Human Nature and Conduct

Part 3: The Place of Intelligence:
IV. Deliberation and Calculation

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We now return to a consideration of the utilitarian theory according to which deliberation consists in calculation of courses of action on the basis of the profit and loss to which they lead. The contrast of this notion with fact is obvious. The office of deliberation is not to supply an inducement to act by figuring out where the most advantage is to be procured. It is to resolve entanglements in existing activity, restore continuity, recover harmony, utilize loose impulse and redirect habit. To this end observation of present conditions, recollection of previous situations are devoted. Deliberation has its beginning in troubled activity and its conclusion in choice of a course of action which straightens it out. It no more resembles the casting-up of accounts of profit and loss, pleasures and pains, than an actor engaged in drama resembles a clerk recording debit and credit items in his ledger.

The primary fact is that man is a being who responds in action to the stimuli of the environment. This fact is complicated in deliberation, but it certainly is nut abolished. We continue to react to an object presented in imagination as we react to objects presented in observation. The baby does not move to the mother's breast because of calculation of the advantages of warmth and food over against the pains of effort. Nor

(200) does the miser seek gold, nor the architect strive to make plans, nor the physician to heal, because of reckonings of comparative advantage and disadvantage. Habit, occupation, furnishes the necessity of forward action in one case as instinct does in the other. We do not act from reasoning; but reasoning puts before us objects which are not directly or sensibly present, so that we then may react directly to these objects, with aversion, attraction, indifference or attachment, precisely as we would to the same objects if they were physically present. In the end it results in a case of direct stimulus and response. In one case the stimulus is presented at once through sense; in the other case, it is indirectly reached through memory and constructive imagination. But the matter of directness and indirectness concerns the way the stimulus is reached, not the way in which it operates.

Joy and suffering, pain and pleasure, the agreeable and disagreeable, play their considerable role in deliberation. Not, however, by way of a calculated estimate of future delights and miseries, but by way of experiencing present ones. The reaction of joy and sorrow, elation and depression, is as natural a response to objects presented in imagination as to those presented in sense. Complacency and annoyance follow hard at the heels of any object presented in image as they do upon its sensuous experience. Some objects when thought of are congruent to our existing state of activity. They fit in, they are welcome. They agree, or are agreeable, not as matter of calculation but as

(201) matter of experienced fact. Other objects rasp; they cut across activity; they are tiresome, hateful, unwelcome. They disagree with the existing trend of activity, that is, they are disagreeable, and in no other way than as a bore who prolongs his visit, a dun we can't pay, or a pestiferous mosquito who goes on buzzing. We do not think of future losses and expansions. We think, through imagination, of objects into which in the future some course of action will run, and we are now delighted or depressed, pleased or pained at what is presented. This running commentary of likes and dislikes, attractions and disdains, joys and sorrows, reveals to any man who is intelligent enough to note them and to study their occasions his own character. It instructs him as to the composition and direction of the activities that make him what he is. To know what jars an activity and what agrees with it is to know something important. about that activity and about ourselves.

Some one may ask what practical difference it makes whether we are influenced by calculation of future joys and annoyances or by experience of present ones. To such a question one can hardly reply except in the words " All the difference in the world." In the first place, no difference can be more important than that which concerns the nature of the subject-matter of deliberation. The calculative theory would have it that this subject-matter is future feelings, sensations, and that actions and thought are external means to get and avoid these sensations. If such a theory has any

(202) practical influence, it is to advise a person to concentrate upon his own most subjective and private feelings. It gives him no choice except between a sickly introspection and an intricate calculus of remote, inaccessible and indeterminate results. In fact, deliberation, as a tentative trying-out of various courses of action, is outlooking. It flies toward and settles upon objective situations not upon feelings. No doubt we sometimes fall to deliberating upon the effect of action upon our future feelings, thinking of a situation mainly with reference to the comforts and discomforts it will excite in us. But these moments are precisely our sentimental moments of self-pity or self-glorification. They conduce to morbidity, sophistication, isolation from others; while facing our acts in terms of their objective consequences leads to enlightenment and to consideration of others. The first objection therefore to deliberation as a calculation of future feelings is that, if it is consistently adhered to, it makes an abnormal case the standard one.

