Social Organization

Chapter 2: Social and Individual Aspects of Mind (Continued)

Charles Horton Cooley

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So far as the moral aspect is concerned, it should be the result of this organic view of mind to make the whole teaching and practice of righteousness more rational and effectual by bringing it closer to fact. A moral view which does not see the individual in living unity with social wholes is unreal and apt to lead to impractical results.

Have not the moral philosophies of the past missed their mark, in great part, by setting before the individual absolute standards of behavior, without affording him an explanation for his backwardness or a programme for his gradual advance ? And did not this spring from not discerning clearly that the moral life was a social organism, in which every individual or group of individuals had its own special possibilities and limitations ~ In general such systems, pagan and Christian, have said, "All of us ought to be so and so, but since very few of us are, this is evidently a bad world." And they have had no large, well-organized, slow-but-sure plan for making it better. Impracticable standards have the same ill effect as unenforcible law; they accustom us to separate theory from practice and make a chasm between the individual and the moral ideal.


The present way of thinking tends to close up this chasm and bring both persons and ideals into more intelligible relations to real life. The sins or virtues of the individual? it seems? are never fortuitous or disconnected; they have always a history and collateral support, and are in fact more or less pleasing phases of a struggling, aspiring whole. The ideals are also parts of the whole; states of being, achieved momentarily by those in front and treasured for the animation and solace of all. And the method of righteousness is to understand as well as may be the working of this whole and of all its parts, and to form and pursue practicable ideals based on this understanding. It is always to be taken for granted that there is no real break with history and environment. Each individual may be required to put forth a steadfast endeavor to make himself and his surroundings better, but not to achieve a standard unconnected with his actual state. And the same principle applies to special groups of all sorts, including nations, races, and religions; their progress must be along a natural line of improvement suggested by what they are. We are thus coming under the sway of that relative spirit, of which, says Walter Pater, " the ethical result is a delicate and tender justice in the criticism of human life." [1]

According to this, real reform must be sympathetic; that is, it must begin, not with denunciation—though that may have its uses—but with an intimate appreciation of things as they are, and should proceed in a spirit opposite to that in which we have commonly attacked such ques-

(15)-tions as the suppression of intemperance and the conversion of the heathen.

Human nature, it appears, is very much the same in those we reckon sinners as in ourselves. Good and evil are always intimately bound up together; no sort of men are chiefly given over to conscious badness; and to abuse men or groups in the large is unjust and generally futile. As a rule the practical method is to study closely and kindly the actual situation, with the people involved in it; then gradually and carefully to work out the evil from the mixture by substituting good for it. No matter how mean or hideous a man's life is, the first thing is to understand him; to make out just how it is that our common human nature has come to work out in this way. This method calls for patience, insight, firmness, and confidence in men, leaving little room for the denunciatory egotism of a certain kind of reformers. It is more and more coming to be used in dealing with intemperance, crime, greed, and in fact all those matters in which we try to make ourselves and our neighbors better. I notice that the most effectual leaders of philanthropy have almost ceased from denunciation. Tacitly assuming that there are excuses for everything, they "shun the negative side " and spend their energy in building up the affirmative.

This sort of morality does not, however, dispense with praise and blame, which are based on the necessity of upholding higher ideals by example, and discrediting lower ones. All such distinctions get their meaning from their relation to an upward-striving general life, wherein conspicuous men serve as symbols through which the higher

(16) structure may be either supported or undermined. We must have heroes, and perhaps villains (though it is better not to think much about the latter), even though their performances, when closely viewed, appear to be an equally natural product of history and environment. In short it makes a difference whether we judge a man with reference to his special history and " lights," or to the larger life of the world; and it is right to assign exemplary praise or blame on the latter ground which would be unwarranted on the former. There is certainly a special right for every man; but the right of most men is partial, important chiefly to themselves and their immediate sphere; while there are some whose right is representative, like that of Jesus, fit to guide the moral thought of mankind; and we cherish and revere these latter because they corroborate the ideals we wish to hold before us.

