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The Moment of Obligation in Experience

Author(s): Henry G. Bugbee, Jr.


Source: The Journal of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 1-15
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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THE

JOURNALOF

VolumeXXXIII

RELIGION

JANUARY 1953

Number
I

THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATION IN EXPERIENCE


HENRYG. BUGBEE,JR.*

IS paper attempts an interpreta-

tion of experience, concerned to


understand what it may mean to
be obligated. Each of the three sections
of the paper incorporates a leading
theme. In the first section we shall presently develop the theme of respect,
analyzing respect as involving acknowledgment of a groundof action which can
obligate us. The second section deals
with the willingnesscharacteristicof the
moment of obligationin experience,in its
intimate connection with personal integrity. The final section of the paper
analyzes humility as a condition of obligation, briefly relating this theme to the
conduct of ethical inquiry,and also suggesting the possible independenceof humility from humiliation.
Underlying the treatment of these
themes is the controllingidea of a ground
which can endow action with conclusive
justification. I think such a ground can
become immanent and clear to us as a
matter of experience;and experiencein
*
Henry G. Bugbee, Jr., is assistant professor
of philosophy in Harvard University, Cambridge,
Massachusetts. Born in New York City, he was
educated at Princeton University (A.B. 1936) and
the University of California at Berkeley (M.A.
1940 and Ph.D. 1947). From 1942 to 1946 he was in
the armed service in the United States Naval Reserve. He has held teaching positions in the University of Nevada and at Stanford University. Dr.
Bugbee has been a member of the Harvard faculty
since 1948.

which it does so is what I have in mind in


speaking of the moment of obligation.
Yet I shall try to suggest certain fundamental qualificationsabout forming an
adequate idea of such a ground. For a
ground of action to become immanent
and clear in experience,it does not seem
necessaryto have formeda clear and explicit idea of such a ground. Nor do the
immanence and clarity of the ground
seem to make an explicit idea of it easy to
formulateand convey.
The procedureof this paper is based
on the conviction that ultimate justification to be found in acting is primarilya
deliverance of experience in acting and
that thought cannot enable us to take
commandof the justifying, as it might if
the justifying could be made fully and
directly explicit for thought. Though I
shall use the terms "spirit" and "the
good" in speakingof that which can obligate us, I shall seek to define them only
as they are used in the thematic analysis
of experienceto follow. This entirepaper
is a fabricof wordswoven to catch something of the meaningof "the good." And
the method of inquiry on which we will
be dependingitself reflectsthe conviction
that the good is essentially implicit, in
that thought cannot seize upon the good
and hold it beforethe mind, as it may objects of empiricalknowledge.The method accordinglypursued is one of experi-

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THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

If there is any attitude of whichwe are


capable that invites consideration as
nonarbitrary,it would seem to be that
of respect. On what is respect founded?
How are we capableof it, and what does
our capacity for respect seem to involve?
We may begin by drawinga suggestion
of our answer to these questions from
concrete instances of respect of paramount importanceas they arise in interpersonal situations. Certainly when the
actions of another person command our
profoundestrespect, we may find established in such experiencea very distinct
and fundamental communion and loyalty between ourselves and that person.
When communionis so established, our
loyalty would not seem oriented ultimately to the achievementof the individual, to the talent or skill displayed in his
action, or to the pleasure of men which
his action may occasion. Only a spirit
which speaks through his action and

and, when this occurs,a momentof obligation is indeed realized.We experience,


at least fleetingly, that which we can affirm and serve, that which can claim us;
and, since the embodiment of spirit in
action always seems unique and original,
we may not expect to read how its demands upon us may be fulfilledin terms
of a set and predeterminedbehavioral
pattern, subject to imitation.
It would seem, in fact, that we tend to
respect whatever in the focus of our attention providesus with a purchasefor a
fuller and freer assumption of responsibility, whatever can be a key to original
personal commitmentin action. Thus a
craftsmanmay respect his tools and his
material even to the point of revering
them.' Thus we tend to respect, too, the
elementary conditions under which endeavormay be orderedand disciplinedin
a way indissolublyconnectedwith its becoming free; such may be the respect of
an empiricalscientist for the procedures
of experimentalmethod or of a poet for
the restrictionsof versification.Again, a
man would be but a casual seafarer or
mountaineerif he did not come to respect
the sea, or the mountains,at times even
to the point of luminousclarity.
In general, respect seems to involve
the focus of attention either on that
which can inspirit us and call out our
aspiration or on that which can offer us
the resistance,the mettling condition,or
the mediumupon which the clarification
and embodimentof spirit throughaction
depends. Of course these phases of respect tend to intermingle,as when a man
raising a crop may look upon his fields,
finding them good, and then move in a
vein of unbrokencontemplationto meet
the demands of a day's work. Thus the
fields call out his love and exact his ef-

achievement to its kindred in ourselves


seems capable of summoning our loyalty;

fort, and each of these phases of his caring for them permeates the other.

ential reflection,as distinct from empirical investigation yielding knowledge of


objects; it is further distinct from either
linguistic analysis or abstract "analysis
of concepts."In the courseof this paper I
will attempt to suggest some aspects of
this method, such as its peculiarlyretrospective orientation. But for the most
part I shall not attempt to discuss the
method as such. No doubt its affinity
with a phenomenological approach to
philosophical problems, and with the
method of such current existentialist
thought as that of Gabriel Marcel, will
become apparent. Mainly, our problem
will be to think objectively about our experience of acting without changing the
subject, that is, without turning this experienceinto a shuffleof objects.
I

