Institutional Behavior

Chapter 3 :  The Good Life —Is it an Individual or a Societal Goal?

Floyd Henry Allport

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ON THE MORNING of July 4, 1927, the routine of Sing Sing Prison was disturbed by a tragic accident. The inmates were taking their exercise in the prison yard overlooking the Hudson River, when a canoe bearing three young men with supplies and equipment for a picnic came unsteadily down the river, the surface of which was roughened by a fresh wind. When near the prison pier the canoe capsized. Convicts who saw the incident moved, as if by impulse, toward the three figures who were struggling in the water. Apparently unable to swim the youths were clinging to the sides of the overturned craft and calling for help. Six of the prisoners volunteered, even begged with tears in their eyes, for permission to swim out to the rescue; but the keepers, who carried rifles in their hands, would not allow it. According to the warden himself, the guards had to threaten to shoot the prisoners in order to keep them back. One by one the victims, their strength ebbing and their cries dying away, sank into the river and disappeared. It was reported that the incident produced a profound depression throughout the prison, dampening the holiday spirit which might otherwise have prevailed.

In a perfectly organized society affairs usually run smoothly. Institutions, both economic and political, when times are normal, appear to work automatically for the general maintenance and security. Life does not have to be protected by romantic deeds of heroism. But every once in a while something unexpected happens; some situation arises for which no provision has been made. At such times there spring to the rescue the peculiar initiative, versatility, and courage which can be found neither in industrial machinery nor in dissociated institutional habits, but only in entire living, human creatures. We are then reminded that life is not yet completely standardized and that there is still a place for the unique and the individual. It is at these points, which are

(50) often the crises in human affairs, that the conflict must be waged between routine institutional habits and the values of men and women as individuals. Sometimes the individual wins ; and the institutions, as we say, are compelled to change. Again, as on that morning in Sing Sing Prison, institutional habits are given full control.

But what could have been done? Here were the keepers bound by their honor and by the law to guard the prisoners in their charge. No discretion in the matter had been given them, nor could any be given without endangering the entire discipline of the prison. The duty of the guards to `society' was the maintaining of our penal system whatever the cost to particular individuals. True enough. But we must also face the stark fact that three human beings were drowned within easy rescuing distance of those who made no effective move to help. That system which is supposed to prevent criminals from injuring society and possibly to reform them operated, in this instance, to keep them from doing a humane act, an act to which they were spurred by some of the strongest and most altruistic impulses of mankind. The case is not an easy one to decide. In view of our social organization as it now exists, we cannot blame the prison sentries for failing to see their way out of the dilemma. They had to choose between sacrificing the lives of certain particular individuals and the established habits upon which social order and security are considered to be based. The conflict lay between the organization of habits which makes for a stable `society' and the freedom of individuals to act according to their personal values. The problem does not admit of any immediate solution. No exact provision for such an emergency could have been foreseen and fore-ordained by authorities for inclusion within the institutional regulations and routine. The only way out of the difficulty lies in a more fundamental questioning and appraisal of institutionalism itself, of the social philosophy which has given rise to such dilemmas.

Some one will probably object that my selection of the prison episode as an illustration was unfortunate. Criminals are not in a full sense members of society, but are more like enemies who are beyond the pale. As a small minority who have sacrificed the

(51) right to live as other people, they must not only be prevented from doing further evil, but must expect to lose their opportunity for doing good. Institutions, it will be argued, on the whole further, rather than hamper, moral freedom. My example, I admit was somewhat extreme. Many other instances, however, could be cited. On November 13, 1928, the people of the civilized world were shocked by the news of one of the worst maritime disasters of recent years, the foundering of the ship Vestris off the coast of Virginia Capes. This tragedy was attributed by many to the stupidity, neglect, selfishness, or cowardice of certain persons in charge. What interests us here, however, is not the allocation of responsibility, but certain attitudes which may have motivated the persons who were responsible. In answer to numerous critics, there was published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly on December 7 of that year a defense of the officers both of the Vestris and of other vessels to whose delinquency the disaster had been charged. Following a statement concerning the captain's justification in trying to get his ship straight unaided and the question of chivalry in the use of life boats, the article continues

