Human Nature and Conduct

Part 3: The Place of Intelligence:
VII. The Nature of Principles

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Intelligence is concerned with foreseeing the future so that action may have order and direction. It is also concerned with principles and criteria of judgment. The diffused or wide applicability of habits is reflected in the general character of principles: a principle is intellectually what a habit is for direct action. As habits set in grooves dominate activity and swerve it from conditions instead of increasing its adaptability, so principles treated as fixed rules instead of as helpful methods take men away from experience. The more complicated the situation, and the less we really know about it, the more insistent is the orthodox type of moral theory upon the prior existence of some fixed and universal principle or law which is to be directly applied and followed. Ready-made rules available at a moment's notice for settling any kind of moral difficulty and resolving every species of moral doubt have been the chief object of the ambition of moralists. In the much less complicated and less changing matters of bodily health such pretensions are known as quackery. But in morals a hankering for certainty, born of timidity and nourished by love of authoritative prestige, has led to the idea that absence of immutably fixed and, universally applicable ready-made principles is equivalent to moral chaos.


In fact, situations into which change and the unexpected enter are a challenge to intelligence to create new principles. Morals must be a growing science if it is to be a science at all, not merely because all truth has not yet been appropriated by the mind of man, but because life is a moving affair in which old moral truth ceases to apply. Principles are methods of inquiry and forecast which require verification by the event; and the time honored effort to assimilate morals to mathematics is only a way of bolstering up an old dogmatic authority, or putting a new one upon the throne of the old. But the experimental character of moral judgments does not mean complete uncertainty and fluidity. Principles exist as hypotheses with which to experiment. Human history is long. There is a long record of past experimentation in conduct, and there are cumulative, verifications which give many principles a well earned prestige. Lightly to disregard them is the height of foolishness. But social situations alter; and it is also foolish not to observe how old principles actually work under new conditions, and not to modify them so that they will be more effectual instruments in judging new cases. Many men are now aware of the harm done in legal matters by assuming the antecedent existence of fixed principles under which every new case may be brought. They recognize that this assumption merely puts an artificial premium on ideas developed under bygone conditions, and that their perpetuation in the present works inequity. Yet the choice is not between throwing away rules previously developed and sticking

(240) obstinately by them. The intelligent alternative is to revise, adapt, expand and alter them. The problem is one of continuous, vital readaptation.

The popular objection to casuistry is similar to the popular objection to the maxim that the end justifies the means. It is creditable to practical moral sense, but not to popular logical consistency. For recourse to casuistry is the only conclusion which can be drawn from belief in fixed universal principles, just as the Jesuit maxim is the only conclusion proper to be drawn from belief in fixed ends. Every act, every deed is individual. What is the sense in having fixed general rules, commandments, laws, unless they are such as to confer upon individual cases of action (where alone instruction is finally needed) something of their own infallible certainty? Casuistry, so-called, is simply the systematic effort to secure for particular instances of conduct the advantage of general rules which are asserted and believed in. By those who accept the notion of immutable regulating principles, casuistry ought to be lauded for sincerity and helpfulness, not dispraised as it usually is. Or else men ought to carry back their aversion to manipulation of particular cases, until they will fit into the procrustean beds of fixed rules, to the pint where it is clear that all principles are empirical generalizations from the ways in which previous judgments of conduct have practically worked out. When this fact is apparent, these generalizations will be seen to be not fixed rules for deciding doubtful cases, but instrumentalities for their investigation, methods by

(241) which the net value of past experience is rendered available for present scrutiny of new perplexities. Then it will also follow that they are hypotheses to be tested and revised by their further working.[1]

Every such statement meets with prompt objection. We are told that in deliberation rival goods present themselves. We are faced by competing desires and ends which are incompatible with one another. They are all attractive, seductive. How then shall we choose among them? We can choose rationally among values, the argument continues, only if we have some fixed measure of values, just as we decide the respective lengths of physical things by recourse to the fixed foot-rule. One might reply that after all there is no fixed foot-rule, no fixed foot " in itself " and that the standard length or weight of measure is only another special portion of matter, subject to change from heat, moisture and gravitational position, defined only by conditions, relations. One might reply that the foot-rule is a tool which has been worked out in actual prior comparisons of concrete things for use in facilitating further comparisons. But we content ourselves with remarking that we find in this conception of a fixed antecedent standard another manifestation of the desire to escape the strain of the actual moral situation, its genuine uncertainty of possibilities and consequences.

(242) We are confronted with another case of the all too human love of certainty, a case of the wish for an intellectual patent issued by authority. The issue after all is one of fact. The critic is not entitled to enforce against the facts his private wish for a ready-made standard which will relieve him from the burden of examination, observation and continuing generalization and test.

The worth of this private wish is moreover open to question in the light of the history of the development of natural science. There was a time when in astronomy, chemistry and biology men claimed that judgment of individual phenomena was possible only because the mind was already in possession of fixed truths, universal principles, pre-ordained axioms. Only by their means could contingent, varying particular events be truly known. There was, it was argued, no way to judge the truth of any particular statement about a particular plant, heavenly body, or case of combustion unless there was a general truth already in hand with which to compare a particular empirical occurrence. The contention was successful, that is for a long time it maintained its hold upon men's minds. But its effect was merely to encourage intellectual laziness, reliance upon authority and blind acceptance of conceptions that had somehow become traditional. The actual advance of science did not begin till men broke away from this method. When men insisted upon judging astronomical phenomena by bringing them directly under established truths, those of geometry, they had

(243) no astronomy, but only a private esthetic construction. Astronomy began when men trusted themselves to embarking upon the uncertain sea of events and were willing to be instructed by changes in the concrete. Then antecedent principles were tentatively employed as methods for conducting observations and experiments, and for organizing special facts: as hypotheses.