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THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATIONIN EXPERIENCE

I believe everything is to be gained


from seeing that the mode of regard of
which we are capable, when it attains to
the stature of respect, is not confinedto
instances of regardfor persons and their
actions. Even when our attention is focused on persons and their actions, we
may confirmthe fact that the possibility
of respect is essentially conditioned by
our capacityfor respecting;for, unless we
are prepared to harbor respect, actions
which may be eminently worthy of it
simply fail to elicit it. Often it is only as
rememberedthat actions we have witnessed, then, and for the first time, elicit
our respect. Again, we may revive the
memory of persons in action whom we
can rememberhaving respectedand yet
find ourselvespresently incapable of reliving that respectfor them. For capacity
to respect is our ultimate strength, and
we are not always strong;nor do we seem
to invest ourselveswith strength at will.
I would not deny for a moment that
there is somethingeminentlypersonalin
the capacity for respect; I would only
free the conceptionof that capacity from
the supposition that it necessarily involves the focus of attention on persons
and their actions; for then we may see
that respectis not primarilydistinguished
as an interest in persons but rather as a
mode of interest of which persons are
capable.To be exact, our regardfor anything approachesrespect in so far as our
interest in that thing becomesinspirited
in a way qualifyingour mode of interest
as disinterested.It seems exactly the
spirit in which a person is able to take
things and act in relation to them that is
crucialin his capacity to regardthem in
the manner of respect. Where respect is
for things other than the actions of persons, it is especiallyclear that it involves
a profound and active commitment of the
person in his relation with whatever he

can regard with respect. His respect is


towardthat upon which his attention focuses with deep interest and absorption,
but at the same time it isfrom a spirit by
which he is invaded from within, rendering his interest disinterested.
Thus we may understandthat respect
is essentially, though implicitly, an honoringof spiritrealizedin ourselves,an affirmation of meaning immanent in our
experience; though explicitly, through
the focus of attention on the object of
interest, it is a mode of regardfor that
object itself. Without an objective orientation of interest we would seem incapableof respect;and this we may confirm by noticing the absenceof introversion in moments of real respect and the
impedimentto respectof the intrusionof
ourselvesinto the field of our attention.
Neither aggrandizementnor humiliation
of self, but a commitmentof self seems
characteristic of pure respect as a mode

of interest.And the spirit whichdifferentiates this mode of interest is not an object of interest for the personin whom it
is realized. In so far as he may be said to

be aware of it, perhaps we should say


that he is reflexivelyaware of it, a very
differentmatter from attending to it as
one attends to an object.
We began our present reflections on
respect by thinking of it as recognition
and affirmationof spirit as groundof action, and we consideredit first as it may
be elicited by the actions of other persons. Then we moved to the reviewof the
capacity for respect in ourselves,finding
that it involved an objective orientation
of interest, intent absorption in something beingattended to, distinguishedby
a spirit in which we are actively committed and by virtue of which our interest is rendereddisinterested.Accordingly, to summarize our analysis simply, we
may say that our capacity for respect is

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THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

our capacity for disinterestedparticipation in a field of interest; and we have


tried to make this clear by pointing out
that this capacity can be focalizedin ourselves without requiringthe focus of attention on the actions of persons in the
field of interest.
I would now add two points which
may prevent misunderstandingof the
foregoing analysis and emphasize the
drift of our thought. First, the more we
realizea capacity for respectin ourselves,
the more we seem capable of regarding
other persons with respect, regardlessof
whether their actions seem to confirm
this mode of regardtoward them at the
moment. Here, perhaps, is the root of
compassion,a steady affirmationof the
absolute value which is the ultimate
birthright of any man, through all the
trials that may obscure this birthright
from us, in ourselvesand in others.And
this bringsus to the secondpoint: though
knowledgeof this birthrightseems to be
ultimately and finally reflexive, as we
have suggested, and need not derive
from active attention to the actions of
others, yet, preciselyfor this reason,perhaps nothing else than its revelation
throughthe actionsof otherscan quite as
clearly authenticate for our understanding what is man's birthrightand testify
to its commonnessand mutual authority
among us. The nearest we can come to
beholdingthat which can ground human
actions is throughits embodimentin actions occupying the field of our interest.
Thus, in so far as respect is a matter of
recognitionof that whichmay groundaction, requiringthat such a ground greet
us and that we acknowledgeit as presented for our attention out of the fieldof
interest, it would seem to requireattention to the actions of others. It is in such

actions that communication seems to


achieve its ultimate point. And any action providing testimony in this way
would seem to establish fundamental
communication.We seem to learn this,
for example, from working hard with
someone, side by side. Sooneror later, a
man who can commit himself wholeheartedly in his work is likely to communicate to those who join him in his
endeavors,by his deed,that whichcan be
respectedin any man.2
It will now be clear that we are not
construing the capacity for respect, or
disinterestedinterest, as peculiar to any
special mode of human activity, such as
inquiring activity, and still less as dependent upon somefiat, let us say, an intellectual fiat or decree, by which a person may render his interests disinterested. We are certainly far from supposing that disinterested interest can be
identifiedwith a high degree of indifference towarda fieldin whichat least some
minimalinterest, say, that of curiosity,is
still involved. We are not reckoningwith
the prerogativeof a mythical Olympian
spectator. On the contrary, we have
tended to suppose that disinterestedness
is only possible for a person whose interest is profound;the very opposite of superficial,or casual, or optional.
Thus we are trying to understand
above all how in matters of the utmost
importanceto a person,in matters where
his stake is maximal rather than minimal, he may nonetheless epitomize the
assumptionof responsibilityand a correspondingabsenceof arbitrariness,wilfulness, and bias. Surely it is this task to
which the examination of our capacity
for respect leads us. This is, precisely as
Kant saw that it was, the task of understanding what it means to be obligated.

