A Little Story

mark-twain

Old Man and Young Man talking:

O.M.  I will tell you a little story:

Once upon a time an Infidel was guest in the house of a Christian widow
whose little boy was ill and near to death.  The Infidel often watched by
the bedside and entertained the boy with talk, and he used these
opportunities to satisfy a strong longing in his nature--that desire
which is in us all to better other people's condition by having them
think as we think.  He was successful.  But the dying boy, in his last
moments, reproached him and said:

"I BELIEVED, AND WAS HAPPY IN IT; YOU HAVE TAKEN MY BELIEF AWAY, AND MY
COMFORT.  NOW I HAVE NOTHING LEFT, AND I DIE MISERABLE; FOR THE THINGS
WHICH YOU HAVE TOLD ME DO NOT TAKE THE PLACE OF THAT WHICH I HAVE LOST."

And the mother, also, reproached the Infidel, and said:

"MY CHILD IS FOREVER LOST, AND MY HEART IS BROKEN.  HOW COULD YOU DO THIS
CRUEL THING?  WE HAVE DONE YOU NO HARM, BUT ONLY KINDNESS; WE MADE OUR
HOUSE YOUR HOME, YOU WERE WELCOME TO ALL WE HAD, AND THIS IS OUR REWARD."

The heart of the Infidel was filled with remorse for what he had done,
and he said:

"IT WAS WRONG--I SEE IT NOW; BUT I WAS ONLY TRYING TO DO HIM GOOD.  IN MY
VIEW HE WAS IN ERROR; IT SEEMED MY DUTY TO TEACH HIM THE TRUTH."

Then the mother said:

"I HAD TAUGHT HIM, ALL HIS LITTLE LIFE, WHAT I BELIEVED TO BE THE TRUTH,
AND IN HIS BELIEVING FAITH BOTH OF US WERE HAPPY. NOW HE IS DEAD,--AND
LOST; AND I AM MISERABLE.  OUR FAITH CAME DOWN TO US THROUGH CENTURIES OF
BELIEVING ANCESTORS; WHAT RIGHT HAD YOU, OR ANY ONE, TO DISTURB IT?
WHERE WAS YOUR HONOR, WHERE WAS YOUR SHAME?"

Y.M.  He was a miscreant, and deserved death!

O.M.  He thought so himself, and said so.

Y.M.  Ah--you see, HIS CONSCIENCE WAS AWAKENED!

O.M.  Yes, his Self-Disapproval was.  It PAINED him to see the mother
suffer.  He was sorry he had done a thing which brought HIM pain.  It did
not occur to him to think of the mother when he was misteaching the boy,
for he was absorbed in providing PLEASURE for himself, then.  Providing
it by satisfying what he believed to be a call of duty.

Y.M.  Call it what you please, it is to me a case of AWAKENED CONSCIENCE.
That awakened conscience could never get itself into that species of
trouble again.  A cure like that is a PERMANENT cure.

O.M.  Pardon--I had not finished the story.  We are creatures of OUTSIDE
INFLUENCES--we originate NOTHING within. Whenever we take a new line of
thought and drift into a new line of belief and action, the impulse is
ALWAYS suggested from the OUTSIDE.  Remorse so preyed upon the Infidel
that it dissolved his harshness toward the boy's religion and made him
come to regard it with tolerance, next with kindness, for the boy's sake
and the mother's.  Finally he found himself examining it.  From that
moment his progress in his new trend was steady and rapid. He became a
believing Christian.  And now his remorse for having robbed the dying boy
of his faith and his salvation was bitterer than ever.  It gave him no
rest, no peace.  He MUST have rest and peace--it is the law of nature.
There seemed but one way to get it; he must devote himself to saving
imperiled souls.  He became a missionary.  He landed in a pagan country
ill and helpless.  A native widow took him into her humble home and
nursed him back to convalescence.  Then her young boy was taken
hopelessly ill, and the grateful missionary helped her tend him.  Here
was his first opportunity to repair a part of the wrong done to the other
boy by doing a precious service for this one by undermining his foolish
faith in his false gods.  He was successful.  But the dying boy in his
last moments reproached him and said:

"I BELIEVED, AND WAS HAPPY IN IT; YOU HAVE TAKEN MY BELIEF AWAY, AND MY
COMFORT.  NOW I HAVE NOTHING LEFT, AND I DIE MISERABLE; FOR THE THINGS
WHICH YOU HAVE TOLD ME DO NOT TAKE THE PLACE OF THAT WHICH I HAVE LOST."

And the mother, also, reproached the missionary, and said:

"MY CHILD IS FOREVER LOST, AND MY HEART IS BROKEN.  HOW COULD YOU DO THIS
CRUEL THING?  WE HAD DONE YOU NO HARM, BUT ONLY KINDNESS; WE MADE OUR
HOUSE YOUR HOME, YOU WERE WELCOME TO ALL WE HAD, AND THIS IS OUR REWARD."

