Human Nature and the Social Order

Chapter 11: Personal Degeneracy

Charles Horton Cooley

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I wish to touch upon this subject only in so far as to suggest a general way of conceiving it in accord with the views set forth in the preceding chapters.

The question of personal degeneracy is a phase of the question of right or wrong and is ultimately determined by conscience. A degenerate might be defined as one whose personality falls distinctly short of a standard set by the dominant moral thought of a group. It is the nature of the mind to form standards of better or worse in all matters toward which its selective activity is directed; and this has its collective as well as its individual aspect, so that not only every man but every group has its preferences and aversions, its good and bad. The selective, organizing processes which all life, and notably the life of the mind, presents, involve this distinction; it is simply a formulation of the universal fact of preference. We cannot view things in which we are inter-

(403)-ested without liking some and disliking others; and somewhat in proportion to our interest is our tendency to express these likes and dislikes by good and bad or similar words. And since there is nothing that interests us so much as persons, judgments of right and wrong regarding them have always been felt and expressed with peculiar zest and emphasis. The righteous and the wicked, the virtuous and the vicious, the good and bad under a hundred names, have been sharply and earnestly discriminated in every age and country.

Although this distinction between personal good and bad has always been a fact of human thought, a broader view of it is reached, in these days, through the idea of evolution. The method of nature being everywhere selective, growth is seen to take place not by making a like use of the elements already existing, but by the fostering of some to the comparative neglect or suppression of others. Or, if this statement gives too much the idea of a presiding intelligence outside the process itself, we may simply say that the functions of existing elements in contributing to further growth are extremely different, so much so that some of them usually appear to have no important function at all, or even to impede the growth while others appear to be the very heart of the onward or crescent life. This idea is applicable to physiological processes, such as go on within our bodies, to the development of species, as illustrated with such convincing detail by Darwin, and to all the processes

(404) of thought and of society; so that the forces that are observed in the present, if viewed with reference to function or tendency, never appear to be on the same level of value, but are strung along at different levels, some below a mean, some above it. Thus we not only have the actual discrimination of good and bad in persons, but a philosophy which shows it as an incident of evolution, a reflection in thought of the general movement of nature.

Or, to regard the process of evolution in more detail, we find degeneracy or inferiority implied in that idea of variation which is the starting-point of Darwinism. All forms of life, it seems, exhibit variations; that is, the individuals are not quite alike but differ from one another and from the parents in a somewhat random manner, so that some are better adapted to the actual conditions of life, and some worse. The change or development of a species takes place by the cumulative survival and multiplication, generation after generation, of fit or fortunate variations. The very process that produces the fittest evidently implies the existence of the unfit; and the distinctly unfit individuals of any species may be regarded as the degenerate.

It will not do to transfer these ideas too crudely to the mental and social life of mankind; but it will hardly be disputed that the character of persons exhibits variations which are partly at least incalculable, and which produce on the one hand leadership and genius and on the other weakness and degeneracy. We probably cannot have the one without having

(405) something, at least, of the other, though I believe that the variations of personality are capable, to a great degree, of being brought under rational control.

This truth that all forms of deficient humanity have a common philosophical aspect is one reason for giving them some common name, like degeneracy. Another is that the detailed study of fact more and more forces the conclusion that such things as crime, pauperism, idiocy, insanity, and drunkenness have, in great measure, a common causation, and so form, practically, parts of a whole. We see this in the study of heredity, which shows that the transmitted taint commonly manifests itself in several or all of these forms in different generations or individuals of the same stock; and we see it in the study of social conditions, in the fact that where these conditions are bad, as in the slums of great cities, all the forms become more prevalent. A third reason for the use of a special term is that it is desirable that the matter receive more dispassionate study than formerly, and this may possibly be promoted by the use of words free, so far as possible, from irrelevant implications. Many of the words in common use, such as badness, wickedness, crime, and the like, reflect particular views of the facts, such as the religious view of them as righteousness or sin, and the legal view as criminal or innocent, while degeneracy suggests the disinterestedness of science.

I do not much care to justify the particular word degeneracy in this connection, further than to say

(406) that I know of none more convenient or less objectionable. It comes, of course, from de and genus through degenerare, and seems to mean primarily the state of having fallen from a type. It is not uncommon in English literature, usually meaning inferiority to the standard set by ancestors, as when we say a degenerate age, a degenerate son, etc.; and recently it has come into use to describe any kind of marked and enduring mental defect or inferiority. I see no objection to this usage unless it be that it is doubtful whether the mentally or morally inferior person can in all cases be said to have fallen from a higher state This might be plausibly argued on both sides, but i. does not seem worth while.