mutual testimony as we may give to each


other of that which mutually grounds our

To indicate the direction of our thought


here, however, I would suggest that, so

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THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATION IN EXPERIENCE

How, and to what extent, may we suppose willingness to be characteristicof


the moment of obligation?
Let us be as explicit as possible about
how we will deal with this question;and
to this end let us distinguishbetween a
prospective orientation and a retrospective orientationof the attempt to understand obligation.So long as our reflection
proceeds in a prospective vein, our task
would seem to be one of showingwhy at
least some definitely characterizable
ways of acting ought to be undertakenby
men under certain specifiable circumstances and willy-nilly. This approach
directs our attention primarily to the
characteristicsof specific acts, and no
less so when it is insisted that ethical inquiry should take into account what is
intendedas well as what is done.Now the
suppositionof a prospective orientation
of ethical inquiryseemsto be that we can
understandwhat it meansto be obligated
by spelling out a set of conditions by
virtue of which we should be able to discern what actions under specifiablecircumstances are obligatory. And if the
ethical inquireris convinced that action
out of obligation involves freedomfrom
bias, from arbitrariness,from wilfulness,
it is likely to seem to him that this requiresdemonstrationin the formof arguments to show that certainacts of readymade charactercan be obligatoryfor reasons independent of what the person

A retrospectiveorientation of the attempt to understand obligation would


clearly have to postpone the businessof
giving advice and of trying to decide in
advance what we ought to be doing. It
certainly could not begin by supposing
that formulasfor justifiedaction arepossible, whether in the form of advice, in
the formof purposesand ideals, or in the
form of mandates. For it would not be
seeking a touchstone for determining
what ought to be done; it would consist,
rather, of an attempt to review experience in the hope of understandingwhat it
means to be obligated. And above all it
would seek to examinethat experiencein
which one can retrospectivelyappreciate
the meaningof acting well. Onewouldbe
reviewingthe past with a concernto understand the conditions pertinent to
those actions which have come closest to
making sense of our lives; and so one's
reflectionswould be concrete, that is to
say, concernedwith experienceactually
lived through, and not abstract, in the
sense of revolving around hypothetical
situations and actions consideredin abstraction from experience.
Persistent reflectionin this retrospective vein may convinceus that no simple
set of describablecharacteristicsof possible ways of acting can sufficeto explicate that significance,lived far morethan
formulatedand planned, which action at
its best may realize.
From a retrospectiveviewpoint, then,
I would identify the moment of obligation in human experiencewith those occasions when a person is empoweredto
act with all his energyand resourcesby a
spirit which can commandourprofoundest respectand found the loyalty of man
to man. Such moments seem distinguished by unstinting affirmation and

brings to bear on their conception and


performance.

completeness of commitment, for they, if


any, are the moments of reassurance, in

long as a personis subject to what can be


legitimately interpreted as constraint,
indicative of internal conflict, it may be
doubted that he is free from bias. In line
with this suggestion,let us carry our reflectionto the aspect of willingnessin the
moment of obligation.
If

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THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

which a spirit enablingus to act conclusively permeates experience.Such reassurance,so far as it comesto life, involves
integrity of will. We may find ourselves
acting under great difficulty; our resources may be taxed to the limit; we
may be faced with a most uncertainfuture; and the failure of enterprises on
which we have set our hearts may stare
us in the face; yet, undergenuineobligation, we may stand and stand firm, we
may act and act decisively.Indeed,nothing short of such strengthof spirit seems
capableof makingus equal to the acceptance of our own limitationsand assets in
the vein of constructive self-criticismor
equal to the renunciations surely required of us. Man is capable of facing
extremeadversity and renunciationwith
poise. The moment of obligation is exactly akin with such a capacity.
Is it not in focalizingsuch possibilities
of spiritthat tragedyfulfilsat least one of
its basic themes?May not tragicart help
us to consummateawarenessof the possibility of rising with integrity to meet
even the most dire adversities sown of
our own deeds?At the bottom of tragic
consciousnessdo we not find our allegiance strengthenedto man in any person, born of this man in ourselves,do we
not find reliable hope? That very hope
strengthenedin tragic consciousnessand
involving self-transcendenceseems to me
the essence of sustainedwillingness;and
it seems to consist in our assurance of
being equal to what may lie ahead rather
than in the expectation of effecting any
specific results. Such assurancedoes not
lie in a tightenedgripupon the future;for
it involves appreciation of a ground of
action which we cannot ordain or contrive: a spirit arising in ourselves out of
profound frankness and trust. Is it not

power derived of spirit cannot be


usurped;it increasesonly as we are able
to serve it.
How is it that men can be capable of
acting with a confidenceand joy which
seem independent of fair prospects
stretchedreassuringlybeforethem?From
time to time we encounterpersons who
radiate through the most commonplace
actions in the most casual circumstance,
disarmingand warmingthose who come
within their orbit. Is it by anything so
stilted and deliberateas a designof theirs
to disarm and warm us that we are so
affected?If they respondto us with interest and concern, as they well may, I
think we might note that this is a very
differentmatter from their intending to
do us good or designing to please us.3
That spirit out of whichmen may benefit
each other most profoundly seems to
bear on their actions, however complex
and planned, with simplicity and directness. Perhapseven an intention of benefiting others is irrelevantto our capacity
to do so. The ability to deal with men as
equals in the face of inequalities of advantage and endowment seems to requirea sincerityantecedentto the formation of intention and impregnatedwith
the realizationthat any man always, and
unavoidably,has his hands full in doing
what he can do, which no one else can do
for him.
Oncewe becomereflectivelyconvinced
that we do not deliberatelyinstitute in
ourselvesthe power of benefitingothers,
and once we ascertainthat the most profound benefit we receive at the hands of
others stems from a basis in themselves
deeper than anything they can muster
and conferupon us by decree,we may be
morepreparedto think of the momentof
obligation,not as a moment in which the

