Albert Jay Nock on Doing the Right Thing

Albert Jay Nock, in his essay “On Doing the Right Thing,” meditates on propriety as a governor of behavior distinct from law and conscience and whim — on “doing the Right Thing” in what he thinks of as an Englishman’s sense of the term:

Given a certain set of circumstances… an Englishman may be trusted to take a certain course of conduct, and to take it with energy, resolution, and courage, for no reason in particular except to satisfy some inward sense of obligation. He may not, usually does not, have much light on the subject; doing the Right Thing may be far enough, indeed, from doing right. In other circumstances, too, where the inner sense is quiescent, he may do something much worse; but in those circumstances he is sure to carry through with a darkened and instinctive allegiance to what he believes to be the Right Thing.

Another thing about this curious sense of propriety:

When an Englishman is bitten by a sense of the Right Thing, it seems never to occur to him, for instance, to raise the question whether the Right Thing, after it is done, will have enough practical importance to be worth doing. Again, it seems never to occur to him to put a mere personal desire, however strong, in competition with the Right Thing, and then to cast about him for plausible ways of justifying himself in following his desire.

Nock divides human conduct into three sorts:

  1. “[T]he region in which conduct is controlled by law, i.e., by force, by some form of outside compulsion.”
  2. “[T]he region of indifferent choice, where, for instance, a man may use one kind of soap or safety-razor rather than another.”
  3. “[T]he region where conduct is controlled by unenforced, self-imposed allegiance to moral or social considerations.”

Nock then speculates that the reason why the English have such a strong sense of propriety and strictly govern their own behavior by these self-chosen, unenforced codes, is that in England the first of his “regions” — the region of law and compulsion — is small, particularly in comparison to America. “He has too many laws, of course, and the present tendency over there, as everywhere, unhappily, is to multiply them… but as compared with the American, he lives in an anarchist’s paradise.” (He wrote this in the mid-1920s, at the height of Prohibition in the United States; he notes also that “fornication” is not a crime in England the way it was in most of the United States.) The English are also, Nock says, more tolerant of individual idiosyncracy, at least in superficial things like mode of dress, whereas Americans would be more likely to gather and mock anyone who steps too far out of line in fashion.

As a result, the two regions of choice do not shrink and atrophy, as they do when the legal/compulsion region grows. In America, on the other hand, “the region where conduct is controlled by law so far encroaches upon the region of free choice and the region where conduct is controlled by a sense of the Right Thing, that there is precious little left of either. What is left, moreover, is still further attenuated by the pressure of a public opinion whose energy and zeal are in direct ratio to its meddlesomeness and ignorance.”

The result “is the serious and debilitating deterioration of individual responsibility under this state of affairs. In this respect, living in America is like serving in the army; ninety per cent of conduct is prescribed by law and the remaining ten percent by the esprit du corps, with the consequence that opportunity for free choice in conduct is practically abolished. This falls in very well with the indolent disposition of human nature to regard responsibility as onerous and to dodge it when possible; but it is debilitating, and a civilisation organised upon this absence of responsibility is pulpy and unsound.”

Those who have noticed the disturbing effects of this have mostly misunderstood the cause, Nock says. Instead of proposing to shrink the legal region as a way of aiding the recovery of the regions of choice and morality, they propose to improve and expand the legal region. But “any enlargement [of that region], good or bad, reduces reduces the scope of individual responsibility, and thus retards and cripples the education which can be a product of nothing but the free exercise of moral judgment.”

Freedom, he says, “seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed.… In suggesting that we try freedom, therefore, the anarchist and individualist has a strictly practical aim. He aims at the production of a race of responsible beings.”

The anarchist does not want economic freedom for the sake of shifting a dollar or two from one man’s pocket to another’s; or social freedom for the sake of rollicking in detestable license; or political freedom for the sake of a mere rash and restless experimentation in system-making. His desire for freedom has but the one practical object, i.e. that men may become as good and decent, as elevated and noble, as they might be and really wish to be. Reason, experience and observation lead him to the conviction that under absolute and unqualified freedom they can, and rather promptly will, educate themselves to this desirable end; but that so long as they are to the least degree dominated by legalism and authoritarianism, they never can.

I think this essay makes a good point, and its conclusion is solid, but I think we’d be wise to be more skeptical of blind propriety than Nock is. I think in practice, it is often enforced by the same sort of social pressures that Nock mocks when they’re being used to make life miserable for Americans who refuse to toe the line of current fashion. And, as Nock recognizes but doesn’t much wrestle with: propriety can go badly astray — cementing popular bigotry, generating tendencies like patriotism that can easily be exploited for evil purposes, and giving people near-irrefutable quasi-reasons not to examine their motives or the results of their behavior.