The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 24 Moral Behavior and Reflective Thinking[1]

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One might wonder whether the process of thinking in problems concerning value goes on as a series of scientific judgments, advancing first from one purpose to another and choosing between the two alternatives with respect to each purpose. That implies, however, a fixed set of values remaining the same. That is the assumption under what may be called Puritanism or Calvinism. There is a fixed set of values - this is good and that is bad - and then the only thing needed is to determine whether this comes under the category of the good or the category of the bad. Such a situation would be fairly scientific. It is illustrated in the field of law in dealing with crime. If one comes under the definition of crime, then one has done wrong; the thinking is perfectly definite. But the actual situations in which we live are continually changing our values themselves.

2. We are all of us in some sense changing the social order in which we belong; our very living does it, and we ourselves change as we go on; there is always action to answer to reaction in the social world. That process of continuing reconstruction is the process of value, and the only essential imperative I can see is that this essential social process has got to go on-the community, on the one hand, and the selves that make up the community. It has to continue not so much because the happiness of all 15 worth more than the happiness of the individual but, being what we are, we have to continue being social beings, and society is essential to the individual just as the individual is essential to society. That relationship has to be kept up, and

(461) the problem is how the essential social values involved can be maintained.

3. Supposing we take a situation of a man who wants to go to school and gives it up because of finding that he has people who are dependent upon him. Seemingly we have two values over against each other. The man might think the dependence of others upon him would have to exclude education. Nevertheless, the person would have to recognize the value of an academic education he is giving up, and such recognition would inevitably show itself in his efforts to independently study and read. Because he had finally accepted another value as seemingly more important, he would have a heightened sense of the value of that which he is giving up. It is just when we give something up that we get the most vivid sense of its value. The individual's way of life from that time on would be one in which he would supplement what training he had had by all other methods. He would not simply give up an education; he would see in what other fashion he could get an education. That is what we mean when we say we do not simply accept one value over against another; what we do is to define them and try to find a way in which we can recognize all the values involved in the problem.

4. We have no more right to neglect a real value than we have a right to neglect a fact in a scientific problem. In the solution of the problem we must take all relevant values into account. It is unfortunate to think of the solution in terms of taking the right value and rejecting the wrong value. This is done because so many of our moral problems are matters of conformity, fixed rules, where we are not considering the ends so much as whether we are going to conform to the rules of the society to which we belong. But in the problems in which values come in conflict with one another, we want to reconstruct our lives so as to take in all the values involved. It is conceivable that we may have to surrender values entirely for the present, but we ought to recognize them and fashion our lives in such a way that we can realize them if we possibly can.


5. Take the problem of whether a man should go to school and get a Doctor's degree or get into business. He has to consider which would be more valuable to him under the circumstances, which will express his interests best of all. It is a problem to him because in a way he desires both and has to evaluate his desires to see which is the greater. There is a conflict of desires just as much as there is a conflict of facts on the scientific side. The ideal, of course, would be to find a way of living that answers to all his interests. The interests in this case are those aroused by the specific problem. The real problem involves his whole future life. What I want to bring out is that the conflict between these two suggestions is really a conflict between hypotheses. As soon as a definite suggestion comes up, the individual thinks of another thing, and so on; he thinks of them because at once he feels the restriction of going into academic life where the financial rewards are smaller. Then any suggestion considered at once brings out some sort of a conflict, and that is stated in terms of a different hypothesis. What would be an ideal solution, as I have said , would be a way of life which would answer to all the interests. The hypotheses represent the conflicts between the different desires in conflict with one another. The problem is not just a problem of deciding whether to go into business or into an academic career; it is a question of whether the individual can get the interests that are his together in one sort of life or another. You take into account, in other words, all the values that arise, even when you reject certain values for the sake of others. You have to bring them all into the account. Your position in this field is like the position in the scientific field, where you have to take all the facts into account. The scientist that does not do that is morally wrong. On the valuational side, too, you must take into account all the values; you are morally wrong there if you refuse to consider certain ones. So the imperative you are under is to take into account all the values involved in the problem as far as it appears. And your solution has to have reference to all of them. It may not enable you to realize certain particular ones, but then you reject them

(463) on account of a greater value. If you go into the academic career, it is because that type of interest is more fascinating to you than the financial rewards you will get in business. But you must take all values into account.

