Human Nature and Conduct

Part 3: The Place of Intelligence:
V. The Uniqueness of Good

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The reason for dividing conduct into two distinct regions, one of expediency and the other of morality, disappears when the psychology that identifies ordinary deliberation with calculation is disposed of. There is seen to be but one issue involved in all reflection upon conduct: The rectifying of present troubles, the harmonizing of present incompatibilities by projecting a course of action which gathers into itself the meaning of them all. The recognition of the true psychology also reveals to us the nature of good or satisfaction. Good consists in the meaning that is experienced to belong to an activity when conflict and entanglement of various incompatible impulses and habits terminate in a unified orderly release in action. This human good, being a fulfilment conditioned upon thought, differs from the pleasures which an animal nature— of course we also remain animals so far as we do not think— hits upon accidentally. Moreover there is a genuine difference between a false good, a spurious satisfaction, and a " true " good, and there is an empirical test for discovering the difference. The unification which ends thought in act may be only a superficial compromise, not a real decision but a postponement of the issue.. Many of our so-called decisions are of this nature. Or it may present, as we have seen, a victory of a tem-

(211) -porarily intense impulse over its rivals, a unity by oppression and suppression, not by coordination. These seeming unifications which are not unifications of fact are revealed by the event, by subsequent occurrences. It is one of the penalties of evil choice, perhaps the chief penalty, that the wrong-doer becomes more and more incapable of detecting these objective revelations of himself.

In quality, the good is never twice alike. It never copies itself. It is new every morning, fresh every evening. It is unique in its every presentation For it marks the resolution of a distinctive complication of competing habits and impulses which can never repeat itself. Only with a habit rigid to the point of immobility could exactly the same good recur twice. And with such rigid routines the same good does not after all recur, for it does not even occur. There is no consciousness at all, either of good or bad. Rigid habits sink below the level. of any meaning at all. And since we live in a moving world, they plunge us finally against conditions to which they are not adapted and so terminate in disaster.

To utilitarianism with all its defects belongs the distinction of enforcing in an unforgettable way the fact; that moral good, like every good. consists in a satisfaction of the forces of human nature, in welfare, happiness. To Bentham remains, in spite of all crudities and eccentricities, the imperishable renown of forcing home to the popular consciousness that " conscience," intelligence applied to in moral matters, is too often

(212) not intelligence but is veiled caprice, dogmatic ipse dixitism, vested class interest. It is truly conscience only as it contributes to relief of misery and promotion of happiness. An examination of utilitarianism brings out however the catastrophe involved in thinking of the good to which intelligence is pertinent as consisting in future pleasures and pains, and moral reflection as their algebraic calculus. It emphasizes the contrast between such conceptions of good and of intelligence, and the facts of human nature according to which good, happiness, is found in the present meaning of activity, depending upon the proportion, order and freedom introduced into it by thought as it discovers( objects which release and unify otherwise contending elements.

An adequate discussion of why utilitarianism with its just insight into the central place of good, and its ardent devotion to rendering morals more intelligent and more equitably human took its one-sided course (and thereby provoked an intensified reaction to transcendental and dogmatic morals) would take us far afield into social conditions and the antecedent history of thought. We can deal with only one factor, the domination of intellectual interest by economic considerations. The industrial revolution was bound in any case to give anew direction to thought. It enforced liberation from other-worldly concerns by fixing attention upon the possibility of the betterment of this world through control and utilization of natural forces; it opened up marvelous possibilities in industry and commerce, and

(213) new social conditions conducive to invention, ingenuity, enterprise, constructive energy and an impersonal habit of mind dealing with mechanisms rather than appearances. But new movements do not start in a new and clear field. The context of old institutions and corresponding habits of thought persisted. The new movement was perverted in theory because prior established conditions deflected it in practice. Thus the new industrialism was largely the old feudalism, living in a bank instead of a castle and brandishing the check of credit instead of the sword.

An old theological doctrine of total depravity was continued and carried over in the idea of an inherent laziness of human nature which rendered it averse to useful work, unless bribed by expectations of pleasure, or driven by fears of pains. This being the " incentive " to action, it followed that the office of reason is only to enlighten the search for good or gain by instituting a more exact calculus of profit and loss. Happiness was thus identified with a maximum net gain of pleasures on the basis of analogy with business conducted for pecuniary profit, and directed by means of a science of accounting dealing with quantities of receipts and expenses expressed in definite monetary unit.[1] For business was conducted as matter of fact with primary reference to procuring gain and averting loss. Gain and loss were: reckoned in terms of units of

(214) money, assumed to be fixed and equal, exactly comparable whether loss or gain occurred, while business foresight reduced future prospects to definitely measured forms, to dollars and cents. A dollar is a dollar, past, present or future; and every business transaction, every expenditure and consumption of time, energy, goods, is, in theory, capable of exact statement in terms of dollars. Generalize this point of view into the notion that gain is the object of all action; that gain takes the form of pleasure; that there are definite, commensurable units of pleasure, which are exactly offset by units of pain (loss), and the working psychology of the Benthamite school is at hand.

