Stephen, Leslie

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Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) was one of the first serious critics of the novel, but he also made original contributions in philosophy and sociology. Science of Ethics, excerpted below, considers questions of ethics raised by John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer (from whom Stephen borrowed the title of this book), and Darwin, and proposes a careful relationship between the individual and society.

"Lawyers are apt to speak as though the legislature were omnipotent, as they do not require to go beyond its decision. It is, of course, omnipotent in the sense that it can make whatever laws it pleases, inasmuch as a law means any rule which has been made by the legislature. But from the scientific point of view the power of the legislature is, of course, strictly limited. It is limited, so to speak, both from within and from without; from within, because the legislature is the product of a certain social condition, and determined by whatever determines the society; and from without, because the power of imposing laws is dependent upon the instinct of subordination, which is itself limited. If a legislature decided that all blue-eyed babies should be murdered, the preservation of blue-eyed babies would be illegal; but legislators must go mad before they could pass such a law, and subjects be idiotic before they could submit to it."

Stephen, Leslie. Science of Ethics. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907, 137