The question now arises, What is the duty of a ship, heavily loaded, bound east for Cardiff, let us say, when she picks up a call from a vessel 150 miles behind her who is seeking aid? She has a duty to her owners and her charterers, and for that matter to her own personnel. She may have neither the speed nor the seaworthiness to manoeuvre close to a foundering vessel in a heavy gale. She may suffer damage in the attempt to fight the weather. The present writer crossed the Atlantic a few months ago in a 23,000-ton liner. Three days out from Europe, in a howling western ocean gale, she received a call from a steamer to the westward, but off her course. She changed her course and pounded at full speed into the wildest of September storms. Word then came that a German liner was standing by the ship, and anyway she was not in great danger. Our liner resumed her voyage, but in the course of that abortive `errand of mercy' she had had her forward coaming smashed and driven on to the forward winches—smashing them as well—she had lost her steerage galley-stack, and one of the pins that swing the cargo booms, four inches round steel, had been snapped like a carrot.

Now, besides the coal burned, who is to pay for all this?


Ships are commercial enterprises, not romantic vehicles of sentiment.[1]

Here again, the defenses raised by the champions of institutions as against individual initiative and heroism are difficult to undermine. If we accept social organization as it is, we must admit that the readiness to rescue a fellow vessel in peril invites danger and loss, not only to the immediate personnel, but to merchants, shipowners, insurance companies, and investors in large numbers. Interlocked as we all are in the complex economic, system of society, there is no room for the enterprise of a few adventurous spirits who might, by a well-meant though ill-advised action, jeopardize the welfare of thousands. The day of individual heroism is passed. But here again, in the case of the Vestris, the hard fact remains that scores of people went to their death under circumstances which might, in some other system, have been avoided. One of the most fundamental human impulses, that of saving a human life, was thrust aside; the security of goods and economic habits was preserved. The failure to solve the difficulty is not due to our dullness at the moment it is presented, but to our habits of social organization which makes us creatures of these unanswerable dilemmas.


So far as explicit human experience can go, society, of course, is nothing other than the totality of the individuals of whom it is composed. But while, in theory, it is supposed to embrace the totality of the life processes, interests, and desires of every individual, society as it is represented in the practice of institutional leaders is something very different. It consists for them hot of the whole of every individual, but of certain segments only, certain common interests together with the common, institutional habits which have been developed in the population to protect these interests. When officials establish a Federal Reserve, a tariff, or a public utilities commission, they do so in the name of the society which they are supposed to represent. But the society, taken in this sense, is not the totality of every being within it. The

(53) Federal Reserve loans facilitate only a certain phase for example, the financial aspects of the lives of farmers. Other aspects of their lives neither this agency of government nor any other may be able to support. The tariff procedure aids the industrial and commercial habits of manufacturers; it does not represent an expression of the values of manufacturers as whole individuals, nor does it foster even the economic aspect of life within certain other classes. Society in this sense consists of interests which are a part of many individuals (of some usually more than of others) ; and yet it fully includes nobody. A totally inclusive society, which would be the same as all the individuals in their full biological and psychological reality, would be far too complex and unwieldy to be used for purposes of concerted leadership, representation, or control. The wholeness of life within any community, large or small, has no handle by which it can be manipulated.

Now there are two types of ethicists among social students. The one type see the highest good in terms of the welfare and conduct of separate individuals, the other in terms of society as a whole. The individual and society, though identical as an ideal, are, as we have shown, usually different in practice. For this reason the implications of an ethics of `society' will differ from those of an ethics of `individuals.' The highest good of society must mean, if it is to be definite and workable, a conception of the good life as realized in a system of perfectly adjusted social institutions. It represents an order which affords the maximum satisfaction of those needs and interests to which one can minister through social organization; but which satisfies certain needs common to a great number rather than the total array of needs peculiar to any given individual. The highest good from an individual standpoint is, on the other hand, something more inclusive, more intimate, and more complex. It means, in the large, the ideals unique and peculiar to each separate individual. It is an individual's own life aim.