the case that initiative and alertness tend


to increase as tenseness diminishes? The

imperative to act goes against the grain,


but rather as that moment in which a

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THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATIONIN EXPERIENCE

personmay findimmediateincentiveand
confirmation from within himself for
complete commitment in action. I am
assuming, of course, as most ethical inquirershave done, that thereis some connection between our capacity to "fulfil
obligation"and our capacity to actually
benefitpeople. And I am suggestingthat
our capacity to benefitpeople at all profoundly is decisively formedin moments
of obligationin our own experience,when
we are gathered and founded on a basis
within ourselvesinstinct with authority,
where the authority in question is not
ours to wield but ours to serve, and consists in a spirit which we can honor with
all energyand resourcefulnessin action-no less in thejudgmentalphase of action
than in any other.Judgment is not the
valve, or the hand on the valve, that lets
the flow of good into life. To the extent
that judgmental activity may serve the
good, it presupposesthat very spirit essential to the groundingof any phase of
action. We may only hope that the good
may inform our judging as well as anything else we may do; we may not expect
to control the good by renderingit susceptible to judgmental control, as if the
possibility of justified action were contingent upon making groundsfor action
explicit for judgmentas we wouldadduce
explicitly the groundssupportinga truth
claim. It seemsfutile to supposethat justified action must await initiation froma
judgmentalconclusionby whichwe could
underwrite a policy of action with a
Q.E.D. The case for the view that virtue
is knowledge does not appear to have
made much headway when pursued in
this direction, whether argued in behalf
of philosopher-kings, of happiness-enhancers,or of engineersof social welfare.
Clear thought is indeed eminently re-

action in question be some form of inquiry. But what is respectableabout it, if


not the spirit by virtue of which thinking
is responsiblyundertakenand capableof
achieving fundamentalclarity? It seems
the case that such thought presupposes
such a spirit and so may be said to serve
it rather than to control it. From a legal
point of view we may be encouragedto
forget that in thinking we are active: as
the saying goes, we cannot be hangedfor
our thoughts. But any inquirer knows
that his thoughts can hang him and that
they can also involve the full energy and
interestedness of a person. Again, we
may note that the meeting of minds in
conclusionspresupposesmorethan agreement on the considerationsrelevant to
their support; it also presupposescommunity of enterprisein the act of inquiry.
Because we are apt to take this community of enterprisefor granted,we are especially liable to overlook the moral
groundof our concernfor what ought to
be thought and for the procedureswhich
our inquiries should employ. Furthermore, we are not apt to adduce explicit
arguments in support of activities we
really believe in unless our conduct is
challenged. This in itself suggests that
the ground on which we are able to act
most faithfullyis apt to be implicitin our
addressto what we do and is not supplied
to our action by deliberateselection out
of the field of interest to which we explicitly attend.
If we recognizespirit as groundof action and make firmour understandingof
spirit through the appreciationof creative action, of whatever kind, we will
surely acknowledgethat spirit must arise
as demandingaction within any person
who is to be able to act on such a ground.
In a word,that which can obligatea man

spectable and may be a large phase of


justified action, especially if the mode of

and enable him to act out of obligation


can only be forthcoming from a fund of

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OF RELIGION
THE JOURNAL

meaning pressing upon him from within


himself, which he alone can advance to
the point of creative resolutionin action.
If this is so, then how could the starting
point for determiningwhat a man ought
to do be located in any fixed conception
of modesof action whichwouldbe obligatory for him or anyone else in his overt
circumstance?The stage of judging by
what action a man may be able to fulfil
obligationmay be a relatively late phase
of that over-all action by which he may
actually fulfil it; indeed, it may not be
until after a man has roundedout the fulfilment of what obligateshim that he can
be clear that this was the action called
for. Thus it would seem that thought
must be freshand live to play its part in a
fresh and live act or to interpretone. We
may be no less boundto outdo our former
selves in judging of what is to be done
than we are to transcendaction by rote
or imitation in any other respect, if our
action is to achieve the stature of fulfilling obligation.
What shall we say, then, of the bindingness and the note of constraint on
which emphasisis so apt to fall when we
speak of our obligations?What shall we
say of that strain of austerity entering
into the depictionof obligation, suggesting that the individual is typically involved in a struggleto overcomehis own
inclinationsand wishes if the obligatory
act, about which he is perfectly clear in
advance, is to be performed?The line of
thought here alluded to seems as perennial as Plato evidently took it to be in
fashioningthat masterly presentationof
it spokenby Glauconand Adeimantusin
the Republic.If I read aright the purport
of the last two propositionsof Spinozo's
Ethics, the answer there given seems
most to the point: that it is out of the

