Human Nature and Conduct

Part 2: The Place of Impulse in Conduct:
III. Changing Human Nature

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Incidentally we have touched upon a most far-reaching problem: The alterability of human nature. Early reformers, following John Locke, were inclined to minimize the significance of native activities, and to emphasize the possibilities inherent in practice and habit acquisition. There was a political slant to this denial of the native and a priori, this magnifying of the accomplishments of acquired experience. It held out a prospect of continuous development, of improvement without end. Thus writers like Helvetius made the idea of the complete malleability of a human nature which originally is wholly empty and passive, the basis for asserting the omnipotence of education to shape human society, and the ground of proclaiming the infinite perfectibility of mankind.

Wary, experienced men of the world have always been sceptical of schemes of unlimited improvement. They tend to regard plans for social change with an eye of suspicion. They find in them evidences of the proneness of youth to illusion, or of incapacity on the part of those who have grown old to learn anything from experience. This type of conservative has thought to find in the doctrine of native instincts a scientific support for asserting the practical unalterability of human nature. Circumstances may change

(107) but human nature remains from age to age the same. Heredity is more potent than environment, and human heredity is untouched by human intent. Effort for a serious alteration of human institutions is utopian. As things have been so they will be. The more they change the more they remain the same.

Curiously enough both parties rest their case upon just the factor which when it is analyzed weakens their respective conclusions. That is to say, the radical reformer rests his contention in behalf of easy and rapid change upon the psychology of habits, of institutions in shaping raw nature, and the conservative grounds his counter-assertion upon the psychology of instincts. As matter of fact, it is precisely custom which has greatest inertia, which is least susceptible of alteration; while instincts are most readily modifiable through use, most subject to educative direction. The conservative who begs scientific support from the psychology of instincts is the victim of an outgrown psychology which derived its notion of instinct from an exaggeration of the fixity and certainty of the operation of instincts among the lower animals. He is a victim of a popular zoology of the bird, bee and beaver, which was largely framed to the greater glory of God. He is ignorant that instincts in flip animals are less infallible and definite than is supposed, and also that. the human being differs from the lower animals in precisely the fact that his native activities lack the complex ready-made organization of the animals' original abilities.

But the short-cut revolutionist fails to realize the

( 108) full force of the things about which he talks most, namely institutions as embodied habits. Any one with knowledge of the stability and force of habit will hesitate to propose or prophesy rapid and sweeping social changes. A social revolution may effect abrupt and deep alterations in external customs, in legal and political institutions. But the habits that are behind these institutions and that have, willy-nilly, been shaped by objective conditions, the habits of thought and feeling, are not so easily modified. They persist and insensibly assimilate to themselves the outer innovations —  much as American judges nullify the intended changes of statute law by interpreting legislation in the light of common law. The force of lag in Human life is enormous.

Actual social change is never so great as is apparent change. Ways of belief, of expectation, of judgment and attendant emotional dispositions of like and dislike, are not easily modified after they have once taken shape. Political and legal institutions may be altered, even abolished; but the bulk of popular thought which has been shaped to their pattern persists. This is why glowing predictions of the immediate coming of a social millennium terminate so uniformly in disappointment, which gives point to the standing suspicion of the cynical conservative about radical changes. Habits of thought outlive modifications in habits of overt action. The former are vital, the latter, without the sustaining life of the former, are muscular tricks. Consequently as a rule the moral effects of even great po-

(109) -litical revolutions, after a few years of outwardly conspicuous alterations, do not show themselves till after the lapse of years. A new generation must come upon the scene whose habits of mind have been formed under the new conditions. There is pith in the saying that important reforms cannot take real effect until after a number of influential persons have died. Where general and enduring moral changes do accompany an external revolution it is because appropriate habits of thought have previously been insensible matured. The external change merely registers the removal of an external superficial barrier to the operation of existing intellectual tendencies.

Those who argue that social and moral reform is impossible on the ground that the Old Adam of human nature remains forever the same, attribute however to native activities the permanence and inertia that in truth belong only to acquired customs. To Aristotle slavery was rooted in aboriginal Human nature. Native distinctions of quality exist such that some persons are by nature gifted with power to plan, command and supervise, and others possess merely capacity to obey and execute. Hence slavery is natural and inevitable. There is error in supposing that because domestic and chattel slavery has been legally abolished, therefore slavery as conceived by Aristotle has disappeared. But matters have at least progressed to a point where it is clear that slavery is a social state not a psychological necessity. Nevertheless the worldly-wise Arisiotles of today assert that the institutions of war and the pres-

(110) -ent wage-system are so grounded in immutable human nature that effort to change them is foolish.