I use the phrase personal degeneracy, then, to describe the state of persons whose character and conduct fall distinctly below the type or standard regarded as normal by the dominant sentiment of the group. Although it must be admitted that this definition is a vague one, it is not more so, perhaps, than most definitions of mental or social phenomena. There is no sharp criterion of what is mentally and socially up to par and what is not, but there are large and important classes whose inferiority is evident, such as idiots, imbeciles, the insane, drunkards, and criminals; and no one will question the importance of studying the whole of which these are parts.

It is altogether a social matter at bottom; that is to say, degeneracy exists only in a certain relation between a person and the rest of a group. In so far as any mental or physical traits constitute it they do

(407) so because they involve unfitness for a normal social career, in which alone the essence of the matter is found. The only palpable test of it—and this an uncertain one—is found in the actual career of the person, and especially in the attitude toward him of the organized thought of the group. We agree fairly well upon the degeneracy of the criminal, largely because his abnormality is of so obvious and troublesome a kind that something in particular has to be done about it, and so he becomes definitely and formally stigmatized by the organs of social judgment. Yet even from this decisive verdict an appeal is successfully made in some cases to the wider and maturer thought of mankind, so that many have been executed as felons who, like John Brown, are now revered as heroes.

In short, the idea of wrong, of which the idea of degeneracy is a phase, partakes of the same uncertainty that belongs to its antithesis, the idea of right. Both are expressions of an ever-developing, always selective life, and share in the indeterminateness that necessarily goes with growth. They assume forms definite enough for the performance of their momentous practical functions, but always remain essentially plastic and variable.

Concerning the causation of degeneracy, we may say, as of every aspect of personality, that its roots are to be looked for somewhere in the mingling of hereditary and social factors from which the individual life springs. Both of these factors exhibit marked

(408) variation; men differ in their natural traits very much as other animals do, and they also find themselves subject to the varying influences of a diversified social order. The actual divergences of character and conduct which they exhibit are due to the composition of these two variables into a third variable, the man himself.

In some cases the hereditary factor is so clearly deficient as to make it natural and justifiable to regard heredity as the cause; in a much larger number of cases there is good reason to think that social conditions are more particularly to blame, and that the original hereditary outfit was fairly good. In a third class, the largest, perhaps, of all, it is practically impossible to discriminate between them. Indeed, it is always a loose way of speaking to set heredity and environment over against each other as separable forces, or to say that either one is the cause of character or of any personal trait. They have no separate existence after personal development is under way; each reacts upon the other, and every trait is due to their intimate union and co-operation. All we are justified in saying is that one or the other may be so aberrant as to demand our special attention.

Congenital idiocy is regarded as hereditary degeneracy, because it is obvious that no social environment can make the individual other than deficient, and we must work upon heredity if we wish to prevent it. On the other hand, when we find that certain conditions, like residence in crowded parts of a city, are accompanied by the appearance of a large per cent


of criminality, among a population whom there is I no reason to suppose naturally deficient, we are justified in saying that the causes of this degeneracy are social rather than hereditary. Probably much of the criminality in the latter case, is due to the conjunction of degrading surroundings with a degree of hereditary deficiency that a better training would have rendered harmless, or at least inconspicuous; but, practically, if we wish to diminish this sort of degeneracy, we must work upon social conditions.

A sound mental heredity consists essentially in teachability, a capacity to learn the things required by the social order; and the congenital idiot is degenerate by the hereditary factor alone, because he is incapable of learning these things. But a sound heredity is no safeguard against personal degeneracy; if we have teachability all turns upon what is taught, and this depends upon the social environment. The very faculties that lead a child to become good or moral in a good environment may cause him to be come criminal in a criminal environment; it is all a question of what he finds to learn. It may be said, then, that of the four possible combinations between good and bad heredity and good and bad environment, three bad heredity with bad or good environment, and good heredity with bad environment—lead to degeneracy. Only when both elements are favorable can we have a good result. Of course, by bad environment in this connection must be understood bad in its action upon this particular individual, not as judged by some other standard.


As the social surroundings of a person can be changed, and his hereditary bias cannot, it is expedient, in that vast majority of cases in which causation is obscure, to assume as a working hypothesis that the social factor is at fault, and to try by altering it to alter the person. This is more and more coming to be done in all intelligent treatment of degeneracy.