Now admitting that the device of money accounting makes possible more exact estimates of the consequences of many acts than is otherwise possible, and that accordingly the use of money and accounting may work a triumph for the application of intelligence in daily affairs, yet there exists a difference in kind between business calculation of profit and loss and deliberation upon what purposes to form. Some of these differences are inherent and insuperable. Others of them are due to the nature of present business conducted for pecuniary profit, and would disappear if business were conducted Primarily for service of needs. But it is important to see how in the latter case the assimilation of business accounting and normal deliberation would occur. For it would not consist in making deliberation identical with calculation of loss and gain; it would proceed in the opposite direction. It would make accounting and

(215) auditing a subordinate factor in discovering the meaning of present activity. Calculation would be a means of stating future results more exactly and objectively and thus of making action more humane. Its function would be that of statistics in all social science.

But first as to the inherent difference between deliberation regarding business profit and loss and deliberation about ordinary conduct. The distinction between wide and narrow use of reason has already been noted. The latter holds a fixed end in view and deliberates only upon means of reaching it. The former regards the end-in-view in deliberation as tentative and permits, nay encourages the coming into view of consequences which will transform it and create a new purpose and plan. Now business calculation is obviously of the kind where the end is taken for granted and does not enter into deliberation. It resembles the case in which a man has already made his final decision, say to take a walk, and deliberates only upon what walk to take. His end-in-view already exists; it is not questioned. The question is as to comparative advantages of this tramp or that. Deliberation is not free but occurs within the limits of a decision reached by some prior deliberation or else fixed by unthinking routine. Suppose, however, that a man's question is not which path to walk upon, but whether to walk or to stay with a friend whom continued confinement has rendered peevish and uninteresting as a companion. The utilitarian theory demands that in the latter case the two alternatives still be of the same kind, alike in qual-

(216) -ity, that their only difference be a quantitative one, of plus or minus in pleasure. This assumption that all desires and dispositions, all habits and impulses, are the same in quality is equivalent to the assertion that no real or significant conflict among them is possible; and hence there is no need of discovering an object and an activity which will bring them into unity. It asserts 'by implication that there is no genuine doubt or suspense as to the meaning of any impulse or habit. Their meaning is ready-made, fixed: pleasure. The only " problem " or doubt is as to the amount of pleasure (or pain) that is involved.

This assumption does violence to fact. The poignancy of situations that evoke reflection lies in the fact that we really do not know the meaning of the tendencies that are pressing for action. We have to search, to experiment. Deliberation is a work of discovery. Conflict is acute; one impulse carries us one way into one situation, and another impulse takes us another way to a radically different objective result. Deliberation is not an attempt to do away with this opposition of quality by reducing it to one of amount. It is an attempt to uncover the conflict in its full scope and bearing. What we want to find out is what difference each impulse and habit imports, to reveal qualitative incompatibilities by detecting the different courses to which they commit us, the different dispositions they form and foster, the different situations into which they plunge us.

In short, the thing actually at stake in any serious

(217) deliberation is not a difference of quantity, but what kind of person one is to become, what sort of self is in the making, what kind of a world is making. This. is plain enough in those crucial decisions where the course of life is thrown into widely different channels. where the pattern of life is rendered different and diversely dyed according as this alternative or that is chosen. Deliberation as to whether to be a merchant or a school teacher, a physician .or a politician is not a choice of quantities. It is just what it appears to be, a choice of careers which are incompatible with one another, within each of which definitive inclusions and rejections are involved. With the difference ii,. career belongs a difference in the constitution of the self, of habits of thought and feeling as well as of outward action. With it comes profound differences in all future objective relationships. Our minor decisions differ in acuteness and range, but not in principle. Our world does not so obviously Bang upon any one of them; but put together they make the world what it is in meaning for each one of us. Crucial decisions can hardly be more than a disclosure of the cumulative force of trivial choices.

A radical distinction thus exists between deliberation where the only question is whether to invest money in this bond or that stock, and deliberation where the primary decision is as to the hind of activity which is to be engaged in. Definite quantitative calculation is possible in the former case because a decision as to kind or direction of action does not have to be made. It has

(218) been decided already, whether by persistence of habit, or prior deliberation, that the man is to be an investor. The significant thing in decisions proper, the course of action, the kind of a self simply, doesn't enter in; it isn't in question. To reduce all cases of judgment of action to this simplified and comparatively unimportant case of calculation of quantities, is to miss the whole point of deliberation.[2]

It is another way of saying the same thing to note that business calculations about pecuniary gain never concern direct use in experience. They are, as such, not deliberations about good or satisfaction at all. The man who decides to put business activity before all other claims whatsoever, before that of family or country or art or science, does make a choice about satisfaction or good. But he makes it as a man, not as a business man. On the other hand, what is to be done with business profit when it accrues (except to invest it in similar undertakings) does not enter at all into a strictly business deliberation. Its use, in which alone good or satisfaction is found, is left indeterminate, contingent upon further deliberation, or else is left matter of routine habit. We do not eat money, or wear it, or marry it, or listen for musical strains to issue from it. If by ally chance a man prefers a less amount of money to a greater amount, it is not for economic reasons. Pecuniary profit in itself, in other words, is always strictly

(219) instrumental, and it is of the nature of this instrument to be effective in proportion to size. In choosing with respect to it, we are not making a significant choice, a choice of ends.

