Human Nature and Conduct

Part 1: The Place of Habit in Conduct:
V. Custom and Morality

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

For practical purposes morals mean customs, folkways, established collective habits. This is a common, place of the anthropologist, though the moral theorist generally suffers from an illusion that his own place and day is, or ought to be, an exception. But always and everywhere customs supply the standards for personal activities. They are the pattern into which individual activity must weave itself. This is as true today as it ever was. But because of present mobility and interminglings of customs, an individual is now offered an enormous range of custom-patterns, and can exercise personal ingenuity in selecting and rearranging their elements. In short he can, if he will, intelligently adapt customs to conditions, and thereby remake them. Customs in any case constitute moral standards. For they are active demands for certain ways of acting. Every habit creates an unconscious expectation. It forms a certain outlook. What psychologists have laboriously treated under the caption of association of ideas has little to do with ideas and everything Lo do with the influence of habit upon recollection and perception. A habit, a routine habit, when interfered with generates uneasiness, sets up a pretest in favor of restoration and a sense of need of some expiatory act, or else it goes off in casual reminiscence. It is the

(76) essence of routine to insist upon its own continuation. Breach of it is violation of right. Deviation from it is transgression.

All that metaphysics has said about the nisus of Being to conserve its essence and all that a mythological psychology has said about a special instinct of self-preservation is a cover for the persistent self-assertion of habit. Habit is energy organized in certain channels. When interfered with, it swells as resentment and as an avenging force. To say that it will be obeyed, that custom makes law, that nomos is lord of all, is after all only to say that habit is habit. Emotion is a perturbation from clash or failure of habit, and reflection, roughly speaking, is the painful effort of disturbed habits to readjust themselves. It is a pity that Westermarck in his monumental collection of facts which show the connection of custom with morals[1] is still so much under the influence of current subjective psychology that he misstates the point of his data. For although he recognizes the objectivity of custom, he treats sympathetic resentment and approbation as distinctive inner feelings or conscious states which give rise to acts. In his anxiety to displace an unreal rational source of morals he sets up an equally unreal emotional basis. In truth, feelings as well as reason spring up within action. Breach of custom or habit is the source of sympathetic resentment, while overt approbation goes out to fidelity to custom maintained under exceptional circumstances.


Those who recognize the place of custom in lower social forms generally regard its presence in civilized society as a mere survival. Or, like Sumner, they fancy that to recognize its abiding place is equivalent to the denial of all rationality and principle to morality; equivalent to the assertion of blind, arbitrary forces in life. In effect, this point of view has already been dealt with. It overlooks the fact that the real opposition is not between reason and habit but between routine, unintelligent habit, and intelligent habit or art. Even a savage custom may be reasonable in that it is adapted to social needs and uses. Experience may add to such adaptation a conscious recognition of it, and then the custom of rationality is added to a prior custom.

External reasonableness or adaptation to ends precedes reasonableness of mind. This is only to say that in morals as well as in physics things have to be there before we perceive them, and that rationality of mind is not an original endowment but is the offspring of intercourse with objective adaptations and relations— a view which under the influence of a conception of knowing the like by the like has been distorted into Platonic and other objective idealisms. Reason as observation of an adaptation of acts to valuable results is not however a mere idle mirroring of preexistent facts. It is an additional event having its own career. It sets up a heightened emotional appreciation and provides a new motive for fidelities previously blind. It sets up an attitude of criticism, of inquiry, and

(78) makes men sensitive to the brutalities and extravagancies of customs. In short, it becomes a custom of expectation and outlook, an active demand for reasonableness in other customs. The reflective disposition is not self-made nor a gift of the gods. It arises in some exceptional circumstance out of social customs, as we see in the case of the Greeks. But when it has been generated it establishes a new custom, which is capable of exercising the most revolutionary influence upon other customs.

Hence the growing importance of personal rationality or intelligence, in moral theory if not in practice. That current customs contradict one another, that many of them are unjust, and that without criticism none of them is fit to be the guide of life was the discovery with which the Athenian Socrates initiated conscious moral theorizing. Yet a dilemma soon presented itself, one which forms the burden of Plato's ethical writings. How shall thought which is personal arrive at standards which hold good for all, which, in modern phrase, are objective? The solution found by Plato was that reason is itself objective, universal, cosmic and makes the individual soul its vehicle. The result, however, was merely to substitute a metaphysical or transcendental ethics for the ethics of custom. If Plato had been able to see that reflection and criticism express a conflict of customs, and that their purport and office is to re-organize, re-adjust customs, the subsequent Course of moral theory would have been very different. Custom would have provided needed objective and sub-

(79) stantial ballast, and personal rationality or reflective intelligence been treated as the necessary organ of experimental initiative and creative invention in remaking custom.

