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Chapter VI: The Meaning of Morality

Morality is something which goes on in the world; or, at any rate, there is something which goes on in the world to which it is appropriate to give the name of ‘morality.’ Nothing is more familiar; nothing is more obscure in its meaning. Moral science, moral philosophy, or moral theory consists in the investigation of this going on. The term ‘ethics’ is not here introduced for reasons that will appear more clearly in the sequel. Suffice it to say, at this stage of the inquiry, that ‘ethics’ is being reserved for a study of a special moral institution, namely, conscience, sometimes called ‘custom’ or ‘mores’; meaning the attitudes of approval and disapproval which occur at any given time or place.

If there is any doubt as to the correctness of this statement that morality is something that goes on in the world, and which appears in all societies and in all periods of history, it rests on an ambiguity. It may, indeed, be doubted whether moral ideals have ever been realized in any historic society: misanthropy, pessimism, cynicism, and the doctrine of original sin, have all challenged this claim. But it cannot be denied that morality exists as a pursuit, having its own ideal by which a certain kind of human success or failure is judged.

The emphasis on the ideal rather than its realization has led to the wide acceptance of the view that morality and having an ideal mean the same thing. Thomas Mann, in his Magic Mountain, had one of his characters, the brilliant and voluble Hans Castorp, propound the paradoxical opinion that morality is to be looked for not “dans la vertue, e'est-à-dire, dans la raison, la discipline, les bonnes moeurs, l'honnêteté” but rather in their opposites — “le péché, en s'abandonnant au danger, à ce qui est nuisible, à ce qui nous consume.”1 A similar paradox is to be found in Nietzsche's view that morality lies “beyond good and evil.” Later days have seen the rise of cults such as fascism, nazism, and bolshevism, which have derived their morale from their defiance of morality. If such confusions are to be avoided it is necessary to distinguish the qualities of fidelity, discipline, perseverance, and enthusiasm which lend vigor to any cult, from the specific content of the moral cult. One must be prepared to reject the edifying associations of the word ‘ideal,’ and recognize that ideals may be moral, immoral, or unmoral. Similarly, morality does not consist merely in having principles and scruples, but in the nature of that to which obligation is felt and sacrifice is made.

Morality can be initially identified by a set of terms used as predicates in moral judgments: terms such as ‘ought,’ ‘duty,’ ‘right,’ ‘good,’ ‘virtue,’ and their opposites. It is essential here, as in general theory of value, to distinguish between the predicates and that of which they are predicated. There are two questions: “What is morally good?” and “In what does moral goodness consist?” Moralists of the past have usually been concerned with the first of these questions, and have sought a summary answer. Thus the ancients reduced the virtues (the things held virtuous) to justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom; while the Christians reduced the duties (things held dutiful) to faith, hope, and love, and “the two great commandments,” love of God and love of neighbor. The four ancient virtues were then reduced to justice or wisdom, and the Christian duties to love; or both were reduced to happiness.

When this line of thought arrives at a supreme generalization it tends to pass over into the second of the above inquiries, with which it is easily confused. When it is affirmed that only wisdom or justice is virtuous, or that the only duty is love, or that the only good is happiness, it is natural to equate the meaning of virtue, duty, and good with these unique exemplifications. Despite this natural presumption, however, there are two distant questions, and it would be impossible without redundancy to give the same answer to both; that would be to say “virtue is virtuous,” “duty is dutiful,” or “goodness is good.” The first question is answered when the predicate of virtuousness, dutifulness, or goodness, whatever it means, is assigned to a certain grammatical subject; the second question is answered when the predicate itself is analyzed or clarified. It is the second question and the discussions to which it gives rise that constitute the primary subject matter of moral theory.