If however an objective estimate is attempted, thought gets speedily lost in a task impossible of achievement. Future pleasures and pains are influenced by two factors which are independent of present choice rind effort. They depend upon our own state at some future moment and upon the surrounding circumstances of that moment. Both of these are variables which change independently of present resolve and action. They are much more important determinants of future sensations than is anything which can now be

(203) calculated. Things sweet in anticipation are bitter in actual taste, things we now turn from in aversion are welcome at another moment in our career. Independently of deep changes in character, such as from mercifulness to callousness, from fretfulness to cheerfulness, there are unavoidable changes in the waxing and waning of activity. A child pictures a future of unlimited toys and unrestricted sweetmeats. An adult pictures an object as giving pleasure while he is empty while the thing arrives in a moment of repletion. A sympathetic person reckons upon the utilitarian basis the pains of others as a debit item in his calculations. But why not harden himself so that others' sufferings won't count? Why not foster an arrogant cruelty so that the suffering of others which will follow from one's own action will fall on the credit side of the reckoning, be pleasurable, all to the good?

Future pleasures and pains, even of one's own, are among the things most elusive of calculation. Of all things they lead themselves least readily to anything approaching a mathematical calculus. And the further into the future we extend our view, and the more the pleasures of others enter into the account, the more hopeless does the problem of estimating future consequences become. All of the element—  become more and more indeterminate. Even if one could form a fairly accurate picture of the things that give pleasure to most people at the present moment— an exceedingly difficult task— he cannot foresee the detailed circumstances which will give a decisive turn to enjoyment at

(204) future times and remote places. Do pleasures due to defective education or unrefined disposition, to say nothing of the pleasures of sensuality and brutality, rank the same as those of cultivated persons having acute social sensitiveness? The only reason the impossibility of the hedonistic calculus is not self-evident is that theorists in considering it unconsciously substitute for calculation of future pleasures an appreciation of present ones, a present realization in imagination of future objective situations.

For, in truth, a man's judgment of future joys and sorrows is but a projection of what now satisfies and annoys him. A man of considerate disposition now feels hurt at the thought of an act bringing harm to others, and so he is on the lookout for consequences of that sort, ranking them as of high importance. He may even be so abnormally sensitive to such consequences that he is held back from needed vigorous action. He fears to do the things which are for the real welfare of others because he shrinks from the thought 0f the pain to be inflicted upon there by needed measures. A man of an executive type, engrossed in carrying through a scheme, will react in present emotion to everything concerned with its external success ; the pain its execution brings to others will not occur to hint, or if it does, his mind will easily glide over it. This sort of consequence will seem to him of slight importance in comparison with the commercial or political changes which bulk in his plans. What a man foresees and fails to foresee, what he appraises highly and at a low rate,

(205) what he deems important and trivial, what he dwells upon and what he slurs over, what he easily recalls and what he naturally forgets— all of these things depend upon his character. His estimate of future consequences of the agreeable and annoying is consequently of much greater value as an index of what he now is than as a prediction of future results.

One has only to read between the lines to see the enormous difference that marks off modern utilitarianism from epicureanism, in spite of similarities in professed psychologies. Epicureanism is too worldly-wise to indulge in attempts to base present action upon precarious estimates of future and universal pleasures and pains. On the contrary it says let the future go, for life is uncertain. Who knows when it will end, or what fortune the morrow will bring? Foster, then, with jealous care every gift of pleasure now allotted to you, dwell upon it with lingering love, prolong it as best you may. Utilitarianism on the contrary was a part of a philanthropic and reform movement of the nineteenth century. Its commendation of an elaborate and impossible calculus was in reality part of a movement to develop a type of character which should have a wide social outlook, sympathy with the experiences of all sentient creatures, one zealous about the social effects of all proposed acts, especially those of collective legislation and administration. It was concerned not with extracting the honey of the passing moment but with breeding improved bees and constructing hives.