We have already seen, however, there is something abnormal and in the strict sense impossible in mere means, in, that is, instruments totally dissevered from ends. We may view economic activity in abstraction, but it does not exist by itself. Business takes for granted non-business uses to which its results are to be put. The stimuli for economic activity (in the sense in which business means activity subject to monetary reckoning) are found in non-pecuniary, non-economic activities. Taken by itself then economic action throws no light upon the nature of satisfaction and the relation of intelligence to it, because the whole question of satisfaction is either taken for granted or else is ignored by it. Only when money-making is itself taken as a good does it exhibit anything pertinent to the question. And when it is so taken, then the question is not one of future gain but of present activity and its meaning. Business then becomes an activity carried on for its own sake. It is then a career, a continuous occupation in which are developed daring, adventure, power, rivalry, overcoming of competitors, conspicuous achievement which attracts admiration, play of imagination, technical knowledge, skill in foresight and making combinations, management of men and goods and so on. In this case, it exemplifies what has been said about good or happiness as incorporating in itself

(220) at present the foreseen future consequences that result from intelligent action. The problem concerns the quality of such a good.

In short the attempt to assimilate other activities to the model of economic activity (defined as a calculated pursuit of gain) reverses the state of the facts. The " economic man " defined as a creature devoted to an enlightened or calculating pursuit of gain is morally objectionable because the conception of such a being empirically falsifies empirical facts. Love of pecuniary gain is an undoubted and powerful fact. But it and its importance are affairs of social not of psychological nature. It is not a primary fact which can be used to account for other phenomena. It depends upon other impulses and habits. It expresses and organizes the use to which they are put. It cannot be used to define the nature of desire, effort and satisfaction, because it embodies a socially selected type of desire and satisfaction. It affords, like steeple-chasing, or collecting postage stamps, seeking political office, astronomical observation of the heavens, a special case of desire, effort, and happiness. And like them it is subject to examination, criticism and valuation in the light of the place it occupies in the system of developing activities.

The reason that it is so easy and for specific purposes s6 useful to select economic activities and subject them to separate scientific treatment is because the men who engage in it are men who are also more than business men, whose usual habits may be more or less safely

(221) guessed at. As human beings they have desires and occupations which are affected by social custom, expectation and admiration. The uses to which gains will be put, that is the current scheme of activities into which they enter as factors, are passed over only because they are so inevitably present. Support of family, of church, philanthropic benefactions, political influence, automobiling, command of luxuries, freedom of movement, respect from others, are in general terms some of the obvious activities into which economic activity fits. This context of activities enters into the real make-up and meaning of economic activity. Calculated pursuit of gain is in fact never what it is made out to be when economic action is separated from the rest of life, for in fact it is what it is because of a complex social environment involving scientific, legal, political and domestic conditions.

A certain tragic fate seems to attend all intellectual movements. That of utilitarianism is suggested in the not infrequent criticism that it exaggerated the role of rational thought in human conduct, that it assumed that everybody is moved by conscious considerations and that all that is really necessary is to make the process of consideration sufficiently enlightened. Then it is objected that a better psychology reveals that men are not moved by thought but rather by instinct and habit. Thus a partially sound criticism is employed to conceal the one factor in utilitarianism from which we ought to learn something; is used to foster an obscurantist doctrine of trusting to impulse, instinct or intui-

(222) -tion. Neither the utilitarians nor any one else can exaggerate the proper office of reflection, of intelligence, in conduct. The mistake lay not here but in a false conception of what constitutes reflection, deliberation. The truth that men are not moved by consideration of self-interest, that men are not good judges of where their interests lie and are not moved to act by these judgments, cannot properly be converted into the belief that consideration of consequences is a negligible factor in conduct. So far as it is negligible fn fact it evinces the rudimentary character of civilization. We may indeed safely start from the assumption that impulse and habit, not thought, are the primary determinants of conduct. But the conclusion to be drawn from these facts is that the need is therefore the greater for cultivation of thought. The error of utilitarianism is not at this point. It is found in its wrong conception of what thought, deliberation, is and does.


  1. I owe the suggestion of this mode of interpreting the hedonistic calculus of utilitarianism to Dr. Wesley Mitchell. See his articles in Journal of Political Economy, vol. 18. Compare also his article in Political Science Quarterly, vol. 33.
  2. So far as I am aware Dr. H. W. Stuart was the first to point out this difference between economic and moral valuations in his essay in Studies in Logical Theory.

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