Social Organization

Chapter 36: Some Phases of the Larger Will

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE main source of a more effective public will is to be sought not, peculiarly, in the greater activity of government, but in the growing efficiency of the intellectual and moral processes as a whole. This general striving of the public mind toward clearer consciousness is too evident to escape any observer. In every province of life a multiform social knowledge is arising and, mingling with the higher impulses of human nature, is forming a system of rational ideals, which through leadership and emulation gradually work their way into practice.

Compare, for instance, the place now taken in our universities by history, economics, political science, sociology and the like with the attention given them, say, in 1875, when in fact some of these studies had no place at all. Or consider the multiplication since the same date of government bureaus—federal, state and local—whose main function is to collect, arrange and disseminate social knowledge. It is not too much to say that governments are becoming, more and more, vast laboratories of social science. Observe, also, the number of books and period-

(412)-icals seriously devoted to these subjects. No doubt much of this work is feverish and shallow—as must be expected in a time of change—but there is, on the whole, nothing more certain or more hopeful than the advance in the larger self-knowledge of mankind.

One result of this clearer consciousness is that idealism is coming to be organic; that is to say each particular ideal is coming to be formed and pursued in subordination to a system of ideals based on a large perception of fact. While putting a special enthusiasm into his own work, the idealist is learning that he needs to have also a general understanding of every good work, and of the whole to which all contribute. For him to imagine that his is the only work worth doing is as unfortunate as for the captain of a company to imagine that he is conducting the whole campaign. Other things equal, the most effective idealists are those who are most sane, and who have a sense for the complication, interdependence and inertia of human conditions.

A study of the ideals and programmes that have had most acceptance even in recent years would make it apparent that our state of mind regarding society has been much like that which prevailed regarding the natural world when men sought the philosopher's stone and the fountain of perpetual youth. Much energy has been wasted, or nearly wasted, in the exclusive and intolerant advocacy of special schemes—single tax, prohibition, state socialism and the like—each of which was imagined by its adherents to be the key to millennial conditions. Every year, however, makes converts to the truth that no isolated scheme can be

(413) a good scheme, and that real progress must be an advance all along the line. Those who see only one thing can never see that truly, and so must work, even at that, in a somewhat superficial and erratic manner.

For similar reasons our moral schemes and standards must grow larger and more commensurate with the life which they aim to regulate.[1] The higher will can never work out unless it is as intelligently conceived and organized as commerce and politics. Evidently if we do not see how life really goes and what good and ill are under actual conditions, we can neither inculcate nor follow the better courses. There is nothing for it but to learn to feel and to effectuate kinds of right involving a sense of wider and remoter results than men have been used to take into account. As fast as science enables us to trace the outcome of a given sort of action we must go on to create a corresponding sense of responsibility for that outcome.

The popular systems of ethics are wholly inadequate, and all thinking persons are coming to see that those traits of decency in the obvious relations of life that we have been accustomed to regard as morality are in great part of secondary importance. Many of them are of somewhat the same character as John Woolman's refusal to wear dyed hats—we wonder that people do not see something more important to exercise their consciences upon. When the larger movements of life were subconscious and the good and ill Bowing from them were

(414) ascribed to an inscrutable providence, morality could not be concerned with them; but the more we understand them the more they must appear the chief field for its activity.

We still have to do with obvious wrong—the drunkard, the housebreaker, the murderer, and the like—but these simple offences are easy to deal with, comparatively, as being evident and indubitable, so that all normal people condemn them. No great ability or organization upholds them; they are like the outbreaks of savages or children in that they do not constitute a formidable menace to society. And, moreover, we are coming to see that they are most effectually dealt with by indirect and preventive methods.

The more dangerous immorality is, of course, that which makes use of the latest engines of politics or commerce to injure the community. Wrong-doers of this kind are usually decent and kindly in daily walk and conversation, as well as supporters of the church and other respectable institutions. For the most part they are not even hypocrites, but men of a dead and conventional virtue, not awake to the real meaning of what they are and do. A larger morality requires that they should be waked up, that a public conscience, based on knowledge, should judge things by their true results, and should know how to make its judgments effectual.

Moreover, this is not a matter merely of the bad men whom we read about in the newspapers, but one of personal guilt in all of us. It is my observation that the same wrongs which are held up to execration in the magazines are present, under appropriate forms, among teachers, lawyers, ministers, reputable tradesmen, and others who

(415) come under my immediate notice. We are all in it: the narrow principles are much the same, the differences being largely in the scale of operations, in being or not being found out, in more or less timidity in taking risks? and so on.

