Social Organization

Chapter 34: The Function of Public Will

Charles Horton Cooley

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WHAT I shall say about Public Will—which is only another phase of the Democratic Mind—might well have been introduced under Part III; but I put it here because in a sense it rounds off our whole inquiry, involving some general conclusions as to the method and possibility of social betterment.

By public will we may understand the deliberate self-direction of any social group. There is, of course, nothing mysterious about it, for it is of the same nature as public opinion, and is simply that so informed and organized as to be an effective guide to the life of the group. Nor can we say just when this state is reached—it is a matter of degree—but we may assume that when a group intelligently pursues a steadfast policy some measure, at least, of public will has been achieved. Many savage tribes have it in a small way; the Jews developed it under the leadership of Moses and Joshua; the mediaeval church and the Venetian aristocracy displayed it. It is capable, like individual will, of indefinite improvement in insight, stability and scope.

Just as public and private opinion are general and

(396) particular phases of the same thing, so will is a single complex activity with individual and collective aspects. But there is this difference between public and private will—just as there is between other individual and collective phases of mind—that the activity usually appears le~s conscious when looked at in its larger aspect than when considered in detail. I mean that we generally know a great deal better what we are about as individuals than we do as members of large wholes: when one sits down to dinner he is conscious of hunger and has a will to appease it; but if his action has any bearing upon the community, as no doubt it has, he is unaware of the fact. In the same way the activities of business have much consciousness and purpose when looked at in detail, but little when taken collectively. A thousand men buy and sell in the market, each with a very definite intention regarding his own transaction, but the market price which results from their bargaining is an almost mechanical outcome, not a matter of conscious intention at all. On the other hand, there are conscious wholes in which the general result may be as clearly purposed as the particular; as when an intelligent crew is working a vessel, each attending to his own work but understanding perfectly what the general purpose is and how he is contributing to it.

So if we restrict the word will to that which shows reflective consciousness and purpose there is a sense in which a certain choice (as of the purchaser in the market) may express individual will but not public will: there is a public side to it, of course, but of an involuntary sort.

We must remember, also, that although large wholes are, as a rule, much inferior to individuals in explicit con-

(397)-sciousness and purpose, they are capable of rational structure and action of a somewhat mechanical sort far transcending that of the individual mind. This is because of the vast scope and indefinite duration they may have, which enables them to store up and systematize the work of innumerable persons, as a nation does, or even an industrial corporation. A large whole may and usually does display in its activity a kind of rationality or adaptation of means to ends which, as a whole, was never planned or purposed by anybody, but is the involuntary result of innumerable special endeavors. Thus the British colonial empire, which looks like the result of deliberate and farsighted policy, is conceded to have been, for the most part, the unforeseen outcome of personal enterprise. An institution, as we have seen in previous chapters, is not fully human, but may, nevertheless, be superhuman, in the sense that it may express a wisdom beyond the grasp of any one man. And even in a moral aspect it is by no means safe to assume that the personal is superior to the collective. This may or may not be the case, depending, among other things, upon whether there has been a past growth of collective moral judgment upon the point in question. The civil law, for example, which is the result of such a growth, is for the most part a much safer guide regarding property rights than the untrained judgment of any individual.

But after all public thought and will have the same superiority over unconscious adaptation (wonderful as the results of that often are) as private thought and will have over mere instinct and habit. They represent a higher principle of coordination and adaptation, one which,

(398) properly employed, saves energy and prevents mistakes. The British may have succeeded on instinct, but probably they would have succeeded better if more reason had been mixed with it; and the latter may save them from the decay which has attacked other great empires.

It is quite plain that the social development of the past has been mostly blind and without human intention. Any page of history will show that men have been unable to foresee, much less to control, the larger movements of life. There have been seers, but they have had only flashes of light, and have almost never been men of immediate sway. Even great statesmen have lived in the present, feeling their way, and having commonly no purpose beyond the aggrandizement of their country or their order. Such partial exceptions as the framing of the American constitution by the light of history and philosophy, and with some prevision of its actual working, are confined to recent times and excite a special wonder.

