May Wood Simmons 1900

Some Ethical Problems

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol 1, No. 16, December, 1900;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for in 2000.

SUCH has recently been said about “approaching socialism from the ethical side,” and as to whether the changed conditions and relations that would arise from the application of socialist principles would or would not be “moral.” A growing class of pseudo-scientific literature refers frequently to the “ethics of industry,” and characterizes the relations between individual employers and their workmen as being “unethical.” It is offered as a “moral” indictment against present society that it is “wrong” that the working class is not better housed and that it does not receive a larger proportion of the things it produces.

Unfortunately these ethical terms in the general conversation and writings of to-day have been so misused that they have been deprived of almost all definite meaning. When the terms of any science have been thus perverted the serious investigator finds himself confronted with a very dangerous confusion at the outset of his work. Numerous questions confront him. What constitutes a moral system? What is the standard by which an act or relation is judged as moral or immoral? In this article there is not the space to review even briefly the various standards of right and wrong that have been expounded in different systems or the “ends” that have been viewed as constituting the “ultimate good.” For a future time likewise must he reserved the proof of what will in this paper be accepted as the “final object” of ethics.

In each and every stage of society the test of the fitness of any system of ethics lies in the proof that it does or does not conform to those conditions which make for the progress of the race. By progress is here meant an increasing control by man over the forces of nature; a greater ability to make them serve his comfort and perform his tasks; in short a growing mastery over his environment. This greater control is equivalent to a higher development of the human race. Up to this test every system of morality has been obliged to come or disappear. I am not here considering the various ideal systems that have arisen in the minds of philosophers, and have been formulated as utopias toward which their authors vainly hoped to elevate society. Neither do I refer to those ideological creations of the human mind that have sought to analyze, classify and arrange the motives, ends and impulses of human activity, and which have come to he known in philosophy under the various names of intuitional, utilitarian, eudomistic, evolutionary, etc. Reference is here had to those codes of ethics actually existing in different stages of social development.

All such systems of morals as pointed out by Spencer, Loria and others are changing both in time and place. There has never yet been a permanent or a universal code of ethics. Like every other social institution they have been a product of the changes in material surroundings, geographical locations and different methods of gaining a livelihood that have marked different ages and peoples. That any system of ethics prevailed at a certain period argued that it was produced by an underlying economic development which at that time was making for human advance. In the earlier stages of barbarism, community of goods was in general accordance with social progress and ordinarily prevailed. Gradually the institution of private property displaced this, and with it came a code of ethics that was suitable in every way to further and support the rights of individual owners of property. The societies first making this change were better able to compete, that is, more fitted to survive, in the new economic environment than those retaining the communal organization belonging to an earlier environment.

Further, as has been frequently pointed out, the practice of killing those captured in battle was regarded as right at a time when tribes which conquered, if they were to retain their conquests, had no other way of disposing of their enemies. But as soon as these nomads settled to agricultural pursuits they found it profitable to utilize their prisoners for cultivating the land, and an ethical system arose under which slavery was “right.” In states where the slave passed directly into a wage-earner, the institution of slavery was viewed as “wrong” by public opinion only when modern industry found it more profitable to hire men and women by the day and leave them to shift for themselves at those times when a profit could not be made off their labor, than to house and clothe the slave through the year. Again, as shown by Wundt, the Reformation, which was an outgrowth of the great economic transformation of the time, found the ethics of the Christianity of the day unable to meet the needs of the new conditions, and a fundamental change took place.

Since then every ethical belief is in a state of change, according as the conditions that produce it change, the question arises as to the meaning of the phrase “approaching socialism from the ethical side.”

Since are able to answer this only by means of an examination of the system of ethics prevailing at the present time. The present code of morality has been directly formed by the great rise of modern industry acting upon earlier ethical practices and transforming them to meet the new requirements arising from the rights of private property.

One of the best illustrations of this position is seen in the study of early German history. The German barons, fortified in their castles, descended upon companies of travelers or weaker neighbors and committed all sorts of violence and robbery, until they are known in history by their most characteristic trait, as the “robber barons.” But an industrial change took place in society. The modern system of trade and industry appeared and the just arising capitalism saw its existence threatened by these barons who fell upon the trains of merchandise. As this trading class grew rapidly stronger and more wealthy “public opinion,” which hitherto in no way condemned these robberies, began to be formed by this new class in its own favor, and the robber barons found themselves compelled to give up their practice because of the economic change which had given rise to new moral beliefs.