Like Greek slavery or feudal serfdom, war and the existing economic regime are social patterns woven out of the stuff of instinctive activities. Native human nature supplies the raw materials, but custom furnishes the machinery and the designs. War would not be possible without anger, pugnacity, rivalry, self-display, and such like native tendencies. Activity inheres in them and will persist under every condition of life. To imagine they can be eradicated is like supposing that society can go on without eating and without union of the sexes. But to fancy that they must eventuate in war is as if a savage were to believe that because he uses fibers having fixed natural properties in order to weave baskets, therefore his immemorial tribal patterns are also natural necessities and immutable forms.

From a humane standpoint our study of history is still all too primitive. It is possible to study a multitude of histories, and yet permit history, the record of the transitions and transformations of human activities, to escape us. Taking history in separate doses of this country and that, we take it as a succession of isolated finalities, each one in due season giving way to another, as supernumeraries succeed one another in a march across the stage. We thus miss the fact of history and also its lesson ; the diversity of institutional forms and customs which the same human nature may produce and employ. An infantile logic, now happily expelled from physical science, taught that opium put men to

(111) sleep because of its dormitive potency. We follow the same logic in social matters when we believe that war exists because of bellicose instincts; or that a particular economic regime is necessary because of acquisitive and competitive impulses which must find expression.

Pugnacity and fear are no more native than are pity and sympathy. The important thing morally is the way these native tendencies interact, for their interaction may give a chemical transformation not a mechanical combination. Similarly, no social institution stands alone as a product of one dominant force. It is a phenomenon or function of a multitude of social factors in their mutual inhibitions and reinforcements. If we follow an infantile logic we shall reduplicate the unity of result in an assumption of unity of force behind it— as men once did with natural events, employing teleology as an exhibition of causal efficiency. We thus take the same social custom twice over: once as an existing fact and then as an original force which produced the fact, and utter sage platitudes about the unalterable workings of human nature or of race. As we account for war by pugnacity, for the capitalistic system by the necessity of an incentive of gain to stir ambition and effort, so we account for Greece by tower of esthetic observation, Rome by administrative ability, the middle ages by interest in religion and so on. We have constructed an elaborate political zoology as mythological and not nearly as poetic as the other zoology of phoenixes, griffins and unicorns. Native

(112) racial spirit, the spirit of the people or of the time, national destiny are familiar figures in this social zoo. As names for effects, for existing customs, they are sometimes useful. As names for explanatory forces they work havoc with intelligence.

An immense debt is due William James for the mere title of his essay: The Moral Equivalents of War. It reveals with a flash of light the true psychology. Clans, tribes, races, cities, empires, nations, states have made war. The argument that this fact proves an ineradicable belligerent instinct which makes war forever inevitable is much more respectable than many arguments about the immutability of this and that social tradition. For it has the weight of a certain empirical generality back of it. Yet the suggestion of an equivalent for war calls attention to the medley of impulses which are casually bunched together under the caption of belligerent impulse; and it calls attention to the fact that the elements of this medley may be woven together into many differing types of activity, some of which may function the native impulses in much better ways than war has ever done.

Pugnacity, rivalry, vainglory, love of booty, fear, suspicion, anger, desire for freedom from the conventions acid restrictions of peace, love of power and hatred of oppression, opportunity for novel displays,, love of home and soil, attachment to one's people and to the altar and the hearth, courage, loyalty, opportunity to make a name, money or a career, affection, piety, to ancestors and ancestral gods — all of these

(113) things and many more make up the war-like force. To suppose there is some one unchanging native force which generates war is as naive as the usual assumption that our enemy is actuated solely by the meaner of the tendencies named and we only by the nobler. In earlier days there was something more than a verbal connection between pugnacity and fighting; anger and fear moved promptly through the fists. But between a loosely organized pugilism and the highly organized warfare of today there intervenes a long economic, scientific and political history. Social conditions rather than an old and unchangeable Adam have generated wars; the ineradicable impulses that are utilized in them are capable of being drafted into many other channels. The century that leas witnessed the triumph of the scientific doctrine of the convertibility of natural energies ought not to balk at the lesser miracle of social equivalences and substitutes.

