Cornhill Magazine,  10 (1864), 218–24.

Morality of the Doctrine of Averages

[William Cyples]




Statistics, Magic, Natural Law, Sociology, Prognostication, Soul, Morality, Heroism, Manufactories, Steam-power, Electricity

    Concedes that 'Statistics undoubtedly constitute a new instrument of scientific inquiry, and for the brief modern period in which it has been applied, it has already worked wonders', observing that 'Registrars-General have, indeed, become arithmetical diviners of a new-kind, arch-wizards of statistical magic, which enables them, by simply watching the rate at which events happen, to predict their recurrence, if not separately, at least in averages. Murder, it has in this way been discovered, is, in the gross occurrence, as much a matter of general law as are the fluctuations of heat' (218). However, while the 'averagarians usually give the statistics of murders, suicides, and (unhappy connection!) marriages, as proof of the periodic uniformity of events, which beforetime have been understood to depend on the will' (219), their findings can only ever be partial because the 'workings of the will are not adequately reported in the world of outer occurrences, and therefore must always remain cognizable only by the conscience' (221–22). Goes on to complain that amid the 'modern superstition of arithmetic', 'some few persons, led away by an enthusiasm for statistics, have applied logic to a matter outside the limits of proof' (224). Also notes that the 'natural complement of this discovery of statistical averages was the invention of insurance; and the moral effects of that practice [...] can scarcely be over-estimated' (222). Insurance encourages, amongst many other ills, an employer to treat his workers as 'merely mechanical automata against whose vagaries of forgery and embezzlement you have taken an assurance precaution', and it is also 'very unheroic, for it is a kind of "hedging" of your destiny, a slight taking of odds against yourself'. Nevertheless, the 'introduction of material forces into manufacturing processes has extended trade dealings far beyond all capabilities of individual powers and responsibilities', and, without the 'saving guarantee' of insurance, 'merchants would be driven mad by steam and electricity'. (223)

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