The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer

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George Herbert Palmer, (1842-1933)
Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity
Harvard University
Portrait: 1926, 40 x 30 inches, Oil

IV. Self-Direction


In the last chapter I began to discuss the nature of goodness distinctively personal. This has its origin in the differing constitutions of persons and things. Into the making of a person four characteristics enter which are not needed in the formation of a thing. The most fundamental of these I examined. Persons and things are unlike in this, that each force which stirs within a self- conscious person is correlated with all his other forces. So great and central is this correlation that a person can say, “I have an experience,” not–as, possibly, the brutes–"I am an experience.” Yet although a person tends thus to be an organic whole, he did not begin his existence in conscious unity. Probably the early stages of our life are to be sought rather in the regions of unconsciousness. Rising out of unconscious conditions into reflex actions–those ingenious provisions for our security at times when we have no directing powers of our own–we gradually pass into conditions of consciousness, where we are able to seize the single experience and to be absorbed in it. Out of this emerges by degrees an apprehension of ourselves contrasted with our experiences. Even, however, when this self-consciousness is once established, it may on vivacious or morbid occasions be overthrown. It by no means attends all the events of our lives. Yet it marks all conduct that can be called good. Goodness which is distinctively personal must in some way express the formation and maintenance of a self-conscious life.

But more is needed. A person fashioned in the way described would be aware of himself, aware of his mental changes, perhaps aware of an objective order of things producing these changes, and still might have no real share himself in what was going on. We can at least imagine a being merely contemplative. He sits as a spectator at his own drama. Trains of associated ideas pass before his interested gaze; a multitude of transactions occur in his contemplated surroundings; but he is powerless to intervene. He passively beholds, and does nothing. If such a state of things can be imagined, and if something like it occasionally occurs in our experience, it does not represent our normal condition. Our life is no mere affair of vision. Self- consciousness counts as a factor. Through it changes arise both without and within. I accordingly entitle this fourth chapter Self- direction. In it I propose to consider how our life goes forth in action; for in fact wherever self-consciousness appears, there is developed also a centre of activity, and an activity of an altogether peculiar kind.

It is well known that in interpreting these facts of action the judgment of ethical writers is divided. Libertarians and determinists are here at issue. Into their controversy I do not desire to enter. I mean to attempt a brief summary of those facts relating to human action which are tolerably well agreed upon by writers of both schools. In these there are intricacies enough. To raise the hand, to wave it in the air, to lay it on the table again, would ordinarily be reckoned simple matters. Yet operations so simple as these I shall show pass through half a dozen steps, though they are ordinarily performed so swiftly that we do not notice their several parts. In life much is knitted together which cannot be understood without dissection. In such dissection I must now engage. As a good pedagogue I must discuss operations separately which in reality get all their meaning through being found together. Against the necessary distortions of such a method the reader must be on his guard.


In the total process of self-direction there are evidently two main divisions,–a mental purpose must be formed, and then this purpose must be sent forth into the outer world. It is there accepted by those agencies of a physical sort which wait to do our bidding. The formation of the mental purpose I will, for the sake of brevity, call the intention, and to the sending of it forth I will give the name volition. That these terms are not always confined within these limits is plain. But I shall not force their meaning unduly by employing them so, and I need a pair of terms to mark the great contrasted sides of self-direction. The intention (A) shall designate the subjective side. But those objective adjustments which fit it to emerge and seek in an outer world its full expression I shall call the volition (B).

For the present, then, regarding entirely the former, let us see how an intention arises,–how self-consciousness sets to work in stirring up activity. To gain clearness I shall distinguish three subordinate stages, designating them by special names and numerals.