A somewhat similar problem is that of energizing indirect service. The groups we serve — the nation, the educational institution, the oppressed class, for instance — have come to be so vast, and often so remote from the eye, that even the ingenuity of the newspaper and magazine press can hardly make them alive for us and draw our hearts and our money in their direction. The "we" does not live in face-to-face contact, and though photo-engravings and stereopticons and exhibitions and vivid writing are a marvelous substitute, they are often inadequate, so that we do not feel the cogency of the common interest so immediately as did the men of the clans. "Civilization," says Professor Simon Patten, "spares us more and more the sight of anguish, and our imaginations must be correspondingly sharpened to see in the check-book an agent as spiritual and poetic as the grime and blood-stain of ministering hands." [2] How far this may come to pass it is hard to say: for myself, I do not find it easy to write checks for objects that are not made real to me by some sort of personal contact. No doubt, however, our growing system of voluntary institutions — churches, philanthropic societies, fraternal orders, labor unions and the like — are training us in the habit of expressing ourselves through the check-book and other indirect agents.

I expect, however, that the best results will flow not

(416) merely from an intelligent general benevolence that writes checks for all sorts of good causes, but from a kind of specialization in well-doing, that will enable one by familiarity to see through the tangle of relations at a particular point and act in the view of truth. In philanthropy, for instance, an increasing number of men and women of wealth and ability will devote not only their checks but trained thought and personal exertion to some particular sort of work which takes hold of their interest— to the welfare of dependent children, of the blind, and so on—making this their business, giving it the same close and eager attention they would any other business, and so coming to understand it through and through. These, along with salaried workers, will be the leaders in each special line, and will draw after them the less personal support of those who have confidence in them; but people will never send much of their treasure where their heart does not go first. Every city and neighborhood has its urgent social needs which the resident may study and devote himself to with much better results to the world and to his own character than if he limits himself to the writing of checks. And for that matter every occupation—as law, medicine, teaching and the various sorts of business and hand-labor—has its own philanthropies and reforms into which one may put all the devotion he is capable of. If each of us chooses some disinterested form of public service and puts himself thoroughly into it, things will go very well.

Another tendency involved in the rise of public will is that toward a greater simplicity and flexibility of structure

(417) in every province of life: principles are taking the place of formulas.

In the early history of a science the body of knowledge consists of a mass of ill-understood and ill-related observations, speculations and fancies, which the disciple takes on the authority of the master: but as principles are discovered this incoherent structure falls to pieces, and is replaced by a course of study based on experiment and inference. So in the early growth of every institution the truth that it embodies is not perceived or expressed in simplicity, but obscurely incarnated in custom and formula. The perception of principles does not do away with the mechanism, but tends to make it simple, flexible, human, definitely serving a conscious purpose and quick to stand or fall according to its success. Under the old system everything is preserved, because men do not know just where the virtue resides; under the new the essential is kept and the rest thrown away.

Or we may say that the change is like the substitution of an alphabet for picture writing, with the result that language becomes at the same time more complex in its structure and simpler in its elements. When once it is discovered that all speech may be reduced to a few elementary sounds the symbols of these, being sufficient to express all possible words, are more efficient and less cumbersome than the many characters that were used before.

The method of this change is that struggle for existence among ideas which is implied in the wide and free intercourse of modern life. In this only the vital, human and indispensable can survive, and truth is ever casting off superfluity and working itself down to first principles.

(418) We have remarked this in the case of religion, and it would be easy to find the same process at work in other traditions.

The modern world, then, in spite of its complexity, may become fundamentally simpler, more consistent and reasonable. Apparently formalism can never more be an accepted and justified condition, any more than reason can be exchanged for the blind instinct of the lower animals. It will exist wherever thought and feeling are inadequate to create a will—as is much the case at present— but people will not be content with it as in the past. There will be creeds, but they will affirm no more than is really helpful to believe, ritual, but only what is beautiful or edifying; everything must justify itself by function.

Public will, like individual will, has the purpose of effecting an adaptation to conditions that is rational and economical instead of haphazard and wasteful. In general it should greatly diminish, though it can hardly obviate, the cost of social change. In commerce, for instance, it has already rendered crises less sudden and destructive —in spite of the enormous scale of modern transactions —and the time should not be very far away when trouble of this sort will be so foreseen and discounted and so provided against by various sorts of insurance as to do but little damage. In the same way the vast problem of poverty, and of the degeneracy that springs from it, can be met and in great part conquered by a long-sighted philanthropy and education. In religion there is apparently no more need of that calamitous overthrow of the foundations of belief from which many suffered in the passing generation. In the state violent revolution seems likely

(419) to disappear as fast as democracy is organized; while in international relations it will be strange if we do not see a rapid diminution of war. In all these matters, and in many others, social costs are capable of being foreseen and provided against by rational measures expressing an enlightened public will.

The guiding force back of public will, now as ever, is of course human nature itself in its more enduring characteristics, those which find expression in primary groups and are little affected by institutional changes. This nature, familiar yet inscrutable, is apparently in a position to work itself out more adequately than at any time in the past.


  1. This line of thought is developed by Professor E. A. Ross in his book, Sin and Society.
  2. The New Basis of Civilization, 61.

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