But society and the individual personality, so far as practical living is concerned, are both rather vague, intangible notions. Let us lay aside the question of what they are, and think of them in the same way that a scientist uses concepts in his investigation of nature—namely, as an aid in making reliable predictions of

(54) events. Regardless of their metaphysical status, these two concepts give us two opposed points of view which have radically different consequences. From either viewpoint we can make certain predictions which, from the other, would be impossible. Both of these types of prediction having a reliability well above chance, afford opportunities for the understanding and guidance of human affairs. But the opportunities are different. From the societal standpoint, for example, by knowing the law of property which prevails in a certain region, we can predict fairly well the behavior of an individual of that region toward a piece of land, an implement, a deed, a ship, or anything which may be said to be owned. We can foretell from the societal viewpoint that an individual appearing on the street will wear clothes, and even that lie will wear a collar. We can, in ordinary times, predict with fair certainty that property owners will pay taxes. We can forecast the fact that people will pay their fares upon street cars, or that a certain proportion of citizens in a given political district will vote the Republican ticket or will contribute to an organized charity. All of these predictions are possible because we overlook individual differences and think in terms of uniformities and averages. Our forecast is based upon the fact that human behavior in certain respects is pretty largely the same throughout a given population.

But obviously, such a type of prediction can cover only a part of our experience of our fellows. There is a considerable portion in the lives of men and women which can be predicted only if we know the character or personality of the particular individual concerned. A study of `society' will enable us to foretell that the behavior of an individual will conform to certain laws regarding property; but it will not help us to predict whether or not a given individual will be likely to acquire property. Neither will it tell us what kind of property he will require, nor the personal use he will make of it. Predictions of this latter type, however, are often possible from a knowledge of an individual's capacities and traits; and while much less reliable than the predictions of physical scientists, they are, nevertheless, of considerable use in the intelligent direction of human affairs. From the societal angle we can predict that an individual will wear a

(55) necktie (because such an adornment is characteristic in his social class) ; but we must stop there. From the individual viewpoint we might, if we knew the person, predict within fair limits the type of necktie he will wear. From the statistics of a given community we can tell in advance the approximate average contribution to the Community Chest, and what proportion of the citizens will contribute; but only a familiarity with the individuals as whole personalities will help us to foretell the attitudes or contributions of the particular donors, or enable us to predict the changes which they may make in their later contributions. A knowledge of individuals, in fact, will sometimes enable us to foretell exceptional conduct, behavior, that is, which goes directly against the customary expectation. There may be an occasional ship captain who in an emergency will risk large economic losses to his employers rather than endanger the life of a single passenger. We might be able, from a knowledge of the person himself, to forecast such an event. Similarly we can say with fair assurance that certain exceptional individuals, if given an opportunity, will fail to deposit their bus fare or to pay their full taxes. Predictions made upon a societal basis rest upon the standardized conduct, or the likenesses, of individuals ; predictions from the individual viewpoint rest upon consistent personal differences. On many occasions we say: "That is just like Mr. X," or "Mr. S, being the man he is, will be sure to say or think so and so." Such an understanding judgment of future conduct is possible not because Mr. X is like everyone else, but precisely because he is different, and different in his own way.

This manner of thinking of society and personality as types of predictable behavior, rather than as souls or as group minds, seems to me at once the soundest and the most workable conception. The physicist uses such terms as `gravitation' and 'electromagnetism' in a similar way. Just as no one ever was known to see or to touch a `society' or a `personality,' so no one has ever encountered directly such things as electricity or the force of gravity. These terms are simply shorthand expressions for more complex formulas describing the manner in which things behave. Likewise, by employing the terms `society' and `individuality' we are giving a convenient classification of certain past observations

(56) by the use of which we not only describe those phases of life which exhibit some regularity, but forecast the future and provide a useful guide to present conduct. Confusion arises only when we think of these concepts as entities, societal or personal, which control human events. So far as explicit experience goes, personality and society are not beings or powers. They are known to us, upon the one hand, merely as those acts of behavior which can be predicted only by knowing one individual intimately, and upon the other hand, as those acts which can be predicted by knowing a great many individuals superficially or in part.