It is an open secret at this stage of the discussion that morality takes conflict of interest as its point of departure and harmony of interests as its ideal goal. Before expounding this ideal it will be profitable to examine certain widespread misconceptions of morality which have lowered its prestige not only among moral sceptics and cynics, but, to no inconsiderable extent, in the popular mind. It is one or more of these misconceptions that have given morality its bad name, as when Disraeli is reported to have said of Gladstone that he was “a good man in the worst sense of the term.” Among these misconceptions there are four which lead all the rest: asceticism, authoritarianism, preceptualism, and utopianism.

These misconceptions of morality arise not from sheer blindness but from an exaggerated emphasis on some one of its aspects. Since these misconceptions are half-truths their correction throws light on the whole truth. Every solid entity can be approached from different sides, and its many-sidedness tends to escape knowledge through abstraction of one of its sides: the elevation is mistaken for the building. So morality, having many sides, yields distortions. But the one-sidedness can be explained by the many-sidedness — the misunderstandings can be understood.

The first and commonest of these misunderstandings is asceticism. Morality does not coincide with the inclination of the moment, or with any particular inclination. Owing to the fact that it requires inclinations to be overruled and disciplined, duty comes to be identified with dis-inclination — with doing what one does not want to do or leaving undone what one wants to do. When this aspect of morality is erected into its supreme principle, the good life becomes a life “against” — a substitution of negative for positive interests. Every interest which raises its head is regarded as an enemy, or at least a danger. This is what is known as asceticism.

The truth of the matter is precisely the opposite of this — namely, a life “for,” the substitution of positive for negative interests. It is the original conflict, and not the moralization, of interests that multiplies negations. Morality is an organizing of interests in order that they may flourish. The denials derive their only moral justification from the affirmations for which they make room. The purpose of morality is the abundant life.

A second aspect of morality arises from the fact that men learn it from some authority — domestic, civil, social, or religious — which issues commands and enforces them. Authoritarianism is the name given to the view which identifies morality with the acceptance and obedience of authority; with uncritical acceptance, and passive obedience. But authority ceases to be an ultimate principle at the moment when attention is directed to the credentials of the authority and the motives by which acceptance and obedience are dictated. It then appears that the authority of the authority requires that it shall be powerful, or wise, or good; while obedience is dictated by fear, or the need of guidance, or by love and gratitude. In other words, authority ceases to be absolute, but rests on ulterior grounds which displace its sheer authoritativeness. And these ulterior grounds involve some idea of good: when governed by fear, the obedience object himself “knows what is good for him”; when governed by the end of guidance he assumes that the authority knows what is good for him; when governed by love he attributes goodness to the authority itself. Each good turns out to consist in interest — whether selfish interest, or self-interest, or disinterested benevolence.

Authoritarianism is the aspect which morality presents to dependence and immaturity. It is the morality of childhood — whether of the individual or of the group. The child learns morality at his mother's knee, or upon his father's. This childhood is never entirely outgrown. The parent is replaced by the policeman, ruler, or priest. Men are always in need of authority, and require to be controlled by the power, wisdom, and example of their betters. They have to be threatened, bribed, or seduced if they are to behave as the moral ideal requires. But this fact, important as it is for explaining the causes of human conduct, does not define the ideal itself; nor does it account for that mature phase of the moral life in which having understood the moral ideal men are persuaded to adopt it and to observe its requirements for the sake of its ideal end.

A third misconception of morality may properly be called preceptualism — morality as identified with a set of precepts. It is analogous to what in the realm of law is called ‘legalism’ — which is substituting the letter for the spirit or intent of the law. Moral organization like any organization requires its rules; which must be observed by the members if the purpose of the organization is to be served. Just as the law may be abstracted from its social utility and taken as an absolute, so the moral rules may be similarly abstracted.

The taboos and other customs which are unquestioningly accepted by social groups, are either arbitrary conventions resulting from accident, tradition, imitation, and habit, or can be traced to an apparent utility, formerly discovered by experience and subsequently forgotten. They are either quite indefensible, or defensible only in terms of the rediscovery and confirmation of their utility. When they are merely arbitrary conventions they cease, like fashions, to have any moral force; when their apparent utility is disproved and they are still taken seriously, they are called “mere taboos.”