At the start we are guided by an end or ideal of what we would bring about. To a being destitute of self-consciousness only a single sort of action is at any moment possible. When a certain force falls upon it, it meets with a fixed response. Or, if the causative forces are many, what happens is but the well-established resultant of these forces operating upon a being as definite in nature as they. Such a being contemplates no future to be reached through motions set up within it. Its motions do not occur for the sake of realizing in coming time powers as yet but half-existent. It is not guided by ideals. Its actions set forth merely what it steadily is, not what it might be. Something like the opposite of all this shapes personal acts. A person has imagination. He contemplates future events as possible before they occur, and this contemplation is one of the very factors which bring them about. For example: while writing here, I can emancipate my thought from this present act and set myself to imagining my situation an hour hence. At that time I perceive I may be still at my writing-desk, I may be walking the streets, I may be at the theatre, or calling on my friend. A dozen, a hundred, future possibilities are depicted as open to me. On one or another of these I fix my attention, thereby giving it a causal force over other present ideas, and rendering its future realization likely.

So enormously important is imagination. By it we effect our emancipation from the present. Without this power to summon pictures of situations which at present are not, we should be exactly like the things or brutes already described. For in the thing a determined sequence follows every impulse. There is no ambiguous future disclosed, no variety of possibilities, no alternatives. Present things under definite causes have but a single issue; and if the account given of the brute is correct, his condition is unlike that of things only in this respect, that in him curious automatic springs are provided which set him in appropriate motion whenever he is exposed to harm, so enabling him suitably to face a future of which, however, he forms no image. In both brutes and things there is entire limitation to the present. This is not the case with a person. He takes the future into his reckoning, and over him it is at least as influential as the past. A person, through imagination laying hold of future possibilities, has innumerable auxiliary forces at his command. Choice appears. A depicted future thus held by attention for causal purposes is no longer a mere idea; it becomes an ideal.

But in order to transform the depicted future from an idea to an ideal, I must conceive it as rooted in my nature, and in some degree dependent on my power. Attracted by the brilliancy of the crescent moon, I think what sport it would be to hang on one of its horns and kick my heels in the air. But no, that remains a mere picture. It will not become an ideal, for it has no relation to my structure and powers. But there are other imaginable futures,–going to Europe, becoming a physician, writing a book, buying a house, which, though not fully compatible with one another, still represent, each one of them, some capacity of mine. Attention to one or the other of these will make it a reality in my life. They are competing ideals, and because of such competition my future is uncertain. The ambiguous future is accordingly a central characteristic of a person. He can imagine all sorts of states of himself which as yet have no existence, and one of these selected as an ideal may become efficient. This first stage, then, in the formation of the purpose, where various depicted future possibilities are summoned for assessment, may be called our fashioning of an ideal.


But a second stage succeeds, the stage of desire. Indeed, though I call it a second, it is really but a special aspect of the first; for the ideal which I form always represents some improvement in myself. An ideal which did not promise to better me in some way would be no ideal at all. It would be quite inoperative. I never rise from my chair except with the hope of being better off. Without this, I should sit forever. But I feel uneasiness in my present position, and conceive the possibility of not being constrained; or I think of some needful work which remains unexecuted as long as I sit here, and that work undone I perceive will leave my life less satisfactory than it might be. And this imagined betterment must always be in some sense my own. If it is a picture of the gains of some one else quite unconnected with myself, it will not start my action.

But it will be objected that we do often act unselfishly and in behalf of other persons. Indeed we do. Perhaps our impulses are more largely derived from others than from ourselves, yet from desire our own share is never quite eliminated. I give to the poor. But it is because I hate poverty; or because I am attracted by the face, the story, or the supposed character of him who receives; or because I am unable to separate my interests from those of humanity everywhere. In some subtle form the I-element enters. Leave it out, and the action would lose its value and become mechanical. What I did would be no expression of self-conscious me. And such undoubtedly is the case with much of our conduct. The reflex actions, described in the last chapter, and many of our habits too, contain no precise reference to our self. Intelligent, purposeful, moral conduct, however, is everywhere shaped by the hope of improving the condition of him who acts. We do not act till we find something within or about us unsatisfactory. If contemplating myself in my actual conditions I could pronounce them all good, creation would for me be at an end. To start it, some sense of need is required. Accordingly I have named desire as the second state in the formation of a purpose, for desire is precisely this sense of disparity between our actual self and that possible bettered self depicted in the ideal.

