Ethics of Democracy

Part 3. Business Life
Chap. 1, Honesty Best Policy

Strange is the game the world doth play -
Rouge et Noir, with the counters gold!
Red with blood and black with sin;
Few and fewer are they that win
As the ages pass untold.

- Charlotte Perkins Stetson

When John on Patmos looked into the New
Jerusalem, he saw a wondrous thing;
The streets of that fair city were all paved
With that which earth most dear and precious holds -
With purest gold, o'er which the happy feet
Of all the habiters of Heaven went up
And down. So might not this declare for us
The proper place of gold in that Society
Whose frame to-day we strive with so much toil
To shape according to our Vision's plan?
A place of use, in truth, on which to build
And act; only for use, to walk upon,
To smooth the way to worship and to work?

But we, in earth's old manner, straight
Reverse this use and fight God's good intent.
Instead of making pavements of our gold,
We beat it out and hammer it into
A dome, and raise it up into a sky
Above our heads. And then, because we can
No more behold the stars, nor can the sun
Shine through; because earth's furious furnace-heat,
Reflected, burns to dust our heart's sweet flowers;
Because our lives begin to pale and faint
Within the twilight we ourselves have made,
We bitterly complain to heaven, and cry
That no kind Providence has planned the world.

- Orville E. Watson

Peace between Capital and Labor, is that all that you ask?
Is peace, then, the only thing needful?
There was peace enough in Southern slavery.
There is a peace of life and another peace of death.
It is well to rise above violence.
It is well to rise superior to anger.

But if peace means final acquiescence in wrong - if your aim is less than justice and peace, forever one - then your peace is a crime.

- Ernest Crosby, in The Whim

What shall I do to be just?
What shall I do for the gain
Of the world for its sadness?
Teach me, O Seers that I trust!
Chart me the difficult main
Leading out of my sorrow and madness;
Preach me the purging of pain.
Shall I wrench from my finger the ring
To cast to the tramp at my door?

Shall I tear off each luminous thing
To drop in the palm of the poor?
What shall I do to be just?
Teach me, O Ye in the light,
Whom the poor and the rich alike trust;
My heart is aflame to be right.

- Hamlin Garland

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Part 3, Business Life
Chapter 1, Honesty the Best Policy

STRICT observance of moral principle is the natural condition of business success. It would be indispensable if industrial life were normal. Immorality in business would then be as fatal to business success as immorality in society is to social standing. Even as things are, with industrial life thoroughly demoralized by abnormal institutions and discriminating laws, moral principle in business conduct is essential to business prosperity in general, and to individuals it is not without its advantages. There is profound truth in the maxim, "Honesty is the best policy." So vital is it that even thieves are obliged to recognize it among themselves. In normal conditions, with the currents of social and industrial life undisturbed by laws creating industrial privileges and unfairly distributing industrial power, this thrifty maxim would be universally and absolutely true.

But if the morality of honesty were to be determined only by that empirical test, a great deal might be said in defense of theft. It is, indeed, doubtful if the right or wrong of honesty would be settled yet, were the issue dependent upon the question of better or best, to be determined experimentally. We should have great empiricists asserting, as they do of slavery, tariff protection, land monopoly and the like, that theft is right or wrong according to time, place and circumstances. The human mind is incapable of grasping, measuring, comparing, and drawing correct moral inferences from the infinite complexity of facts and interests that would be involved. The field of experiment is too wide, the period of investigation required is too long, the facts are too numerous and complex and too often obscure, the interests are apparently too diverse, the causes and effects are too subtle, to admit of the solution experimentally of even the simplest moral problem.

To persons who believe in an omniscient and beneficent Providence it makes no difference whether conduct is guided by moral principle or by really sound policy. Since moral principle is to such persons only another phrasing for divine adjustment, and as all who believe that God is infinite in beneficence and perfect in wisdom must of necessity believe also that whatever is in harmony with eternal moral principle will prove to be experimentally the best policy, there can be to them no practical choice between eternal moral principle and wise expediency as guides to social adjustment. The one guide as well as the other would, in their estimation, lead to the same goal. But these persons - let us call them "theists" for short - nevertheless prefer moral principle to wise expediency as the moral standard, for they recognize the impossibility of distinguishing, merely by means of experimental tests, between right and wrong in the sphere of morals. They, therefore, cling to those broad moral principles which, so far at least as has been discovered, are perceived intuitively, as the eye perceives material objects. These once apprehended, the rest is a simple logical process of which any sane mind is capable. Intuitively grasping, for instance, that great moral axiom upon which the legal right of self-defense is securely founded, the axiom that every man has, as against the aggressions of every other man and of all other men combined, the right to himself - grasping that axiom, the theist has possession of the key to all moral problems involving human rights and duties.

I call him a "theist." But that is only for convenient distinction. There are those who thus approach moral questions from fundamental moral principle intuitively perceived, who would disclaim being theists. They are, however, properly enough classified as such, even though they deny a divine personality, for they acknowledge moral truth as absolute. That is the essence of theism, and it distinguishes them from atheists.