Precepts are usually expressed, like the scriptural commandments, in the imperative voice. They assume the form of injunctions: ‘thou shalt,’ ‘thou shalt not.’ But while the grammatical voice is imperative, the real voice has disappeared: the “stern daughter of the voice of God,” has become an orphan, retaining only the sternness. Commandments are left without a commander. The authority has faded until nothing is left of it but its utterances tinged with an echo of authoritativeness.

When precepts are thus explained they are not explained away. Morality continues to embrace positive and negative generalizations of action, such as justice, veracity, murder, theft, but instead of being taken as the ultimates of morality, shining in their own light, and having their force in themselves, they are seen to be the instruments by which the good life is achieved, as the rules of hygiene minister to personal or social health.

The fourth of the common misconceptions of morality arises from the gap which separates its ideal goal from its achievement. It is of its very nature that there should be such a gap, that the “reach” should “exceed the grasp,” but it is equally essential that the gap should be recognized and bridged. Utopianism stands for a divorce and not a gap. It does not mean that the ideal is too high, for all moral ideals are counsels of perfection, but that no route is plotted from the present actualities to or toward the remote ideal. It is this path, or series of steps, or chain of intermediaries, which makes the ideal, however exalted, a “practical possibility.”

When the ideal is disconnected from the field of present action and transplanted to another world, it ceases to play its role of ideal-to-be-realized. Men then tend to be divided into two opposing camps, those who ignore the ideal through preoccupation with present action, and those who cease to be active in the practical sphere through dreaming the ideal. The first are the “opportunists” who act without purpose or direction. Since they have no ideal by which to judge their shortcomings they become the servants of things as they are. The second, the Utopians, tend to substitute the image of the ideal for its realization and to become “visionaries.” Seeking to correct the myopia of the opposing camp they acquire the defect of presbyopia, and become so farsighted that they cannot deal with what lies about them. The moral life requires that men shall be able to shift their focus between the near and the far, and to engage in short-range segments of long-range endeavor.

The correction of these four misconceptions throws light on the true conception of morality. In order to promote an organized harmony of life men must limit and adjust interests without destroying them, submit to authority without slavishness, conform to rules for the sake of the end which these subserve, and seek the ideal goal through a succession of effective acts departing from the here and now.


Morality is man's endeavor to harmonize conflicting interests: to prevent conflict when it threatens, to remove conflict when it occurs, and to advance from the negative harmony of non-conflict to the positive harmony of coöperation. Morality is the solution of the problem created by conflict — conflict among the interests of the same or of different persons. The solution of the personal problem lies in the substitution for a condition of warring and mutually destructive impulses a condition in which each impulse, being assigned a limited place, may be innocent and contributory. For the weakness of inner discord it substitutes the strength of a unified life in which the several interests of an individual make common cause together. The same description applies to the morality of a social group, all along the line from the domestic family to the family of nations.

Such a moralization of life takes place, insofar as it does take place, through organization — personal and social. This crucial idea of organization must not be conceived loosely, or identified with organism. In organism, as in a work of art, the part serves the whole; in moral organization the whole serves the parts, or the whole only for the sake of the parts. The parts are interests, and they are organized in order that they, the constituent interests themselves, may be saved and fulfilled.

When interests are thus organized there emerges an interest of the totality, or moral interest, whose superiority lies in its being greater than any of its parts — greater by the principle of inclusiveness. It is authorized to speak for all of the component interests when its voice is their joint voice. The height of any claim in the moral scale is proportional to the breadth of its representation. What suits all of a person's interests is exalted above what merely suits a fraction; what suits everybody is exalted above what merely suits somebody.