In morals now, as in physical science then, the work intelligence in reaching such relative certainty, or tested probability, as is open to man is retarded by the false notion of fled antecedent truths. Prejudice is confirmed. Rules formed accidentally or under the pressure of conditions long past, are protected from criticism and thus perpetuated. Every group and person vested with authority strengthens possessed power by harping upon the sacredness of immutable principle. Moral facts, that is the concrete careers of special courses of action, are not studied. There is no counterpart to clinical medicine. Rigid classifications forced upon facts are relied upon. And all is done, as it used to be done in natural science, in praise of Reason and in fear of the variety and fluctuation of actual happenings.

The hypothesis that each moral situation is unique and flint consequently general moral principles are instrumental to developing the individualized meaning o1 situations is declared to be anarchic. It is said to be ethical atomism, pulverizing the order and dignity of morals. The question, again is not what our inherited habits lead us to prefer, but where the facts take us

(244) But in this instance the facts do not take us into atomism and anarchy. These things are specters seen by the critic when he is suddenly confused by the loss of customary spectacles. He takes his own confusion due to loss of artificial aids for an objective situation. Because situations in which deliberation is evoked are new, and therefore unique, general principles are needed. Only an uncritical vagueness will assume that the sole alternative to fixed generality is absence of continuity. Rigid habits insist upon duplication, repetition, recurrence; in their case there is accordingly fixed principles. Only there is no principle at all, that is, no conscious intellectual rule, for thought is not needed. But all habit has continuity, and while a flexible habit does not secure in its operation bare recurrence nor absolute assurance neither does it plunge us into the hopeless confusion of the absolutely different. To insist upon change and the new is to insist upon alteration o f the old. In denying that the meaning of any genuine case of deliberation can be exhausted by treating it as a mere case of an established classification the value of classification is not denied. It is shown where its value lies, namely, in directing attention to resemblances and differences in the new case, in economizing effort in foresight. To call a generalization a tool is not to say it. is useless; the contrary is patently the case. A tool is something to use. Hence it is also something to be improved by noting how it works. The need of such noting and improving is indispensable if, as is the case with moral principles, the tool has to be used in unwonted

( 245) circumstances. Continuity of growth not atomism is thus the alternative to fixity of principles and aims. This is no Bergsonian plea for dividing the universe into two portions, one all of fixed, recurrent habits, and the other all spontaneity of flux. Only in such a universe would reason in morals have to take its choice between absolute fixity and absolute looseness.

Nothing is more instructive about the genuine value of generalization in conduct than the errors of Kant. He took the doctrine that the essence of reason is complete universality (and hence necessity and immutability), with the seriousness becoming the professor of logic. Applying the doctrine to morality he saw that this conception severed morals from connection with experience. Other moralists had gone that far before his day. But none of them had done what Kant proceeded to do: carry this separation of moral principles and ideals from experience to its logical conclusion. He saw that to exclude from principles all connection with empirical details meant to exclude all reference of any kind to consequences. He then saw with a clearness which does his logic credit that with such exclusion, reason becomes entirely empty: nothing is left except the universality of the universal—  He was then confronted by the seemingly insoluble problem of getting moral instruction regarding special cases out of a principle that having forsworn intercourse with experience was barren and empty. His ingenious method was as follows. Forma universality means at least logical identity; it means

(246) self-consistency or absence of contradiction. Hence follows the method by which a would-be truly moral ,Agent will proceed in judging the rightness of any proposed act. He will ask: Can its motive be made universal for all cases? How would one like it if by one's act one's motive in that act were to be erected into a universal law of actual nature? `'Would one then be willing to make the same choice?

Surely a man would hesitate to steal if by his choice to make stealing the motive of his act he were also to erect it into such a fixed law of nature that henceforth he and everybody else would always steal whenever property was in question. No stealing without property, and with universal stealing also no property; a clear self-contradiction. Looked at in the light of reason every mean, insincere, inconsiderate motive of action shrivels into a private exception which a person wants to take advantage of in his own favor, and which he would be horrified to have others act upon. It violates the great principle of logic that A is A. Kindly, decent acts, on the contrary, extend and multiply themselves in a continuing harmony.

This treatment by Kant evinces deep insight into the office of intelligence and principle in conduct. But it involves flat contradiction of Kant's own original intention to exclude consideration of concrete consequences. It turns out to be a method of recommending a broad impartial view of consequences. Our forecast of consequences is always subject, as we have noted, to the bias of impulse and habit. We see what we want to

(247) see, we obscure what is unfavorable to a cherished, probably unavowed, wish. We dwell upon favoring circum stances till they become weighted with reinforcing considerations. We don't give opposing consequences half a chance to develop in thought. Deliberation needs every possible help it can get against the twisting, exaggerating and slighting tendency of passion and habit. To form the habit of asking how we should be willing to be treated in a similar case— which is what Kant's maxim amounts to— is to gain an ally for impartial and sincere deliberation and judgment. It is a safeguard against our tendency to regard our own case as exceptional in comparison with the case of others. " Just this once," a plea for isolation; secrecy — a plea for non-inspection, are forces which operate in every passionate desire. Demand for consistency, for " universality," far from implying a rejection of all consequences, is a demand to survey consequences broadly, to link effect to effect in a chain of continuity. Whatever force works to this end is reason. For reason, let it be repeated is an outcome, a function, not a primitive force. What we need are those habits, dispositions which lead to impartial and consistent foresight of consequences. Then our judgments are reasonable; we are then reasonable creatures.


  1. Among contemporary moralists, Mr. G. E. Moore may be cited as almost alone in having the courage of the convictions shared by many. He insists that it is the true business of moral theory to enable men to arrive at precise and sure judgments in concrete cases of moral perplexity.

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