Popular speech, however, does not here state the matter quite fully. We often talk as if our desires were for other things than ourselves. We say, for example, “I want a glass of water.” In reality it is not the water I want. That is but a fragment of my desire. It is water plus self. Only so is the desire fully uttered. Beholding my present self, my thirsty and defective self, I perceive a side of myself requiring to be bettered. Accordingly, among imagined pictures of possible futures I identify myself with that one which represents me supplied with water. But it is not water that is the object of my desire, it is myself as bettered by water. Since, however, this betterment of self is a constant factor of all desire, we do not ordinarily name it. We say, “I desire wealth, I desire the success of my friend, or the freedom of my country,” omitting the important and never absent portion of the desire, the betterment of self.

Of course a stage in the formation of the purpose so important as desire receives a multitude of names. Perhaps the simplest is appetite. In appetite I do not know what I want. I am blindly impelled in a certain direction. I do not perceive that I have a suffering self, nor know that this particular suffering would be bettered by that particular supply. Appetite is a mere instinct. In the mechanic structure of my being it is planned that without comprehension of the want I shall be impelled to the source of supply. But when appetite is permeated with a consciousness of what is lacking, I apprehend it as a need. Through needs we become persons. The capacity for dissatisfaction is the sublime thing in man. We can know our poor estate. We can say, That which I am I would not be. Passing the blind point of appetite, we come into the region of want or need; if we then can discern what is requisite to supply this need, we may be said to have a desire. That desire, if specific and urgent, we call a wish.

All these varieties of desire include the same two factors: on the one hand a recognition of present defect in ourselves, on the other imagination of possible bettered conditions. Diminish either, and personal power is narrowed. The richer a man’s imagination, and the more abundant his pictures of possible futures, the more resourceful he becomes. Pondering on desire as rooted in the sense of defect, we may feel less regret that our age is one not easily satisfied. Never were there so many discontents, because there were never so many aspirations. It is true there may be a devilish discontent or a divine one. There is a discontent without definite aims, one which merely rejects what is now possessed; and there is one which seeks what is wisely attainable. Yet after all, it is a small price to pay for aspiration that it is often attended by vagueness and unwisdom.


But before the formation of the purpose is complete it must pass through a third stage, the stage of decision. Ideals and desires are not enough, or rather they are too many; for there may be a multitude of them. Certain ideals are desired for supplying certain of my wants, others for supplying others. But on examination these many desirable ideals will often prove conflicting; all cannot be attained, or at least not all at once. Among them I must pick and choose, reducing and ordering their number. This process is decision. Starting with my ambiguous future, imagination brings multifold possibilities of good before me. But before these can be allowed to issue miscellaneously into action, comparison and selection reduce them to a single best. I accordingly assess the many desirable but competing ideals and see which of them will on the whole most harmoniously supplement my imperfections. On that I fasten, and the intention is complete.

All this is obvious. But one part of the process, and perhaps the most important part, is apt to receive less attention than it deserves. In decision we easily become engrossed with the single selected ideal, and do not so fully perceive that our choice implies a rejection of all else. Yet this it is–this cutting off–which rightly gives a name to the whole operation. The best is arrived at only by a process of exclusion in which we successively cut off such ideals as do not tend to the largest supply of our contemplated defects. Walking by the candy-shop, and seeing the tempting chocolates, I feel a strong desire for them. My mouth waters. I hurry into the shop and deposit my five- cent piece. In the evening I find that by spending five cents for the chocolates I am cut off from obtaining my newspaper, a loss unconsidered at the time. But to decide for anything is to decide against a multitude of other things. Taking is still more largely leaving. The full extent of this negative decision often escapes our notice, and through the very fact of choosing a good we blindly neglect a best.