Certain philosophies and religions of the past have conceived the world as originally a moral order, that is, as constitutionally harmonious, all desires and wills being so fitted to one another that each acting for itself is at the same time harmless or helpful to the rest. Such a guarantee of cosmic harmony has been an article of faith in Christian theism, as exemplified in the terrestrial and celestial paradises. In the thought of the eighteenth century this was represented in terms of an idyllic “state of nature.” In Kant it was a “kingdom of ends” ruled by the moral imperative. After Kant it assumed another form in the idealistic doctrine of an “absolute spirit.” Still later it found expression in the Spencerian doctrine of a “perfectly adjusted society,” conceived as the end product of natural evolution.

But Christian theism and the eighteenth century doctrine of nature both found it necessary to acknowledge an unfortunate lapse or “fall,” from which men must be redeemed through salvation or through civil institutions. The Kantian kingdom of ends was assigned to a “noumenal” world beyond the reach of knowledge, and affirmed by an act of faith. The idealistic philosophy found it necessary to acknowledge the disharmony of the phenomenal world and to transpose the realization of harmony to a supersensible realm. And science has long since abandoned the idea that harmony is a predetermined outcome of the evolutionary process. Whether as recovery from a fall, or as a bridge from the temporal to the eternal, or as a conscious control of natural forces, it is now recognized as necessary to invoke the human will in order that harmony shall be made out of disharmony. Harmony thus becomes an ideal future good; a goal the attainment of which is conditioned by plasticity of circumstance, fidelity of purpose, efficiency of control, and growth of enlightenment.

Morality conceived as the harmonization of interests for the sake of the interests harmonized can be described as a cult of freedom. It does not force interests into a procrustean bed, but gives interests space and air in which to be more abundantly themselves. Its purpose is to provide room. And ideally the benefits of morality are extended to all interests. Hence moral progress takes the double form, of liberalizing the existing organization, and of extending it to interests hitherto excluded. Both of these principles have important applications to the “dynamics” of morality, or to the moral force in human history. The extension of moral organization is made possible by increase of contact and interaction, which, however, then multiplies the possibilities of conflict. Hence the peculiar destiny of man, whose ascent is rendered possible by the same conditions which make possible his fall. There can be no development of a unified personality or society without the risk of inner tensions; no neighborhood, nation, or society of all mankind, without the risk of war.

Morality as progressive achievement requires the integration of interests. They cannot be simply added together. If they are to compose a harmonious will that represents them all, they must be brought into line. At the same time, if such a will is truly to embrace them, which is the ground of its higher claim, they must themselves accept the realignment. Morality is an integration of interests, in which they are rendered harmonious without losing their identity. The procedure by which this is effected is the method of reflective agreement, appearing in the personal will, and in the social will.


Interests are integrated by reflection. In the creation of the personal will there occurs a thinking over, in which the several interests of the same person are reviewed, and invited to present their claims. Reflection overcomes the effects of forgetfulness and disassociation. It corrects the perspectives of time and immediacy, anticipating the interests of tomorrow, and giving consideration to the interests which at the moment are cold or remote. It brings to light the causal relations between one interest and another. From reflection there emerge decisions which fulfill, in some measure, the purpose of harmony: plans, schedules, quotas, substitutions, and other arrangements by which the several interests avoid collision and achieve mutual reinforcement.

The personal will which emerges from reflection is not, as has sometimes been held, merely the strongest among existing interests, prevailing after a struggle of opposing forces. It is not a mere survivor, other contestants having been eliminated. It does not intervene on one side or the other, but takes a line down the middle, analogous to the resultant or vector in a field of forces. It makes its own choices, and sets its own precedents. Its accumulated decisions, having become permanent dispositions, form a character, or unwritten personal constitution.

The achievement of such a personal will cannot be indefinitely postponed. The exigencies of life are imperative, and have to be met with whatever personal will can be achieved. There is always a dateline for action. Any given personal will is thus inevitably premature, provisional, and subject to improvement. But insofar as it is enlightened and circumspect this personal will is considered as finally justified, except insofar as it neglects the similar personal wills of others. Within the domain of its included interests it is a moral ultimate. The several interests which it embraces have no moral cause for complaint insofar as they have been given the opportunity of contributing to the purpose to which they are subordinated.

