George Herbert Mead 1901

tough looking guy with moustache

Mind Self and Society
Fragments on Ethics

Source: The Mead Project. Department of Sociology at Brock University.
First Published: George H. Mead. “Fragments on Ethics” Supplementary Essay IV in Mind Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Edited by Charles W. Morris). Chicago: University of Chicago (1934);
Cf. “Suggestions toward a Theory of the Philosophical Disciplines,” Philosophical Review, IX (1900), 1 ff.; “The Social Self,” Journal of Philosophy, X (1913), 374 ff ; “The Social Settlement: Its Basis and Function,” University of Chicago Record, XII (1908), 108 ff. “The Philosophical Basis of Ethics,” International Journal of Ethics, XVIII (1908), 311 ff., “Scientific Method and the Moral Sciences,” ibid., XXXIII (19-23), 229 ff.; “Philanthropy from the Point of View of Ethics,” in Intelligent Philanthropy, ed. by Ellsworth Paris et al. (1930);
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

1. It is possible to build up an ethical theory on a social basis, in terms of our social theory of the origin, development, nature, and structure of the self. Thus, for example, Kant's categorical imperative may be socially stated or formulated or interpreted in these terms, that is, given its social equivalent.

Man is a rational being because he is a social being. The universality of our judgments, upon which Kant places so much stress, is a universality that arises from the fact that we take the attitude of the entire community, of all rational beings. We are what we are through our relationship to others. Inevitably, then, our end must be a social end, both from the standpoint of its content (that which would answer to primitive impulses) and also from the point of view of form. Sociality gives the universality of ethical judgments and lies back of the popular statement that the voice of all is the universal voice; that is, everyone who can rationally appreciate the situation agrees. The very form of our judgment is therefore social, so that the end, both content and form, is necessarily a social end. Kant approached that universality from the assumption of the rationality of the individual, and said that if his ends, or the form of his acts, were universal, then society could arise. He conceived of the individual first of all as rational and as a condition for society. However, we recognize that not only the form of the judgment is universal but the content also – that the end itself can be universalized. Kant said we could only universalize the form. However, we do universalize the end itself. If we recognize that we can universalize the end itself, then a social order can arise from such social, universal ends.

2. We can agree with Kant that the “ought” does involve universality. As he points out, that is true in the case of the Golden Rule. Wherever the element of the "ought” comes in, wherever one's conscience speaks, it always takes on this universal form.

Only a rational being could give universal form to his act. The lower animals simply follow inclinations; they go after particular ends, but they could not give a universal form to acts. Only a rational being would be able so to generalize his act and the maxim of his act, and the human being has such rationality. When he acts in a certain way he is willing that everyone should act in the same way, under the same conditions. Is not that the statement we generally make in justifying ourselves? When a person has done something that is questionable, is not the statement that is first made, “That is what anyone would have done in my place"? Such is the way in which one does justify his conduct if it is brought into question at all; that it should be a universal law is the justifiable support that one gives to a questioned act. This is quite apart from the content of the act, as one can be sure that what he is doing is what he wants everyone else to do under the same circumstances. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; that is, act toward other people as you want them to act toward you under the same conditions.

3. In general, when you are taking advantage of other people, the universalizing of the principle of the act would take away the very value of the act itself. You want to be able to steal things and yet keep them as your own property; but if everyone stole, there would not be any such thing as property. Just generalize the principle of your act and see what would follow with reference to the very thing you are trying to do. This Kantian test is not a test of feeling but a rational test that does meet a very large number of acts which we recognize as moral. It is valuable in its way. We try to decide whether we are making ourselves exceptions or whether we should be willing to have everyone else act as we are doing.

If a man will set up as a maxim for his conduct the principle that everybody else should be honest with him while he would be dishonest with everybody else, there could not be a factual basis for his attitude. He is commanding the honesty of other people, and he is in no position to command it if he is dishonest. The rights one recognizes in others one can demand in others; but we cannot demand from others what we refuse to respect. It is a practical impossibility.