this manner.But from the point of view


of human freedom: "Blessedness is not
the reward of virtue, but virtue itself;
neither do we rejoicetherein,becausewe
control our lusts, but contrariwise,because we rejoice therein, we are able to
control our lusts."'4
Now it would seem that we may understandthe supremewillingnessor voluntarinessof the momentof obligationin
this vein. Above all we might avoid confusing the willingness here meant with
that wilfulness characteristic of selfassertion or the rush of casual desire.
There is a vast difference between the
willingness bred of spirit permeating a
personand his actionsand that wilfulness
in whicha personusurpsthe authorityof
spirit or acts upon fragmentary, uninspirited reaction and desire. Though it
may appear in the latter cases that the
individual acts voluntarily, perhaps we
must concurwith that broaderand more
penetrating perspective which has repeatedly suggested to men that the essence of bondage and compulsionis exemplifiedin such action. For our actions
to be compulsive and constrained, we
need not be opposedor threatenedby the
intentions and deeds of others. We need
only leadpatchworklives, all too autonomous in so far as we suppose that we can
give ourselvesthe pattern of justifiedaction. This we may tacitly attempt,
whetheraccordingto shiftingwhim or in
compliance with some more sober and
providentialschemewhich we work out,
with happiness, security, virtue, or selfrealizationas its goal. Even by rigid imposition on ourselves of some inflexible
interpretation of duty, we cannot will
wholenessinto our lives. After all, looseness, calculatingness, and rigidity are
apiece in self-assertion, by whatever

condition of human bondage that we become accustomed to think and speak in

names they are graced, however restrained their intonation. And the anom-

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THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATIONIN EXPERIENCE

aly of self-assertionis that we would not


seem capable of freedom so long as we
presumeto mastery of the significanceof
our lives and deeds. What we are more
apt to see as bondage in the case of actions ruledby violent and shiftingwhims
may be equally so in the case of actions
that are self-controlled: however uniform the patches thus pieced together,
they still comprisea patchworklife. But
perhapsit would be a mistake not to look
for a realpersonbehindall the
of
facades
contrivance, however imposing; and by
"real" I mean uncontrived, innocent,
lacking in pretense, authentic-a person
to whom honor is always due.5
Oncewe have experiencedthe hint of a
spirit which may render us whole in its
absolute worth and obligating power,
once we have experiencedthe fundamental liberationof action at its best, then I
believe we may be haunted by at least a
latent sense of our inadequacywhenever
we are only fragmentarily engaged in
acting. Perhapssomethingof the austerity with which the notion of obligationis
so frequently imbued may be traced, in
the last analysis, to our predicamentas
fragmentarycreatures. For how will we
rise to wholeheartedaction of any final
significance when we find ourselves in
bits and can view acting only as a round
of events, in which each successor displaces its predecessorwithout fundamental incrementof meaning?Will we bury
ourselvesviolently in the successivemoments of the series? Will we withdraw
from seriousparticipationin a piecemeal
world,refusingto be a party to its deception? But then the finality of our own
limited time unquiets us. Will we piece
ourselves together, bit by bit, until at
last we tot up to men who are whole?Or
will we violently expurgate our nature
and insist that the tolerated remainder,
suffered to act, is ourselves? Shall we

force the issue of our wills?Orperhapsit


will be by learning the right parts and
their cues that we may live well, setting
ourselves to prove by the roles we play
that our lives make sense. In so far as we
are trying to keep to such a role, whatever it may be, let us be very clear that
we could always represent to ourselves
only too explicitly what "we ought to be
doing";and so we could see all too readily what we are obliged,if reluctant, to
do.6Now it would be a mistake to suppose that this could be a game for us; for
the point of keepinga ready-madescript
before us to act upon, and the point of
insisting on an idealized image of ourselves whichwe are constrainedto realize,
is to imposea unity and significanceupon
our lives by which we can hold ourselves
together. This is the enormousstake we
may have in conformingto patterns of
action not only escaping our genuine
support but actually capable of burdening us to the breakingpoint. The more
iron-willedour determinationto control
our lives, the more liable we will be to
representobligation to ourselvesin rigid
patterns, the very essence of which will
lie in the theme of constraint and compulsion celebratedin the name of moral
imperativenessand invoked in behalf of
very definite blueprints of justified action.
I do not want to suggest for a moment
that channelsof trainedand planned endeavor are inimical to the possibility of
acting out of obligation;I think, rather,
the contrary. For surely to act respon-

sibly is always to act in a disciplined way


involving technique and skill relevantly

applied to a structured situation. Further, the structured situation must be


responsiblytaken into account if action
is to be made relevant to it. Finally, a
degree of mastery in some channelized
mode of persistent endeavor seems neces-

