Hazlitt’s Insight

The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness, than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings. – William Hazlitt

As early as 1796, when he was just eighteen, the English essayist William Hazlitt may have become the first Westerner to see that self-concern is not rationally required.

Hazlitt published his insight in 1805, in his Essays on the Principles of Human Action.  Introducing the 1990 edition, John Price informs us that “The reading public and the reviewing journals regarded it, for the most part, with indifference or hostility.”   Hazlitt’s Essays and the idea they contain fell into obscurity for the best part of two centuries, after which the idea re-emerged independently as part of a new wave of thought about personal identity spearheaded by philosophers such as Bernard Williams, John Perry, Robert Nozick, and Derek Parfit.  Credit to Hazlitt for first voicing it was given by Raymond Martin and John Barresi.

One of the most interesting passages in Hazlitt’s Essays describes the thought process which led to his “Aha!” moment.   He had been reading philosophy, “and was afterwards led on by some means or other to consider the question” whether,

…if it were in my power to save twenty other persons by voluntarily consenting to suffer for them: why should I not do a generous thing, and never trouble myself about what might be the consequence to myself…. (EPHA p 71)

He then gave a standard answer: personal identity.

The reason why a man should prefer his own future welfare to that of others is that he has a necessary, absolute interest in the one which he cannot have in the other, and this again is a consequence of his always being the same individual, of his continued identity with himself.

But Hazlitt was not content with that, and asked himself why he should believe it.  He started to examine his own motivation introspectively, trying to pinpoint what stopped him from sacrificing his own interests for the greater good of others.

The difference, I thought, was this: that however insensible I may be to my own interest at any future period, yet when the time comes I shall feel differently about it.  I shall then judge of it from the actual impression of the object, that is truly and certainly; and as I shall still be conscious of my past feelings, and shall bitterly regret my own folly and insensibility, I ought as a rational agent to be determined now by what I shall then wish I had done when I shall feel the consequences of my actions most deeply and sensibly.  (emphasis added)

Hazlitt’s thought-experiment revealed that what deterred him from doing the “generous thing” was imagining himself suffering in the future as a result of his decision, remembering making the decision and regretting it.  This imagined suffering was his only compelling motive not to make the sacrifice.

It is this continued consciousness of my own feelings which gives me an immediate interest in whatever relates to my future welfare….

But, he asked next,

…how if that consciousness should be transferred to some other being?  How am I to know that I am not imposed upon by a false claim of identity?

Conscious states, he realized, are attributes, and therefore can be copied.

Why, then, this self may be multiplied in as many different beings as the Deity may think proper to endue with the same consciousness, which if it can be renewed at will in any one instance, may clearly be so in an hundred others.  Am I to regard all these as equally myself?  Am I equally interested in the fate of all?  Or if I must fix upon some one of them in particular as my representative and other self, how am I to be determined in my choice?  –Here then I saw an end put to my speculations about absolute self-interest, and personal identity. (EPHA p 72)

What led Hazlitt to his insight was the possibility of fission – proving once again that, in Nozick’s words, fission cases are “a koan for philosophers.”  It doesn’t matter that in Hazlitt’s scenario, his mind is replicated by ‘the Deity’, whereas in modern examples human replication is more commonly a technological achievement.  Both cases work the same way.

Hazlitt’s realization can be restated as: There is no important difference between continuing to exist and being succeeded by a mere replica.  The chain of thought that led him to it can be recast as an argument:

  • What prevents me from sacrificing myself for the greater good of others, is imagining myself suffering as a result of my decision, remembering making the decision and regretting it.
  • This suffering (which I imagine now, and which probably will occur if I decide to make the sacrifice) is the only compelling reason I have not to make the sacrifice.
  • But my entire psychology could be replicated, including my memory of making the decision.  Any number of replicas of me could be made, and all of them might suffer as a result of the decision I make know.  If they suffered, all of them would regret my decision.
  • Those replicas would be other people, not myself (because they would be different from one another, and identity is a transitive relation).
  • I have the same reason to prevent the suffering of my replicas as I have to prevent my own suffering.
  • Therefore the suffering of other people can be an equally compelling reason for me to act, or not to act, as my own future suffering.

The overall aim of Hazlitt’s essay was to show that a person has no special reason to prefer his own interests to those of others – that:

the human mind is naturally disinterested, or that it is naturally interested in the welfare of others in the same way, and from the same direct motives, by which we are impelled to the pursuit of our own interest. (EPHA p 1)

But his argument, as I have sketched it, seems to show only that, in a special case in which a person will be replicated, he has as much reason to act in the interests of his replicas as he has to act in his own future interests.   How does Hazlitt get from this narrow conclusion to the broader one?

Essentially, by adopting a scientific viewpoint on the subject.  The spirit of empiricism ran strong in 18th century England; Hazlitt had read Hume.  Hazlitt looked at human motivation through an empirical lens, trying to comprehend it as a psychological phenomenon.