Any constructive act is, however, something that lies outside of the scope of Kant's principle. From Kant's standpoint you assume that the standard is there; and then if you slip around it yourself while expecting other people to live up to it, Kant's principle will find you out. But where you have no standard, it does not help you to decide. Where you have to get a restatement, a readjustment, you get a new situation in which to act; the simple generalizing of the principle of your act does not help. It is at that point that Kant's principle breaks down.

What Kant's principle does is to tell you that an act is immoral under certain conditions, but it does not tell you what is the moral act. Kant's categorical imperative assumes that there is just one way of acting. If that is the case, then there is only one course that can be universalized; then the respect for law would be the motive for acting in that fashion. But if you assume that there are alternative ways of acting, then you cannot utilize Kant's motive as a means of determining what is right.

4. Both Kant and the Utilitarians wish to universalize, to make universal that in which morality lies. The Utilitarian says it must be the greatest good of the greatest number; Kant says that the attitude of the act must be one which takes on the form of a universal law. I want to point out this common attitude of these two schools which are so opposed to each other in other ways: they both feel that an act which is moral must have in some way a universal character. If you state morality in terms of the result of the act, then you state the results in terms of the whole community; if in the attitude of the act, it must be in the respect for law, and the attitude must take on the form of a universal law, a universal rule. Both recognize that morality involves universality, that the moral act is not simply a private affair. A thing that is good from a moral standpoint must be a good for everyone under the same conditions. This demand for universality is found in both the Utilitarian and Kantian doctrines.

5. If the categorical imperative is obeyed as Kant wishes, everyone will make a universal law of his act, and then a combination of such individuals will be one that is harmonious, so that a society made up out of beings who recognize the moral law would be a moral society. In that way Kant gets a content in his act; his statement is that there is no content, but by setting the human being up as an end in himself, and so society as a higher end, he introduces content.

This picture of a kingdom of ends is hardly to be distinguished from Mill's doctrine, since both set up society as an end. Each of them has to get to some sort of an end that can be universal. The Utilitarian reaches that in the general good, the general happiness of the whole community; Kant finds it in an organization of rational human beings, who apply rationality to the form of their acts. Neither of them is able to state the end in terms of the object of desire of the individual.

Actually, what you have to universalize is the object toward which desire is directed, that upon which your attention must be centered if you are going to succeed. You have to universalize not the mere form of the act but the content of the act.

If you assume that what you want is just pleasure, you have a particular event, a feeling which you experience under certain conditions. But if you desire the object itself, you desire that which can be given a universal form; if you desire such an object, the motive itself can be as moral as the end. The break which the act puts between the motive and the intended end then disappears.

6. There is the question of the relation of endeavor and achievement to will, the question as to whether the result is something that can have anything to do with the morality of the act. You do have to bring the end into your intention, into your attitude. You can, at every stage of the act, be acting with reference to the end; and you can embody the end in the steps that you are immediately taking.

That is the difference between meaning well and having the right intention. Of course, you cannot have the final result in your early steps of the act, but you can at least state that act in terms of the conditions which you are meeting.

If you are going to be successful, you have to be interested in an end in terms of the steps which are necessary to carry it out. In that sense the result is present in the act. A person who is taking all the steps to bring about a result sees the result in the steps. It is that which makes one moral or immoral, and distinguishes between a man who really means to do what he says he is going to do, and one who merely “means well."

7. All of our impulses are possible sources of happiness; and in so far as they get their natural expression they lead up to happiness. In the moral act there will be pleasure in our satisfactions; but the end is in the objects, and the motives are in the impulses which are directed toward these objects. When a person, for example, becomes extremely interested in some undertaking, then he has impulses that are directed toward certain ends, and such impulses become the motives of his conduct. We distinguish such impulses from the motive that the Utilitarian recognizes. He recognizes only one motive: the feeling of pleasure that will arise when the desire is satisfied. In place of that we put the impulse which is directed toward the end itself and maintain that such impulses are the motives of moral conduct.

