Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development


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THE practical questions which come up in connection with the relation of the individual to his social environment are of the greatest importance. We should expect the discussions which attempt to throw light on the social organization, by means of an examination of the equipment and development of the individual, to throw light also on these practical matters; for all of an individual's actions are sanctioned either by the conditions of his private growth and equipment or by the regulations of a social kind to which he submits. So if we use the expression 'rules of conduct' as covering all practical formulations of whatever kind, then we may make some deductions respecting them from the principles already set forth.

346. At the outset, a general truth seems to be established by the discussions through which we have come; the principle, namely, that all rules of action for the guidance of life must be of possible social application, even though in their origin they care announced and urged by individuals. This would seem to follow from the fact that society is the generalizing agency. The rule, considered as a rule, is

(525) of general application. Its generality may be considered with reference to the particular individual's own conduct; that is, as coming to him with his personal sanctions only. Or it may be considered as general in the sense that it is enforced on all individuals alike ; that is, as having social sanction. Or, finally, a rule of conduct may have the quality of publicity already discussed, which makes it at once a thing of universal sanction, as typified in the ideal rules of ethics and religion. It may be well to take up these three cases, and look at each of them with a view to seeing its relation to the sort of generalizing which seems to be the source of all rules of conduct considered as social. In other words, we may show in some detail that the statement made above, to the effect that all rules as such are capable of becoming social in their nature, applies to each of these three cases. 

1. Rules in the Sphere of Impulse

347. First, considering the rules for action and conduct which embody the individual's personal sanctions, we find the sorts of action already pointed out in detail: the impulsive, the intelligent, and the reflective or ethical. Of these the impulsive type of action may be disposed of without much trouble. Impulsive action can have no self-regulation simply because its sanction is necessity. Necessity knows no law, no rule, because it is itself another name for inviolable law. There can be, therefore, no question of a law of action to the individual who acts purely from impulse. Capriciousness is his rule —and that is not a rule. So the only regulative or legislative restraint to which such action may be brought is that

(526) which comes either from the actor's higher sanctions, those of intelligence or conscience, or from the sanctions of a social kind which are enforced upon the actor. This takes us, therefore, up into the higher realms of conduct.

348. The same may also be said concerning possible rules of conduct on the part of society at the impulsive or so-called suggestive stage. The mob exhibits social impulse, but it has no rule of action save that of suggestion ; and suggestion has no law. Its sanction, again, is not a rule, but only the necessity which hurls the mob over a moral or legal precipice.

The only possible law or sanction which can be brought to bear on the mob is that compulsion which is enforced at the point of the bayonet or the muzzle of the gun. So we may not stop further on this sort of action in our search for rules.

So much, I think, we may confidently say, despite the attempt of certain recent writers to deduce from the action of crowds a 'social ethic'; a set of formulations or rules which shall express the laws of collective human action. We have seen above that the only principles involved in mob-action, and collective action as such, are those of the lower impulsive order, carried to the extremes which throw into temporary abeyance the higher intelligent and ethical sanctions of the individuals involved. This reversion from social continence to social passion brings about so great a simplicity in the operation of suggestion that no further 'ethic' of it is possible. What these writers seem to reach is a statement of the causes or favouring conditions under which this sort of 'social hypnotism' of the individual comes about. So we may not delay upon these cases, but pass on higher up in the sphere of action in order

(527) to ask there our question as to whether all rules of conduct are of social availability.

2. Intelligent Rules

349. The sanction of intelligent actions —that is, of those which involve desire—we saw to be mainly success. And it would seem that there might be rules of action addressed to this motive alone, embodying the highest wisdom, which would yet be unsocial. Such rules would be those dictated and sanctioned entirely by prudence, discretion, convenience, expediency, or the attainment of happiness. Such actions do, as we have seen, represent a period in the life of the child, and also a type of adult development as concerns individual actions and certain forms of social competition. And we may at once say that such rules do exist in the maxims of practical wisdom current in all societies and embodied in the proverbs of all nations. Making this admission, it still remains to ask, however, as to the possible social element in such formulations.

The foregoing discussion brought out the real conflict which occurs between the individual and society at this point. It is unnecessary to bring that up again. But it is a character of the conflict that it concerns the exceptional individuals, or the exceptional acts of normal individuals, as we were led to conclude in the earlier place. As to the latter, the exceptional acts or judgments of the man of normal social training and sobriety, it is enough, from the point of view of the question of rules, just to say that they are exceptional. The individual himself considers his conformity to social sanctions the rule, and the violation of them the exceptions.


