Study Guide

Hard Times Philosophical Viewpoints: Utilitarianism and Classical Economics

By Charles Dickens

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Philosophical Viewpoints: Utilitarianism and Classical Economics

[Coketown] contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next […]The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M'Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn't state in figures, or show to be purchasable in the cheapest market and salable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen. (1.5.2-4)

Statistics can be easily applied to Coketown because so many places, schedules, and lives are very similar there. Many of the random variables have been carefully controlled, so that reasonably accurate statistical science can take place.

Now, besides very many babies just able to walk, there happened to be in Coketown a considerable population of babies who had been walking against time towards the infinite world, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years and more. These portentous infants being alarming creatures to stalk about in any human society, the eighteen denominations incessantly scratched one another's faces and pulled one another's hair by way of agreeing on the steps to be taken for their improvement[…]they were pretty well united on the point that these unlucky infants were never to wonder. Body number one, said they must take everything on trust. Body number two, said they must take everything on political economy. Body number three, wrote leaden little books for them, showing how the good grown-up baby invariably got to the Savings-bank, and the bad grown-up baby invariably got transported. Body number four, under dreary pretences of being droll (when it was very melancholy indeed), made the shallowest pretences of concealing pitfalls of knowledge, into which it was the duty of these babies to be smuggled and inveigled. But, all the bodies agreed that they were never to wonder. (1.8.4)

The language is interesting here. The different churches think of themselves as adults and of the workers as "babies." In theory, these churches are using statistical analysis to collectively repress and improve the lives of these "babies." But at the same time, the narrator describes the churches themselves as completely childish: they "scratch" and "pull hair."

'after eight weeks of induction into the elements of Political Economy, [Sissy Jupe] had only yesterday been set right by a prattler three feet high, for returning to the question, 'What is the first principle of this science?' the absurd answer, 'To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me.' (1.9.3)

Sissy substitutes the Golden Rule for the principle of the profit motive. Instead of thinking about how to make the most money without regard for the consequences, Sissy shows her altruistic side. This conversation summarizes one of the main points of the novel in a few words: be generous, not selfish.

'Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn't this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty, isn't this a prosperous nation, and a'n't you in a thriving state?'[…]'I thought I couldn't know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. [Then Mr. M'Choakumchild] said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five- and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was — for I couldn't think of a better one — that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.' (1.9.22-26)

This passage should have a giant neon light above it with the word "IRONY" flashing in capital letters. This novel emphasizes individuality and the intimately personal above all else. But here, Mr. M'Choakumchild tells Sissy that she shouldn't worry about how wealth is distributed through the nation and that she should ignore individual deaths when they conform to a statistical ideal. Hardy har har – irony! We are clearly meant to laugh at the nonsense Mr. M'Choakumchild is slinging.

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions.(1.11.3)

The narrator may be speaking here, but this is exactly how Louisa thinks about the factory workers. Check out the scene in Book 2, Chapter 6 when she goes to visit Stephen at his house, and her eyes are opened to the reality that workers are all actual people.

As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge. (1.15.1)

A real science – astronomy – is being used to deflate and mock the social science that Gradgrind practices. This actually feeds into some of the anxiety of economists of that time. They were very concerned with making sure economics was seen as a hard science, like astronomy.

'I would advise you (since you ask me) to consider this question, as you have been accustomed to consider every other question, simply as one of tangible Fact.[…] Now, what are the Facts of this case? You are, we will say in round numbers, twenty years of age; Mr. Bounderby is, we will say in round numbers, fifty. There is some disparity in your respective years, but in your means and positions there is none; on the contrary, there is a great suitability. Then the question arises, Is this one disparity sufficient to operate as a bar to such a marriage? In considering this question, it is not unimportant to take into account the statistics of marriage, so far as they have yet been obtained, in England and Wales. I find, on reference to the figures, that a large proportion of these marriages are contracted between parties of very unequal ages, and that the elder of these contracting parties is, in rather more than three-fourths of these instances, the bridegroom. It is remarkable as showing the wide prevalence of this law, that among the natives of the British possessions in India, also in a considerable part of China, and among the Calmucks of Tartary, the best means of computation yet furnished us by travelers, yield similar results.' (1.15.22)

OK, think about what's happening here this way: your friend is asking for advice about dating a creepy old guy. Do you a) try to talk to her about her feelings, or b) bust out some info about how prehistoric humans used to select their mates? Yes, Gradgrind's ideas are meant to be complete, crazy nonsense. But we think it's funny that even Gradgrind's math and logic are off. Taking him and his analysis seriously: there is no evidence that age disparity is equivalent to financial disparity (where are the statistics showing this?). Moreover, although there is data showing that many marriages are between people of unequal ages, there is no data demonstrating that these marriages are successful!

For the first time in her life Louisa had come into one of the dwellings of the Coketown Hands; for the first time in her life she was face to face with anything like individuality in connection with them. She knew of their existence by hundreds and by thousands. She knew what results in work a given number of them would produce in a given space of time. She knew them in crowds passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than of these toiling men and women. Something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended; something to be infallibly settled by laws of supply and demand; something that blundered against those laws, and floundered into difficulty; something that was a little pinched when wheat was dear, and over-ate itself when wheat was cheap; something that increased at such a rate of percentage, and yielded such another percentage of crime, and such another percentage of pauperism; something wholesale, of which vast fortunes were made; something that occasionally rose like a sea, and did some harm and waste (chiefly to itself), and fell again; this she knew the Coketown Hands to be. But, she had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops. (2.6.40-41)

The deeply dehumanizing language here is striking. The workers aren't even 'Hands" any more – they are just a mass of "something," even less interesting to study than "toiling insects."

He sat writing in the room with the deadly statistical clock, proving something no doubt — probably, in the main, that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist. (2.12.2)

Dickens loves to turn a Biblical quotation on its head to demonstrate the problems with the profit motive and self-advancement as motivators. Here, we are forced to consider the parable of the Good Samaritan from the point of view of financial gain. (FYI, the Good Samaritan story is one of Jesus' parables. It goes like this: A guy is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the road. Two otherwise honorable people pass by him but do not stop to help. The third guy who passes is a Samaritan, one of an oppressed minority group, but he stops and helps the wounded man.)

'I am going to take young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, in order to deliver him over to Mr. Bounderby. Sir, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr. Tom's situation. And I wish to have his situation, sir, for it will be a rise to me, and will do me good […] I am sure you know that the whole social system is a question of self-interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person's self-interest. It's your only hold. We are so constituted. I was brought up in that catechism when I was very young, sir, as you are aware.'[…]It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for. Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything, or render anybody help without purchase. Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be. Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter. And if we didn't get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there. (3.8.8-10, 15)

Gradgrind learns (the very hard way) what life is like if generosity and empathy are excluded from the education of children. Even more ominously, Bitzer has adopted the language of religion to describe his highly anti-Christian view of ethics, calling the idea of strict selfishness a "catechism" (this is usually the name for the set of questions posed to Christians to have them confirm their beliefs). The narrator echoes this substitution, wondering whether heaven follows the rules of classical economics (compare to the Good Samaritan/Bad Economist bit in the previous quotation).

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