Here, then, are the three steps in the formation of the purpose,–the ideal, the desire, and the decision,–each earlier one preparing the way for that which is to follow. But an intention is altogether useless if it pauses here. It was formed to be sent forth, to he entrusted to forces stretching beyond the intending mind. The laws of nature are to take it in charge. The Germans have a good proverb: “A stone once thrown belongs to the devil.” When once it parts from our hands, it is no longer ours. It is taken up, for evil or for good, by agencies other than our own. If we mistake the agency to which we intrust it, enormous mischief may ensue, and we shall he helpless. These agencies, accordingly, need careful scrutiny before being called on to work their will. The business of scrutinizing them and of turning over the purpose to their keeping, forms the second half (B) of self-direction. In contrast with (A), the formation of the purpose or the intention, this may be called the realization of the purpose, or volition. Volition, it is true, is often employed more comprehensively, but we shall do the term no violence if we confine its meaning to the discharge of our subjective purpose into the objective world. Volition then will also, under our scheme, have three subordinate stages.


The first of them I will call deliberation, in order to approximate it as closely as possible to the preceding decision. Having now my purpose decisively formed, I have to ask myself what physical means will best carry it out. I summon before my mind as complete a list as possible of nature’s conveyances, and judge which of them will with the greatest efficiency and economy execute my intention. Here I am at a friend’s house, but I have decided to go to my own. I must compare, then, the different modes of getting there, so as to pick out just that one which involves the least expenditure and the most certain result. One way occurs to me which I have never tried before, a swift and interesting way. I might go by balloon. In that balloon I could sail at my ease over the tops of the houses and across the beautiful river. When the tower of Memorial Hall comes in sight, I could pull a cord and drop gently down at my own door, having meanwhile had the seclusion and exaltation of an unusual ride. What a delightful experience! But there is one disadvantage. Balloons are not always at hand. I might be obliged to wait here for hours, for days, before getting one. I dismiss the thought of a balloon. It does not altogether suit my purpose.

Or, I might call a carriage. So I should secure solitude and a certain speed, but should pay for these with noise, jolting, and more money than I can well spare. There would be waiting, too, before the carriage comes. Perhaps I had better ask my friend to lend me his arm and to escort me home. In this there would be dignity and a saving of my strength. We could talk by the way, and I always find him interesting. But should I be willing to be so much beholden to him, and would not the wind to-day make our walk and talk difficult? Better postpone till summer weather. And after all there is Boston’s most common mode of locomotion right at hand, the electric car. Strange it was not thought of before! The five-cent piece saved from the chocolates will carry me, swiftly, safely, and with independence.

It is in this way that we go through the process of deliberation. All the possible means of effecting our purpose are summoned for judgment. The feasibility of each is examined, and the cost involved in its employment. Comparison is made between the advantages offered by different agencies; and oftentimes at the close we are in a sad puzzle, finding these advantages and disadvantages so nearly balanced. One, however, is finally judged superior in fitness. To this we tie ourselves, making it the channel for our out-go. The whole process, then, in its detailed comparison and final fixation, is identical with that to which I have given the name of decision, except that the comparisons of decision refer to inner facts, those of deliberation to outer.


We now reach the climax of the whole process, effort, the actual sending forth through the deliberately chosen channel of the ideal desired and decided on. To it all the rest is merely preliminary, and in it the final move is made which commits us to the deed. About it, therefore, we may well desire the completest information. To tell the truth, I have none to give, and nobody else has. The nature of the operation is substantially unknown. Though something which we have been performing all day long, we and all our ancestors, no one of us has succeeded in getting a good sight of what actually takes place. Our purposes are prepared as I have described, and then those purposes–something altogether mental–change on a sudden to material motions. How is the transmutation accomplished? How do we pass from a mental picture to a set of motions in the physical world? What is the bridge connecting the two? The bridge is always down when we direct our gaze upon it, though firm when any act would cross.