The question then becomes the determination of the sort of ends toward which our action should be directed. What sort of a standard can we set up? Our ends should, first of all, be ends which are desirable in themselves, that is, which do lead to the expression and satisfaction of the impulses. Now there are some impulses which lead simply to disintegration, which are not desirable in themselves. There are certain of our impulses which find their expression, for example, in cruelty. Taken by themselves they are not desirable because the results which they bring are narrowing, depressing, and deprive us of social relations. They also lead, so far as others are concerned, to injury to other individuals.

In Dewey's terms, the moral impulses should be those “which reinforce and expand not only the motives from which they directly spring but also the other tendencies and attitudes which are sources of happiness.” [Dewey and Tufts, Ethics (1st ed.), p. 284.] If a person becomes interested in other persons, he finds the interest which he has does lead to reinforcing that motive and to expanding other motives. The more we become interested in persons the more we become interested in general in life. The whole situation within which the individual finds himself takes on new interest. Similarly, to get an intellectual motive is one of the greatest boons which one may have, because it expands interest so widely. We recognize such ends as particularly important.

So, looking at happiness from the point of view of impulses themselves, we can set up a standard in this fashion: the end should be one which reinforces the motive, one which will reinforce the impulse and expand other impulses or motives. That would be the standard proposed.

We are free now from the restrictions of the Utilitarian and Kantian if we recognize that desire is directed toward the object instead of toward pleasure. Both Kant and the Utilitarian are fundamentally hedonists, assuming that our inclinations are toward our own subjective states – the pleasure that comes from satisfaction. If that is the end, then of course our motives are all subjective affairs. From Kant's standpoint they are bad, and from the Utilitarian's standpoint they are the same for all actions and so neutral. But on the present view, if the object itself is better, then the motive is better. The motive can be tested by the end, in terms of whether the end does reinforce the very impulse itself.

Impulses will be good to the degree that they reinforce themselves and expand and give expression to other impulses as well.

8. All the things worth while are shared experiences. Even when a person is by himself, he knows that the experience he has in nature, in the enjoyment of a book, experiences which we might think of as purely individual, would be greatly accentuated if they could be shared with others. Even when a person seems to retire into himself to live among his own ideas, he is living really with the others who have thought what he is thinking. He is reading books, recalling the experiences which he has had, projecting conditions under which he might live. The content is always of a social character. Or it may pass into those mystical experiences in religious lift – communion with God. The conception of the religious life is itself a social conception; it gathers about the idea of the community.

It is only in so far as you can identify your own motive and the actual end you are pursuing with the common good that you reach the moral end and so get moral happiness. As human nature is essentially social in character, moral ends must be also social in their nature.

9. If we look at the individual from the point of view of his impulses, we can see that those desires which reinforce themselves, or continue on in their expression, and which awaken other impulses, will be good; whereas those which do not reinforce themselves lead to undesirable results, and those which weaken the other motives are in themselves evil. If we look now toward the end of the action rather than toward the impulse itself, we find that those ends are good which lead to the realization of the self as a social being. Our morality gathers about our social conduct. It is as social beings that we are moral beings. On the one side stands the society which makes the self possible, and on the other side stands the self that makes a highly organized society possible. The two answer to each other in moral conduct.

In our reflective conduct we are always reconstructing the immediate society to which we belong. We are taking certain definite attitudes which involve relationship with others. In so far as those relationships are changed, the society itself is changed. We are continually reconstructing. When it comes to the problem of reconstruction there is one essential demand: that all of the interests that are involved should be taken into account. One should act with reference to all of the interests that are involved: that is what we could call a “categorical imperative.”

We are definitely identified with our own interests. One is constituted out of his own interests; and when those interests are frustrated, what is called for then is in some sense a sacrifice of this narrow self. This should lead to the development of a larger self which can be identified with the interests of others. I think all of us feel that one must be ready to recognize the interests of others even when they run counter to our own, but that the person who does that does not really sacrifice himself, but becomes a larger self.