The capacity for prediction brings with it the possibility of direction and choice. Here however, we enter the field of values; our problem is an ethical, rather than a scientific one. Independently of scientific aims we must decide upon the kind of life which we think is best, and then try so to arrange the conditions of living as to make that life possible. And in making these arrangements our ability to make predictions of the conduct to which they give rise will be of substantial value. This is so not, to human knowledge, because of any force exerted by the laws we have formulated, but merely because certain events seem to follow others with a kind of regularity. When we know what kind bf stimulations precede certain responses, we can employ such stimulations with the fair assurance that the desired behavior will be forthcoming. We can not really control natural events in the sense of wielding a force by which to coerce them; but we can `set the stage' so that, when these events come to pass, their occurrence will affect us in certain desired ways.


It is at this point that the divergence between the ethics of society and the ethics of individuals becomes significant. If we are interested in the former, the type of prediction we shall use will be that of societal happenings. We shall picture as a goal the most desirable institutions or uniformities of behavior, and we shall seek by a knowledge of the common human tendencies, both native and acquired, to bring such behavior about. If, on the other hand, we consider the highest good to be the cultivation of individuals' personalities (for though individuals develop in a social

(57) environment, each personality is, in many ways, unique), then we shall study the trends exhibited by an individual regardless of any institutional scheme in which he may be functioning, and shall provide for the development of habits which will fit consistently into the growing pattern of that individual's life. We must choose between these two courses if we wish to attain the maximum development of either. It will not do to say that we will so plan our societal institutions as to give the greatest possible freedom for individual development, unless we wish to give up the goal of perfectly integrated institutions and go over to the individualists' position. For the conditions of maximum individual differentiation require not a certain type of planning, so much as an absence, or at least a great reduction, of planning. Individuality may be said to thrive only when the goal of a perfectly coördinated, institutionalized society is abandoned. We have seen that, while society and individuals are the same in theory, the society in which organization and institutional leadership are possible is not the same as the total life of the individuals which comprise it. As between the good life to be realized through society and the good life to be realized through individuals we must therefore make our choice. We cannot look for character uniformities and expect to see characteristic differences. We Can set the stage for either scene, but we cannot set it for both.

If, for example, our formula for the highest type of society were worked out through an economic viewpoint and emphasis, we should teach individuals, in a uniform manner, the privileges and responsibilities attaching to the use of capital, the division of labor, and the spending of money. Conformity to the economic institutions which have been worked out for the welfare of all is, under this scheme, the ethical goal of human behavior. Under the individualistic ethics, however, such instruction would be relegated to a minor place under the motto "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." In such a system a man might risk the loss of the ship of which he was captain, whether it was owned by himself or others, in order to save human lives. He might give away his money lavishly, rather than invest it in some enterprise which would increase production. Obedience to law becomes, for an institutionalist, an absolute moral duty, a good in itself; though

(58) he would, perhaps, admit that the purpose of laws is ultimately the promotion of individual welfare. To an individualist in ethics obedience to law is a relative, not an absolute, good. Laws, to him, are of no use whatever except as they are instrumental to self-realization among the greatest possible number of individuals ; and this goal may sometimes be better approached by disobedience than by obedience.

To train for a societal ethics we employ only simple and uniform stimuli. Little or no variation in the field of choices is permitted. To encourage the search for the highest good through unique personalities, on the other hand, we must provide an almost endless variety of situations. In order to inculcate the standards of an ideal `society' there must be a functional meeting between individuals and those particular institutional habits of others through which the ideals of society are, as it were, transmitted. In order to promote the development of a unique individual there must be a free mingling with other individuals, not merely in respect to institutional segments of their behavior, but in all the face to face, informal relationships of community or family living. Only complete and differing personalities can provide the context in which personality can be developed. Notwithstanding the popularity of the slogan that the individual and society are one and the same thing and that to work for the one is to work also for the other, the `society' which can be used by leaders and reformers for practical ends is really not the same as the individuals. Still less can we convince ourselves that it is a being which is greater and more inclusive than any individual. It is, rather, a common segment of the individuals' activities. It is an abstract system composed of parts of individuals and not of wholes. And when we are working toward the efficient inter-functioning of these parts we are not directly, but only half consciously and fortuitously, affecting the welfare of the individuals themselves. We are setting the stage for uniformities of action rather than for those variations through which alone the traits of individuals can be expressed. That which happens to the whole, biological person is often a mere accident which we are powerless from our institutional standpoint to prevent or alter.