It is likely that if Mr. James had witnessed the world war, he would have modified his mode of treatment. So many new transformations entered into the war, that the war seems to prove that though an equivalent has not been found for war, the psychological forces traditionally associated with it have already undergone profound changes. We may take the Iliad as a classic expression of war's traditional psychology as well as the source of the literary tradition regarding its motives and glories. But where are Helen, Hector and Achilles in modern warfare? The activities that evoke and incorporate a war are no longer personal love,

(114) love of glory, or the soldier's love of his own privately amassed booty, but are of a collective, prosaic political and economic nature.

Universal conscription, the general mobilization of all agricultural and industrial forces of the folk not engaged in the trenches, the application of every conceivable scientific and mechanical device, the mass movements of soldiery regulated from a common center by a depersonalized general staff: these factors relegate the traditional psychological apparatus of war to a now remote antiquity. The motives once appealed to are out of date; they do not now induce war. They simply are played upon after war has been brought into existence in order to keep the common soldiers keyed up to their task. The more horrible a depersonalized scientific mass war becomes, the more necessary it is to find universal ideal motives to justify it. Love of Helen of Troy has become a burning love for all humanity, and hatred of the foe symbolizes a hatred of all the unrighteousness and injustice and oppression which he embodies. The more prosaic the actual causes, the more necessary is it to find glowingly sublime motives.

Such considerations hardly prove that war is to be abolished at some future date. But they destroy that argument for its necessary continuance 'which is based on the immutability of specified forces in original human nature. Already the forces that once caused wars have found other outlets for themselves; while new provocations, based on new economic and political conditions,

(115) have come into being. War is thus seen to be a function of social institutions, not of what is natively fixed in human constitution. The last great war has not, it must be confessed, made the problem of finding social equivalents simpler and easier. It is now naive to attribute war to specific isolable human impulses for which separate channels of expression may be found, while the rest of life is left to go on about the same. A general social re-organization is needed which will redistribute forces, immunize, divert and nullify. Hinton was doubtless right when he wrote that the only way to abolish war was to make peace heroic. It now appears that the heroic emotions are not anything which may be specialized in a side-line, so that the war-impulses may find a sublimation in special practices and occupations. They have to get an outlet in all the tasks of peace.

The argument for the abiding necessity of war turns out, accordingly, to have this much value. It makes us wisely suspicious of all cheap and easy equivalencies. It convinces us of the folly of striving to eliminate war by agencies which leave other institutions of society pretty much unchanged. History does not prove the inevitability of war, but it does prove that customs and institutions which organize native powers into certain patterns in politics and economics will also generate the war-pattern. The problem of war is difficult because it is serious. It is none other than the wider problem of the effective moralizing or humanizing of native impulses in times of peace.


The case of economic institutions is as suggestive as that of war. The present system is indeed much more recent and more local than is the institution of war. But no system has ever as yet existed which did not in some form involve the exploitation of some human beings for the advantage of others. And it is argued that this trait is unassailable because it flows from the inherent, immutable qualities of human nature. It is argued, for example, that economic inferiorities and disabilities are incidents of an institution of private property which flows from an original proprietary instinct; it is contended they spring from a competitive struggle for wealth which in turn flows from the absolute need of profit as an inducement to industry. The pleas are worth examination for the light they throw upon the place of impulses in organized conduct.

No unprejudiced observer will lightly deny the existence of an original tendency to assimilate objects and events to the self, to make them part of the " me." We may even admit that the " me " cannot exist without the " mine." The self gets solidity and form through an appropriation of things which identifies them with whatever we call myself. Even a workman in a modern factory where depersonalization is extreme gets to have " his " machine and is perturbed at a change. Possession shapes and consolidates the " I " of philosophers. " I own, therefore I am "expresses a truer psychology than the Cartesian " I think, therefore I am." A man's deeds are imputed to him as their owner, not merely as their creator. That he cannot disown them when

(117) the moment of their occurrence passes is the root of responsibility, moral as well as legal.