It matters little for these larger purposes whether the sins or virtues of conspicuous persons are conscious or not; our concern is with what they stand for in the general mind. In fact conscious wickedness is comparatively unimportant, because it implies that the individual is divided in his own mind, and therefore weak. The most effective ill-doers believe in themselves and have a quiet conscience. And, in the same way, goodness is most effectual when it takes itself as a matter of course and feels no self-complacency.

Blame and punishment, then, are essentially symbolic, their function being to define and enforce the public will, and in no way imply that the offenders are of a different nature from the rest of us. We feel it to be true that with a little different training and surroundings we might have

(17) committed almost any crime for which men are sent to prison, and can readily understand that criminals should not commonly feel that they are worse than others. The same principle applies to those malefactors, more dangerous perhaps, who keep within the law, and yet arc terribly punished from time to time by public opinion.

Perhaps it would be well if both those who suffer punishment and those who inflict it were more distinctly aware of its symbolic character and function. The former might find their sense of justice appeased by perceiving that though what they did was natural and perhaps not consciously wrong, it may still need to be discredited and atoned for. The culprit is not separated from society by his punishment, but restored to it. It is his way of service; and if he takes it in the right spirit he is better off than those who do wrong but are not punished.

The rest of us, on the other hand, might realize that those in the pillory are our representatives, who suffer, in a real sense, for us. This would disincline us to spend in a cheap abuse of conspicuous offenders that moral ardor whose proper function is the correction of our own life. The spectacle of punishment is not for us to gloat over, but to remind us of our sins, which, as springing from the same nature and society, are sure to be much the same as that of the one punished. It is precisely because he is like us that he is punished. If he were radically different he would belong in an insane asylum, and punishment would be mere cruelty.

Under the larger view of mind responsibility is broadened, because we recognize a broader reach of causation, but

(18) by no means lost in an abstract "society." It goes with power and increases rapidly in proportion as the evil comes nearer the sphere of the individual's voluntary action, so that each of us is peculiarly responsible for the moral state of his own trade, family, or social connection. Contrary to a prevalent impression, it is in these familiar relations that the individual is least of all justified in being no better than his environment.

Every act of the will, especially where the will is most at home, should be affirmative and constructive; it being the function and meaning of individuality that each one should be, in the direction of his chief activities, something other and better than his surroundings. Once admit the plea " I may do what other people do," and the basis of righteousness is gone; perhaps there is no moral fallacy so widespread and so pernicious as this. It is these no-worse-than-other-people decisions that paralyze the moral life in the one and in the whole, involving a sort of moral panmixia, as the biologists say, which, lacking any progressive impulse, must result in deterioration. In the end it will justify anything, since there are always bad examples to fall back upon.

It is commonly futile, however, to require any sharp break with the past; we must be content with an upward endeavor and tendency. It is quite true that we are all involved in a net of questionable practices from which we can only escape a little at a time and in cooperation with our associates.

It is an error to imagine that the doctrine of individual responsibility is always the expedient and edifying one

(19) in matters of conduct. There is a sort of people who grow indignant whenever general causes are insisted upon, apparently convinced that whether these are real or not it is immoral to believe in them. But it is not invariably a good thing to urge the will, since this, if overstimulated, becomes fagged, stale, and discouraged. Often it is better that one should let himself go, and trust himself to the involuntary forces, to the nature of things, to God. The nervous or strained person only harasses and weakens his will by fixing attention upon it: it will work on more effectually if he looks away from it, calming himself by a view of the larger whole; and not without reason Spinoza counts among the advantages of determinism " the attainment of happiness by man through realizing his intimate union with the whole nature of things; the distinction between things in our power and things not in our power; the avoidance of all disturbing passions, and the performance of social duties from rational desire for the common good." [2]

An obvious moral defect of the unbalanced doctrine of responsibility is that it permits the successful to despise the unfortunate, in the belief that the latter "have only themselves to blame," a belief not countenanced by the larger view of fact. We may pardon this doctrine when it makes one too hard on himself or on successful wrongdoers, but as a rod with which to beat those already down it is despicable.