Now there will be few to deny that the industrial system of capitalism has meant the advance of society as a whole. Applying any standard of judgment which has ever been applied to social organisms, it cannot be disputed that the whole system of capitalism, based on private property, competition, wage-slavery and the exploitation of the producer, belongs to a higher stage than the system of feudalism which it supplanted. Had the domestic system continued to prevail or had each laborer received the full return of his work from the beginning of capitalist production the present form of compulsory cooperation in production and consequent division of labor probably would not have taken place. Neither have we reason to believe that the perfection of machinery and the growth of great industry would have advanced so rapidly. No one can say what the condition of society would have been had it taken other lines of development. We are not here concerned with conjectures as to how advance might have taken place, either more perfectly or with less suffering to the race. We can only deal with the fact that society has progressed through capitalism to a position far ahead of the seventeenth or eighteenth century; that Thorold Rogers notwithstanding, the laboring population have to-day a greater amount of the things that constitute life. More fundamental still the actual control exercised over material environment is infinitely greater than under any other stage of society ever existing.

Capitalism had a direct function to perform for the advance of society. To-day the question arises, is not this function performed? Will it not prove an injury to social progress if capitalism is longer continued? The socialist answers, Yes. The interests of the class that profit by capitalism are no longer in accord with social progress, and if further advance is to be made this functionless class must be dispensed with.

To return to the ethical beliefs that have had their origin in capitalism and that in turn were necessary during this period if capitalism was to continue. If capitalism meant advance socially, then the beliefs that, arising from it, reacted upon it and helped to maintain it, were a fit code of morals for the time. As pointed out by Leslie Stephens in his Science of Ethics, normally the most efficient society survives, and we may judge from the fact of its survival that it developed the conditions on which its efficiency depended.

In the light of these positions what is then meant by “approaching socialism from the ethical standpoint?” Which ethical standpoint is meant, – that of feudalism, capitalism or socialism? Is it simply meant that the ethics of socialism will be different from and hence not in accord with those of capitalism? If so, this is rather too axiomatic a truth to be worthy of much elaboration. Or is it meant that the ethics of capitalism are violated by that system, as for example; when the principle of private property is violated by competition and exploitation? If so, this again is simply to say, in a very round-about way, the long recognized fact that capitalism is full of contradictions, – that it is “its own grave-digger.”

Again it is often said that the present economic system is not “right” or that it is “immoral,” or that some other system would be “better” or more “moral.” By this it is usually meant that since men are poorly housed, clothed and fed, therefore a system that would remove these things would be “right.” This is not the real justification of socialism, or the reason that it may be spoken of as “right.” Back of this lies the fact that socialism will mean the progress of society. If it could be shown that this suffering were necessary, as has been sometimes claimed, to eliminate the unfit and secure social progress, then this would be a proof, according to the position accepted in this article, that socialism is “immoral.” This point has been argued out by so many, including Enrico Ferri, that it will not be discussed here and it will be taken for granted that this suffering is not essential to social advance.

That socialism will work for social progress is the test by which it must be judged on the economic side. This is the only test of its “rightness” or “wrongness” on the “moral” side. On this ground we can meet out capitalist opponent.

Capitalism to-day must answer to the charge of clogging the wheels of progress. The class which benefits from its continuance must prove that it is any longer of social service or produces what it receives. The socialist is able to show that it does not do this and that it is this fact that is sapping the social organization, notwithstanding Prof. J. B. Clark’s recent elaborate attempt in his “Distribution of Wealth” to show that each factor in production at the present time receives but its own.

As a corrollary to the above positions the “ethical socialist” frequently speaks of the individual employer as a “robber.” But each employer is but a part of the system. No single employer can lessen exploitation and continue to exist. It is the system as a whole that must be judged. The social student who hesitates long over the “morality” of the actions of individual employers is frequently thereby hindered from appreciating the full “wrongness” of the capitalist system. “He cannot see the woods for the trees.”


Before touching upon the more purely theoretical part of ethics it would seem well to consider somewhat fully the different elements going to make up any given system of ethics. It is a commonplace to the socialist reader to be told that morality in common with all other social institutions and systems of thought has its foundations in the economic conditions and relations of men in society.