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10

THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

sary to the possibility of that fluency in regardfor our fellows. To grasp the full
action by which we can transcenda halt- force of this "ought," and to be able to
ing and artificial approach to what we indorseit apart fromall the prestigewith
are doing.' To act under full commit- which it is impressed upon us, is not
ment, we must know what we are about. merely to have enjoyed the companyand
But the full commitment of which I convenience of other men; nor is it a
speak as essential to obligation resides matter of susceptibility to feelings simiprecisely in those actions which tran- lar to theirs;it is primarilyto have found
scend routine or imitative performance, and cleaved to that man who is universal
when we give ourselves up to what we in ourselves,who is preparedto seek out
are doing with profound and implicit and recognizeand respect himself whertrust, the very opposite of bargainingon ever he may be found, in any man. As
a guaranty of what the future will bring. our analysis of respect attempted to
In retrospect we may conclude that no make clear, this mode of regard toward
actions could have been more prudent other men is one of which we become
than these. They are nonethelessvery far capable in so far as we achieve disinterfrom being merely prudentialacts.
ested interest. Our analysis of the willI would suggest, then, that to become ingness involved in the moment of obliobligatedis to find it possibleto give our- gation has brought us back upon the
selves up in action. I mean this in a spirit differentiatedin disinterested indouble sense: first, we find it possible to terest, now amplifiedas that which can
commit our resourcesunivocally, to the claim us wholly, free us from arbitrarilimit of our capacity and with utter will- ness, and endow those actions in which
ingness;second, we find it possible to re- we serve it with ultimate and conclusive
linquish a possessive concernfor making point.
secure some future good or forefending
Tii:
some future evil. We find ourselvesfree,
In the closing portion of this paper I
as it were,to cast our breadon the waters
would like to carry further the notion
without stringsattached. The stringsare
that the possibility of becoming oblinot attached because they are not
seems to involve a certain fundagated
needed. What we do satisfies us promental
relaxationand deepeningof earfoundly in the doing; the books are aland
of
I must urge
nestness;
ready balanced,whateverthe futuremay that I am notagain, course,
recommending
something
bring. Thus liberation and a liberality to be aimed at but
to
note
retrotrying
that can leave no man its bondsmanseem
and
spectively
experientially
something
to go hand in hand. In the liberationof
characteristic of the possibility of bethe
action
we
into
may experience
spirit
and very clear in those
growth of a compassion which reaches coming obligated
moments
of
obligation which we have
out from acknowledgmentof man as we
have discoveredhim in ourselvesto man been concernedto understand.It seems
in any person.Perhapsit is only fromex- to me that much of our striving, so tense
perience in which a man is awakenedin with effort,so preoccupiedwith security,
ourselves who knows his affinity with so imbued with the conviction that evman in any person that we may under- erythingdependson ourperspicacityand
stand the legitimacy of the perennial
moral claim that we ought to act with

rigorous surveillance, indicates a supposition which is both reflected and en-

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THE MOMENTOF OBLIGATION


IN EXPERIENCE
couragedin a great deal of Westernethical thought; namely, that we can get
before our minds and deliberately control those factors on which the justification for what we do depends.In our ethical thought we have been driven almost
inadvertently,at times, in this direction.
For, if we are to show that thereis justification for what we do, must we not make
explicit for thought the natureof the justifying? And what could be more natural
than to suppose that the explication of
the justifying will place it at our disposal? Once we determine its nature,
surely this will enable us to aim at it,
produceit, spell out the means of its attainment, or at least to attain intellectual
mastery of the conditions of its occurrence, howeverdifficultwe may conceive
the techniqueof their fulfilmentto be. In
every case whereethical thought has arrived at an explicit conceptionof grounds
for action, the temptation has been almost irresistibleto work the conception
out froma prospectivestandpointand to
expect of it decisive directionin insuring
the justification, so far as possible, of
what we will do. When we yield to this
temptation, thoughwe may not be aware
of it and certainlymay not intend it, we
implicitly shift to a standpoint in which
we aspireto masteryover that which can
justify what we do.
It may help to elucidate the idea of a
ground of action that is ultimately implicit, as we have conceivedspirit to be,
if we can see how, as a matter of experience, humility may constitute a condition of the possibility of obligation. We
have already touched on humility in the
key notion of disinterestedness,for example, and in exploringthe meaning of
giving one's self up in action. And we
have approached the analysis of it by
suggesting concentration on a certain relaxation combined with deepening of

11

earnestness as conditional to becoming


obligated,explicitlyurgingthat these are
not to be dramatized;if we can understand humility in this vein, we may hope
to dispel that aura of uneasiness and
ostentation which sometimes clings to
the notion.
Humility I take to consist in a standpoint from which a person acts, compatible with the fact that it is not in our
power deliberatelyto endow our actions
with what is necessary to their experienced justification.This is certainly not
to say that the way we act will have little
or nothing to do with the possibility of
experiencedjustificationfor what we do.
Nor, on the other hand, is it merely to
accede to a legitimate emphasis on the
limitations within which even our best
intelligence and effort operate in attempting to commandevents. I think it
not sufficientlyprecise to connecthumility with "a sense of our dependenceupon
forcesthat go their way without our wish
and plan," as Dewey does, if the "forces"
meant are those over which empirical
knowledge yields considerableforesight
and such deliberatecontrol as we have.8
I have in mind, rather, the person as
agent who cannot be understoodor manipulatedas an object. Now it is the person from this standpoint,the personwho
acts, who crucially determinesthe possibility of experienced justification for
what is done; and to note this is a very
differentmatter also from claiming that
the "subjective" determination of experienced justification for action places
what ought to be done at the casual disposal of the individualagent. Rather the
contrary; for the agent cannot manipulate himself capriciously,he cannot play
fast and loose with himself, and he cannot escape himself; for he cannot reach
and connect the self which is agent by
causal laws with the order of objects and