Hazlitt saw that a person’s sense of his or her continuing self is a psychological state, one centrally involving memories of anticipation.  He concluded that self-interest consists in nothing more than the “greater warmth of present imagination” that we attach to our own expected futures, not to others’.  In these words, Hazlitt showed that he was groping towards the concept Martin characterized as ‘self-concern’.  Hazlitt knew that self-concern is stubbornly ingrained:

…one of the most deeply rooted feelings of the human mind, namely that of the essential difference between the interest we have in promoting our own welfare by all the means in our power, and that which we take in promoting the welfare of others.  Almost every one has a feeling that he has a real interest in the one, but that his interest in the other is merely imaginary; that his interest in the one is absolute and independent of himself, that it exists with the same force whether he feels it, or not…that it is…a bond from which he cannot free himself without changing his being; whereas the interest which he takes in the welfare of others is a voluntary interest, taken up and dismissed at pleasure, and which exists no longer than he feels it…. (EPHA p 14)

He described it using oppressive imagery, echoed later by Parfit and others.

…the force with which the idea of self habitually clings to the mind of every man, binding it as with a spell, deadening its own discriminating powers, and spreading the confused associations which belong only to past and present impressions over the whole of our imaginary existence. (EPHA p 4)

Hazlitt understood this “idea of self” as a psychological phenomenon.  In their history of ideas, The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self, Martin and Barresi summarize Hazlitt’s attempt to account for the origin of self-concern in a child’s psychological development.

If people connect to the future through imagination, which does not respect the difference between self and other, why is the force of habit almost invariably on the side of selfish feelings?  In answering, [Hazlitt] tried to account for the growth of selfish motives in humans by appealing to their acquisition of self-concepts.  They…come under the control of their self-concepts…in three stages.  First, young children acquire an idea of themselves as beings who are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain.  Second, and almost “mechanically” (since physiology insures that children remember only their own pasts), children include their own pasts in their notions of themselves.  Finally, imaginatively, they include their own futures.  The first two stages may have been suggested to Hazlitt by his reading of Locke.  The third, at least in the way he developed it, is original.  However, even in the case of the first two, Hazlitt thought of these stages less as a philosopher and more as a psychologist might think of them, in terms of the acquisition of self-concepts, and whereas it was unclear whether Locke meant to distinguish developmental stages in the acquisition of self-concepts, Hazlitt clearly meant to do so.  (RFSS, p 165)

Hazlitt could discern no difference in kind between how people are psychologically motivated to act on their own behalf, and how they are motivated on behalf of others.  All he found was a difference in degree – “a greater warmth of present imagination.”  Conscious motivation consists in varying degrees of emotional affect attached to imagined outcomes.  Science has no need to posit any deep, metaphysical relation connecting our past, present and future selves in order to explain human behaviour.  There is no such relation, Hazlitt asserted; it’s an illusion created by our psychological development.

In this way, Hazlitt levelled the moral playing field, setting selfish values on no higher rational ground than unselfish ones.  After Hazlitt, “Because it’s in my interests,” ceased to be a defensible reason for action.

Martin and Barresi conclude their account of Hazlitt’s prescient contribution to the intellectual understanding of self-concern with an attempt to explain why his ideas did not catch on.

Hazlitt was the last progressive figure in a more or less continuous tradition of discussion of the nature of self and personal identity that began with Locke and that took place in Britain throughout the eighteenth century.  Two things were mainly responsible for interrupting this tradition of discussion.  One of these was the newly emerging separation of philosophy and psychology, each of which throughout the nineteeth and increasingly into the twentieth centuries tended to go their separate ways.  Another was Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason had been published, in German, in 1781, but only began to be felt seriously in Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  However, once Kant’s influence was felt, it effectively changed the focus of debate about the self.  (RFSS p 170)

“Without question,” Martin and Barresi write, “Kant was an unusually deep thinker.”  But Kant did not consider the puzzle cases of personal identity; and his work sheds little light on them.  Kant was an effective distraction from the themes raised by Hazlitt; and Hazlitt himself did not pursue those themes after The Essays.

Perhaps a third factor contributed to their neglect.  The idea that self-concern is rationally required – or as Hazlitt put it, that a man’s self-interest “exists with the same force whether or not he feels it” – is as deeply entrenched in the habits of human thought as any idea I can think of, and therefore may be presumed to be unusually susceptible to confirmation bias.  In “What is Art?” Tolstoy wrote:

I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed….

Or perhaps Ernest Jones, in an early paper on psychoanalysis, came closer to the mark:

Whenever an individual considers a given (mental) process as being too obvious to permit of any investigation into its origin, and shows resistance to such an investigation, we are right in suspecting that the actual origin is concealed from him – almost certainly on account of its unacceptable nature.


Hazlitt, William (1805), Essays on the Principles of Human Action, Thoemmes Antiquarian Books Ltd., 1990 ed.  (EPHA)

Martin, Raymond, and Barresi, John (2006), The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self, Columbia University Press  (RFSS)

Click here to view other posts on the Phantom Self home page.

One Response to “Hazlitt’s Insight”

  1. […] his 1805 Essay on the Principles of Human Action (summed up very well here), Hazlitt discusses self-interest and argues that for man, there is no material difference between […]

Leave a Reply