessly confused.   Specifically, in spite of all that we have learned recently about the wellsprings of morality in genetically programmed and innate mental traits, and the fact that these traits exist only because they evolved, a great number of these experts persist, implicitly or explicitly, in defending the “noble purpose” fallacy.   By this I refer to the illusion that Good is a real thing, existing independently of subjective impressions in the minds of individuals, and it has a goal or purpose, variously described as promoting “human flourishing” or some other chimera of that nature.

Mencken included his observations in a piece attacking Prohibition, which he considered an obscene assault on individual liberty.  In it he identifies the notion of Good as a real thing as the “categorical imperative.”  It is worth quoting his thoughts at length (bold and italics are mine):

That great statute has not only had the profound political effect of ereviving the old love of liberty in the hearts of the people, and their ancient willingness to run some risks for it; it has also had the still profounder philosophical effect of blowing up their old naïve faith in the categorical imperative. True enough, the name of the categorical imperative was a stranger to them, but nevertheless they once gave it full credit, and it was implicit in all the ethical schemes that bedeviled them, whether theological or merely constabulary. Right, in their view, was a definite entity, a Ding an sich (thing in itself), and as real as hot or cold. Wrong was equally clear and invariable. On this postulate all the gaudy nonsense of their law was based, and all the still gaudier nonsense of their theology. To question it was a sort of sin against the Holy Ghost, and indistinguishable from question democracy itself. But now they have learned to question it, and it seems to me that this learning has brought them many plain benefits, and vastly increased their intellectual dignity. For the first time in their history that have come to a surprised but not unpleasant understanding of the fact that the law, even the moral law, is after all only a human contrivance, and that what is put into it today may be taken out of it tomorrow. In other words, they have begun to realize that behind all categorical imperatives there stand concrete and highly human moralists, most of them with something to sell, and that the great and revolutionary discoveries of these moralists, when subjected to analysis, are very apt to turn out to be buncombe…

This rent in the moral fabric is greatly deplored by specialists in indignation, but it must be manifest to the judicious that it lets in a lot of welcome light. The whole imposture of law is salubriously illuminated, and with it the whole imposture of government. Hundreds of thousands – nay, millions – of simple men, hitherto in the habit of taking such things on faith, have begun to look into them a bit suspiciously – and suspicion, in that field, as in pathology and amour, is the beginning of wisdom. There is no slackening of belief, so far as I can make out, in those moral principles which ground themselves firmly upon human experience; swindlers, as everyone knows, are still reprehended, and the jail-doors clap upon them every day. But in the regions wherein morality itself becomes a sort of swindle, and the Good Man is indistinguishable from a Florida land speculator or a seller of Oklahoma oil stock – in these regions there is a growth of agnosticism, and even of infidelity, and out of it, in the long run, there will flow unmistakable benefits…

I long ago pointed out the colossal opportunity awaiting any Federal judge with enterprise enough to embrace it – and courage enough to face the blast of the Anti-Saloon League. Let him exhume the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments from the cold, cold ground, let him loose a bold judicial whoop for the whole Bill of Rights, let him begin sending Prohibition agents to the hoosegow, whence they issued to afflict a free people – let him do these simple things, all within his lawful powers, all within the strict boundaries of his oath, and he will come to such fame as not even the late Valentino ever encompassed. (That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?)…

The treatment that remains is to get the patient on his legs, and let him pursue his own devices, taking what he wants and rejecting what he wants. In other words, the remedy is to heave the categorical imperative out of the window, and with it all the ethical osteopaths and chiropractors who merchant it. It is perhaps easier, since Prohibition, to get new moral legislation on the books. The uplifters have learned how to crack their whips, and the legislators have learned how to jump. But it is vastly harder to get moral legislation obeyed. That far, at least, we have gone…

The next bit is a beautiful encapsulation of the inevitable difficulties even the most brilliant of our intrinsically moral species has in discussing and understanding morality.  Our responses to what we see as gross impostures almost inevitably have some moral coloring, even if the imposture we are rejecting has to do with morality itself:

Perhaps we are destined to go still farther. For years I have spilled ink denouncing the hypocrisy that runs, like a hair in a hot dog, through the otherwise beautiful fabric of American life. Now I begin to suspect on blue days that I have been chasing a categorical imperative of my own. Is hypocrisy, then, infamous per se? I can only confess that, at the moment, I am in some doubt. It seems to work. In the face of it, and theoretically impeded by it, there has been the great advance in ethical realism that I have been describing. Perhaps hypocrisy is an anesthetic that makes major moral operations possible; without it they might be intolerable. Perhaps it is a necessary function of democracy – a general assumption of the not-true, embracing many lesser but inevitable assumptions of the not-true. It may be that candor, like honor, would be fatal to the whole democratic process – that it presupposes a contempt for the general opinion, and no less for the general lack of opinion, that verges upon anarchy…

…one sees only that the ancient authority of the moral law has begun to crack. Not only the wicked, but also multitudes of the naturally virtuous, have brought the concept of duty into the light of reason. A law among us is no longer something to be obeyed automatically; it is something to be weighted and discussed, and maybe to be rejected. It seems to me that Prohibition is mainly responsible for that benign change. It has destroyed a very dubious and dangerous axiom by putting it into terms of the intolerable. That is a public service of high value, and even of a certain austere dignity. Let the band blow a blast or two in honor of the preposterous Mr. Volstead (Prohibition was referred to as the “Volstead Act”). He aimed at the bird of freedom (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and brought down a whole sky-full of buzzards (Buteo wowseris).

How refreshing and reassuring it is to read a piece like that at a time when moral “experts” can come up with some goal or purpose, arbitrary other than the fact that it must seem an attractive goal or purpose to most of the other members of the group to which the “expert” belongs, and claim with a perfectly straight face that, because the goal is desirable and attractive, it is, therefore, also “really Good,” and hence, by some strange, mysterious process, linked to the human emotional traits we associate with morality.  We still live in an asylum, and it’s probably worse than even Mencken thought.  For all that, occasionally a little light still shines through the cracks in the wall.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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