NL XV: “Utility”

Index to this series

George Inness (American, 1825–1894), The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers)

George Inness (American, 1825–1894), The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington; gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers). See footnote

In the previous chapter, “Reason,” we have seen that an intention x may have another intention y as a ground or reason; and we may symbolize this relation by yx. In Collingwood’s example now, x is giving a sum of money to a tobacconist, and y is receiving a pound of tobacco (15. 17). I could wish for a better example, though I did smoke a pipe myself when I was in college. I enjoyed visiting the Smoke Shop in Annapolis, with its variety of pipes and of blends, the recipes going back to the owner’s father or uncle. The assistant there did test me with a certain amount of verbal abuse: he surmised that I was the kind of student that he and his buddies used to beat up after school.


Let Collingwood’s example stand. Here x is means for an end, which is y (15. 13). But means and end are abstractions from a single deed, which is the buying of the tobacco (15. 46).

A deed here is the carrying out of a decision; the making of the decision is will (13. 71). I did not go into these terms, when I took up Chapter XIII, “Choice”; but I did summarize Collingwood’s way of distinguishing what they refer to:

13. 72. When I am conscious of deciding, the deciding is the first-order object of my consciousness; what I decide to do is a second-order object, an abstraction from that.

There was a similar analysis in Chapter XXX, “Causation in History,” of An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), at least if we can consider deciding as an efficient cause, and what is decided on as a final cause. Again Collingwood’ example involves a financial transaction:

In sense I of the word ‘cause’ that which is caused is the free and deliberate act of a conscious and responsible agent, and ‘causing’ him to do it means affording him a motive for doing it. For ‘causing’ we may substitute ‘making’, ‘inducing’, ‘persuading’, ‘urging’, ‘forcing’, ‘compelling’, according to differences in the kind of motive in question …

A cause in sense I is made up of two elements, a causa quod or efficient cause and a causa ut or final cause. The causa quod is a situation or state of things existing; the causa ut is a purpose or state of things to be brought about. Neither of these could be a cause if the other were absent. A man who tells his stockbroker to sell a certain holding may be caused to act thus by a rumour about the financial position of that company; but this rumour would not cause him to sell out unless he wanted to avoid being involved in the affairs of an unsound business. And per contra a man’s desire to avoid being involved in the affairs of an unsound business would not cause him to sell his shares in a certain company unless he knew or believed that it was unsound.

The abstractness of an envisioned deed (or a final cause) is the reason why trying to make an overly detailed plan is a form of indecisiveness.

13. 8. A voluntary act is not preceded by a decision to do it; it begins with a decision to do it.

13. 81. But the process from the will to the deed is at every stage under the control of will; the will is not content to initiate the process, leaving the details to be completed by another hand; it fills in the details itself as it goes on.

This recalls a paragraph from Religion and Philosophy (1916), pages 103–4:

A will is not, any more than an intellect, an engine which produces certain results. We are sometimes tempted to think of the will as a central power-installation somewhere in the depths of our personality, which can be connected up with a pump or a saw or any other machine we may desire to use. In this sense we distinguish the will from the faculties, the one as the motive power and the other as the machine which it operates. But the will is not simply crude energy, indifferently applicable to this end or to that. Will is not only the power of doing work but the power of choosing what work to do. It is not in need of another faculty to direct and apply its energy. Will is, in short, always the will to do this or that: it is always particular, never merely general. The distinction between the will and the things which it does is a quite abstract distinction, like that between human nature and men. Human nature simply means the various kinds of men; and my will is nothing more nor less than the things I do.

Collingwood, Religion and Philosophy, title page of spiral-bound printout

Collingwood finally notes that the words “act” and “action” do not necessarily denote the deed as opposed to the will; they may denote the will, as in an act of Parliament, or for Americans an act of Congress. Here becomes relevant the separation of powers, which I mentioned in taking up Chapter IX, “Retrospect.” Congress is not expected to execute its acts. The threat in the United States is from an executive, the President, who issues his own acts (namely executive orders).

We explain the deed of buying tobacco by analyzing it into means and end. But there is a certain indeterminacy in both means and end. The means of buying is handing over a sum of money. That sum will be some particular combination of coins or banknotes or even credit; but which combination makes no difference to the end (15. 63).

The end is obtaining a pound of tobacco. This will be some particular pound of what the tobacconist has in stock. The plan may specify a particular variety or blend; but if the tobacconist has six dozen pounds of this in stock, it does not matter which of those is handed over (15. 66).

Neither does it matter which worker in the tobacconist’s shop is the one with whom the exchange is made (15. 65).

The indeterminacy here is the defect of utilitarian explanations of actions.