As a mental trait, marking a person off as, in some sense, worse than others in the same social group, degeneracy appears to consist in some lack in the higher organization of thought. It is not that one has the normal mental outfit plus something additional, called wrong, crime, sin, madness, or the like, but that he is in some way deficient in the mental activity by which sympathy is created and by which all impulses are unified with reference to a general life. The criminal impulses, rage, fear, lust, pride, vanity, covetousness, and so on, are the same in general type as those of the normal person; the main difference is that the criminal lacks, in one way or another, the higher mental organization—a phase of the social organization—to which these impulses should be subordinate. It would not be very difficult to take the seven deadly sins—Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Covetousness, Gluttony, and Lust—and show that each may be regarded as the undisciplined manifestation of a normal or functional tendency. Indeed, as regards anger this was attempted in a previous chapter.

" To describe in detail the different varieties of

(411) degeneracy that are met with," says Doctor Maudsley, "would be an endless and barren labor. It would be as tedious as to attempt to describe particularly the exact character of the ruins of each house in a city that had been destroyed by an earthquake: in one place a great part of the house may be left standing, in another place a wall or two, and in another the ruin is so great that scarcely one stone is left upon another." [1]

In the lowest phases mental organization can hardly be said to exist at all: an idiot has no character, no consistent or effective individuality. There is no unification, and so no self-control or stable will; action simply reflects the particular animal impulse that is ascendant. Hunger, sexual lust, rage, dread, and, in somewhat higher grades, a crude, naive kindliness, are each felt and expressed in the simplest manner possible. There can, of course, be little or no true sympathy, and the unconsciousness of what is going on in the minds of other persons prevents any sense of decency or attempt to conform to social standards.

In the higher grades we may make the distinction, already suggested in speaking of egotism, between the unstable and the rigid varieties. Indeed, as was intimated, selfishness and degeneracy are of the same general character; both being defined socially by a falling short of accepted standards of conduct, and mentally by some lack in the scope and organization of the mind.

There is, then, one sort of persons in whom the

(412) most conspicuous and troublesome trait is mere mental inconsistency and lack of character, and another who possess a fair degree, at least, of consistency and unity of purpose, but whose mental scope or reach of sympathy is so small that they have no adequate relation to the life about them.

An outgrowing, impressionable sort of mind, if deficient in the power to work up its material, is necessarily unstable and lacking in momentum and definite direction: and in the more marked cases we have people of the hysterical type, unstable forms of dementia and insanity, and impulsive crime. "The fundamental defect in the hysterical brain," says Doctor Dana, "is that it is circumscribed in its associative functions; the field of consciousness is limited just as is the field of vision. The mental activity is confined to personal feelings, which are not regulated by connotation of past experiences, hence they flow over too easily into emotional outbursts or motor paroxysms. The hysterical person cannot think." [2] It is evident that something similar might be said of all manifestations of instability.

On the other hand, an ingrowing sort of mind, whose tendency is rather to work over and over its cherished thoughts than to open out to new ones, may have a marked deficiency of sensibility and breadth of perception. If so, the person is likely to exhibit some form of gross and persistent egotism, such as sensuality, avarice, narrow and ruthless ambition, fanaticism, of a hard, cold sort, delusion of

(413) greatness, or those kinds of crime that result from habitual insensibility to social standards rather than from transient impulse.

As conscience is simply the completest product of mental organization, it will of course share in whatever defect there may be in the mental life as a whole. In the lower grades of idiocy we may assume that there is no system in the mind from which a conscience could spring. In a higher degenerate of the unstable type, there is a conscience, but it is vacillating in its judgments, transient in duration, and ineffectual in control, proportionally to the mental disintegration which it reflects. We all, probably, can think of people conspicuously lacking in self-control, and it will perhaps be evident, when we reflect upon them, that their consciences are of this sort. The voice of conscience, with them, is certain to be chiefly an echo of temporary emotions, because a synthesis embracing long periods of time is beyond their range; it is frequently inaudible, on account of their being engrossed by passing impulses, and their conduct is largely without any rational control at all. They are likely to suffer sharp and frequent attacks of remorse, on account of failure to live up to their standards, but it would seem that the wounds do not go very deep as a rule, but share in the general superficiality of their lives. People of this sort, if not too far gone in weakness, are probably the ones who profit most by punishment, because they are helped by the sharp and definite pain which it associates with acts that they recog-

(414)-nize as wrong, but cannot keep from doing without a vivid emotional deterrent. They are also the ones who, in their eagerness to escape from the pains of fluctuation and inconsistency, are most prone to submit blindly to some external and dogmatic authority. Unable to rule themselves, they crave a master, and if he only is a master, that is, one capable of grasping and dominating the emotions by which they are swayed, they will often cleave to him and kiss the rod.