10. The group advances from old standards toward another standard; and what is important from the standpoint of morality is that this advance takes place through the individual, through a new type of individual – those who conceive themselves as individuals have not conceived themselves in the past. The illustrations are those of the Prophets among the Hebrews and the Sophists among the Greeks. The point that I want to emphasize is that this new individual appears as the representative of a different social order. He does not appear simply as a particular individual; he conceives of himself as belonging to another social order which ought to take the place of the old one. He is a member of a new, a higher, order. Of course, there have been evolutionary changes that took place without individual reaction. But moral changes are those that take place through the action of the individual as such. He becomes the instrument, the means, of changing the old into a new order.

What is right arises in the experience of the individual: he comes to change the social order; he is the instrument by which custom itself may be changed. The prophet becomes highly important for this reason, since he represents the sort of consciousness in which one decides to change the conception of what is right. By asking what is right, we are in that same situation, and we are helping in this way toward the development of the moral consciousness of the community. Values come into conflict with each other in the experiences of the individual; it is his function to give expression to the different values and help to formulate more satisfactory standards than have existed.

11. When we reach the question of what is right, I have said that the only test we can set up is whether we have taken into account every interest involved. What is essential is that every interest in a man's nature which is involved should be considered. He can consider only the interests which come into his problem. The scientist has to consider all of the facts, but he considers only those facts involved in the immediate problem. A scientist trying to find out whether acquired characteristics can be inherited does not have to take into account the facts of relativity, but only those facts which apply to his problem. The moral problem is one which involves certain conflicting interests. All of those interests which are involved in conflict must be considered.

In moral judgments we have to work out a social hypothesis, and one never can do it simply from his own point of view. We have to look at it from the point of view of a social situation. The hypothesis is one that we present, just as the Prophets presented the conception of a community in which all men were brothers. Now, if we ask what is the best hypothesis, the only answer we can make is that it must take into account all of the interests that are involved. Our temptation is to ignore certain interests that run contrary to our own interests, and emphasize those with which we have been identified.

You cannot lay down in advance fixed rules as to just what should be done. You can find out what are the values involved in the actual problem and act rationally with reference to them. That is what we ask, and all we ask, of anyone. When we object to a person's conduct, we say that he has failed to recognize the values, or that in recognizing them he does not act rationally with reference to them. That is the only method that an ethics can present. Science cannot possibly tell what the facts are going to be, but can give a method for approach: recognize all the facts that belong to the problem, so that the hypothesis will be a consistent, rational one. You cannot tell a person what must be the form of his act any more than you can tell a scientist what his facts are going to be. The moral act must take into account all the values involved, and it must be rational – that is all that can be said.

12. The only rule that an ethics can present is that an individual should rationally deal with all the values that are found in a specific problem. That does not mean that one has to spread before him all the social values when he approaches a problem. The problem itself defines the values. It is a specific problem and there are certain interests that are definitely involved; the individual should take into account all of those interests and then make out a plan of action which will rationally deal with those interests. That is the only method that ethics can bring to the individual. It is of the greatest importance that one should define what those interests are in the particular situation. The great need is that one should be able to regard them impartially. We feel that persons are apt to take what we call a selfish attitude with reference to them. I have pointed out that the matter of selfishness is the setting-up of a narrow self over against a larger self. Our society is built up out of our social interests, Our social relations go to constitute the self. But when the immediate interests come in conflict with others we had not recognized, we tend to ignore the others and take into account only those which are immediate. The difficulty is to make ourselves recognize the other and wider interests, and then to bring them into some sort of rational relationship with the more immediate ones. There is room for mistakes, but mistakes are not sins.

13. A man has to keep his self-respect, and it may be that he has to fly in the face of the whole community in preserving this self-respect. But he does it from the point of view of what he considers a higher and better society than that which exists. Both of these are essential to moral conduct: that there should be a social organization and that the individual should maintain himself. The method for taking into account all of those interests which make up society on the one hand and the individual on the other is the method of morality.