In the early tribal times we find accounts of the killing of the aged and the exposure of female infants. The existence of the tribe depended on maintaining a large number of able warriors, and since the aged and females could not assist in this principal occupation, but only pressed upon the scanty means of subsistence, they were disposed of. When war was no longer the chief means of existence and food became more certain and plentiful this practice died out and became “wrong.” But no given system of morality springs directly from the immediate economic stage in the midst of which it has its being. Each economic system gives rise to certain ethical beliefs and customs which are not completely destroyed by succeeding economic changes unless these latter are wholly antagonistic to their predecessors. These customs and beliefs survive after the conditions from which they arose have passed, and themselves influence new moral acts. Hence each new system is not a thing apart from all previous ones. So that certain ethical practices belonging to a primitive time may still survive and constitute a part of the morality of to-day. In treating of courage, for instance, Leslie Stephens points out that the estimate of that virtue once fixed has survived after the early conditions that produced it have long disappeared.

Present ethics are really composed of those practices arising from present environment and the survivals coming down from earlier economic environments. The rise of these two terms, roughly corresponding to the biological terms heredity and environment, does not assume a dualistic philosophy. It is simply a recognition of the existence of the time element in environment. No system of economic conditions and relations has ever had a clear field upon which to operate. No social stage has ever been tabula rasa upon which to write a new system of ethics. Customs and practices, originating in earlier times, become a part of the environment of to-day; persistence of type being only past environment making itself felt in the present.

For clearness sake, it is well here to define what is meant by environment. Not only does this include all existing means of economic production and distribution, but also all legal, political, educational and cultural institutions handed down front previous economic organizations. Since civilization began a most important factor, founded on material differences, has arisen in environment, – divergent social classes.

By survivals is not here meant anything in the sense in which Herbert Spencer speaks of certain tendencies to act in certain directions becoming hereditary, but rather the persistence of ethical beliefs after the economic cause from which they first arose has been removed.

Such for example is the idea of patriotism, the outgrowth of a past age. Starting in the tribal impulse arising from the need of united defense against surrounding foes, it took various forms in the Greek cities and in the Roman Empire; sank almost out of sight during the Middle Ages, to be revived with well nigh wholly new ends and objects during the time of the building up of powerful nations. The state, as the representative of the interests of the newly arising capitalist class, was the point around which all else centered. The constant struggle between capitalist nations demanded large armies and these could be best secured by preaching the virtues of “patriotism.” Although the conditions that made patriotism an essential to social progress have long gone, it lingers on, is taught in our schools and praised in our pulpits, for the benefit, as ever, of a ruling class, to whom alone it is advantageous.

No example can be given that will show more clearly the existence of these “survivals” than that of prostitution and illegitimacy. The younger and more beautiful women among the early slaves were forced to become the physical creatures of their masters, who recognized no sacredness of person among their chattels. The lord of the middle ages demanded of his vassals, as his right, the person of their daughters or wives. It has always been the women of a class economically lower that have thus been compelled to submit to this degradation. Today even a superficial study of prostitution shows the same condition. It is the women of the laboring class who are forced, not because they are less “moral” than the women of other classes, but because of economic pressure, to sell their bodies to the men of the ruling class.

An examination of illegitimacy shows that with few exceptions the mother of such a child is of a poorer economic class than the father. Many men and women who would shrink in horror if one should suggest that their daughter take the place, see nothing wrong in legalizing a house to be filled with daughters of laborers. While here and there capitalist reformers have talked upon the need for an identical standard of morality for the two sexes, no bourgeois “moralist” has yet been bold enough to suggest an equal standard of sexual “morality” for all economic classes.

“Private property” offers a choice illustration of the point under discussion. At one period there was a justification for the individual ownership of property. When each workman took the raw material and made his tools, and then with these tools manufactured cloth or shoes or tilled the ground, each thing that he produced was to a great extent the product of his individual work. To-day this method no longer exists. All things are produced collectively, and still there survives the idea of the “sacredness of private property.” It is to-day the corner stone upon which rests the whole superstructure of capitalist society and class rule. Private property for the laborer is but a farce, since the class that preaches most of the virtues of private property is the one that takes from the producing class all that it produces except a scanty subsistence. This fact that “survivals” make up a part of present environment and so help to determine ethical beliefs has been overlooked by those who have thought of environment only in the sense of the immediate present, while on the other hand the great majority of moral teachers have entirely ignored the whole economic basis of morality.