With those whose defect is rigidity rather than instability, conscience may exist and may control the fife j the trouble with it is, that it is not in key with the consciences of other people. There is an original poverty of the impulses that extends to any result that can be worked out of them. It may appear startling to some to assert that conscience may dictate the wrong, but such is quite clearly the fact, if we identify the right with some standard of conduct accepted among people of broad sympathies. Conscience is the only possible moral guide—any external authority can work morally upon us only through conscience—but it always partakes of the limitations of one's character, and so far as that is degenerate the idea of right is degenerate also. As a matter of fact, the very worst men of the hard, narrow, fanatical, or brutal sorts, often live at peace with their consciences. I feel sure that any one who reflects imaginatively upon the characters of people he has known of this sort will agree that such is the case. A bad conscience implies mental division, inconsistency between thought and deed, and men of this sort are

(415) often quite at one with themselves. The usurer who grinds the faces of the poor, the unscrupulous speculator who causes the ruin of innocent investors to aggrandize himself, the fanatical anarchist who stabs a king or shoots a president, the Kentucky mountaineer who regards murderous revenge as a duty, the assaulter who causes pictures commemorative of his crimes to be tattooed on his skin, are diverse examples of wrongdoers whose consciences not only do not punish, but often instigate their ill deeds.

The idea, cherished by some, that crime or wrong of any sort is invariably pursued by remorse, arises from the natural but mistaken assumption that all other people have consciences similar to our own. The man of sensitive temperament and refined habit of thought feels that he would suffer remorse if he had done the deed, and supposes that the same must be the case with the perpetrator. On the contrary, it seems likely that only a very small proportion of those whom the higher moral sentiment regards as wrong-doers suffer much from the pricks of conscience. If the general tenor of a man's life is high, and the act is the fearful outcome of a moment of passion, as is often the case with unpremeditated murder, he will suffer, but if his life is all of a piece, he will not. All authorities agree that the mass of criminals, and the same is clearly true of ill-doers within the law, have a habit of mind of which the ill deed is the logical outcome, so that there is nothing sudden or catastrophic about it. Of course, if we apply the word conscience only to the mental synthesis of a mind rich in higher

(416) sentiments, then such people have no consciences, but it seems a broader view of the matter to say that they have a conscience, in so far as they have mental unity, but that it reflects the general narrowness and perversion of their lives. In fact, people of this description usually, if not always, have standards of their own, some sort of honor among thieves, which they will not transgress, or which, if transgressed, cause remorse. It is impossible that mental organization should not produce a moral synthesis of some sort.

In many cases degenerate conduct is due to the fact that the individual lives in a group having degenerate standards: it does not indicate intrinsic inferiority on his part at all. I mean, for example, that a boy who runs away from school, plunders freight-cars, breaks windows, and the like, may do these things merely from suggestion and emulation—just as other boys under other influences turn their energies into athletics and the activities of Boy Scouts—without being exceptional in any way unless as to the sort of " bunch " he runs with. And the same may be true of any kind of misconduct. These things exist in groups, and the degenerate individual, so far as he is human, is a socius like the rest of us. The group forms his conscience, and what it countenances or admires will not seem wrong to him, no matter how the rest of society may regard it. If it becomes traditional for the members of a certain college fraternity to drink, gamble, and cheat their way through examinations, the freshman will fall into these practices as a matter of course.

(417) In fact the great wrongs are done mainly by people of normal capacity who believe they are doing right. Their consciences are supported by the mores, or collective moral feeling of a group. It was thus that the Germans went into the Great War.

There is nothing in this way of conceiving degeneracy which tends to break down the practical distinctions among the various forms of it, as, for instance, that between crime and insanity. Though the line between these two is arbitrary and uncertain, as must always be the case in the classification of mental facts, and as is confessed by the existence of a class called the criminal insane, yet the distinction itself and the difference in treatment associated with it are sound enough in a general way.

The contrast between our attitudes toward crime and toward insanity is primarily a matter of personal idea and impulse. We understand the criminal act, or think we do, and we feel toward it resentment, or hostile sympathy; while we do not understand the insane act, and so do not resent it, but regard it with pity, curiosity, or disgust. If one man strikes down another to rob him, or in revenge, we can imagine the offender's state of mind, his motive lives in our thought and is condemned by conscience precisely as if we thought of doing the act ourselves. Indeed, to understand an act is to think of doing it ourselves. But, if it is done for no reason that we can comprehend, we do not imagine, do not get a personal impression of the case at all, but have to think of it as merely

(418) mechanical. It is the same sort of difference as that between a person who injures us accidentally and one who does it "on purpose."