Nor can we trace our passage any more easily in the opposite direction. When my eyes are turned on my watch, for example, the vibrations of light striking its face are reflected on the pupil of my eye. There the little motions, previously existing only in the surrounding ether, are communicated to my optic nerve. This vibrates too, and by its motion excites the matter of my brain, and then–well, I have a sensation of the white face of my watch. But what was contained in that then is precisely what we do not understand. Incoming motions may be transmuted into thought; or, as in effort, outgoing thought may be transmuted into motion. But alike in both cases, on the nature of that transmutation, the very thing we most desire to know, we get no light. In regard to this crucial point no one, materialist or idealist, can offer a suggestion. We may of course, in fault of explanation, restate the facts in clumsy circumlocution. Calling thought a kind of motion, we may say that in action it propagates itself from the mind through the brain into the outer world; while in the apprehension of an idea motions of the outer world pass into the brain, and there set up those motions which we know as thought. But after such explanations the mystery remains exactly where it was before. How does a “mental motion” come out of a bodily motion, or a bodily from a mental? It is wiser to acknowledge a mystery and to mark the spot where it occurs.

This marking of the spot may, however, illuminate the surrounding territory. If we cannot explain the nature of the crucial act, it may still be well to study its range. How widely is effort exercised? We should naturally answer, as widely as the habitable globe. I can sit in my office in Boston and carry on business in China. When I touch a button, great ships are loaded on the opposite side of the earth and cross the intervening oceans to work the bidding of a person they have never seen. Perhaps some day we may send our volition beyond the globe and enter into communication with the inhabitants of Mars. It would seem idle, then, to talk about the limitations of volition and a restricted range of will. But in fact that will is restricted, and its range is much narrower than the globe. For when we consider the matter, with precision, it is not exactly I who have operated in China. I operate only where I am. In touching the button my direct agency ceases. It is true that connected with that button are wires conducting to a wide variety of consequences. But about the details of that conduction I need know nothing. The wire will work equally well whether I understand or do not understand electricity. Its working is not mine, but its own. The pressure of my finger ends my act, which is then taken up and carried forward by automatic and mechanical adjustments requiring neither supervision nor consciousness on my part. We might then more accurately say that my direct volition is circumscribed by my own body. My finger tips, my lips, my nodding head are the points where I part with full control, though indefinitely beyond these I can forecast changes which the automatic agencies, once set astir, will induce.

Am I niggardly in thus confining the action of each of us within his own body? Is the range of volition thus marked out too narrow? On the contrary, it is probably still too wide. We are as powerless to direct our bodies as we are to manage affairs in China. This, at least, is the modern psychological doctrine of effort. It is now believed that volition is entirely a mental affair, and is confined to the single act of attention. It is alleged that when I attend to an ideal, fixing my mind fully upon it, the results are altogether similar to what occurred on my touching the button. Every idea tends to pass automatically into action through agencies about which I know as little as I do about ocean telegraphs. This physical frame of mine is a curious organic mechanism, in which reflex actions and instincts do their blind work at a hint from me. I am said to raise my arm. But never having been a student of anatomy and physiology, I have not the least idea how the rise was effected; and if I am told that nerves excite muscles, and these in turn contract like cords and pull the arm this way or that, the rise will not be accomplished a bit better for the information. For, as in electric transmission, it is not I who do the work. My part is attention. The rest is adapted automatism. When I have driven everything else out of my mind except the picture of the rising arm, it rises of itself, the after-effects on nerves and muscles being apprehended by me as the sense of effort.