6. Take the metaphysician who succeeds Spinoza and Hume --what must be his attitude if he is going to think clearly and properly? He should take into consideration all the values that previous philosophers have worked on. He has to get these values into the universe in which we live. There are, of course, such values as Spinoza and Hume have given: the comprehension of the situation does enable us to get out of the narrowness of our various experiences; while, on the other hand, the recognition of the inadequacy of our conceptions frees us, of course, from them. The moral is that you have to bring all these values in and make them a part of the statement which you are trying to formulate of the universe.

7. When we actually get two values into our experience in conflict, they appear not so much as ultimate satisfactions as in terms of the process of getting them. What we actually think about is the process of doing this and that. We want to do both, and then we present to ourselves the action as going on. In presenting the values in terms of imaginary experience, we bring them into relation, and we finally find ourselves doing this rather than that. We state values more in the actual process of carrying out the project than in terms of pleasure and pain, and then we bring these projects into relation with one another. We may be able to get both of the values by rearranging our conduct. We can state our ends in that sense in terms of means in reflective thinking. We see how far one value can be brought into harmonious relations with the others it conflicts with. Thinking is a process by means of which we do not simply put one value over against another; it is a process by means of which we can conserve, as far as possible, all the values involved. It is a mistake to interpret thinking as a selection of one value and the rejection of the others. We want a full life expressed in our instincts, our natures. Reflective thinking enables us to bring

(464) these different values into a field of possibility. If we can bring in all the values involved in the conflict, that is an ideal solution. From that standpoint reflective thinking as a technique is of supreme importance. It has the advantage in the field of value which scientific thinking has for the environmental problems we meet. By its means we try to reconstruct our world so that the two values shall both be brought in. Reflective thinking should lead us to recognize our values and help us to reconstruct our world so that as far as possible we can attain all of them.

8. You want to do something very much, but if you do it you will have to give up certain other things. Now, the important thing in your ethical situation is to state these actions as they define one another. Doing this thing, buying this particular object, means that you shall not do this, that, or the other thing. State the thing you are going to do in terms of the things you cannot do, so that they are clearly presented in their relation to one another-that is the fundamental thing in the ethical situation. Be able to state that this particular good thing means not doing something else, so that you evaluate them in terms of each other. Is this thing more worth while than another? You are actually weighing, so to speak, one over against the other. The important thing in moral behaving is defining the ends in terms of each other so that that which is excluding something else can be definitely stated in terms of the exclusion.

It does not mean you choose one and give up the other, but that you may reconstruct the situation so that you can get both. First of all, you aim to get ends before you, and in terms of each other. You can take that procedure into any problem you have where you arc uncertain as to what to do. If you can make a particular object state itself in terms of the other aims involved, you have done as much as you can in terms of thinking. It comes back to these values. What are they worth to you? What are you, as identified with this end? What sort of a self are you? That is, of course, the element of thinking; then there is a further statement of what you may call the hypothesis

(465) under which you are going to act. Now, you should not in any ethical problem leave out of account any end; even if it means a sacrifice, your conduct has to acknowledge that and take it into account. You give up something of value, and your conduct ought to recognize that value. Your final hypothesis, then, must take into account all the values involved.

You must bring into the field all the values involved and state them in terms of one another. And then, when you make your hypothesis, it must recognize the ends. A value is a value even if it has to be postponed; it is a value and has to be recognized as such. Now, clear thinking in the face of a problem is a value itself, and it is a value which is always essential to this phase of right conduct. It becomes, then, a value in itself. Of course, when we say it is a value in itself, we mean it is a value in so far as it enables us to act morally when trying to find out what is right. It is a value which in this sense is always present.

9. We have to allow all the ends or values involved to get into our decision --that is about the only statement in terms of method, so far as the ends themselves are concerned, that can be set up. That is the point at which we fail, if we do fail, in ethical thinking: we ignore certain values. The important thing is to bring all the ends involved into our thinking.

10. The moral question is not one of setting up a right value over against a wrong value; it is a question of finding the possibility of acting so as to take into account as far as possible all the values involved.


  1. Taken from student notes. Cf. Mind, Self, and Society, pp.379 ff.

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