To turn next to the present environment, as thus constituted, we find that one of the principal elements that has entered into it since the beginning of the so-called age of civilization is the economic class distinctions that have arisen from the ownership of private property. As pointed out by Marx and Engels the whole history of civilization has been the history of the rise and fall of classes. The interests of each dominating class while it existed made for social progress. Each class fulfilled its function, became useless and disappeared from power. Further, a most significant fact, different ideals of right and wrong have at all times prevailed for the ruling and subservient classes.

We can trace this in the idea of freedom. Plato early recognized freedom as a right, but to him it meant only the freedom of the ruling class. The slave was necessary in his theory in order that the intellectual class might have leisure. This same term freedom came down to the Middle Ages, but again it applied only to the lords and nobles; for the serf and villain there was nothing of freedom. So to-day we speak much of free men, and many in the United States pride themselves that they are such. For only an infinitely small part of the race, though, does such a thing exist to-day. Freedom to-day means freedom of opportunity, but to how many of the laboring class or their children is there a remnant of such? Unable to attend the schools, develop their physical manhood or artistic sense, forced to toil merely for subsistence they are as closely bound by the system in which they live as was the serf or slave.

This double system of ethics is most plainly seen in the history of the rise and fall of classes. One of the main things which has been instrumental in insuring the enslavement of the subservient class, be they slaves, serfs or wage-earners, has been the action of a code of morals formulated in the interest of the ruling class. Under chattel slavery this moral code was enforced largely through fear. This fear took two forms – fear of a “ruling power” on the one hand and of the master on the other. Later, when the slave changed to the serf, Christianity did valiant service in enforcing a moral code enslaving the worker by preaching its doctrines of humility, affected contempt for worldly goods and lavish promises of rewards after death.

The serf, freed from the land and armed with the new inventions, demanded a still stronger restraint to retain him in wage slavery. The laborer, politically free, was still bound economically. This restraint took on a psychological form, – the laborer’s body was ruled through his mind. The ruling class, controlling press, lecture-room, school and pulpit, was able to form public opinion and infuse into the laboring class those ideas which would insure their continued submissiveness. The mind can but arrange, classify and act upon those things that the senses bring to it. He who controls the sensory channels determines what thoughts the brain shall think. If the capitalist class is able to decide what shall be printed in the press, what shall be taught in the schools and what shall he spoken from the platforms, it is able to a very large degree to decide what the great mass of the people, and especially the laborers whose minds are more confined than those of the wealthy classes, shall think. That they have used these channels to inculcate lessons teaching principles of interest to the capitalist class no observer can deny. Everywhere they have preached the lesson of frugality the “virtue” of economy, the “sacredness of private property,” and the existence of “equal opportunity to rise” with consequent deification of the “self-made man.”


We come now finally to the much-disputed question of the part played by ethical motives in deciding upon certain courses of action. Ethics is not the outgrowth of some particular “moral sense” implanted in men by a Divine power, as a certain school of ethical thought would lead us to believe. We have not in ethics to deal with some indefinite “free” quantity that cannot be reckoned upon. Ethics can become nothing of a science while we admit that the will or impulses of man are not amenable to some laws.

In the field of biology it has been shown that from the lowest organisms to the highest, if any stimulant is applied that affects its nervous system painfully the organism seeks to withdraw front the irritating substance. Those forms of life that responded most quickly survived, and those that did not respond so quickly were soonest destroyed.

This tendency to avoid pain became fixed in the organism and in time we may say it grew to be an hereditary tendency, as only those who avoided pain were left to carry on the species. As pointed out by Rolph in his “Biological Problems,” any such tendency is merely a certain inherited pre-disposition acquired during thousands of years, which makes it easier to act in certain directions.

Moved to action by this motive arising from painful or pleasurable feelings, that is by self-interest, man’s intellect acts but the part of a discriminating guide. Hence those tribes of men following most closely the principle of self-interest have been the ones best able to cope with and overcome other tribes and accommodate themselves to their environment.

In every case the self-interest of the individual has been merged in that of the tribe, clan, or later the class to which he belonged. Those individuals who recognized that their interests were inseparably bound up with those of their class performed acts that, while serving their own interests, at the same time were in line with the progress of their class. This is the basis of the socialist term “class consciousness.” The socialist sees that he can further his own interest only by working for that of his class.

