VOL 29 No. 4
Ecuador's Oil Change: An Exporter's Historic Proposal
by Kevin Koenig
Fueling Another Debt Crisis
by Neil Watkins
The Best Congress Oil Could Buy
by Steve Kretzmann
A Call for Global Economic and Energy Transitions
Sin and Society II
by Edward Alsworth Ross
Bolivia Asserts Oil Sovereignty
an interview with Carlos Villegas
Causes of Soaring Oil Prices
interviews with oil industry analysts
Can Big Oil Adapt to Climate Change?
interviews with oil industry analysts
Behind the Lines
Independence from Oil
CAFTA and the Politics of Fear - Whistleblowers Betrayed
The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award
Greed At a Glance
Names In the News
Sin and Society
By Edward Alsworth Ross
Part II of a Three-Part Series
Editor’s Note: 2007 marks the 100-year anniversary of the publication of a remarkable book-length essay, Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity, by the sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross. Ross was the leading sociologist of the early 20th century United States, but Sin and Society was written for a lay audience.
The book is noteworthy for identifying the ways in which the industrial economy had transformed the capacity to do harm to others. The leaders of large corporations gained the power to injure and cheat people on a scale that the most heinous street criminal could not begin to match. But conventional morality had not adjusted to these changed circumstances — while the rightful disapprobation was directed at street criminals, the newly emerging class of corporate criminals and wrongdoers managed to brand themselves as respectable leaders of society.
This situation, of course, continues today — making Ross’s insights all the more worth revisiting. Multinational Monitor is therefore commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Sin and Society by serializing major excerpts from the essay. Below follows the second of three parts.
Chapter 3: The Criminaloid
The Criminaloid practices a protective mimicry of the good
Because so many good men are pious, the criminaloid covets a high seat in the synagogue as a valuable private asset. Accordingly he is often to be found in the assemblies of the faithful, zealously exhorting and bearing witness. Onward thought he must leave to honest men; his line is strict orthodoxy. The upright may fall slack in devout observances, but he cannot afford to neglect his church connection. He needs it in his business. Such simulation is easier because the godly are slow to drive out the open-handed sinner who eschews the conventional sins. Many deprecate prying into the methods of any brother “having money or goods ostensibly his own or under a title not disapproved by the proper tribunals.” They have, indeed, much warrant for insisting that the saving of souls rather than the salvation of society is the true mission of the church. …
Likewise the criminaloid counterfeits the good citizen. He takes care to meet all the conventional tests — flag worship, old-soldier sentiment, observance of all the national holidays, perfervid patriotism, party regularity and support. Full well he knows that the giving of a fountain or a park, the establishing of a college chair on the Neolithic drama or the elegiac poetry of the Chaldaeans, will more than outweigh the dodging of taxes, the grabbing of streets and the corrupting of city councils. Let him have his way about charters and franchises, and he zealously supports that “good government” which consists in sweeping the streets, holding down the “lid” and keeping taxes low. Nor will he fail in that scrupulous correctness of private and domestic life which confers respectability. In politics, to be sure, it is often necessary to play the “good fellow;” but in business and finance a studious conformity to the convenances is of the highest importance. The criminaloid must perforce seem sober and chaste, “a good husband and a kind father.” If in this respect he offend, his hour of need will find him without support, and some callow reporter or district attorney will bowl him over like any vulgar criminal.
The criminaloid therefore puts on the whole armor of the good. He stands having his loins girt about with religiosity and having on the breastplate of respectability. His feet are shod with ostentatious philanthropy, his head is encased in the helmet of spread-eagle patriotism. Holding in his left hand the buckler of worldly success and in his right the sword of “influence,” he is “able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
The criminaloid plays the support of his local or special group against the larger society
…Here twangs the ultimate chord! For in criminaloid philosophy it is “un-American” to wrench patronage from the hands of spoilsmen, “un-American” to deal Federal justice to rascals of state eminence, “un-American” to pry into “private arrangements” between shipper and carrier, “un-American” to fry the truth out of reluctant magnates. …
The criminaloid flourishes until the growth of morality over takes the growth of opportunity to prey
So long as the public conscience is torpid, the criminaloid has no sense of turpitude. In the dusk and the silence the magic of clan opinion converts his misdeeds into something rich and strange. For the clan lexicon tells him that a bribe is a “retaining fee,” a railroad pass is a “courtesy,” probing is “scandal-mongering,” the investigator is an “officious busybody,” a protest is a “howl,” critics are “foul harpies of slander,” public opinion is “unreasoning clamor,” regulation is “meddling,” any inconvenient law is a “blue” law. As rebate-giver he is sustained by the assurance that “in Rome you must do as the Romans do.” As disburser of corruption funds he learns that he is but “asserting the higher law which great enterprises have the right to command.” Blessed phrases these! What a lint for dressing wounds to self-respect! Often the reminiscent criminaloid, upon comparing his misdeeds with what his clansmen stood ready to justify him in doing, is fain to exclaim with Lord Clive, “By God, Sir, at this moment I stand amazed at my own moderation!” When the revealing flash comes and the storm breaks, his difficulty in getting the public’s point of view is really pathetic. Indeed, he may persist to the end in regarding himself as a martyr to “politics,” or “yellow journalism,” or the “unctuous rectitude” of personal foes, or “class envy” in the guise of a moral wave.