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12

THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

so deliberatelycause the characterof the


self in whichexperiencewill subsequently
center and upon whom its significance
will crucially depend. I venture to think
that the fundamentalbenefit which may
accrue to persons helped by methods of
analysis (as in psychoanalytic therapy)
involves an implicit shift in the standpoint of the person and that the essence
of improvementin their conditionmight
be markedby an increasein genuine humility.' The shift of which I speak would
not consist in the acquisitionof a knowledge and skill by which the person would
become better equipped to contrive the
kind of self he ought to be; it would be
marked, rather, by decreasein effort to
contrive the self and a correspondingdecline in self-centeredness.It may help to
worksuch a changein a man if he realizes
the futility of posturingand discernsthe
trammelsof subtle imposturein whichhe
may be caught; but the change probably
involves becominga man whom he could
not have imagined, gradually consolidated throughdeeds which, in their very
frankness,do not follow some well-established outline obviating his responsibility
in committinghimselfanew in them; nor
would these deeds represent means for
effecting a change in himself which he
has understoodin advance and chosen as
an end of action.
We have been approachinghumility as
a key to the understandingof obligation,
and I would now suggest that the moment of obligationmay constitute a decisive stage in our experientiallessons with
respect to humility; in so far as experience becomes graced with final significance, we may discover that such significance is indeed strictly a matter of
grace, an unpremeditated and uncontrived invasion "from within." From

cisely because his finitude becomes illuminatedand is broughtto clarity by a


radiance that finite perceptiveness and
intelligencecannot cast upon the human
condition. And here I must venture the
reflectionthat an appreciationof human
finitude in the light of such experience
would not sustain self-depreciationany
more than it would encourage selfaggrandizement.It may well be that humiliation and reduction to helplessness
must precede the advent of experience
impregnatedwith humility; yet the depiction of humility in terms of self-condemnation bespeaks more of the struggles and despairattendanton outgrowing
the presumptionto a power we do not
have than of a sober clarity which may
superveneat times when that presumption has been genuinely transcended.
We might surmise that the suffering
we are liable to incurprecedentto humility is proportionalto the strength of our
presumption to an ability "to take the
good by siege or by storm." And it can
be uncomfortableto discernwhat subtle
forms that presumptionmay take; theoretically,every localizationof good in experience may tempt us to try for some
commandinghold over it; and every insight with respect to spirit which we can
make explicit to ourselvesmay be turned
into a liability, in so far as we may try to
use it as a means by which to controlthe
life of spirit and exert deliberatemastery
over its development.I venture to think
that many formsof "the pursuitof salvation" come down to this and that it is
precisely because such a pursuit is selfstultifying, operating as it does on the
presumptionto a power that we do not
have, that those who have followed it
have filledthe literatureof salvationwith
a depiction of humility in terms of hu-

such experience a man may indeed have


an understanding of his finitude, pre-

miliation and agonized suffering. Wherever we read passionate declamations on

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IN EXPERIENCE
THE MOMENTOF OBLIGATION

13

the worthlessnessof man the creature,


prophetic denunciation of human powers, and unmercifulcondemnationof the
corruptness of human nature, may we
not sense the struggle to pulverize and
grind down that presumptionon which
the pursuitof salvationso often depends?
Wherever we read of the necessity of
man's being brought to a condition of
utter hopelessness and disillusionment
with respect to his own capacity and
worth beforehe can find a groundof action upon which he may rely, can we not
discernthe reportof an experienceof disillusionmentcomingfrom men who have
knownwhat it was to attempt the investment of their lives with the prerogative
of divine surveillance,exercisedby themselves?
One may respect these reports of experience; one need not doubt that such
men have come to know a powerof spirit
which a man can only serve and not command. But I think we might be wary of
taking the experienceof disillusionment,
and the experienceof agonized struggle,
as offeringthe primary, if not exclusive,
key to reflectiveunderstandingof humility in connectionwith the powerof spirit
which may come to men.
Perhapsit is true that we tend to learn
most explicitly and with greater reflective thoroughnessthose truths which we
have once opposed. If so, then it seems
reasonableto supposethat many of those
who would be most articulateand vociferous on the subject of human salvation,
and who also suggest authenticity in
their account of it, are apt to be men
who have been preoccupiedwith it and
undergonedisillusionmentabout it. Further, those who have been able to speak
in the most commandingway on the subject are very often exceptionallygifted,

gifted and brilliant mind that might be


unusuallyliable to the temptationof supposing that, since so much lies within its
power and surveillance,surelyit must be
able to discern that way of life which
would be justified and, by virtue of its
own exceptional powers, to effect that
way of life. So, again, may it not be the
case that those most preparedto articulate an understandingof human salvation would be men particularlyliable to
the kind of presumptionof which a man
must become disabused,perhaps by the
most severepurgatoryexperience,before
he can discover the meaning of "losing
one's self"?
Yet must we suppose that the only
experientialvein in which humility is to
be found is that of abject humiliation?
Shall we supposethat the life of spirit is
to be adequately characterizedalmost
exclusively from a point of view engendered by passage through"sicknessunto
death"? May it not be pertinent to consider modes of experiencewhichmay not
be contingent upon disillusioned presumption to "take the good by siege or
by storm"?If humility is indeed unselfconscious,it seemsreasonableto suppose
that it may be vastly more pervasive in
humanexperiencethan may be our occasion to take notice of it and underlineits
characterand importanceas a matter for
explicit thought. And we may further
suspect that much might be learned of
humility, and of the life of spiritof which
it is a condition,if we might fathom the
experienceof men whose walks of life do
not happen to involve the development
of discursivearticulatenessor the learning fromwhich to make a contributionto
the theory of the subject.
Perhaps none of us can wholly escape
the kind of presumption to control our