The atheist is not best described as one who denies the existence of a personal God. Many a fervent worshipper of God as a personal being, is an atheist nevertheless. Atheism consists essentially in the denial of absolute moral principle - in the assertion that there is no such thing as an axiom of moral right, but that moral questions are to be determined by considerations of expediency ascertained by experiment.

Thus defined, atheism has, indeed, but a slight hold upon moral teachers when they concern themselves with private or personal conduct. The business man who should put sand into his sugar or water into his stock or forgery into his commercial paper, and defend himself upon grounds of expediency, would have to hunt far and long for a teacher of moral philosophy who would listen patiently to his empirical justification. Of any personal delinquency like that, the teacher of moral philosophy would promptly say: "I don't believe it is truly expedient, either for you yourself or for the rest of the community; but you need not put yourself to the trouble of trying to prove it, for I regard your act as simple robbery - as a mere mask under cover of which you deprive another, without his free consent, of what by moral right belongs to him and not to you." That is what any teacher of moral philosophy would say of a case of individual turpitude. And he would be likely to say the same of a proposition to abolish some social institution, upon the probable perpetuity of which men had invested money. You might argue till the crack of doom the expediency of abolishing such an institution, and the manifest inexpediency either of perpetuating it or of buying out its beneficiaries, without so much as securing his attention. His one reply would be: "Moral principle demands that society perpetuate the institution or compensate those who lose from its abolition." But asked about the moral right of society to maintain institutions which enable some men to prosper upon the fleecings of others - slavery, or tariff protection, or land monopoly, for instance - many a modern expert in moral philosophy would promptly fly the moral track. He would then tell you that there is no such thing as moral right in social matters, except as public expediency may be so regarded!

This theory of social morals, so convenient a buttress for the indefensible legal fiction of "vested rights" - which are either rights whether "vested" or not, or being wrongs gain no righteousness from being "vested" - has been thrown up by that wave of "scientific" atheism which gathered volume some years ago in the universities of Germany, and now, when it is said to be subsiding in the place of its origin, floods the universities of England and America and finds an outlet through our public schools. It came too late for the anti-slavery agitation. Apologists for slavery, therefore, were forced to meet the slave issue upon the basis of the moral principle of human rights. This they did sometimes upon the hypothesis that "niggers are not humans," and sometimes by the logic of tar and feathers. They had not yet learned from high "scientific" authority to defend their "peculiar institution" in respectable moral disorder, with the atheistic theory that there is no such thing as right except as we learn from experience what is better or best.

Little, however, as these "scientists" suspect it, to set up better or best as a moral test is virtually to acknowledge what they regard as an opposing principle, the principle of absolute right. It is to imply that there are standards of right toward which we ought to advance, even though we can advance only experimentally, as we do toward absolute right in physics. But the empirical cult in morals make no such actual acknowledgment. They insist not merely that experiment is the only road toward right, but that its results from time to time are at once the only right we know and the only right there is. In other words, that by experiment we are not feeling our way toward moral righteousness but are creating it.

They profess inability to apprehend absolute right. That is their misfortune. Though absolute right is impossible of comprehension, it is not even difficult of apprehension. We all apprehend it in some degree when we respect another's title, in any given circumstances, to be done by as we under similar circumstances would ourselves be done by. Whoever resists temptations to steal, not from fear of disgrace or imprisonment or other superficial penalty, but because stealing is unjust - that person has an apprehension of absolute moral right.

Were one required to define absolute moral right, he might describe it as harmonious adjustment upon the moral as distinguished from the physical plane of life. These two planes are distinct with reference to principles of right, each having its own peculiar adjustment or harmony. We can have an apprehension of perfect physical righteousness.The possibility or idea of physical perfection must exist or it could not be approached. Man is not a creator; he is an imitator. He does not design; he discovers. But he imitates or discovers imperfectly. Though he conceives of physical exactitude, physical harmony, physical righteousness, or whatever be the name he adopts for his recognition of the absolutely right on the physical plane, he can experimentally only approximate to it. And so it is on the moral plane. We conceive of moral harmony, moral exactitude, moral righteousness, though we cannot realize the ideal experimentally.

This is illustrated in the maxim already mentioned - "Honesty is the best policy." The latter part of the maxim has to do with expediency, with a lower range of harmony; but the first part carries us into the realms of absolute righteousness. In its broadest signification, honesty is moral exactitude, moral perfection, moral righteousness. It is a standard which we cannot realize but to which we can approximate. And the lesson of the maxim is that the nearer we approximate to this harmony of moral righteousness, the nearer also shall we approximate to the lower harmony of physical prosperity.

It is a splendid maxim of idealism. It reverses the notion of the empirical moralist, that whatever is experimentally best is morally right, and implies that whatever is morally right will prove to be experimentally best.

To appreciate the great significance of the maxim, let it be turned upside down, as the experimentalists are trying to do with moral philosophy. Suppose that instead of saying, "Honesty is the best policy," we should say, "The best policy is honest." What kind of morality would that inculcate?

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