It is of little use to bring law abreast of the time if morality lags. In a swiftly changing society the law inevitably tarries behind need, but public opinion tarries behind need even more. Where, as with us, the statute has little force of its own, the backwardness of public opinion nullifies the work of the legislator. Every added relation among men makes new chances for the sons of Belial. Wider interdependencies breed new treacheries. Fresh opportunities for illicit gain are continually appearing, and these are eagerly seized by the unscrupulous. The years between the advent of these new sins and the general recognition of their heinousness are few or many according to the alertness of the social mind. By the time they have been branded, the onward movement of society has created a fresh lot of opportunities, which are, in their turn, exploited with impunity. It is in this gap that the criminaloid disports himself. The narrowing of this gap depends chiefly on the faithfulness of the vedettes that guard the march of humanity. If the editor, writer, educator, clergyman or public man is zealous to reconnoiter and instant to cry aloud the dangers that present themselves in our tumultuous social advance, a regulative opinion quickly forms and the new sins soon become odious.
Chapter 4: The Grilling of Sinners
Now, it is the concern of the criminaloids to delay this growth of conscience by silencing the alert vedettes. To intimidate the moulders of opinion so as to confine the editor to the “news,” the preacher to the “simple Gospel,” the public man to the “party issues,” the judge to his precedents, the teacher to his textbooks and the writer to the classic themes — such are the tactics of the criminaloids. Let them but have their way, and the prophet’s message, the sage’s lesson, the scholar’s quest, and the poet’s dream would be sacrificed to the God of Things as They Were.
…The community need feel no qualm when lashing the sinner. We are bidden to forgive our enemies, but not the enemies of our society, our posterity. For society to “resist not evil” would be folly, because for most of us society’s attitude fixes the guiding ideas of right and wrong. Any outrage we can practice with impunity comes finally to be looked upon as a matter of course. To the aggressor the non-resisting community practically says, “Trample me, please. Thanks!” Thus it becomes a partner in his misdeeds. The public that turns the other cheek tempts a man to fresh sinning. It makes itself an accomplice in the undoing of a soul. It is the indulgent parent spoiling the child. It is therefore our sacred duty, not lazily to condone, but vigorously to pursue and castigate the sinner. It is sad but true that the community is prompter to correct the wife-beater than the rebater or the dummy director. Such indifference to the soul’s health of eminent citizens is deplorable.
The fallacy that sinners should be chastised only by their betters
There is fair hope that out of public opinion a means of rational defense may be developed, provided only we renounce certain false notions which now hinder the proper grilling of sinners.
Sometimes the hounded sinner reminds us through his spokesman that “He moves in a higher world into which we may not enter.” Oftener he counters by saying — if his sinning is very lucrative it will be said for him — “In my place, you, too, would have bribed the inspector, or doctored the goods, or exacted the rebate.” “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” In this vein an apologist sneers, “Those who are chattering about predatory wealth would not refuse to take over corporation stock even in the R——- properties.” The truth is, however, the censor need not take the attitude of “I am holier than thou.” What if the critics are no better than they should be? Sinners are scourged, not to proclaim their moral inferiority, but to brace people to resist temptation. May not a weak man, untempted, prop a stronger man who is under temptation? Opportunity puts one’s baser self in the saddle; whereas the comment of the disinterested spectator utters his better self. If the baser self of the tempted man could not profit by the rebuke of a public made up of men no better than he is, many of us would fall into the ditch.
The error that society’s castigation of the sinner is merely the assertion of the self-interest of the many
Slow, indeed, would be moral uplift, if the public allowed itself to be silenced by the tu quoque of the malefactor. Of course it would be inspiring to be charmed on from height to height by the voices of seers and the example of heroes. But Isaiahs and Savonarolas are rare; and certain practices must be outlawed at once if we are not to rot down together. In meeting new forms of sin, we have nothing to rely on but the common conscience; that is, the deliverance of the best selves of most of us. It is the neutrals, not the belligerents, that humanize warfare. It is the onlookers, not the champions, that uphold the rules of the ring. Not because they are better men, but because they are in a less trying position. So it will be not the quickened consciences of the principals, but the hisses of the crowd on the bleachers, that will protect shipper from railroad, lift the plane of business competition, restrain the oppression of workingmen and stop the feeding of human seed-corn to swine.
…The special-interest man ignores the moral energy that inspires the uprising against latter-day sin. He scoffs at a law on the ground that it was enacted by a bare majority of “hayseed” legislators, ignorant of legal philosophy and the fitness of things. He does not care to notice that this close vote records an overwhelming public sentiment, the outcome of a long, disinterested agitation. Or he complains that the statute is “precipitate,” and pleads for “conservatism.”