men of at least considerable learning and


intellectual acumen. And it is just the

lives in a way that is beyond our power


which will require very painful disillu-

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14

THE JOURNALOF RELIGION

sionment if we are to be able to give it


up. Still more surely, it would seem that
each of us must sooner or later face a
man's full share of adversity and of failure and of suffering;so there will probably be no lack of these, in any case, in
the life of any man on which we may reflect. Possibly, if we were to obtain sufficient penetration into experience of
such a kind, we would have to recognize
an element of humiliation in at least
more instances of sufferingthan those in
which it is readily apparent. Nevertheless, however preconditionalto humility
and depth of spirit sufferingmay be, and
however much suffering may be legitimately construed as humiliation-as
whittling men down to size-it seems to
me that men may act commensurately
with their finitude, and often most characteristically do so, when they give
themselvesup to action quite apart from
antecedent desperation and despair. I
should wish to consider the spirit of
craftsmanshipin this vein, and, indeed,
an adequate philosophy of work might
well involve due consideration to the
fundamentalhumility to be found in the
experientialmeaningof work. For whatever work may produce, and whatever
needs the results of work may be considered to meet, it seems doubtful if the ultimate significance that a man's work
can have is to be comprehendedin terms
of products, results, and the remedy of
need. Fundamentally, in work a man
may bring to life in his deeds a spirit
which illuminateshis finitude, eases him
of its burdens, and makes him equal to
the disposalof his life with patience and
the affirmationof endeavor that is service. But service is first and foremost action from the spirit of disinterestedinterest, and such action can only transpire

man may serve man in any person. To


miss this point is to miss the possibility
of comprehendinga ground of disinterested action.
That the ground of disinterested action is implicit and immanentin the address of the person to what he is doing
rather than explicit is suggested by the
fact that the majority of men who are
devoting their lives to the activity of disinterested inquiry seem on the whole
silent and virtually unawarewith respect
to that -whichthey are serving.The spirit
which may obligate us is not an end of
action or a rule by which we can profitably control our behavior. Nothing can
be more difficultto conceive, for it is not
a thing, not a cause, and not an effect.
Action does not strengthen or enhance
it, therefore,by producingit; and, since
it not a product, action does not serve
it i,3
by proceeding from an intention to
produceit. That which can justify action
is neitheritself a productof action nor an
intention with respect to what that action may effect;it cannot be held before
the mind's eye and so used. It cannot be
conceivedin terms of "motive"either, if
to consideractions in terms of motives is
to view them under the aspect of caused
behavior;that is not the point of view of
one who commits himself in acting.
Our position, then, comes down to
this: the good can only be served; one
cannot command or produce it, not by
any stretch of intellectualpower or skill,
no matter on whose behalf employed.
But if one servesthe good, in so far as one
can do this, one serves man in any person. When this becomes clear to us as a
matter of experience, we become obligated and free.As I readsuch experience,
it suggests that in ethical reflection,as in

out of such a spirit in the man who acts.


It is that spirit which alone can be
served, and it is only in serving it that a

any other form of undertaking, we must


be prepared to find anew that meaning
which can justify what we do.

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THE MOMENT OF OBLIGATION IN EXPERIENCE

15

NOTES
1. Ernst Cassirertakes importantnotice of this
in Languageand Myth (New York:Harper& Bros.,
1946), pp. 59-62, and offersa searchinganalysisof
man's regardfor things on which his power of inspirited (i.e., creative) action may crucially depend.
2. Especiallywhereworkis mentioned,but also
for discussionsof the entiresubjectof this paper,I
am verymuchindebtedto ProfessorJohnM. Anderson.
3. Cf. Thoreau'sremark:"If I knew for a certainty that a manwas comingto my housewith the
consciousdesignof doingme good, I shouldrun for
my life.. . for fear that I should get some of his
good done to me,-some of its virus mingledwith
my blood" (see the closingpages of the section of
Waldenentitled "Economy"for the context amplifying this remark).Cf. also John Dewey, Human
Nature and Conduct(New York: ModernLibrary,
1930), Part IV, Section I, especiallythe last three
paragraphs.
4. Ethics,Part V, Prop.XLII. I wouldstate one
reservation about this formulation: blessedness
seemsto suffuseand transfigure
whatmay be viewed
underthe aspectof desire,or inclination;it doesnot
seem to superveneas an opposingand morepowerful "force." Perhaps Spinoza is handicappedin
stating an insight that will not submitto the mode
of conceptionof whichhe availshimselfthroughout
his attemptto explainthe "mechanics"of affectivity
(cf. especiallyPart IV, Prop.VII: "An emotioncan
only be controlledor destroyedby anotheremotion

contrary thereto, and with more power for controllingemotion."On such a view action can only
be viewed as consequentupon prevailingmotivational factors, among which a responsibleperson
cannot be found).
5. Has any writerin our time pioneeredthe way
for this thoughtmorepersistentlyandpenetratingly
than WilliamFaulkner?Also I shouldmentionthat
ProfessorD. T. Suzuki, the Buddhistphilosopher,
has especiallyhelped me to surmise the original
man in all men.
6. Dr. Karen Horney's Neurosis and Human
Growth(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950)
has seemed to me a mine of considerationswhich
may help us to understandhow we may come to
chain ourselves within the frameworkof "pride
systems" articulatedin the form of patterns of
what we oughtto be and do.
. 7. ProfessorD. T. Suzuki
bringsthis out with
great clarity in his discussionsof "stopping"and
"no-mindedness";
see, e.g., the chapteron "Swordsmanship"in ZenBuddhismandIts InfluenceonJapanese Culture (Kyoto: Eastern Buddhist Society,
1938).
8. See John Dewey, HumanNatureand Conduct
(New York:ModernLibrary,1930),p. 289.
9. I am very much indebted to the works of
Dr. KarenHomey forhelpingme to focuson "moral
earnestness"and release from tension as clues to
the meaning of humility. These same worksalso
point out very clearly the possible connections
between self-condemnatory"humility" and selfdetestation.

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