Those who take the societal view of ethics have as a goal the creation of an integrated, harmonious, and consistent society in which the creature wants of individuals are satisfied and life becomes stable and secure. The safe-guarding of human welfare is largely divorced from individuals' motives and transferred to society; and `society' being considered as altruistic is depended upon to take care of its own. The advocates of the individual ethics, on the other hand, picture as the good life that in which personalities, rather than society, become integrated, consistent and harmonious. If we espouse the latter cause, we aim toward the expression of all the various and multiform interests of each individual, rather than toward the expression of a narrow but fundamental group of interests common to all. In reaching this objective it is inevitable that the common interests, which are called the `interests of society,' cannot be so effectively conserved as in the program of the societal ethicist, In order to achieve individuality  there must be some occasion for chance and hazard. There must be a relaxing of the uniformity of behavior, with the result that the routine requirements of life will not be so carefully met. Institutional habits, in the very degree to which they offer security, sometimes destroy the opportunity for self-expression. It is when our institutions `go wrong,' when ships are sinking, t that individual values and personal traits emerge in their clearest form. This is the dilemma of our present civilization. While still longing for individual initiative and responsibility, we have progressed, unconsciously perhaps, but steadily, in the direction of an ethics whose reference is primarily to the good of society and only indirectly to the good of individuals.

Those who are seeking the good life through the agency of a perfected society envisage the highest good as something which is absolute; it is the same for all. They also regard it as static and unchanging. Societies, of course, may differ in the degree in which they approximate this goal; but the ideal of the good itself is considered by them as something objective, transcendent, and final. Plato becomes the accepted philosopher of this school. An individualist, on the other hand, leans toward Aristotle. He

(60) envisages the good life as dynamic rather than static, relative rather than absolute. It is a concept which is always changing, even for the individual himself. There is no final, perfect life toward which we are working, but only the manner of living which, at each stage of our development, seems best. The goodness of life, in this view, lies in the living itself, not in the goal toward which, in living, we progress. The good life is not only different at different periods of our existence; it differs also for every individual. There are potentially as many `best lives' as there are people to live them.

It is not my purpose to offer a new solution of this age old controversy. The predilection for the one philosophy or the other may depend largely upon differences of temperament and training. There have been in the past, and perhaps there always will be, both Platonists and Aristotelians. There is, however, need for clarifying the issue with respect particularly to the trends in our present existence. We need a more complete awareness of the consequences of these two ethical viewpoints, so that our choice between them, or possibly our attempt at their reconciliation, may be more intelligently guided. It is necessary for us to scrutinize our manner of speaking, to test our conceptual implements, so $that in attempting our solution of human problems we do not mistake a terminological concealment of one of these concepts for a satisfactory realization of both. Let us not delude ourselves into believing that in a morally ordered society the moral freedom of individuals is necessarily presupposed. Where only a single individual is involved, the doctrine of the objective reality of ethical universals may not hamper freedom; for if a single individual is the only one concerned, the highest good, though regarded as absolute and unchanging, is still a product of that individual's own shaping and choosing. But where great numbers of individuals are organized as a society, these universals, the accepted highest values of living, are taken out of individuals' hands and considered as established in the social order. They no longer are regarded as following from volitions of individuals themselves. Hence a society which, as a form of human association, is alleged to support and harbor the highest ideals may in reality be one

(61) in which the ethical freedom of individuals is at a very considerable ebb.

How then do individualists fare in a world where people at large are tending toward a societal standard of ethics? What are the consequences of conceiving `societal interests' and institutions as forces directing human acts? If institutions are not agents of this sort, how then are they related to the motives and desires of men? When people act as parts of institutions, what bearing does their action have upon the welfare of those about them and upon their own personalities? What difference does it make, in specific institutional situations, whether we think of our values as inhering in society or as belonging to individuals? These are some of the 'questions to which we now turn.


  1. Requoted from Information Service (Department of Research and Education, Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America), December 29, 1928.

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