15. 72. The plans which are an essential feature of utilitarian action are indifferent to the distinction between a plan that can only be realized in one way and one that can be realized in several. Utilitarian action deals with individuals, not universals; but none of these is an individual proper, individuum omnimodum determinatum; each is an indefinite individual, required to satisfy certain specifications but free to vary so long as those specifications are satisfied.

The Latin here does not seem to be a set phrase; I suppose it just means “an individual determined in every way.”

In “Choice,” a certain vagueness in planning was treated as a virtue. Now Collingwood treats it only as a definite possibility:

15. 73. An indefinite individual, such as those which occur in utilitarian thinking, may be planned, for the plan may be left vague; but the plan cannot be carried out, for in the process of execution the points left vague must be somehow settled.

I think the point now is that utilitarian thinking explains only the plan, not the details of actually carrying it out. Collingwood introduces the whole problem as follows.

15. 6. Let us return to the case of buying tobacco. The business of utilitarian thinking is to explain such an act as going into a shop and giving a certain sum of money to the person serving there. But how much of this act does it explain; how much does it leave unexplained?

Collingwood’s first example of what is unexplained is odd.

15. 61. It only professes to explain so much of the act as is done from free choice. If I found the shop in occupation of the police carrying out an order against the sale of tobacco, or of the tobacco I wanted, a utilitarian would no longer think of my purchase of tobacco, or my non-purchase of tobacco, as a thing it was his business to explain.

If there is no purchase of tobacco, then there is no purchase of tobacco to be explained, whether in utilitarian terms or any other way. In case of a police ban, possibly the would-be purchaser could secretly arrange to meet the tobacconist in the back alley. This would involve a new plan, explicable in utilitarian terms. Collingwood’s next example makes more sense.

15. 62. Even within the limits of free choice, there may still be much which it is not for utilitarian thinking to explain. Suppose the tobacconist told me a hard-luck story about the rent, and suppose this induced me to pay his rent for him. Paying my tobacconist’s rent for him is, from my point of view, perhaps a duty; perhaps a right act; it is not a utilitarian act; and utilitarian thinking cannot explain it.

Though Collingwood does not develop it, I think the point is that utilitarianism explains generosity only by explaining it away, denying that it actually exists. Thus in Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” the narrator thanks his lucky stars that a man on the street threatens the woman whom the narrator wants to get to know; for now the woman will be forced to accept the arm of the narrator. The narrator’s offer of assistance is thus not from generosity. For the utilitarian, this is natural.

Collingwood’s example of paying the tobacconist’s rent is reminiscent of an example in An Autobiography, showing the inadequacy of regularian explanations:

Thus everybody has certain rules according to which he acts in dealing with his tailor. These rules are, we will grant, soundly based on genuine experience; and by acting on them a man will deal fairly with his tailor and helps his tailor to deal fairly by him. But so far as he acts according to these rules, he is dealing with his tailor only in his capacity as a tailor, not as John Robinson, aged sixty, with a weak heart and a consumptive daughter, a passion for gardening and an overdraft at the bank. The rules for dealing with tailors no doubt enable you to cope with the tailor in John Robinson, but they prevent you from getting to grips with whatever else there may be in him. Of course, if you know that he has a weak heart, you will manage your dealings with him by modifying the rules for tailor-situations in the light of the rules for situations involving people with weak hearts. But at this rate the modifications soon become so complicated that the rules are no longer of any practical use to you. You have got beyond the stage at which rules can guide action, and you go back to improvising, as best you can, a method of handling the situation in which you find yourself.

This leads us to the next chapter of New Leviathan, “Right.”

Collingwood, An Autobiography, green cover with author photo


Concerning the production of Inness’s “Lackawanna Valley,” more detailed than the Gallery website is the account of National Gallery of Art director emeritus John Walker in his book on the Gallery:

[Inness] painted one picture and it was unsatisfactory. He had shown only one line of rails, all that existed at the time, but the president of the railroad wanted him to show the additional three or four planned for the future. Also he was told to depict four trains, the entire rolling stock of the company, and to paint the letters D. L. & W. on a locomotive. He protested as an artist but gave in as the head of a family. He needed the seventy-five dollars he was to be paid. Later the railroad sold the painting, and Inness as an old man recovered it in a junk shop in Mexico.

Walker’s turn of phrase recalls the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, who accepted his father’s demand not to marry a penniless woman: “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.” According to editor David Womersley, Gibbon alludes to Corneille’s Polyeucte; perhaps the allusion is specifically to the verses,

Ton courage était bon, ton devoir l’a trahi.
Thy heart was fond, but duty love betrayed.

John Walker, National Gallery of Art: cover with van der Weyden's Lady

Analogy with causation in An Essay on Metaphysics added November 15, 2019

6 Trackbacks

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