From W. I. Thomas, The Unadjusted Girl. Boston: Little,Brown, and Co., 1923.
One of the most important powers gained during the evolution ofanimal life is the ability to make decisions from within instead ofhaving them imposed from without. Very low forms of life do not makedecisions, as we understand this term, but are pushed and pulled bychemical substances, heat, light, etc., much as iron filings areattracted or repelled by a magnet. They do tend to behave properly ingiven conditions--a group of small crustaceans will flee as in apanic if a bit of strychnia is placed in the basin containing themand will rush toward a drop of beef juice like hogs crowding aroundswill--but they do this as an expression of organic affinity for theone substance and repugnance for the other, and not as an expressionof choice or "free will." There are, so to speak, rules of behaviorbut these represent a sort of fortunate mechanistic adjustment of theorganism to typically recurring situations, and the organism cannotchange the rule.
On the other hand, the higher animals, and above all man, have thepower of refusing to obey a stimulation which they followed at anearlier time. Response to the earlier stimulation may have hadpainful consequences and so the rule or habit in this situation ischanged. We call this ability the power of inhibition, and it isdependent on the fact that the nervous system carries memories orrecords of past experiences. At this point the determination ofaction no longer comes exclusively from outside sources but islocated within the organism itself.
Preliminary to any self-determined act of behavior there is alwaysa stage of examination and deliberation which we may call thedefinition of the situation. And actually not only concrete actsare dependent on the definition of the situation, but gradually awhole life-policy and the personality of the individual himselffollow from a series of such definitions.
But the child is always born into a group of people among whom allthe general types of situation which may arise have already beendefined and corresponding rules of conduct developed, and where hehas not the slightest chance of making his definitions and followinghis wishes without interference. Men have always lived together ingroups. Whether mankind has a true herd instinct or whether groupsare held together because this has worked out to advantage is of noimportance. Certainly the wishes in general are such that they can besatisfied only in a society. But we have only to refer to thecriminal code to appreciate the variety of ways in which the wishesof the individual may conflict with the wishes of society. And thecriminal code takes no account of the many unsanctioned expressionsof the wishes which society attempts to regulate by persuasion andgossip.
There is therefore always a rivalry between the spontaneousdefinitions of the situation made by the member of an organizedsociety and the definitions which his society has provided for him.The individual tends to a hedonistic selection of activity, pleasurefirst; and society to a utilitarian selection, safety first. Societywishes its member to be laborious, dependable, regular, sober,orderly, self-sacrificing; while the individual wishes less of thisand more of new experience. And organized society seeks also toregulate the conflict and competition inevitable between its membersin the pursuit of their wishes. The desire to have wealth, forexample, or any other socially sanctioned wish, may not beaccomplished at the expense of another member of the society,--bymurder, theft, lying, swindling, blackmail, etc.
It is in this connection that a moral code arises, which is a setof rules or behavior norms, regulating the expression of the wishes,and which is built up by successive definitions of the situation. Inpractice the abuse arises first and the rule is made to prevent itsrecurrence. Morality is thus the generally accepted definition of thesituation, whether expressed in public opinion and the unwritten law,in a formal legal code, or in religious commandments andprohibitions.
The family is the smallest social unit and the primary definingagency. As soon as the child has free motion and begins to pull,tear, pry, meddle, and prowl, the parents begin to define thesituation through speech and other signs and pressures: "Be quiet","Sit up straight", "Blow your nose", "Wash your face", "Mind yourmother", "Be kind to sister", etc. This is the real significance ofWordsworth's phrase, "Shades of the prison house begin to close uponthe growing child." His wishes and activities begin to be inhibited,and gradually, by definitions within the family, by playmates, in theschool, in the Sunday school, in the community, through reading, byformal instruction, by informal signs of approval and disapproval,the growing member learns the code of his society.
In addition to the family we have the community as a definingagency. At present the community is so weak and vague that it givesus no idea of the former power of the local group in regulatingbehavior. Originally the community was practically the whole world ofits members. It was composed of families related by blood andmarriage and was not so large that all the members could not cometogether; it was a face-to-face group. I asked a Polish peasant whatwas the extent of an "okolica" or neighborhood--how far itreached. "It reaches," he said, "as far as the report of a manreaches--as far as a man is talked about." And it was in communitiesof this kind that the moral code which we now recognize as validoriginated. The customs of the community are "folkways", and bothstate and church have in their more formal codes mainly recognizedand incorporated these folkways.
The typical community is vanishing and it would be neitherpossible nor desirable to restore it in its old form. It does notcorrespond with the present direction of social evolution and itwould now be a distressing condition in which to live. But in theimmediacy of relationships and the participation of everybody ineverything, it represents an element which we have lost and which weshall probably have to restore in some form of cooperation in orderto secure a balanced and normal society,--some arrangementcorresponding with human nature.
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