John Francis Cornford: From Microcosmographia Academica: Argument
John Francis Cornford: Microcosmographia Academica: VII. Argument: "There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing... https://web.archive.org/web/20040118040030/https://www.cs.kent.ac.uk/people/staff/iau/cornford/cornford7.html
The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do. But then, of course, comes the difficulty making sure that it is right. Females act by mere instinctive intuition; but men have the gift of reflection. As Hamlet, the typical man of action, says:
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed; a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused...
Now the academic person is to Hamlet as Hamlet is to... a 'beast'; his discourse is many times larger, and he looks before and after many times as far. Even a little knowledge of ethical theory will suffice to convince you that all important questions are so complicated, and the results any course of action are so difficult to foresee, that certainty, or even probability, is seldom, if ever, attainable. It follows at once that the only justifiable attitude of mind is suspense of judgment; and this attitude, besides being peculiarly congenial to the academic temperament, has the advantage of being comparatively easy to attain.
There remains the duty of persuading others to be equally judicious, and to refrain from plunging into reckless courses which might lead them Heaven knows whither. At this point the arguments for doing nothing come in; for it is a mere theorist's paradox that doing nothing has just as many consequences as doing something. It is obvious that inaction can have no consequences at all.
Since the stone-axe fell into disuse at the close of the neolithic age, two other arguments of universal application have been added to the rhetorical armoury by the ingenuity of mankind. They are closely akin; and, like the stone-axe, they are addressed to the Political Motive. They are called the Wedge and the Dangerous Precedent. Though they are very familiar, the principles, or rules of inaction, involved in them are seldom stated in full. They are as follows.
The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future—expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
A little reflection will make it evident that the Wedge argument implies the admission that the persons who use it cannot prove that the action is not just. If they could, that would be the sole and sufficient reason for not doing it, and this argument would be superfluous.
The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one.
Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
It will be seen that both the Political Arguments are addressed to the Bugbear of Giving yourself away. Other special arguments can be framed in view of the other Bugbears. It will often be sufficient to argue that a change is a change—an irrefutable truth. If this consideration is not decisive, it may be reinforced by the Fair Trial Argument—'Give the present system a Fair Trial'. This is especially useful in withstanding changes in the schedule of an examination. In this connection the exact meaning of the phrase is, 'I don't intend to alter my lectures if I can help it; and if you pass this proposal, you will have to alter yours.' This paraphrase explains what might otherwise be obscure: namely, the reason why a Fair Trial ought only to be given to systems which already exist, not to proposed alternatives.
Another argument is that 'the Time is not Ripe'. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived. But the unripeness of the time will, in some cases, be found to lie in the Bugbear, 'What Dr. ---- will say.' Time, by the way, is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe...