Human Nature and Conduct

Part 1: The Place of Habit in Conduct:
III. Character and Conduct

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

The dynamic force of Habit taken in connection with the continuity of habits with one another explains the unity of character and conduct, or speaking more concretely of motive and act, will and deed. Moral theories have frequently separated these things from each other. One type of theory, for example, has asserted that only will, disposition, motive count morally; that acts are external, physical, accidental; that moral good is different from goodness in act since the latter is measured by consequences, while moral good or virtue is intrinsic, complete in itself, a jewel shining by its own light— a somewhat dangerous metaphor however. The other type of theory has asserted that such a view is equivalent to saying that all that is necessary to be virtuous is to cultivate states of feeling; that a premium is put on disregard of the actual consequences of conduct, and agents are deprived of any objective criterion for the rightness and wrongness of acts, being thrown back on their own whims, prejudices and private peculiarities. Tike most opposite extremes in philosophic theories, the two theories suffer from a common mistake. Both of them ignore the projective force of habit and the implication of habits in one another. Hence they separate a unified deed into two disjoined parts, an inner called motive and an outer called act.

( 44)

The doctrine that the chief good of man is good will easily wins acceptance from honest men. For commonsense employs a juster psychology than either of the theories just mentioned. By will, common-sense understands something practical and moving. It understands the body of habits, of active dispositions which makes a man do what he does. Will is thus not something opposed to consequences or severed from them. It is a cause of consequences; it is causation in its personal aspect, the aspect immediately preceding action. It hardly seems conceivable to practical sense that by will is meant something which can be complete without reference to deeds prompted and results occasioned. Even the sophisticated specialist cannot prevent relapses from such an absurdity back into common-sense. Kant, who went the limit in excluding consequences from moral value, was sane enough to maintain that a society of men of good will would be a society which in fact would maintain social peace, freedom and cooperation. We take the will for the deed not as a substitute for doing, or a form of doing nothing, but in the sense that, other things being equal, the right disposition will produce the right deed. For a disposition means a tendency to act, a potential energy needing only opportunity to become kinetic, and overt. Apart from such tendency a "virtuous" disposition is either hypocrisy or self-deceit.

Common-sense in short never loses sight wholly of the two facts which limit and define a moral situation. On,; is that consequences fix the moral quality of an

(45) act. The other is that upon the whole, or in the long run but not unqualifiedly, consequences are what they are because of the nature of desire and disposition. Hence there is a natural contempt for the morality of the "good" man who does not show his goodness in the results of his habitual acts. But there is also an aversion to attributing omnipotence to even the best of good dispositions, and hence an aversion to applying the criterion of consequences unreservedly. A holiness of character which is celebrated only on holy-days is unreal. A virtue of honesty, or chastity or benevolence which lives upon itself apart from definite results consumes itself and goes up in smoke. The separation of motive from motive-force in action accounts both for the morbidities and futilities of the professionally good, and for the more or less subconscious contempt for morality entertained by men of a strong executive habit with their preference for "getting things done."

Yet there is justification for the common assumption that deeds cannot be judged properly without taking their animating disposition as well as their concrete consequences into account. The reason, however, lies not in isolation of disposition from consequences, but in the need for viewing consequences broadly. This act is only one of a multitude of nets. If we confine our, selves to the consequences of this one act we shall come out with a poor reckoning. Disposition is habitual, persistent. It shows itself therefore in many acts and in many consequences. Only as we keep a running account, can we judge disposition, disentangling its ten-

(46) -dency from accidental accompaniments. When once we have got a fair idea of its tendency, we are able to place the particular consequences of a single act in a wider context of continuing consequences. Thus we protect ourselves from taking as trivial a habit which is serious, and from exaggerating into momentousness an act which, viewed in the light of aggregate consequences, is innocent. There is no need to abandon common-sense which tells us in judging acts first to inquire into disposition; but there is great need that the estimate of disposition be enlightened by a scientific psychology. Our legal procedure, for example, wobbles between a too tender treatment of criminality and a viciously drastic treatment of it. The vacillation can be remedied only as we can analyze an act in the light of habits, and analyze habits in the light of education, environment and prior acts. The dawn of truly scientific criminal law will come when each individual case is approached with something corresponding to the complete clinical record which every competent physician attempts to procure as a matter of course in dealing with his subjects.

Consequences include effects upon character, upon confirming and weakening habits, as well as tangibly obvious results. To keep an eye open to these effects upon character may signify the most reasonable of precautions or one of the most nauseating of practices. It may mean concentration of attention upon personal rectitude in neglect of objective consequences, a practice which creates a wholly unreal rectitude. But it

(47) may mean that the survey of objective consequences is duly extended in time. An act of gambling may be judged, for example, by its immediate overt effects, consumption of time, energy, disturbance of ordinary monetary considerations, etc. It may also be judged by its consequences upon character, setting up an enduring love of excitement, a persistent temper of speculation, and a persistent disregard of sober, steady work. To take the latter effects into account is equivalent to taking a broad view of future consequences; for these dispositions affect future companionships, vocation and avocations, the whole tenor of domestic and public life.

For similar reasons, while common-sense does not run into that sharp opposition of virtues or moral goods and natural goods which has played such a large part in professed moralities, it does not insist upon an exact identity of the two. Virtues are ends because they are such important means. To be honest, courageous, kindly is to be in the way of producing specific natural goods or satisfactory fulfilments. Error comes into theories when the moral goods are separated from their consequences and also when the attempt is made to secure an exhaustive and unerring identification of the two. There is a reason, valid ac far ac it goes, for distinguishing virtue as a moral good resident in character alone, from objective consequences. As matter of fact, a desirable trait of character does not always produce desirable results, while good things often happen with no assistance from good will. Luck, accident,

(48) contingency, plays its part. The act of a good character is deflected in operation, while a monomaniacal egotism may employ a desire for glory and power to perform acts which satisfy crying social needs. Reflection shows that we must supplement the conviction of the moral connection between character or habit and consequences by two considerations.

One is the fact that we are inclined to take the notions of goodness in character and goodness in results in too fixed a way. Persistent disparity between virtuous disposition and actual outcome shows that we have misjudged either the nature of virtue or of success. Judgments of both motive and consequences are still, in the absence of methods of scientific analysis and continuous registration and reporting, rudimentary and conventional. We are inclined to wholesale judgments of character, dividing men info goats and sheep, instead of recognizing that all character is speckled, and that the problem of moral judgment is one of discriminating the complex of acts and habits into tendencies which are to be specifically cultivated and condemned. We need to study consequences more thoroughly and keep track of them more continuously before we shall be in a position where we can pass with reasonable assurance upon the good and evil in either disposition or results. But even when proper allowances are made, we are forcing the pace when we assume that there is or ever can be an exact equation of disposition and outcome We have to admit the rôle of accident.

We cannot get beyond tendencies, and must perforce

(49) content ourselves with judgments of tendency. The honest man, we are told, acts upon "principle " and not from considerations of expediency, that is, of particular consequences. The truth in this saying is that it is not safe to judge the worth of a proposed act by its probable consequences in an isolated case. The word "principle" is a eulogistic cover for the fact of tendency. The word "tendency" is an attempt to combine two facts, one that habits have a certain causal efficacy, the other that their outworking in any particular case is subject to contingencies, to circumstances which are unforeseeable and which carry an act one side of its usual effect. In cases of doubt, there is no recourse save to stick to " tendency," that is, to the probable effect of a habit in the long run, or as we say upon the whole. Otherwise we are on the lookout for exceptions which favor our immediate desire. The trouble is that we are not content with modest probabilities. So when we find that a good disposition may ` work out badly, we say, as Kant did, that the working-out, the consequence, has nothing to do with the moral quality of an act, or we strain for the impossible, and aim at some infallible calculus of consequences by which to measure moral worth in each specific case.

Human conceit has played a great part. It has demanded that the whole universe be judged from the standpoint of desire and disposition, or at least from that of the desire and disposition of the good man. The effect of religion has been to cherish this conceit by making men think that the universe invariably conspires

(50) to support the good and bring the evil to naught. By a subtle logic, the effect has been to render morals unreal and transcendental. For since the world of actual experience does not guarantee this identity of character and outcome, it is inferred that there must be some ulterior truer reality which enforces an equation that is violated in this life. Hence the common notion of another world in which vice and virtue of character produce their exact moral meed. The idea is equally found as an actuating force in Plato. Moral realities must be supreme. Yet they are flagrantly contradicted in a world where a Socrates drinks the hemlock of the criminal, and where the vicious occupy the seats of the :nighty. Hence there must be a truer ultimate reality in which justice is only and absolutely justice. Something of the same idea lurks behind every aspiration for realization of abstract justice or equality or liberty. It is the source of all " idealistic " utopias and also of all wholesale pessimism and distrust of life.

Utilitarianism illustrates another way of mistreating the situation. Tendency is not good enough for the utilitarians. They want a mathematical equation of act and consequence. Hence they make light of the steady and controllable factor, the factor of disposition, anti fasten upon just flip things which are must subject to incalculable accident-pleasures and pains and embark upon the hopeless enterprise of judging at act apart from character on the basis of definite results. An honestly modest theory will stick to the probabilities of tendency, and not import mathematics into

(51) morals. It will be alive and sensitive to consequences as they actually present themselves, because it knows that they give the only instruction we can procure as to the meaning of habits and dispositions. But :t will never assume that a moral judgment which reaches certainty is possible. We have just to do the best we can with habits, the forces most under our control; and we shall have our hands more than full in spelling out their general tendencies without attempting an exact judgment upon each deed. For every habit incorporates within itself some part of the objective environment, and no habit and no amount of habits can incorporate the entire environment within itself or themselves. There will always be disparity between them and the results actually attained. Hence the work of intelligence in observing consequences and in revising and readjusting habits, even the best of good habits, can never be foregone. Consequences reveal unexpected potentialities in our habits whenever these habits are exercised in a different environment from that in which they were formed. The assumption of a stably uniform environment (even the hankering for one) expresses a fiction due to attachment to old habits. The utilitarian theory of equation of acts with consequences is as much P fiction of self-conceit as is the assumption of a fled transcendental world wherein moral ideals are eternally and immutably real. Both of them deny in effect the relevancy of time, of change, to morals, while time is of the essence of the moral struggle.

We thus come, by an unexpected path, upon the old

(52) question of the objectivity or subjectivity of morals. Primarily they are objective. For will, as we have seen, means, in the concrete, habits; and habits incorporate an environment within themselves. They are adjustments of the environment, not merely to it. At the same time, the environment is many, not one; hence will, disposition, is plural. Diversity does not of itself imply conflict, but it implies the possibility of conflict, and this possibility is realized in fact. Life, for example, involves the habit of eating, which in turn involves a unification of organism and nature. But nevertheless this habit comes into conflict with other habits which are also "objective," or in equilibrium with their environments. Because the environment is not all of one piece, man's house is divided within itself, against itself. Honor or consideration for others or courtesy conflicts with hunger. Then the notion of the complete objectivity of morals gets a shock. Those who wish to maintain the idea unimpaired take the road which leads to transcendentalism. The empirical world, they say, is indeed divided, and hence any natural morality must be in conflict with itself. This self-contradiction however only points to a higher fixed reality with which a true and superior morality is alone concerned. Objectivity is saved but at the expense of connection with human affairs. Our problem is to see what objectivity, signifies upon a naturalistic basis; how morals are objective and yet secular and social. Then we may be able to decide in what crisis of experience morals be-

( 53) -come legitimately dependent upon character or self — that is, " subjective."

Prior discussion points the way to the answer. A hungry man could not conceive food as a good unless he had actually experienced, with the support of environing conditions, food as good. The objective satisfaction comes first. But he finds himself in a situation where the good is denied in fact. It then lives in imagination. The habit denied overt expression asserts itself in idea. It sets up the thought, the ideal, of food. This thought is not what is sometimes called thought, a pale bloodless abstraction, but is charged with the motor urgent force of habit. Food as a good is now subjective, personal. But it has its source in objective conditions and it moves forward to new objective conditions. For it works to secure a change of environment so that food will again be present in fact. Food is a " subjective " good during a temporary transitional stage from one object to another.

The analogy with morals lies upon the surface. A habit impeded in overt operation continues nonetheless to operate. It manifests itself in desireful thought, that is in an ideal or imagined object which embodies within itself the force of a frustrated habit. There is therefore demand for a changed environment, a demand which can be achieved only by some modification and rearrangement of old habits. Even Plato preserves an intimation of the natural function of ideal objects when he insists upon their value as patterns for use in re-

(54) -organization of the actual scene. The pity is that he could not see that patterns exist only within and for the sake of reorganization, so that they, rather than empirical or natural objects, are the instrumental affairs. Not seeing this, he converted a function of reorganization into a metaphysical reality. If we essay a technical formulation we shall say that morality becomes legitimately subjective or personal when activities which once included objective factors in their operation temporarily lose support from objects, and 'yet strive to change existing conditions until they regain a support which has been lost. It is all of a kind with the doings of a man, who remembering a prior satisfaction of thirst and the conditions under which it occurred, digs a well. For the time being water in reference to his activity exists in imagination not in fact. But this imagination is not a self-generated, self-enclosed, psychical existence. It is the persistent operation of a prior object which has been incorporated in effective habit. There is no miracle in the fact that an object in a new context operates in a new way.

Of transcendental morals, it may at least be said that they retain the intimation of the objective character of purposes and goods. Purely subjective morals arise when the incidents of the temporary (though recurrent) crisis of reorganization are taken as complete and final in themselves. A self having habits and attitudes formed with the cooperation of objects runs ahead of immediately surrounding objects to effect a new equilibration. Subjective morals substitutes a self

(55) always set over against objects and generating it.. ideals independently of objects, and in permanent, not transitory, opposition to them. Achievement, any achievement, is to it a negligible second best, a cheap and poor substitute for ideals that live only in the mind, a compromise with actuality made from physical necessity not from moral reasons. In truth, there is but a temporal episode. For a time, a self, a person, carries in his own habits against the forces of the immediate environment, a good which the existing environment denies. For this self moving temporarily, in isolation from objective conditions, between a good, a completeness, that has been and one that it is hoped to restore in some new form, subjective theories have substituted an erring soul wandering hopelessly between a Paradise Lost in the dim past and a Paradise to be Regained in a dim future. In reality, even when a person is in some respects at odds with his environment and so has to act for the time being as the sole agent of a good, he in many respects is still supported by objective conditions and is in possession of undisturbed goods and virtues. Men do die from thirst at times, but upon the whole in their search for water they are sustained by other fulfilled powers. But subjective morals taken wholesale sets up a solitary self without objective ties and sustenance. In fact, there exists a shifting mixture of vice and virtue. Theories paint a world with a God in heaven and a Devil in hell. Moralists in short have failed to recall that a severance of moral desire and purpose from immediate actualities

(56) is an inevitable phase of activity when habits persist while the world which they have incorporated alters. Back of this failure lies the failure to recognize that in a changing world, old habits must perforce need modification, no matter how good they have been.

Obviously any such change can be only experimental. The lost objective good persists in habit, but it can recur in objective form only through some condition of affairs which has not been yet experienced, and which therefore can be anticipated only uncertainly and inexactly. The essential point is that anticipation should at least guide as well as stimulate effort, that it should be a working hypothesis corrected and developed by events as action proceeds. There was a time when men believed that each object in the external world carried its nature stamped upon it as a form, and that intelligence consisted in simply inspecting and reading off an intrinsic self-enclosed complete nature. The scientific revolution which began in the seventeenth century came through a surrender of this point of view. It began with recognition that every natural object is in truth an event continuous in space and time with other events; and is to be known only by experimental inquiries which will exhibit a multitude of complicated, obscure and minute relationships. Any observed form or object is but a challenge. The case is not otherwise with ideals of justice or peace or human brotherhood, or equality, or order. They too are not things self-enclosed to be known by introspection, as objects were once supposed to be known by rational in-

(57) -sight. Like thunderbolts and tubercular disease and the rainbow they can be known only by extensive and minute observation of consequences incurred in action. A false psychology of an isolated self and a subjective morality shuts out from morals the things important to it, acts and habits in their objective consequences. At the same time it misses the point characteristic of the personal subjective aspect of morality: the significance of desire and thought in breaking down old rigidities of habit and preparing the way for acts that re-create an environment.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2