Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development


Table of Contents | Next | Previous

IT only remains to state, in certain formal sentences, some of the more general conclusions to which we have come; those having especial reference to the relation of the individual to society.

356. I. The examination of society reveals a body of rules of conduct with sanctions which are in the main adequate for the private life of the individual. This follows from the fact that the institutions and sanctions of society are in their origin actually generalizations of the intellectual and ethical knowledges, sentiments, and sanctions of individuals, handed down by social heredity.

357. II. The examination of the individual rives rules and sanctions which are in the main adequate for the social life. This follows from the fact that the knowledges and sanctions of the individual are received from society by social heredity.

358. III. Neither of the above principles is absolute.

(a) It cannot be absolutely true that the examination of society gives rules and sanctions adequate for private life; since only the generalized part of human life is embodied in institutions. The individual must have his private rules of conduct for the situations of life which are particular to his knowledge and action. This brings his private rules into possible conflict with society to the 

(543) extent to which he is original in his thinking and in his sentiments ideal, or the reverse.

(b) It cannot be absolutely true that the examination of the individual gives rules and sanctions adequate to the social life; since the strictly average individual, who would correspond to the generalizations which society embodies, is mythical. Every individual is, in some degree and in some respects, socially untypical.[1]

An illustration of III. (b) is seen in the development of high intelligence in criminal persons; and an illustration of III. (a) is seen in the intelligent development of society in industrial and political life, while its ethical institutions lag behind the moral sense and moral rules of individuals.

359. IV. The principles just formulated find their ground in the method of progress of society.

(a) The method of progress of society is a dialectic, analogous to the `dialectic of personal growth' in the child and man. This `dialectic of social growth' is a circular movement of give-and-take between society and the individual. The form of collective organization cannot be social (general) without having first been individual (particular); and the matter of social organization cannot be individual (particular) without having first been social (general). There must always be, therefore, at every stage of social progress, a balance of ungeneralized form in the individual, and a balance of unparticularized material in society. And the rules of the one cannot express the balance found on the side of the other.


(b) The determination of social progress is ethical in its direction and in its goal. It involves a publicity of values which only the ethical category shows. The generalizations which society effects can proceed only as individuals act ethically. And individuals can realize new intuitions of an ethical kind only because the material already social is again capable of taking on ethical form.

(c) A final conflict of an ethical kind between the individual and society is always possible. It is soluble only by the actual growth of society itself in the particular case, or by the suppression of the individual who revolts. And society solves it only to renew it, always.

360. V. Finally, our outcome may be gathered up in a sentence of characterization of society as a whole. Society, we may say, is the form of natural organization which ethical personalities come into in their growth. So also, on the side of the individual, we may define ethical personality as the form of natural development which individuals, grow into who live in social relationships. The true analogy, then, is not that which likens society to a physiological organism, but rather that which likens it to a psychological organization. And the sort of psychological organization to which it is analogous is that which is found in the individual in ideal thinking.


  1. Readers of Mr. Leslie Stephen's Science of Ethics will remember his position that the 'properties' of society cannot be inferred from those of the individuals, since either may vary independently of the other (loc. cit., pp. 93 ff.)

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2