The annals of religion show that the moral life has always these two aspects, the particular and the general, as in the doctrines of freedom and predestination, or in

(20) the wrestlings with sin followed by self-abandonment that we find in the literature of conversion.[3] Perhaps we may say that the deterministic attitude is morally good in at least two classes of cases: First, for nervous, conscientious individuals, like Spinoza, whose wills need rather calming than stimulating, also for any one who may be even temporarily in a state of mental strain; second, in dealing on a large scale with social or moral questions whose causes must be treated dispassionately and in a mass.

These questions of free-will versus law, and the like, are but little, if at all, questions of fact—when we get down to definite facts bearing upon the matter we find little or no disagreement—but of point of view and emphasis. If you fix attention on the individual phase of things and see life as a theatre of personal action, then the corresponding ideas of private will, responsibility, praise, and blame rise before you; if you regard its total aspect you see tendency, evolution, law and impersonal grandeur. Each of these is a half truth needing to be completed by the other; the larger truth, including both, being that life is an organic whole, presenting itself with equal reality in individual and general aspects. Argument upon such questions is without limit—since there is really nothing

(21)at issue—and in that sense the problem of freedom versus law is insoluble.

Above all, the organic view of mind calls for social knowledge as the basis of morality. We live in a system and to achieve right ends, or any rational ends whatever, we must learn to understand that system. The public mind must emerge somewhat from its subconscious condition and know and guide its own processes.

Both consciously and unconsciously the larger mind is continually building itself up into wholes—fashions, traditions, institutions, tendencies, and the like—which spread and diversify like the branches of a tree, and so generate an ever higher and more various structure of differentiated thought and symbols. The immediate motor and guide of this growth is interest, and wherever that points social structure comes into being, as a picture grows where the artist moves his pencil. Visible society is, indeed, literally, a work of art, slow and mostly subconscious in its production—as great art often is—full of grotesque and wayward traits, but yet of inexhaustible beauty and fascination. It is this we find in the history of old civilizations, getting from it the completed work of the artist without that strain and confusion of production which defaces the present. We get it, especially, not from the history of the theorist or the statistician, but from the actual, naive, human record to be found in memoirs, in popular literature, in architecture, painting, sculpture, and music, in the industrial arts, in every unforced product of the mind. Social organization is nothing less than this variega -

(22) -tion of life, taken in the widest sense possible. It should not be conceived as the product merely of definite and utilitarian purpose, but as the total expression of conscious and subconscious tendency, the slow crystallization in many forms and colors of the life of the human spirit.

Any fairly distinct and durable detail of this structure may be called a social type; this being a convenient term to use when we wish to break up the whole into parts, for analysis or description. Thus there are types of personality, of political structure, of religion, of classes. of the family, of art, of language; also of processes, like communication, cooperation, and competition; and so on. The whole is so various that from every new point of view new forms are revealed. Social types are analogous to the genera, species, and varieties of the animal world, in being parts of one living whole and yet having a relative continuity and distinctness which is susceptible of detailed study. Like biological types, also, they exist in related systems and orders, are subject to variation, compete with one another, flourish and decay, may be flexible or rigid, and may or may not form prolific crosses with one another.

Without forgetting to see life as individuals, we must learn to see it also as types, processes, organization the latter being just as real as the former. And especially, in order to see the matter truly, should we be able to interpret individuals by wholes, and vice versa.


  1. See his essay on Coleridge.
  2. Pollock's Spinoza, 2d ed., 195.
  3. Amply expounded, with due stress on the moral value of letting go, by William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience: "This abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral practice. It antedates theologies and is independent of philosophies . . . it is capable of entering into closest marriage with every speculative creed." Page 289.

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