So soon as he makes the violation of the sanctions of society the rule, —adopts rules of his own which lead to their systematic violation, —he then falls in the other class, the exceptional individuals.

Now in this class of exceptional individuals we may make distinctions. The men who are exceptional from a strictly social point of view, illustrated under the head of 'social variations,' are those who violate social rules habitually and as such; these are suppressed, made away with, out of the consideration of society and out of our theme. Even the exceptional individual must be, in the main, if he will inherit a social part and play it as a man, not exceptional. And if we rule out the people whom society rules out, and these only, we have left the people whose endowments or training make them, in certain respects, lawgivers to themselves and to society. What shall we say to these ? Has their rule of action any social ingredient?

As far as such a man's actions—thus sanctioned by private intelligence —do not conflict with social institutions, requirements, etc., so far they may be socially generalized and made socially available. In so far the sanction of intelligence then gets support from the social sanction also. This we saw in the case of commercial competition. And this must be essentially the character of the individual's intelligent rules. For so soon as he attempts to make use of his intelligence in a way which is strictly private,—aiming at an end quite his own, and not subserving social utilities,—then he inevitably comes into conflict with society in the carrying nut of his rule. In real life, a man's actual rules of private intelligent self-interest are usually qualified by a social clause; they read "Act to your own advantage so long as society does not 

(529) find you out, and with as much temerity as you have." His rules have direct social and ethical limitations. So for the first sort of generality which we supposed a man's action possibly to have —universality in his own private life—this is largely fictitious, even in its stronghold, the sphere of the intelligent sanction. He admits the social limitations under which he may observe it, in case it be a socially damaging line of conduct which it prescribes; and he admits its liability to be generalized for social utilities, in case it is not a damaging line of conduct. In this latter case, it comes under our formulation as being socially available; and in the former case it is not a rule in any universal sense. The one case is illustrated by the maxims of social prudence, the 'saws' of society, as well as by the larger things of intelligent co-operation and utility which have arisen at first in the single inventive thought of one man, and have then been generalized by the process already described. The other case is best illustrated by the rule of action of the acute thief who escapes the law. He acts with a rule of intelligent self-interest, but under certain very evident social restrictions; and with those ethical limitations, also, which are indicated in the motto, 'there is honour among thieves.' If he observe both these restrictions, again, however, strictly from self-interest, making success in stealing his sole reason both for observing the law and for honouring the rights of his fellow-thieves, then he is that sort of a criminal exception to social law which society shuts up for life when lie is caught ; and his rule: of action, though confessedly a rule, is as unavailable for general theory as is the impulsive action which has its law in natural necessity.


350. As to the social formulation of the sanction of desire, little need be said. From the very fact that it is social, it comes under our formula. The only cases which might give room for discussion would be those in which social intelligence makes devices for other than social utility and advantage; as, for example, the life-insurance companies, commercial trusts, 'combines,' etc. But we have already seen that as soon as these devices become sufficiently damaging to society, they are no longer tolerated publicly; that is, the social element of sanction comes to suppress the private. As to the question of possible rules of action, therefore, the only universal rule in these cases is the generalized rule which in the earlier connection was shown to be the point of view of society. The intelligence cannot lay down its rule of success as a general rule, since the constant call to conformity to social and ethical requirements it is which gives to such organizations their sole right to the sort of public exploitation on which their patronage and success depend.

Any real conflict in this realm between rival rules would arise from a conflict of two sanctions both equally social: the one mainly intellectual, and the other mainly ethical. And there are many interesting cases of such conflict. Indeed, there are writers on Political Economy who claim that that science is unethical in practice; that a state can have no conscience nor obligation arising from sympathy or humanity, and that legislation properly takes account of the fortunes of 'our ' citizens, no matter at what damage or cost to 'yours.' This is a practical formulation of the intellectual sanction in its social form; and represents that stage of culture in national life which the intel-

(531) -ligent highwayman represents in private life.[1] Political economy may be developed, like private economy, on the basis of rules which are only intelligent, —success being the only sanction for conduct,—but for a nation to apply such a political economy is simply to admit that the individual citizens who represent the moral sense of the nation have not yet reduced their choicest sanction to social form; and that in the highest sphere of social organization, the ethical, their intuitions have not yet been generalized.