The relation of the personal will to the person's several interests is primarily one of government, overruling, or dominance. It serves as a check or censor called into play when any of the particular interests tends to exceed bounds. Like a sentinel it challenges each passing interest and requires it to show its credentials.

The similarity between the personal and social forms of the moral will must not be allowed to obscure their profound difference. It is true that as the personal will emerges from reflection so the social will emerges from communication and discussion. In both cases the emergent will represents a totality of interests, and achieves by organization a substitution of harmony for conflict. The difference lies in the fact that whereas the personal will is composed of sub-personal interests, the social will is composed of persons.

But while the social moral will is a will of persons, society is not a person. Excluding fictitious persons, corporate persons, legal persons, and every metaphorical or figurative use of the term, the only real person is that being which is capable of reflecting, choosing, relating means to ends, making decisions, and subordinating particular interests to an overruling purpose. It follows that there can be no moral will on the social level except as composed of several personal wills which are peculiarly modified and interrelated.

The ramifications of this fact pervade the whole domain of morality and moral institutions. It is echoed in all of those doctrines which exalt the person as an end in himself. It gives meaning to fraternity as the acknowledgment of person by fellow-persons. It gives to the individual man that “dignity” of which we hear so much. It provides for that unique role of the person as thinker, judge, and chooser, which lies at the basis of all representative institutions, and determines the moral priority of individuals to society.


The creation of a social moral will out of personal wills depends on benevolence, that is, one person's positive interest in another person's interest. To be benevolent here means not that I treat you well so far as it happens to suit my existing interests to do so; my concern for your interests is an independent interest. Taking your desires and aversions, your hopes and fears, your pleasures and pains, in short, the interests by which you are actually moved, I act as though these interests were my own. Though I cannot, strictly speaking, feel your interests, I can acknowledge them, wish them well, and allow for them in addition to the interests which are already embraced within me. When you are at the same time benevolently disposed to my interests, we then have the same problem of reconciling the same interests, except that my original interests form the content of your benevolence and your original interests the content of mine.

In this pooling of interests I am ordinarily concerned that your benevolence shall actually embrace my original interests; and you are similarly concerned to accent yours. Each of us assumes that the other can safely be trusted to look out for his own. Assuming that each will be biased in favor of his own interests, the bias of each will tend to correct the bias of the other. Each will be the special pleader of his own interests, and his insistence on them will reinforce the other's weaker benevolence.

There will be a further difference. Your interests are best and most immediately served by you, and mine by me. I can for the most part serve you best by letting you serve yourself. The greater part of my benevolence, therefore, will take a permissive form. I will sometimes help you, but more often will abstain from hurting you; or will so follow my own inclinations as to make it possible for you also to follow yours; or accept your inclinations as setting a limit to mine.

No will is here introduced over and above the wills of the two persons, but since the two wills now represent the same interests, they will have achieved a community of end and a coöperative relation of means. In each person the new socialized purpose will have become dominant over his original interests. Neither will have become the mere means to the other since the common end is now each person's governing end. Each can speak with equal authority for that end, and may legitimately use the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ in behalf of both. Each, speaking for the common end, can approve or disapprove the other's conduct without arrogance or impertinence.

The social form of the moral will is an agreement of personal wills of which independent benevolence is the essential condition. There are many other factors which conduce to such agreement, and which in their totality make up the method or art of agreement.2 The first prerequisite of agreement is a desire to agree, rather than to “get the better” of the other party. To induce this attitude it is necessary that both parties should be conscious of the wastefulness of conflict, and the gains, even if they be selfish gains, of peace. The Quaker idea of achieving unanimity, in a “sense of the meeting,” which leaves no slumbering grievances and needs of fresh dispute, is precisely the moral norm which is here defined. The further Quaker idea of periods of silence may or may not be taken to imply a religious doctrine of “inner light”; it may be taken to mean only that an interval of meditation will serve to cool the temper of acrimony.