In particular the democratic movement of modern times has been chiefly unconscious. As De Tocqueville says of its course in France, ". . . it has always advanced without guidance. The heads of the state have made no preparation for it, and it has advanced without their consent or without their knowledge. The most powerful, the most intelligent and the most moral classes of the nation have never attempted . . . to guide it." [1]

Will has been alive only in details, in the smaller courses of life, in what each man was doing for himself and his neighbors, while the larger structure and movement

(399) have been subconscious, and for that reason erratic and wasteful. For it is just as true of large wholes as of individuals that if they blunder on without knowing what they are doing much of their energy is lost. No doubt it is better to go ahead even blindly than to stand still, and remarkable things have been achieved in this way, but they are little to what might be done if we could work out our highest human nature intelligently, with assurance and prevision, and on a large scale. A society which did this would have the same sort of superiority to present society as man to his sub-human progenitors.

The very idea of Progress, of orderly improvement on a great scale, is well known to be of recent origin, or at least recent diffusion, the prevalent view in the past having been that the actual state of things was, in its general character, unalterable.[2]

Even at the present day social phenomena of a large sort are for the most part not willed at all, but are the unforeseen result of diverse and partial endeavors. It is seldom that any large plan of social action is intelligently drawn up and followed out. Each interest works along in a somewhat blind and selfish manner, grasping, fighting and groping. As regards general ends most of the energy is wasted; and yet a sort of advance takes place, more like the surging of a throng than the orderly movement of troops. Who can pretend that the American people, for instance, are guided by any clear and rational plan in their economic, political and religious development ? They

(400) have glimpses and impulses, but hardly a will, except on a few matters of near and urgent interest.

In the same way the wrongs that afflict society are seldom willed by any one or any group, but are by-products of acts of will having other objects; they are done, as some one has said, rather with the elbows than the fists. There is surprisingly little ill-intent, and the more one looks into life the less he finds of that vivid chiaroscuro of conscious goodness and badness his childish teaching has led him to expect.

Take, for instance, a conspicuous evil like the sweating system in the garment trades of New York or London. Here are people, largely women and children, forced to work twelve, fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day, in the midst of dirt, bad air and contagion, suffering the destruction of home life and decent nurture; and all for a wage hardly sufficient to buy the bare necessities of life. But if we looks for sin dark enough to cast such a shadow he will scarcely find it. "Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents." The "sweater" or immediate employer, to whom he first turns, is commonly himself a workman, not much raised above the rest and making but little profit on his transactions. Beyond him is the large dealer, usually a well-intentioned man, quite willing that things should be better if they can be made so without too much trouble or pecuniary loss to himself. He is only doing what others do and what, in his view, the conditions of trade require. And so on; the closer one gets to the facts the more evident it is that nowhere is the indubitable wickedness our feelings have pictured. It is quite the

(401) same with political corruption and the venal alliance between wealth and party management. The men who control wealthy interests are probably no worse intentioned than the rest of us; they only do what they think they arc forced to do in order to hold their own; and so with the politician: he finds that others are selling their power, and easily comes to think of it as a matter of course. In truth the consciously, flagrantly wicked man is, and perhaps always has been, a fiction, for the most part, of denunciation. The psychologist will hardly find him, but will feel that most sorts of badness are easily enough comprehensible, and will perhaps agree with the view ascribed to Goethe, that he never heard of a crime which he might not himself have committed.

Naturally the more mechanical the system is the less of will and of live human nature there is in its acts. So in Russia, says Tolstoy, "Some make the laws, others execute them; some train men by discipline to autocratic obedience; and these last, in their turn, become the instruments of coercion, and slay their kind without knowing why or to what end."[3] In our reading and thinking democracy there is at least the feeling that the working of the whole ought to be the fulfilment of some humane purpose, and a continual protest that this is not more the case.

I cannot hold out a prospect of the early appearance of an adequate public will; it is a matter of gradual improvement, but it seems clear that there is a trend this way, based, mechanically, on recent advances in communication, and, as regards training, on the multiform disciplines in voluntary cooperation which modern life affords.


  1. Democracy in America, vol. i, Introduction.
  2. Of course the Greeks had the philosophical conception of general flux, but I do not know that they applied it to society with such distinctness as to give anything worth calling an idea of progress.
  3. My Religion, 45.

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