This case deserves attention, moreover, from the fact that all of the defensive and aggressive, most of the productive and distributive, and much of the directly educative organization[2] in the world is actually at this stage. Intelligent action, with its sanction, has been remarkably generalized in political and industrial life. On the other hand, the development of our judicial systems is in the direction of the same adequate embodiment of the ethical sense in national life.[3] Yet the absence of international law—while there are yet the remarkable trade relations and refined rules of diplomacy which tax the intelligence of the acutest minds on this side and on that—shows the very backward development of the ethical sanction in institutions.


3. Ethical Rules

351. Coming, then, to the ethical or, more widely, the sentimental forms of conduct, we have a more complex question of rules. And looking at the problem from the point of view of the three sorts of generality which a rule may have, we may waive certain of them at once. The ethical sense —taken as typical and inclusive of the religious, aesthetic, etc. —cannot sanction a rule of private generality only; since all ethical conduct, as such, has the public reference. A man cannot have a line of conduct which is right for him alone; the very bounds of the right are coincident with the bounds of the general self-relationships which include all concrete selves. All those who are excluded are exceptions, no matter how great their number. When he pronounces judgment upon himself, he judges with all men. This has been dwelt upon sufficiently already.

As to the second form of universality,—giving a rule on which all may act,—this also does not alone exhaust the sort of sanction which ethical rules have. We can imagine a form of society built on the basis simply of a system of conventional social rules which each citizen is always to observe.[4] This would be strictly a social sanction; the rules would be civil; they might be compulsory, but they need not be ethical. Such a society would lack just the one thing which we have found essential to human society considered as a progressive organization; the thing omitted by the traditional theories of human society which liken law to convention, and conformity to convenience and 

(533) utility. This lack is just the principle of growth: the give-and-take of personal influence between the man and the group. Society has grown by this process of give-and-take. So also has the individual grown by it. But in the individual it is what we mean by his ethical growth. The give-and-take is now in the sphere of the ideal thought of personality, and its exhibitions are motived by this ideal thought. So the society which results is also an ethical society. Its institutions are generalizations of ethical relationships. And as in the individual the ethical sanction has come to replace and control those of intelligence and impulse, so in society also ethical sanctions supersede those of intelligence, convention, and mob-suggestion.

So, apart from its actual realization in society, of which more is to be said below, the ethical rule is not only a rule which all men are to follow, being social in so far; it is also the rule which embodies the ethical sanction which has been so far developed. The individual's ethical deliverances are from the platform of social sentiment. The average individual's ethical judgments include the social requirements of his group. He says, 'I ought,' meaning, also, not only 'he and she ought,' but 'what we ought is the lawful.' The ideal lawgiver, the self of general value, is the communal legal self.

Such an individual, whose 'ought' is exhausted by the legal, is; possibly below the average, numerically speaking; for the moral education[4] of most men gives them other and higher embodiments of the 'ought' of personal duty than law or public opinion represents; but that does not impair the general truth that the legal, conventional,

(534) standard seen in public opinion and law is also somebody's ethical ideal, or has been; it could never have come to be the legally or conventionally right, if it had not first been somebody's ethically right. The growth of society is but the generalization of the individual's ethical ought into society's conventional ought. And then it proceeds by generalizing the further acquirements of the ethical ought in the individual; acquirements made only by conformity to the legal ought, and the transcending of it. For society to make a rule is to generalize the ethical opinion of individuals; for the individual to get an ethical rule is for him to particularize on the basis of society's conventional rules. 

The conclusion, therefore, is this: that (1) ethical rules are either already embodied in the sanctions of society, or (2) they are capable of being so. In the former case (1) the individual's rule is his version of the social voice. To him it is ethical; not only must all men observe it as law, they must observe it also as right. They do observe it for these two reasons —both of them. And the socially legal is society's version of the individual's right. In the latter case (2) the individual legislates his rule equally both into other individuals and into society; but, as a matter of fact, his legislation of it into society is not yet realized; society has not yet generalized his sense of right.

352. It may help us to get clearness of view in this matter by appealing to the analogy of the individual's growth, to which we have found that of society to bear so close a resemblance.

The individual's, i.e., the child's, sense of law is reached through a twofold relation to the personalities about him. His sense of the personality in which law is embodied represents a sort of generalization of his particular thoughts, and also a sort of midway stage 

(535) between those personal actions which he understands and those which he is still to imitate and grow up to. His 'projective' ethical personality includes all his generalizations, but it is not exhausted by them. And his further generalizations of the elements of this personality are conditioned upon his assimilations of them to what he already has. 