Agreement is often promoted by shifting the emphasis from points of disagreement to matters in which there is already agreement. This area of agreement may be found either in subsidiary matters or in a common ideal goal. In either case there is created a mood of agreement which is favorable to further agreement. Since interests embrace a factor a cognitive mediation it is always possible to find occasions for cognitive agreement. There are always questions of fact and logic which can be made the focus of discussion. But though this conduces to an agreement of wills, it does not suffice. For practical or moral agreement it is necessary that each person should be moved as the other is moved, so as to achieve a harmony of purpose and action.

In the personal will it is sufficient that all of the person's interests shall be represented, whatever they be. Some of his interests may be benevolent, and no doubt will be, human nature and the circumstances of life being what they are; but benevolence is no more essential to the personal will than is hunger or an interest in collecting postage stamps. The social will, on the other hand, must be benevolent. Thus the social will is subjected to a double requirement, personality and benevolence.

When there is a social will among several persons the conduct which it prescribes will coincide with that which is prescribed by the personal will of each, but that will be only because benevolence has already been introduced into the personal will. This is a very different matter from the coincidence which may occur when the requirements of the personal will with or without benevolence, and the social will embracing benevolence, are applied independently. In the latter case the coincidence is accidental, that is, it cannot be deduced from either set of requirements taken separately. If it should occur invariably, it would be a happy miracle of the sort which is credited by the exponents of laissez-faire — an echo of the optimistic theism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Whenever an act dictated by the social will happens to be dictated also by the personal will, this coincidence will serve to give it a double support. Either principle may be invoked to augment the justification afforded by the other.


Reflective agreement between persons confers on each the right to speak for all. But there are degrees of reflection. It may be comparatively hasty, shallow, impulsive, irrational; or it may be comparatively deliberate, deep, wholehearted, rational. These different levels of reflection define a norm by which the social will can be appraised. Since the person is the seat of reflection it is to the personal will that we must look for an understanding of this difference of level.

If the word ‘we’ is the most presumptuous word in the English language, the word ‘I’ is a close rival. The word ‘I’ claims to speak for the whole of the person to which the moment of its utterance belongs. When my hunger speaks, it says, “I am hungry”; momentary appetites and impulses say “I” even more carelessly and shamelessly than persons say “we.” But the first person singular means, ideally, the totality of the person who is the user of that pronoun. It claims agreement on the part of the whole company of his interests, most of which will at any given moment be unconscious. This claim is warranted only insofar as these interests have been consulted and, after whatever transformations may have been necessary, have acquiesced.

In the light of this norm it may now be seen that social agreement will vary in the extent to which it expresses the total persons of the agreeing parties; and this will depend on the process, whether more or less reflective, by which the agreement is made. By the same token, representative agreement will vary in the degree to which the spokesman, when he uses the pronoun ‘we,’ can speak not only for all, but for all of all — that is, with the “full consent” of all

It is possible to give an external, verbal, or silent consent when there is inward dissent. Such mendacious consent has social and political importance through disguising tyranny or selfish exploitation under a cloak of unanimity. Mendacious consent assumes crucial importance when a person has an interest not only in securing the agreement of others but in determining what their opinion shall be. When the opinion which he wishes to implant in others is his own opinion, we call him “sincere”; reserving harsher condemnation for him who seeks to implant in others an opinion which is not his own, but which it suits his purpose that others should hold, or seem to hold. In this case his own assent is mendacious, and the consent of others may be a mendacious means of escaping persecution; but it will be to the interest of the leader that the consent of others should be veracious, since in that case he can relax the pressure of intimidation without fear of losing support. The term ‘propaganda’ may be used in the larger sense to mean any dissemination of attitude by a person who desires to be the spokesman of those who assume it; or, in its disparaging sense, it may be reserved for the case in which the propagandist induces others to appear to agree with his own pretended attitude.