We have another difficulty to face: a greater wave rises to overwhelm us. It is said that to derive moral standards from social customs is to evacuate the latter of all authority. Morals, it is said, imply the subordination of fact to ideal consideration, while the view presented makes morals secondary to bare fact, which is equal to depriving them of dignity and jurisdiction. The objection has the force of the custom of moral theorists behind it ; and therefore in its denial of custom avails itself of the assistance of the notion it attacks. The criticism rests upon a false separation, It argues in effect that either ideal standards antecede customs and confer their moral quality upon them, of that in being subsequent to custom and evolved from them, they are mere accidental by-products. But how does the case stand with language? Men did not intend language, they did not have social objects consciously in view when they began to talk, nor did they have grammatical and phonetic principles before them by which to regulate their efforts at communication. These things come After the fact. and because of it Language grew out of unintelligent babblings, instinctive motions called gestures, and the pressure of circumstance. But nevertheless language once called into existence is language and operates as language. It operates not to perpetuate the forces which produced it

(80) but to modify and redirect them. It has such transcendent importance that pains are taken with its use. Literatures are produced, and then a vast apparatus of grammar, rhetoric, dictionaries, literary criticism, reviews, essays, a derived literature ad lib. Education, schooling, becomes a necessity; literacy an end. In short language when it is produced meets old needs and opens new possibilities. It creates demands which take effect, and the effect is not confined to speech and literature, but extends to the common life in communication, counsel and instruction.

What is said of the institution of language holds good of every institution. Family life, property, legal forms, churches and schools, academies of art and science did not originate to serve conscious ends nor was their generation regulated by consciousness of principles of reason and right. Yet each institution has brought with its development demands, expectations, rules, standards. These are not mere embellishments of the forces which produced them, idle decorations of the scene. They are additional forces. They reconstruct. They open new avenues of endeavor and impose new labors. In short they are civilization, culture, morality.

Still the question recurs: What authority have standards and ideas which have originated in this way? What claim have they upon us? In one sense the question is unanswerable. In the same sense, however, the question is unanswerable whatever origin and sanction is ascribed to moral obligations

(81) and loyalties. Why attend to metaphysical and transcendental ideal realities even if we concede they are the authors of moral standards? Why do this act if I feel like doing something else? Any moral question may reduce itself to this question if we so choose. But in an empirical sense the answer is simple. The authority is that of life. Why employ language, cultivate literature, acquire and develop science, sustain industry, and submit to the refinements of art? To ask these questions is equivalent to asking: Why live? And the only answer is that if one is going to live one must live a life of which these things form the substance. The only question having sense which can be asked is how we are going to use and be used by these things, not whether we are going to use them. Reason, moral principles, cannot in any case be shoved behind these affairs, for reason and morality grow out of them. But they have grown into them as well as out of them. They are there as part of them. No one can escape them if he wants to. He cannot escape the problem of how to engage in life, since in any case he must engage in it in some way or other— or else quit and get out. In short, the choice is not between a moral authority outside custom and one within it. It is between adopting more or less intelligent and significant customs.

Curiously enough, the chief practical effect of refusing to recognize the connection of custom with moral standards is to deify some special custom and treat it as eternal, immutable, outside of criticism and revision.

(82) This consequence is especially harmful in times of rapid social flux. For it leads to disparity between nominal standards, which become ineffectual and hypocritical in exact ratio to their theoretical exaltation, and actual habits which have to take note of existing conditions. The disparity breeds disorder. Irregularity and confusion are however practically intolerable, and effect the generation of a new rule of some sort or other. Only such complete disturbance of the physical bases of life and security as comes from plague and starvation can throw society into utter disorder. No amount of intellectual transition can seriously disturb the main tenor of custom, or morals. Hence the greater danger which attends the attempt in period of social change to maintain the immutability of old standards is not. general moral relaxation. It is rather social clash, an irreconciled conflict of moral standards and purposes, the most serious form of class warfare.

For segregated classes develop their own customs, which is to say their own working morals. As long as society is mainly immobile these diverse principles and ruling aims do not clash. They exist side by side in different strata. Power, glory, honor, magnificence, mutual faith here; industry, obedience, abstinence, humility, and reverence there: noble arid plebeian virtues. Vigor, courage, energy, enterprise here; submission, patience, charm, personal fidelity there: the masculine and feminine virtues. But mobility invades society. War, commerce, travel, communication, contact with the thoughts and desires of other classes, new

(83) inventions in productive industry, disturb the settled distribution of customs. Congealed habits thaw out, and a flood mixes things once separated.

Each class is rigidly sure of the rightness of its own ends and hence not overscrupulous about the means of attaining them. One side proclaims the ultimacy of order— that of some old order which conduces to its own interest. The other side proclaims its rights to freedom, and identifies justice with its submerged claims. There is no common ground, no moral understanding, no agreed upon standard of appeal. Today such a conflict occurs between propertied classes and those who depend upon daily wage; between men and women; between old and young. Each appeals to its own standard of right, and each thinks the other the creature of personal desire, whim or obstinacy. Mobility has affected peoples as well. Nations and races face one another, each with its own immutable standards. Never before in history have there existed such numerous contacts and minglings. Never before have there been such occasions for conflict which are the more significant because each side feels that it is supported by moral principles. Customs relating to what has been and emotions referring to what may come to be go their independent ways. The demand of each side treats its opponent as a wilful violator of moral principles, an expression of self-interest or superior might. Intelligence which is the only possible messenger of reconciliation dwells in a far land of abstractions or comes after the event to record accomplished facts.


  1. "The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas."

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2