So with society over against the individual. Society represents what is already generalized of the individual's intuitions of ethical right. But the further ethical intuitions of right, on the part of the individuals, are not exhausted in these social generalizations. On the contrary, it is only as the individuals attain new intuitions and announce them that society can generalize them in turn in new institutions and in laws.[6]

So, finally, we may say that the ethical rules of the individual involve all three kinds of generality. They are to apply (1) to all the acts of the individuals, (2) to the acts of all individuals, and (3) they are to have the publicity which attaches to the ethical sanction as such. But they are sanctioned in the individual's case by only one sanction: his own ethical sense. He is to act impulsively, but not because it is impulsive; reasonably, but not because it is reasonable ; socially, but not because it is prescribed. He must act always and only because it is right. The right comes to the individual to sum up the three, and to give all his conduct its final sanction. He can recognize no other. But then the formulation of 

(536) this sense of right, its generalization, is directly in the line of the social prescriptions. So, in the outcome, the social and the private duty of the man aye in essential harmony.

353. It remains to ask whether society's ethical is ever at variance with its own socially prescribed. This would seem from what has been said to be a superfluous question ; for if the social sanctions arise from generalizations of the individual's ethical intuitions, then there could be no socially ethical apart from what is actually prescribed. But this, although on the surface logical, does not do justice to the complex way in which society grows. We saw that society's attainments are not made by jumps. Its generalizations involve long processes of social education on the part of the individuals. Often a generalization is reached only to be again called in question. The law of majorities is peculiarly liable to miscarry. A single individual may often wield authority enough to carry or to obstruct a social movement. There are ebbs and flows, actions and reactions. So there grows up in every society a certain discrepancy between what the people feel ought to be, and what really is. New things are agitated; their consequences are not fully seen; the conservative spirit says 'Let well enough alone.' And the very generalizing process by which society reaches her enactments suggests a certain discounting of the new.

Further, there is a great derangement of interests involved in every important social change,[7] and a great series of divisions in the occupations, conditions of education, etc., of this man and that ; so that all are not equally competent nor willing to indorse a particular course of public action.


Again, there often grows up, through the discussion of remote topics, a sort of ethical sense that an old institution is out of date; while yet no man arises to think the case through, and take the lead in urging reform. These influences crystallize to make the reformer very often a man of one idea and an offence to the socially satisfied in the community, who for no other reason refuse to follow him.

In fact, changes of an important social kind often burst with sudden and overwhelming force. Their preparatory stages are obscure, and their influence dumb. They are a part of the ethical intuition of individuals; and the community of them is not fully suspected until the prophet of the new thought comes to give it public voice. Then the ' ought' of society shows itself to have already surpassed the ' is,' and the reformer becomes at a step the historian of a social revolution. The question is simply as to the exact moment when the new thought is sufficiently spread to realize itself in a social generalization. When it does, then it is no longer merely the individual's ethical; it is then also the community's ethical; but until it is actually made a part of what is socially recognized and sanctioned, there will remain in reference to it a certain discrepancy between what society ought to do and what it does.

354. Another very interesting case of discrepancy between the social 'ought' and the social 'is' is found in the phenomenon of contagion of crime already referred to in an earlier place. The fact that the report of a peculiar form of suicide, for example, spread abroad by the newspapers, stimulates other persons not only to the act of suicide but even to the adoption of the same peculiar form of self-destruction, shows the phenomenon clearly. There are epidemics of crime of this sort or that. A suggestion of

(538) a criminal sort will spread through a community; and a sensational story will excite the readers, both young and old, to perform the crimes with which the narrative concerns itself.

In such a case as lynching, for example, society really condemns, by its better public utterances, the crimes which society commits and propagates; just as in the case of collective action, more properly so called, society afterwards recovers her judgment and passes a more normal and withal a more righteous sentence. In these cases we have the social ought-judgment temporarily suspended. A series of social facts or events occur which in no wise represent the real ethical voice of the community. This is a phenomenon of regression,[8] just as the other case of antithesis (spoken of in Sect. 353) is a phenomenon of forward movement or real growth. It is not surprising, from what we now know of the organization of the social body, that these phenomena should occur.