The delusion that the nonconformist is the real peril to society
“Conservatism!” piled on top of inertia and the strangle-hold of sinister interests, in a tumultuously changing society, where an evil condition may be rapidly worsening while we speechify and procrastinate! Here is a growing evil — so much blood of brakemen on cars and rails. Give heed, ye legislators! No impression. The legislator removes his cigar long enough to sneer, “hot air,” “mawkish sentimentality,” “they take the risks.” So, on with the slaughter! Let the wheels redden until the totals are formidable. “Now will you act?” No, “interference” would “undermine individual responsibility,” or be “unconstitutional.” So let the mangled pile up, until, like the cuirassiers in the ravine at Waterloo, their bodies fill to the brink the chasm of selfish incredulity. So is it with the uprooting of child labor. Once the pocket-book interest has twined itself about the evil, the wreckage of child life has to be mountainous, ghastly and sickening, before the public can be stirred to the point of breaking the grasp of the employers on the throat of the legislature. The same obstacles delay the advent of mine inspection, tenement-house reform, the abolition of grade crossings, the enforced fencing of dangerous machinery. Thanks to the inertia of large bodies and the power of special interests, the relief inevitably comes 10 to 20 years later than it should. To add, now, conscious “conservatism,” is like setting the brake on an overloaded wagon being hauled up the bare western slope of a sandy hill on a July afternoon!
…It is the honest man who falls into heresy. But the latter-day sinner is sleek, orthodox and unoffending. He conforms in everything save conduct. No one can outdo him in lip homage to the law and the prophets. It is the law-abiding who are scandalized by one another’s nonconformity. They split on beliefs and practices because they care for such things. But men who take the cash register for their compass are nobly tolerant. This is why, in these times that try men’s fortunes, sinners rush to one another’s aid, excuse and support one another under fire. The monopolists, small and great, local and national, grope their way to one another, strike hands, and as “captains of industry” present to their critics an unbroken front. The security jugglers, from the county-seat town to Wall Street, feel that as “authors of prosperity” an injury to one is the concern of all. Adulterators and commercial crooks rally as “enterprising business men.” The puppets of the Interests, from the town council to Congress, stand together as “statesmen.” On the other hand, the public they plunder, like Martha “troubled about many things,” divides on race, creed or style, pelts the nonconformist more than the sinner, and lays on a little finger where it ought to wield a fist. Thus the wolves hunt in packs, while the watchdogs snap at one another! …
The false doctrine that the repression of the vicious is more important than the repression of sinners
By vice we mean practices that harm one’s self; by sin we mean conduct that harms another. They spring from different roots and call for different treatment. Sin grows largely out of the relations into which men enter, and hence social development, by constantly opening new doors to wrong-doing, calls into being new species of sin. Rude law recognizes three kinds of stealing, developed law 10 kinds, the law of today 17 kinds. By the time it is abreast of our present needs, it will discriminate perhaps 30 kinds. The same is true of other types of wrong-doing. Vice, on the other hand, being personal, is less affected by social change. New forms, like the cocaine habit or bridge gambling, are invented, not developed by social growth.
… But efforts should be centered on the young, training and fortifying them to resist the lure of the perilous paths. It is for them we banish or regulate the vice shops, bar obscene literature and watch the stage. Not so with adults. The effort we expend on persons who go astray with their eyes open is mostly wasted. Usually they cannot be saved, nor are they worth saving. Certainly let vice be made odious. But when the public exerts itself to stamp out drinking and the social evil, it slackens its war on sin, and, moreover, it simply forestalls natural process. …
Sin, on the contrary, is not self-limiting. If a ring is to be put in the snout of the greedy strong, only organized society can do it. In every new helpful relation the germ of sin lurks, and will create there a pus centre if social antisepsis be lacking. Then how tragic a figure is the victim of sin! To perish of diseased meat to make a packer’s dividend is sadder than to perish through one’s own thirst for whiskey. The invalid bled by the medical fakirs is more to be pitied than the “sucker” fleeced in the pool-room. For the man who is the prey of the evil inclinations of others surely has a better claim on us than the man who is the prey of his own evil inclinations. …
Our moral pace-setters strike at bad personal habits, but act as if there was something sacred about money-making; and, seeing that the master iniquities of our time are connected with money-making, they do not get into the big fight at all. The child-drivers, monopoly-builders and crooked financiers have no fear of men whose thought is run in the moulds of their grandfathers. Go to the tainted-money colleges, and you will learn that Drink, not Graft, is the nation’s bane. Visit the religious societies for young men, and you will find personal correctness exalted above the social welfare. …
Let him who doubts where the battle rages mark how fares the assailant of sin. … They are able to gag critics, hobble investigators, hood the press and muzzle the law. Drunk with power, in office and club, in church and school, in legislature and court, they boldly make their stand, ruining the innocent, shredding the reputations of the righteous, destroying the careers and opportunities of their assailants, dragging down pastor and scholar, publicist and business man, from livelihood and influence, unhorsing alike faithful public servant, civic champion and knight-errant of conscience, and all the while gathering into loathsome captivity the souls of multitudes of young men. Here is a fight where blows are rained, and armor dinted, and wounds suffered, and laurels won. If a sworn champion of the right will prove he is a man and not a dummy, let him go up against these!
[To be concluded in the next issue of Multinational Monitor.]
Send Letter to the Editor