Since the unscrupulous propagandist is usually concerned with immediate support and control, he is inclined to be indifferent to the manner in which the consent of others is obtained, provided it is obtained. It is comparatively easy for men to agree superficially; when men think for themselves they tend for a time to take divergent paths. The method best calculated to secure a prompt unanimity is the one way passage — the spoken or written word by which the propagandist “holds the floor,” while his spellbound victim assumes a passive role. He who would quickly possess men's minds will not stir their depths. The unscrupulous propagandist will not excite the critical faculties. He will appeal to ready-made opinions and to common appetites. When these existing agreements do not suffice he will induce a state of suggestibility. The essential condition of suggestibility is dissociation; which isolates some part of the person, and exposes this part helplessly to contagion and fixation by cutting its interior controls.

In short, by non-reflective propaganda men are united with one another by being divided from themselves. It is true that the effects of such suggested or passionate unanimity are sometimes benign, and its motive may be noble. But whether it be a lynching party or a crusade, a drunken debauch or a religious revival, agreement obtained by methods thus deliberately contrived to inhibit reflection does violence to personal integrity. Of such agreement it is not strictly correct to say “you agree” or “we agree.” It would be more correct to say “it agrees” — referring to some fragmentary item, some accidental part, some particular impulse, some isolated idea.

It is commonly supposed that there is virtue in passionate unanimity. As a matter of fact there is more of the substance of the moral will in conflicting egoisms, where each ego is at least a reflective person. The spread of identical passions instead of justifying these passions only renders them more resistant to reason and conscience, increasing the very blindness, narrow insistence, and ruthlessness which constitute the essence of original sin. The complete social agreement which takes the supreme place in the moral order requires two components, the horizontal component of spread and the vertical component of depth.


Morality may be illustrated by the actual complexities of social life arranged in spheres of expanding inclusiveness. In the more intimate family or local circle there are several persons within the range of familiar acquaintance, each with interests of his own. Through communication and benevolence each adopts as his own the interest of father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, neighbor; integrates them, speaks for the family or local group as a whole, and himself accepts this voice as authoritative over his original interests.

When representatives of capital and labor sit around a table and engage in what is called “collective bargaining,” and insofar as this is a moral transaction which achieves a “right” solution of the problem of conflict, the process is similar except that the interests are represented, instead of being immediately present “in person.” Each representative enters the conference as the advocate of one of the conflicting economic interests, and he is expected to advocate it. But he is also expected to take the view of the opposing advocate. He must listen to him, be impressed, concede his point, acknowledge his claims. In proportion as there is this exchange of interests, both parties tend to be actuated by both interests. Their two attitudes tend to converge and to approximate that of a third party, such as “the representative of the public,” the judge, or the arbitrator, whose role it is to be equally considerate of both interests, and the partisan advocate of neither.

The procedures that are proper to collective bargaining are those which enable each finally to decide for all. The first step is the desire for agreement. Other proper procedures would include the discovery and amplification of the facts relevant to any of the interests represented; the invention of methods by which interests at present conflicting can both be fulfilled; the recognition of partial agreements already existing and of the commitments which these imply. Actually, other factors come into play — stubbornness, a war of nerves, the relative strength of war chests, endurance, threats, lung power, scowling eyebrows, appeals to the galleries. Undoubtedly the decision is forced and premature, and may have some day to be reopened. But when we speak of a solution of industrial problems which is better than brute force, or say that capital and labor should be partners rather than enemies, or praise the participants as more or less “fair,” or judge the outcome to be more or less “just,” it is this ideal solution that is appealed to as a standard. Each party makes a personal decision in the light of the interests represented by both, and the decisions tend to agree.