But these same considerations evince the versatility of possessive activity. My worldly goods, my good name, my friends, my Honor and shame all depend upon a possessive tendency. The need for appropriation has had to be satisfied ; but only a calloused imagination fancies that the institution of private property as it exists A. D. 1921 is the sole or the indispensable means of its realization. Every gallant life is an experiment in different ways of fulfilling it. It expends itself in predatory aggression, in forming friendships, in seeking fame, in literary creation, in scientific production. In the face of this elasticity, it requires an arrogant ignorance to take the existing complex system of stocks and bonds, of wills and inheritance, a system supported at every point by manifold legal and political arrangements, and treat it as the sole legitimate and baptized child of an instinct of appropriation. Sometimes, even now, a man most accentuates the fact of ownership when he gives something away; use, consumption, is the normal end of possession. We can conceive a state of things in which the proprietary impulse would get full satisfaction by holding goods as mine in just the degree in which they were visibly administered for a benefit in which a corporate community shared.

Does the case stand otherwise with the other psychological principle appealed to, namely, the need of an incentive of personal profit to keep men engaged in useful work? We need not content ourselves with point-

(118) -ing out the elasticity of the idea of gain, and possible equivalences for pecuniary gain, and the possibility of a state of affairs in which only those things would be counted personal gains which profit a group. It will advance the discussion if we instead subject to analysis the whole conception of incentive and motive.

There is doubtless some sense in saying that every conscious act has an incentive or motive. But this sense is as truistic as that of the not dissimilar saying that every event has a cause. Neither statement throws any light on any particular occurrence. It is at most a maxim which advises us to search for some other fact with which the one in question may be correlated. Those who attempt to defend the necessity of existing economic institutions as manifestations of human nature convert this suggestion of a concrete inquiry into a generalized truth and hence into a definitive falsity. They take the saying to mean that nobody would do anything, or at least anything of use to others, without a prospect of some tangible reward. And beneath this false proposition there is another assumption still more monstrous, namely, that man exists naturally in a state of rest so that he requires some external force to set him into action.

The idea of a thing intrinsically wholly inert in the sense of absolutely passive is expelled from physics and has taken refuge in the psychology of current economics. In truth man acts anyway, he can't help acting. In every fundamental sense it is false that a man requires a motive to make him do something. To a

(119) healthy man inaction is the greatest of woes. Any one who observes children knows that while periods of rest are natural, laziness is an acquired vice— or virtue While a man is awake he will do something, if only to build castles in the air. If we like the form of word we may say that a man eats only because he is 6` moved " by hunger. The statement is nevertheless mere tautology. For what does hunger mean except that one of the things which man does naturally, instinctively, is to search for food— that his activity naturally turns that way? Hunger primarily names an act or active process not a motive to an act. It is an act if we take it grossly, like a babe's blind hunt for the mother's breast; it is an activity if we take it minutely as a chemico-physiological occurrence. 

The whole concept of motives is in truth extrapsychological. It is an outcome of the attempt of men to influence human action, first. that of others, then of a man to influence his own behavior. No sensible person thinks of attributing the acts of an animal or an idiot to a motive. We call a biting dog ugly, but we don't. look for leis motive in biting. If however we were able to direct the dog's action by inducing him to reflect upon his acts, we should at once become interested in the dog's motives for acting as he does, and should endeavor to get him interested in the same subject. It is absurd to ask what induces a man to activity generally speaking. He is an active being and that is all there is to be said on that score. But when we want to get him to act in this specific way rather than in

(120) that, when we want to direct his activity that is to say in a specified channel, then the question of motive is pertinent. A motive is then that element in the total complex of a man's activity which, if it can be sufficiently stimulated, will result in an act laving specified consequences. And part of the process of intensifying (or reducing) certain elements in the total activity and thus regulating actual consequence is to impute these elements to a person as his actuating motives.

A child naturally grabs food. But he does it in our presence. His manner is socially displeasing and we attribute to his act, up to dais time wholly innocent, the motive of greed or selfishness. Greediness simply means the quality of his act as socially observed and disapproved. But by attributing it to him as his motive for acting in the disapproved way, we induce him to refrain. We analyze his total act and call his attention to an obnoxious element in its outcome. A child with equal spontaneity, or thoughtlessness, gives way to others. We point out to him with approval that he acted considerately, generously. And this quality of action when noted and encouraged becomes a reinforcing stimulus of that .factor which will induce similar acts in the future. An element in an act viewed as a tendency to produce such and such consequences is a motive. A motive does not exist prior to an act and produce it. It is an act plus a judgment upon some element of it, the judgment being made in the light of the consequences of the act.