It is here that we meet the fact that society with its present organization of classes has made possible the following of self-interest by but one class. In a recent article in the Journal of Sociology by W. W. Willoughby on “The Ethics of the Competitive Process” the author endeavors to show that the interest of the individual need not necessarily be antagonistic to that of society. He criticises the statement of Kidd that in every conceivable state the individual and society must be in antagonism. He points out that with certain adjustments the individual will be able to do the best for himself while furthering social progress. But he does not see that this is unthinkable of all the individuals of society while it remains under class divisions. There has been no antagonism between the self-interest of the ruling class and society so long as that class was the one which carried on social development. The antagonism has been between the social organization and the self-interest of the subservient class. While a social organization depends on the existence of two classes, one following its self-interest, the other a code of morals serving to maintain it in subservience, there can be no reconciliation of the interests of all the individuals composing society with the interests of the social whole. This is conceivable only in a society of individuals to whom equal economic opportunity is assured.

Again it is here that our conception of self-interest must differ at two essential points from that of Hobbes and other early English writers. Beginning with Locke and extending through Bentham and James Mill, we find the idea of self-interest predominating. But these assumed the infallibility of the individual, when the individual’s interests were concerned, and likewise took for granted that every one had an equal opportunity to exercise his self-interest. In no way did they perceive the existence of social classes and the consequent inability of the laboring class to follow its own interests. Their idea of self-interest was individualistic and was based on the principle of free competition.

On the psychological side modern psychical research also leads us to differ with these writers. Their “ego” was confined to the narrow bounds of the person of the individual. Prof. James has given us a definition of the “me” that materially changes the face of the question. According to James, “A man’s ’me’ is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife, children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works.”

With the brute and the lower savages the “self” includes, with some exceptions, the offspring. The gorilla and the human mother seek to protect their young. A dualistic philosophy would speak of this as an example of altruism, or as a separate ’race instinct.” But we see in this no separate motive or instinct. Starting from the basis that the “ego” includes more than the individual, this is also seen to be self-interest. With the wider development of civilization the individual widens and is more intricately bound up with social relations.

Many ethical writers have indicated a belief that society will develop into a condition where a “higher” form of ethics will be possible. Patten speaks of passing from a “pain to a pleasure economy.” Loria writes of a “final ethics.” J. S. Mill recognized that utilitarianism was unworkable in present society, but laid all his emphasis upon the possibility of intellectual advance, none upon economic changes. Spencer and Ward describe “absolute ethics” in distinction from present “relative ethics,” and speak of present ethics as being “pathological.” As society develops into higher forms its ethics will in that sense become “higher. But I would hesitate to speak of them as at any time “final” or “absolute,” or to describe them at any period as “pathological.”

Without passing wholly into the field of conjecture we can, from the principles on which socialism rests, draw conclusions as to some of its probable effects upon “ethical beliefs.” The socialist philosophy emphasizes the certainty of the abolition of class distinctions founded on material differences and presupposes a society of economic equals. In every stage of society since the establishment of the institution of private property there have existed two codes of ethics. The ruling class has followed as a motive its self-interest, restrained only by the fear of rebellion on the part of the class of slaves, serfs or wage-earners. The subservient class, on the other hand, has been lulled into acquiescence in its enslavement through the persistent inculcation of the “virtues” of self-sacrifice, humility, reverence, docility, frugality and patriotism. The abolition under socialism of these warring class interests would necessarily carry with it the abolition of these contradictory codes of ethics.

In a socialist society, where all are equally able to exercise their self-interest, it will be asked what safeguard is there that each individual will not follow this to the detriment of himself and society? In the first place there will be the power on the part of those injured to retaliate, a power of which the laboring class in our present society is deprived. Further, the individual who follows this motive in ways detrimental to himself or society will be the first to be extinguished in the race. Selection, here as elsewhere, will weed out the harmful and “morally weak,” for the “morally weak” will be composed of those who thus retard social progress.

The ancient problem of philosophers, the reconciliation of the individual and the race, ever discussed and never answered, because of their blindness to the fact of class antagonisms, will at last be solved by the abolition of these antagonisms in the co-operative commonwealth.


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