After all, the object of foresight of consequences is

(206) not to predict the future. It is to ascertain the meaning of present activities and to secure, so far as possible, a present activity with a unified meaning. We are not the creators of heaven and earth; we have no responsibility for their operations save as their motions are altered by our movements. Our concern is with the significance of that slight fraction of total activity which starts from ourselves. The best laid plans of men as well as of mice gang aglee; and for the same reason: inability to dominate the future. The power of man and mouse is infinitely constricted in comparison with the power of events. Men always build better or worse than they know, for their acts are taken up into the broad sweep of events.

Hence the problem of deliberation is not to calculate future happenings but to appraise present proposed actions. We judge present desires and habits by their tendency to produce certain consequences. It is our business to watch the course of our action so as to see what is the significance, the import of our habits and dispositions. The future outcome is not certain. But neither is it certain what the present fire will do in the future. It may be unexpectedly fed or extinguished. But its tendency is a knowable matter, what it will do under certain circumstances. And so we know what is the tendency of malice, charity, conceit, patience. We know by observing their consequences, by recollecting what we have observed, by using that recollection in constructive imaginative forecasts of the future, by

(207) using the thought of future consequence to tell the quality of the act now proposed.

Deliberation is not calculation of indeterminate future results. The present, not the future, is ours. No shrewdness, no store of information will make it ours. But by constant watchfulness concerning the tendency of acts, by noting disparities between former judgments and actual outcomes, and tracing that part of the disparity that was due to deficiency and excess in disposition, we come to know the meaning of present acts, and to guide them in the light of that meaning. The moral is to develop conscientiousness, ability to judge the significance of what we are doing and to use that judgment in directing what we do, not by means of direct cultivation of something called conscience, of reason, or a faculty of moral knowledge, but by fostering those impulses and habits which experience has shown to make us sensitive, generous, imaginative, impartial in perceiving the tendency of our inchoate dawning activities. Every attempt to forecast the future is subject in the end to the auditing of present concrete impulse and Habit. Therefore the important thing is the fostering of those habits and impulses which lead to a broad, just, sympathetic survey of situations.

The occasion of deliberation, that is of the attempt to find a stimulus to complete overt action in thought of some future object, is confusion and uncertainty in present activities. A similar division in activities and need of a like deliberative activity for the

(208) sake of recovery of unity is sure to recur, to recur again and again, no matter how wise the decision. Even the most comprehensive deliberation leading to the most momentous choice only fixes a disposition which has to be continuously applied in new and unforeseen conditions, re-adapted by future deliberations. Always our old habits and dispositions carry us into new fields. We have to be always learning and relearning the meaning of our active tendencies. Does not this reduce moral life to the futile toil of a Sisyphus who is forever rolling a stone uphill only to have it roll back so that he has to repeat his old task? Yes, judged from progress made in a control of conditions which shall stay put and which excludes the necessity of future deliberations and reconsiderations. No, because continual search and experimentation to discover the meaning of changing activity, keeps activity alive, growing in significance. The future situation involved in deliberation is of necessity marked by contingency. What it will be in fact remains dependent upon conditions that escape our foresight and power of regulation. But foresight which draws liberally upon the lessons of past experience reveals the tendency, the meaning, of present action; and, once more, it is this present meaning rather than the future outcome which count. Imaginative forethought of the probable consequences of a proposed act keeps that act from sinking below consciousness into routine habit or whimsical brutality. It preserves the meaning of that act alive, and keeps it growing in depth and refinement of meaning. There is no limit to

( 209) the amount of meaning which reflective and meditative habit is capable of importing info even simple acts, just as the most splendid successes of the skilful executive who manipulates events may be accompanied by an incredibly meager and. superficial consciousness.


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