From The Cardinal Virtues, 1902
By William De Witt Hyde
If man dwelt alone in a world of things, wisdom to subordinate things to his ends would be the principal virtue. The form of the perfect character would be a circle, with self as the center. The fact that we live in a social world, where other persons must be recognized, is the ground of justice, the second cardinal virtue. Justice requires the subordination of the interests of the individual to the interests of society, and the persons who constitute society, in the same way that wisdom requires the subordination of particular desires to the permanent interests of the whole individual to whom they belong. For the individual is a part of society in the same vital way in which a single desire is part of an individual. To indulge a single desire at the expense of the permanent self is folly; and to indulge a single individual, whether myself or another, at the expense of society is injustice.
The essence of injustice consists in treating people, not as persons, having interests and ends of their own, but as mere tools or machines, to do the things we want to have done. The penalty of injustice is a hardening of heart and shriveling of soul; so that if a person were to treat everybody in that way, he would come to dwell in a world of things, and, before he knew it, degenerate into a mere thing himself. Lord Rosebery points out that this habit of treating men as mere means to his own ends was what made Napoleon’s mind lose its sanity of judgment, and made his heart the friendless, cheerless desolation that it was in his last days. We have all seen persons in whom this hardening, shriveling, drying-up process had reached almost the vanishing point. The employer toward his “hand;” the officer toward his troops; the teacher, even, toward his scholars; the housekeeper toward her servants; all of us toward the people who cook our food, and make our beds, and sell our meat, and raise our vegetables, are in imminent danger of slipping down on to this immoral level of treating them as mere machines.
Royce, in his Religious Aspect of Philosophy, has set this forth most forcibly, among English writers; though it lies at the heart of all the German formulas, like Kant s “Treat humanity, whether in thyself or in others, always as an end, never as a means,” and Hegel’s “Be a person, and respect the personality of others.” Royce says: “Let one look over the range of his bare acquaintanceship; let him leave out his friends, and the people in whom he takes a special personal interest; let him regard the rest of his world of fellow men — his butcher, his grocer, the policeman that patrols his street, the newsboy, the servant in his kitchen, his business rivals. Are they not one and all to him ways of behavior toward himself or other people, outwardly effective beings, rather than realized masses of genuine inner sentiment, of love, or of felt desire? Does he not naturally think of each of them rather as a way of outward action than as a way of inner volition? His butcher, his newsboy, his servant — are they not for him industrious or lazy, honest or deceitful, polite or uncivil, useful or useless people, rather than self-conscious people? Is any one of these alive for him in the full sense — sentient, emotional, and otherwise like himself, as perhaps his own son, or his own mother or wife, seems to him to be? Is it not rather their being for him, not for themselves, that he considers in all his ordinary life? Not their inner volitional nature is realized, but their manner of outward activity. Such is the nature and ground of the illusion of selfishness.”
This passage from Royce lays bare the source of the greater part of the social immorality in the world, and accounts for nine-tenths of all the world’s trouble.
What wonder that a man of this type cannot succeed in any large work of administration! He treats men as things. But men are not things. They rise up in indignation against him. Every man of them is instantly his enemy, and will take the first chance that occurs to betray him and cast him down. A man of that type cannot run a mill or a store or a school or a political campaign or a hotel a week without being in a row. He cannot live in a community six weeks without having made more enemies than friends. The first time he trips, every one is ready to jump on him. And in all his trouble and unpopularity, and failure, and defeat, the beauty of it is that he is getting precisely what he deserves, and we all exclaim, “It’s good enough for him!”
Selfishness is closely akin to folly. The fool treats things as if they were mere qualities, and had no permanent effect. But the effects come back to plague and torment him. The selfish man treats men as if they were mere acts, and had no permanent selves. He may at the time get out of them the act he wants, but in doing so he makes them his enemies; and no man can permanently prosper with every other man openly or secretly arrayed against him. The most fundamental question a man can ask about our character is whether and to what extent we habitually treat persons as persons, and not as things. The answer to that question will tell us whether we shall succeed or fail in any enterprise which has an important social side; will tell whether we shall make a home happy or wretched; will tell whether we are more of a blessing or a curse to the world in which we move. And the test is to be found, not in our attitude toward the people whom we consider our superiors and equals; not in the appearance we make in what is technically called society. There we have to be decent, whether we want to or not; there we have to treat, or appear to treat, persons as persons, not as things. Little credit belongs to us for all that. But when it comes to our relations with the people of whom Royce was speaking, there we seem to be under no such social compulsion. There our real character gets blurted out. How do we think and feel and speak and act toward our washerwoman or the man who does our humblest work for us? That determines whether we are at heart Christians or barbarians, whether a gentleman or a brute sits on the throne of our soul. For whether a fellow man is ever a means instead of an end, whether the personality of the humblest ever fails to win our recognition, inasmuch as we do it or do it not unto the least of our brethren determines our moral and social status, as the men of insight, like Kant and Hegel and Jesus, define it.