We cannot, then, exercise our will with a wandering mind. So long as several ideas are conflictingly attended to, they hinder each other. This we verify in regrettable experiences every day. On waking this morning, for example, I saw it was time to get up. But the bed was comfortable, and there were interesting matters to think of. I meant to get up, for breakfast was waiting, and there was that new book to be examined, and that letter to be written. How long would this require, and how should the letter be planned? But I must get up. Possibly those callers may come. And shall I want to see them? It is really time to get up. What a curious figure the pattern of the paper makes, viewed in this light! The breakfast bell! Out of my head go all vagrant reflections, and suddenly, before I can notice the process, I find myself in the middle of the floor. That is the way. From wavering thoughts nothing comes. But suddenly some sound, some sight, some significant interest, raises the depicted act into exclusive vividness of attention, and our part is done. The spring has been touched, and the physical machinery, of which we may know little or nothing, does its work. There it stands ready, the automatic machinery of this exquisite frame of ours, waiting for the unconfused signal,–our only part in the performance,–then automatically it springs to action and pushes our purpose into the outer world. Such at least is the fashionable teaching of psychologists to-day. Volition is full attention. It has no wider scope. With bodily adjustments it does not meddle. These move by their own mechanic law. Of real connection between body and mind we know nothing. We can only say that such parallelism exists that physical action occurs on occasion of complete mental vision.

No doubt this theory leaves much to be desired in the way of clearness. What is meant by fixing the attention exclusively? Is unrelated singleness possible among our mental pictures? Or how narrowly must the field of attention be occupied before these strange springs are set in motion? At the end of the explanation do not most of the puzzling problems of scope, freedom, and selection remain, existing now as problems about the nature and working of attention instead of, as formerly, problems about the emergence of the intention into outward nature? No doubt these classical problems puzzle us still. But a genuine advance toward clarity is made when we confine them within a small area by identifying volition with mental attention. Nor will it be anything to the point to say, “But I know myself as a physical creature to be involved in effort. The strain of volition is felt in my head, in my arm, throughout my entire body." Nobody denies it. After we have attended, and the machinery is set in motion, we feel its results. The physical changes involved in action are as apprehensible in our experience as are any other natural facts, and are remembered and anticipated in each new act.


Only one stage more remains, and that is an invariable one, the stage of satisfaction. It is fortunately provided that pleasure shall attend every act. Pleasure probably is nothing else but the sense that some one of our functions has been appropriately exercised. Every time, then, that an intention has been taken, up in the way just described, carried forth into the complex world, and there conducted to its mark, a gratified feeling arises. “Yes, I have accomplished it. That is good. I felt a defect, I desired to remove it, and betterment is here.” We cannot speak a word, or raise a hand, perhaps even draw a breath, without something of this glad sense of life. It may be intense, it may be slight or middling; but in some degree it is always there. For through action we realize our powers. This seemingly fixed world is found to be plastic in our hands. We modify it. We direct something, mean something. No longer idle drifters on the tide, through our desires we bring that tide our way. And in the sense of self-directed power we find a satisfaction, great or small according to the magnitude of our undertaking.

In such a catalogue of the elements of action as has just been given there is something uncanny. Can we not pick up a pin without going through all six stages? Should we ever do anything, if to do even the simplest we were obliged to do six things? Have I not made matters needlessly elaborate? No, I have not unduly elaborated. We are made just so complex. Yet as a good teacher I have falsified. For the sake of clearness I have been treating separately matters which go together. There are not six operations, there is but one. In this one there are six stages; that is, there are six points of view from which the single operation may advantageously be surveyed. But these do not exist apart. They are all intimately blended, each affecting all the rest. Because of our dull faculties we cannot understand, though we can work, them en bloc. He who would render them comprehensible must commit the violence of plucking them asunder, holding them up detachedly, and saying, “Of such diverse stuff is our active life composed.” But in reality each gets its meaning through connection with all the others. Life need not terrify because for purposes of verification it must be represented as so intricate an affair. It is I who have broken up its simplicity, and it belongs to my reader to put it together again.


James’s Psychology, ch. xxvi.

Sigwart’s Der Begriff des Wollen’s, in his Kleine Schriften.

A. Alexander’s Theories of the Will.

Munsterberg’s Die Willenshandlung.

Hoffding’s Psychology, ch. vii.


Preface.  •  I. The Double Aspect of Goodness  •  II. Misconceptions of Goodness  •  III. Self-Consciousness  •  IV. Self-Direction  •  V. Self-Development  •  VI. Self-Sacrifice  •  VII. Nature and Spirit  •  VII. The Three Stages of Goodness

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Nature of Goodness
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