Secondarily, it is a matter of expediency. We feel that the act which we can imagine ourselves doing ought to be punished, because we perceive by our own sympathy with it that more of this sort of thing is likely to take place if it is not put down. We want the house-breaker to be stigmatized, disgraced, and imprisoned, because we feel that, if this is not done, he and others will be encouraged to more housebreaking; but we feel only pity for the man who thinks he is Julius Caesar, because we suppose there is nothing to be feared either from him or his example. This practical basis of the distinction expresses itself in the general, and I think justifiable, reluctance to apply the name and treatment of insanity to behavior which seems likely to be imitated. It is felt that whatever may be the mental state of the man who commits an act of violence or fraud, it is wholesome that people in general, who draw no fine distinctions, but judge others by themselves, should be taught by example that such conduct is followed by moral and legal penalties. On the other hand, when the behavior is so evidently remote from ordinary habits of thought that it can be a matter only of pity or curiosity, there is no occasion to do anything more than the good of the person affected seems to require.

The same analysis applies to the whole question of responsibility or irresponsibility. It is a matter of imaginative contact and personal idea. To hold a

(419) man responsible, is to imagine him as a man like ourselves, having similar impulses but failing to control them as we do, or at least as we feel we ought to do. We think of doing as he does, find it wrong, and impute the wrong to him. The irresponsible person is one who is looked upon as a different sort of being not human with reference to the conduct in question, not imaginable, not near enough to us to be the object of hostile sentiment. We blame the former; that is, we visit him with a sympathetic resentment; we condemn that part of ourselves that we find in him. But in the latter we do not find ourselves at all.

It is worth noting in this connection, that we could not altogether cease to blame others without ceasing to blame ourselves, which would mean moral apathy. It is sometimes thought that the cool analysis of such questions as this tends toward indifferentism; but l do not see that this is the case. The social psychologist finds in moral sentiment a central and momentous fact of human life, and if perchance he does not himself feel it very vividly, he should have the candor to confess himself so much the less a man. Indeed, if there is such a thing as an indifferentist, in the sense of one who does not feel any cogency in moral sentiment, he must be quite unsuited to the pursuit of social or moral science, because he lacks power to sympathize with, and so observe, the facts upon which this sort of science must be based.

What is the practical effect upon responsibility of the view that wrong does not originate merely in the

(420) individual will, but has always a history in heredity and social transmission ? It tends, I think, not to diminish responsibility but to change its character, to make it an organic whole, including every individual whose will contributes to the wrong in question. It makes more people responsible, and mitigates, without removing, the blame that falls upon the immediate wrong-doer. When a boy is caught stealing brass fixtures from an unfurnished house the judge of the Juvenile Court will first of all blame the boy, but, far from stopping there, he will bring into court also the leader of the gang who set him the example, and his parents, who failed to give him suitable care and discipline. The judge may well censure, also, the school authorities for not interesting him in healthy work and recreation, and the city government and influential classes for failing to provide a better environment for him to grow up in. The tendency of any study of indirect causes is to fix more and more responsibility upon those who have wealth, knowledge, and influence, and therefore the power to bring a better state of things to pass. It is impossible not to see, as one looks into these questions, that there is little use in blaming or punishing those who have been brought up in demoralizing surroundings, and that the chief hope of improvement is in arousing the consciences of those who are able to do away with such surroundings and so check the evil at its source.

Under the organic view punishment is not done away with: it has its uses as an influence upon the will,

(421) upon the will of actual wrong-doers and of those who might become such. This view does, however, tend to depreciate the importance of punishment as compared with educational and constructive methods. If we can make the whole process healthy, vice, crime, and the like will be kept off as disease is from a healthy body.

In so far as we use punishment its efficacy depends mainly upon two things:

1. It must be evidently just; so that both the offender and the onlooker can see that it is what society must do for the protection of its members. If arbitrary, or gratuitously painful or humiliating, it arouses such resentment as one would feel at being mauled by a bully; brutalizing and alienating the offender. Much of our punishment is of this kind.

2. It must be reasonably certain. Otherwise those who contemplate it will take the chance. Under our present methods most offenders escape, and the criminal class regard punishment as merely one of the risks of a somewhat hazardous occupation.


  1. The Pathology of Mind, p. 425.
  2. C. L. Dana, Nervous Diseases, p. 425.

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