One of the most important forms of justice is honesty in services and material goods. To be honest means that we refuse to be partner to a trade or transaction in which we would not willingly accept its consequence to all parties, provided we were in their place. Any transaction that involves effects on another we would not willingly, under the circumstances, accept for ourselves, is fraud and robbery. The man who pilfers goods from a pocket or a counter is the least of the thieves of to-day. He is only doing, in a pitiful way, the devil’s retail business. The men who do his wholesale business often move in the best of society, and are even the makers and executors of our laws. Wholesale stealing has numerous forms, but it is nearly all reducible to two well-marked types.
First, stealing is carried on by issuing representations of what does not exist as represented. Stealing of this sort is really lying. Adulteration of goods, watered Stock, false accounts, are the grosser forms of this stealing. The more adroit of these rascals, however, take to the promotion of spurious enterprises. They form a company to work a mine which has ore, but which they know cannot be worked at a profit; or they build a railroad between points where there is not traffic or travel enough to pay a fair rate of interest on the capital invested. They appropriate to themselves a generous block of the stock as the price for their work of organization. They put in the most expensive plant and equipment. For the first few months, when there are no repairs needed, by artificial stimulus and by various devices of bookkeeping, or by leaving some bills unpaid, they make a showing on paper of large earnings above running expenses. On this fictitious showing they sell their stock to investors at a distance, who think they are being specially favored in being let into a chance to earn dividends of ten per cent. Then comes the crash; the poor fools that invested in the stock find it worthless, and even the bonds which represent its construction fall below par. Then the poor robbed, cheated, deluded investors look to the promoter for redress; and lo! he has unloaded his stock, and is planning another mine in inaccessible Tennessee mountains, or selling lumber that no team can haul out of some impenetrable Florida swamp, or booming city lots staked out on some unbroken Kansas prairie, or running an electric railroad through the pastures and woodlands that connect out-of-the-way hamlets in Maine. Justice and honesty demand that we shall read that man’s character in the light of the losses he inflicts on hard-working farmers, dependent widows, poor men and women who have toiled all their lives, and are looking for rest in old age. In that clear light of consequence to their fellows, the acts of these unscrupulous promoters stand out in their naked hideousness and deformity. The man who promotes a scheme of this kind, knowing or having good reason to believe that his gain is represented by widespread robbery of the innocent, and plunder of the unprotected, is a thief and a robber; and the place where he belongs is at hard work in striped clothes, by the side of the defaulter, the burglar, and the picker of pockets. The fact that he does not get there, but fares sumptuously in a palace he rears with his ill-gotten gain, is one of the chief reasons why men still believe and hope there is a hell.
The other type of stealing which flourishes in modern conditions is the misuse of one’s representative or delegated influence. A thief of this sort uses his position in one corporation to let favorable contracts to himself in another corporation in which he is directly or indirectly concerned. He uses his position as purchasing or selling agent for a company by which he is employed, to induce the seller or buyer to make a special rebate or bonus to him in his private capacity; thus charging his employer with an unrecognized salary in addition to the one he is supposed to receive. He uses his political influence to promote his personal fortunes, or those of his friends and retainers, at the public expense. Wherever a representative or delegated power is used for personal, private, friendly, family, or any ends whatever other than the single interests of the constituents or firm or institution represented, there is a case of wholesale stealing of the second type.
Opportunities for the successful practice of these two types of wholesale stealing are incidental to our highly complex political and industrial life. Exceptional talent and industry and enterprise may still manage to make money without them. But most of the great fortunes which are rapidly made rest on one or the other of these two types of theft. The temptations to resort to them in these days are tremendous. Yet it is no new discovery that wrongdoing is profitable and easy, while virtue is costly and hard. The first step toward righteousness in these matters is to define clearly, in modern terms, what honesty is; and to brand all whose gains rest on the losses of others as the thieves and villains they are.