The ordinary meaning, however, of the saying that social institutions ought to be different, is something quite other than this; it is the expression of the individual's ethical judgment. That introduces another and the last consideration to be brought forward in this matter of rules of conduct.

4. The Final Conflict

355. In an earlier connection we noted that all possible conflicts, of a general kind, which might arise between the individual and society, are conflicts either of his intelligence, or of his ethical sense, with the social order. We

(539) saw also that conflicts arising from his intelligence were largely reducible to conflicts between the intelligence of him and the conscience of the rest of the community; inasmuch as the social order represents the generalized ethical sense. The only way for a man to carry out his protest, in such a case, is to persuade other men, until he gets his opinion adopted. Then the conflict ceases, since then the reform which he proposes receives ethical and social sanction. But in the case of the ethical protests of single men against the social order, we have a different phenomenon.

This sort of conflict is more serious and more profound, because the sanctions involved are more comprehensive. The ethical in the man represents the essential and highest outcome of his individual nature; this on one hand. The socially established represents the highest outcome of the collective activities of man; that on the other hand. What then can be done, in the case of conflict between these two?

Nothing! Nothing can be done.

It is the case of the fountain running higher than its source. The man cannot argue; morality is not a thing of logical sanction. And, moreover, to argue a violation of law —in serious cases —is to commit it, in the eyes of society. Yet society, on the other hand, cannot suppress such a man, although too often that is what results. For it is just through the ethical reformers that society learns her own mind and heart. It is the picture, which history shows, of the seer on his mountain. He speaks in riddles. He stands and waits. He weeps. To be sure, he may be no genuine great-man; he may be a fanatic, a lunatic, a fraud, —but, then, he may be a prophet, a seer, a teacher of nations!

(540) This is the final and irreducible antinomy of society. It shows at once the law of social growth, its direction, and its goal. It shows the dialectic of growth in its concrete social form, as in the child's obedience we see it in its concrete private form. Society must simply listen to such a man, for her weal or woe, as the child listens to his father. The insight is on the seer's side. But in listening to him, and doing with him, she is reaching for her own by right. He is of her, she has made him, he clothes her thought in a diviner form. So the child takes from his father. He takes the social heritage which is his by right of birth. He takes from his father, and so lifts himself to his father's stature, just as society takes from the great man and so makes his insights her own.

If we bring this finally under the question of rules, we reach a last possibility: that in the ethical realm the individual may rule himself by rules which are in advance of those which society prescribes, and also exact them. This is common, not only with the moral seer, but in the life of us all.

All of us have our moral discontentments. We all think that society should be reformed in certain essential respects. Just to this degree each of us is moved to prescribe a rule of conduct in this case or that; since the publicity of the ethical judgment carries just this sort of prescription. The reason we have also sufficiently seen. It arises from the particularizing of the individual, working as an active force in the social complex, and from the uneven way in which society realizes her progress, in this respect or that. Even different requirements of the same general principle or rule remain at different stages of realization in social institutions, and in the formulas of

(541) public opinion; so that the individual, in making his rule, finds that society violates it here and there. The inconsistency of the social order, from a moral point of view, is very apparent, and many pages might be devoted to giving illustrations of it. Just as the individual is often condemned for law's sake, so society is often 'damned for conscience 'sake.'

Yet we are able to see that both cases are incidents of the larger movement which our discussions have led us to appreciate; a movement which includes the individual with his oppositions as well as his agreements, and society with her achievements as well as her omissions.


  1. The American tariff for protection and alien labour laws are cases in point.
  2. My colleague and friend, Professor H. C. Warren, held, in a paper read in the Psychological Seminary, that the forms of social organization were based on three ultimate motives to action,—defence, nutrition, education,—and I use this division in my text. I am not prepared, however, at present, to accept the classification as exhaustive. Reproduction, far example, might he considered as a candidate for a distinct place.
  3. Even the relapse into barbarism seen in lynch law in the South has its darker counterpart in indifference to crime, or in its intellectual justification, as seen in the literary defences of anarchism.
  4. Plato's conception may be recalled here ; and the criticism of it by Aristotle in the Politics.
  5. And in many communities notably the religious education.
  6. Our progress in administrative matters illustrates this: 'civil service reform' gradually coming to be general; the rule of the 'boss' gradually disappearing; municipal reform movements gradually purifying city government, etc.
  7. Cf. above, Chap. V., 3.
  8. That is, of ethical regression, not —as we saw above— of reversion to an earlier type at one time normal; such action could never have been normal.

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