At first, as was said, others characterize an act, with favorable or condign qualities which they impute to an agent's character. They react in this; fashion in order to encourage him in future acts of the same sort, or in order to dissuade him— in short to build or destroy a habit. This characterization is part of the technique of influencing the development of character and conduct. It is a refinement of the ordinary reactions of praise and blank. After a time and to some extent, a person teaches himself to think of the results of acting in this way or that before he acts. He recalls that if he acts this way or that some observer, real or imaginary, will attribute to lain noble or mean disposition, virtuous or vicious motive. Thus he learns to influence leis own conduct. An inchoate activity taken in this forward-looking reference to results, especially results of approbation and condemnation, constitutes a motive. Instead then of saying that a man requires a motive in order to induce him to act, we should say that when a man is going to act he needs to know what he is going to do— what the quality of leis act is in terms of consequences to follow. In order to act properly he needs to view his act as others view it ; namely, as a manifestation of a character or will which is good or had according as it is bent upon specific thing's which are desirable or obnoxious. There is no call to furnish a man with incentives to activity in general. But there is every need to induce him to guide his own action by an intelligent perception of its results. For in the long

(122) run this is the most effective way of influencing activity to take this desirable direction rather than that objectionable one.

A motive in short is simply an impulse viewed as a constituent in a habit, a factor in a disposition. In general its meaning is simple. But in fact motives are as numerous as are original impulsive activities multiplied by the diversified consequences they produce as they operate under diverse conditions. How then does it come about that current economic psychology has so tremendously oversimplified the situation? Why does it recognize but one type of motive, that which concerns personal gain. Of course part of the answer is to be found in the natural tendency in all sciences toward a substitution of artificial conceptual simplifications for the tangles of concrete empirical facts. But the significant part of the answer has to do with the social conditions under which work is done, conditions which are such as to put an unnatural emphasis upon the prospect of reward. It exemplifies again our leading proposition that social customs are not direct and necessary consequences of specific impulses, but that social institutions and expectations shape and crystallize impulses into dominant habits.

The social peculiarity which explains the emphasis put upon profit as an inducement to productive serviceable work stands out in high relief in the identification of work with labor. For labor means in economic theory something painful, something so onerously disagreeable or " costly " that every individual avoids it

(123) if he can, and engages in it only because of the promise of an overbalancing gain. Thus the question we are invited to consider is what the social condition is which makes productive work uninteresting and toilsome, Why is the psychology of the industrialist so different from that of inventor, explorer, artist, sportsman, scientific investigator, physician, teacher? For the latter we do not assert that activity is such a burdensome sacrifice that it is engaged in only because men are bribed to act by hope of reward or are coerced by fear of loss.

The social conditions under which " labor " is undertaken have become so uncongenial to human nature that. it is not undertaken because of intrinsic meaning. It is carried on under conditions which render it immediately irksome. The alleged need of an incentive to stir men out of quiescent inertness is the need of an incentive powerful enough to overcome contrary stimuli which proceed from the social conditions. Circumstances of productive service now shear away direct satisfaction from those engaging in it. A real and important fact is thus contained in current economic psychology, but it is a fact about existing industrial conditions and not a fact about native, original activity.

It is "natural" for activity to be agreeable. It tends to find fulfillment, and finding an outlet is itself satisfactory, for it marks partial accomplishment. If productive activity has become so inherently unsatisfactory that men have to be artificially induced to

(124) engage in it, this fact is ample proof that the conditions under which work is carried on balk the complex of activities instead of promoting them, irritate and frustrate natural tendencies instead of carrying them forward to fruition. Work then becomes labor, the consequence of some aboriginal curse which forces man to do what he would not do if he could help it, the outcome of some original sin which excluded man from a .paradise in which desire was satisfied without industry, compelling him to pay for the means of livelihood with "she sweat of his brow. From which it follows naturally that Paradise Regained means the accumulation of investments such that a man can live upon their return without labor. There is, we repeat, too much truth in this picture. But it is not a truth concerning original human nature and activity. It concerns the form human impulses have taken under the influence of a specific social environment. If there are difficulties in the way of social alteration— as there certainly are they do not lie in an original aversion of human nature to serviceable action, but in the historic conditions which have differentiated the work of the laborer for 'wage from that of the artist, adventurer, sportsman, soldier, administrator and speculator.


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