A political will differs from more limited collective wills only in its complexity and in the comparatively long chain of intermediate steps which it requires. It is achieved by discussion, taken as an interchange of personal interests, and of the collective interests of classes or groups. The ruler is the guardian not only of his individual interests and the interests of his group, but also, through benevolence, of the interests of all fellow-nationals. Whether it be the private citizen or the public official in whom this multiplicity of interests is assembled and harmonized, the ultimate decisions are made by a person. The political will is a political form of personal will, repeated among the members. When all agree, each can speak for the rest, and the authority for all; but the voice which speaks is a personal voice, and the agreement must be a personal acceptance. This is the moral core of politics, and the germ of political democracy.

In the judicial process the presiding judge, and the law which he applies and interprets, are supposed to represent both the defendant and the plaintiff. But it is deemed important that each litigant should plead his own case, directly or through an attorney who has identified himself with his client's case. When the decision is left to a judge he must be disinterested not only in the sense of excluding his own personal interest, but in the sense of taking account of all the interests at stake. When the decision is left to a jury it is assumed that this will afford the best guarantee that the interests at stake are sympathetically understood and have reached a unanimous agreement.

What reciprocal and sympathetic acquaintance achieves in the narrower circles of home and neighborhood, what collective bargaining achieves in the reconciliation of economic groups, what popular discussion, campaigning, and elections achieve in the civil polity, what pleading, argument, and judicial decision achieve in the field of law, is achieved in the international area by diplomacy, negotiation, treaty-making, and conference.

In this area one is painfully aware of a mixture of methods. Nations still practice war and power politics. But intermingled with this non-moral heritage from the past there is now an increasing and not wholly unsuccessful attempt to find a moral remedy. This remedy is achieved insofar as nations and peoples “understand one another,” that is, benevolently share one another's interests, and seek a harmonizing purpose in which all the interests of mankind are embraced. Insofar as this occurs there can be said to be an international will or a will of mankind; which by virtue of its maximum breadth of representation stands at the summit of the moral hierarchy.

Such a will, like every lesser will, is a will of persons. International will consists of international-mindedness on the part of nations whose national wills consist in turn of the national-mindedness of their subgroups and individual members. It is insofar as each person is directly or indirectly represented that the inclusive requirements of international organization can be said to take precedence of those of any lesser group. Morally speaking international organization is a community of persons, in which because of the identity of their ends millions of men agree upon means; and are thus brought into relations of innocence and mutual aid. Each member of such a universal community of persons would be authorized to say “we” or “our” for all men. There is no other being, unless it be God, that can speak for mankind; no other situation in which this pretension is warranted.


Such is the principle of reflective agreement. No claim is here made for the frequency or success of its application. But it means something, it is humanly possible, and it is successfully applied in some measure. If reflective inter-personal agreement be the moral principle, one must be prepared to admit that there is not always a moral solution of a problem of conflict. There is, however, a way to such a solution — a line of effort. Morality is a pursuit, not an infallible recipe. The conflicting parties may not try at all, or they may try and fail. All that moral philosophy can do is to define the moral goal; all that moral prophets can do is to exhort men to aim at the goal; all that moral sages can do is to cite the experience of those who have been successful. If the conflicting parties do not look for agreement, there is no moral solution; if they do not succeed in reaching agreement, there is no moral solution. In case of unwillingness to agree, or in case of failure to agree, the action of the parties in question must take other grounds — partisanship, egoism, passion, whatever it be.

Morality is like a cultivated field in the midst of the desert. It is a partial and precarious conquest. Ground that is conquered has to be protected against the resurgence of original divisive forces. The moralized life is never immune against demoralization. At the same time that morality gains ground in one direction it may lose ground in another. Changes in the natural and historical environment and the development of man himself are perpetually introducing new factors and requiring a moral reorganization to embrace them. In the last analysis all depends on the energy, perseverance, and perpetual vigilance of the human person.

  • 1.

    Modern Library Edition, 1927, p. 430

  • 2.

    The best discussion of this topic is to be found in S. Chase's Roads to Agreement, 1931. of especially ch. 6, on “Quaker Meeting.” Chapters 2–4 contain an admirable account of causes and levels of conflict.

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