The heart of the missionary was filled with remorse for what he had done,
and he said:

"IT WAS WRONG--I SEE IT NOW; BUT I WAS ONLY TRYING TO DO HIM GOOD.  IN MY
VIEW HE WAS IN ERROR; IT SEEMED MY DUTY TO TEACH HIM THE TRUTH."

Then the mother said:

"I HAD TAUGHT HIM, ALL HIS LITTLE LIFE, WHAT I BELIEVED TO BE THE TRUTH,
AND IN HIS BELIEVING FAITH BOTH OF US WERE HAPPY. NOW HE IS DEAD--AND
LOST; AND I AM MISERABLE.  OUR FAITH CAME DOWN TO US THROUGH CENTURIES OF
BELIEVING ANCESTORS; WHAT RIGHT HAD YOU, OR ANY ONE, TO DISTURB IT?
WHERE WAS YOUR HONOR, WHERE WAS YOUR SHAME?"

The missionary's anguish of remorse and sense of treachery were as bitter
and persecuting and unappeasable, now, as they had been in the former
case.  The story is finished.  What is your comment?

Y.M.  The man's conscience is a fool!  It was morbid.  It didn't know
right from wrong.

O.M.  I am not sorry to hear you say that.  If you grant that ONE man's
conscience doesn't know right from wrong, it is an admission that there
are others like it.  This single admission pulls down the whole doctrine
of infallibility of judgment in consciences.  Meantime there is one thing
which I ask you to notice.

Y.M.  What is that?

O.M.  That in both cases the man's ACT gave him no spiritual discomfort,
and that he was quite satisfied with it and got pleasure out of it.  But
afterward when it resulted in PAIN to HIM, he was sorry.  Sorry it had
inflicted pain upon the others, BUT FOR NO REASON UNDER THE SUN EXCEPT
THAT THEIR PAIN GAVE HIM PAIN.  Our consciences take NO notice of pain
inflicted upon others until it reaches a point where it gives pain to US.
In ALL cases without exception we are absolutely indifferent to another
person's pain until his sufferings make us uncomfortable. Many an infidel
would not have been troubled by that Christian mother's distress.  Don't
you believe that?

Y.M.  Yes.  You might almost say it of the AVERAGE infidel, I think.

O.M.  And many a missionary,  sternly fortified by his sense of duty,
would not have been troubled by the pagan mother's distress--Jesuit
missionaries in Canada in the early French times, for instance; see
episodes quoted by Parkman.

Y.M.  Well, let us adjourn.  Where have we arrived?

O.M.  At this.  That we (mankind) have ticketed ourselves with a number
of qualities to which we have given misleading names.  Love, Hate,
Charity, Compassion, Avarice, Benevolence, and so on.  I mean we attach
misleading MEANINGS to the names. They are all forms of self-contentment,
self-gratification, but the names so disguise them that they distract our
attention from the fact.  Also we have smuggled a word into the
dictionary which ought not to be there at all--Self-Sacrifice.  It
describes a thing which does not exist.  But worst of all, we ignore and
never mention the Sole Impulse which dictates and compels a man's every
act: the imperious necessity of securing his own approval, in every
emergency and at all costs.  To it we owe all that we are.  It is our
breath, our heart, our blood.  It is our only spur, our whip, our goad,
our only impelling power; we have no other.  Without it we should be mere
inert images, corpses; no one would do anything, there would be no
progress, the world would stand still.  We ought to stand reverently
uncovered when the name of that stupendous power is uttered.

Y.M.  I am not convinced.

O.M.  You will be when you think.
Source: The Project Gutenberg EBook of What Is Man?, by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

4 thoughts on “A Little Story

  1. The old man concludes that all human kind is selfish and all about finding self-approval. Young man is not convinced. The infidel does what he thinks is right, that is, to tell what he considers the truth. Then he converts because he caused pain; pain that he also feels. Is that a call of his consciousness? Or was it simply that he was not really convinced of what he believed, so his feeling bad about the boy made him change his beliefs? Was not that a fault of his reasoning not a fault of his consciousness? If the story was that the infidel remained firm despite suffering very much from seeing the suffering of the mother and the dying boy (after all, his beliefs had no connection with the pain) should we conclude that man is cruel and unmoved by other’s suffering?

    When someone says that people are selfish, there is somehow a moral judgment : Selfishness is wrong and people normally act selfish, so people are bad. Sometimes being selfish is really bad, but always? Is it wrong to feel other person’s suffering and then feel moved to do something for that person? If we call that action a selfish action then no matter what we do for the sufferer, it is not worthy or valuable. Does value only come from going against one’s inclinations?. I think it is very valuable that we are endowed with empathy and that permits us to feel pleasure in helping other people.

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  2. I am not sure this duty is only related to an empathy gene. Any child abandoned and abused will most likely be indifferent to other’s suffering (but not necessarily). Where would the duty come from? Not from any authority but only from a good upbringing and so as the old man says from self-approval or doing what my mother taught me. But I find a lot of trouble with this idea. Moral obligation that is not grounded universally is like fog. I do not like it.

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  3. Why duty comes from one’s self – the categorical imperative delivers a synthetic-a-priori principle for action which I must obey in order to be fully human. (or not)

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