Sin and Society

Chapter 1: New Varieties of Sin

Edward Alsworth Ross

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THE sinful heart is ever the same, but sin changes its quality as society develops. Modern sin takes its character from the mutualism of our time. Under our present manner of living, how many of my vital interests I must intrust to others! Nowadays the water main is my well, the trolley car my carriage, the banker's safe my old stocking, the policeman's billy my fist. My own eyes and nose and judgment defer to the inspector of food, or drugs, or gas, or factories, or tenements, or insurance companies. I rely upon others to look after my drains, invest my savings, nurse my sick, and teach my children. I let the meat trust butcher my pig, the oil trust mould my candles, the sugar trust boil my sorghum, the coal trust chop my wood, the barb wire company split my rails.

But this spread-out manner of life lays

(4) snares for the weak and opens doors to the wicked. Interdependence puts us, as it were, at one another's mercy, and so ushers in a multitude of new forms of wrongdoing. The practice of mutualism has always worked this way. Most sin is preying, and every new social relation begets its cannibalism. No one will "make the ephah small " or "falsify the balances " until there is buying and selling, "withhold the pledge " until there is loaning, "keep back the hire of the laborers" until there is a wage system, "justify the wicked for a reward" until men submit their disputes to a judge. The rise of the state makes possible counterfeiting, smuggling, peculation, and treason. Commerce tempts the pirate, the forger, and the embezzler. Every new fiduciary relation is a fresh opportunity for breach of trust. To-day the factory system makes it possible to work children to death on the double-quick, speculative building gives the ferry-builder his chance, long-

5) -range investment spawns the get-rich-quick concern, and the trust movement opens the door to the bubble promoter.

The springs of the older sin seem to be drying up. Our forced-draught pace relieves us of the superabundance of energy that demands an explosive outlet. Spasms of violent feeling go with a sluggish habit of life, and are as out of place to-day as are the hard-drinking habits of our Saxon ancestors. We are too busy to give rein to spite. The stresses and lures of civilized life leave slender margin for the gratification of animosities. In quiet, side-tracked communities there is still much old-fashioned hatred, leading to personal clash, but elsewhere the cherishing of malice is felt to be an expensive luxury. Moreover, brutality, lust, and cruelty are on the wane. In this country, it is true, statistics show a widening torrent of bloody crime, but the cause is the weakening of law rather r than an excess of bile. Other civilized peo-

(6) -ples seem to be turning away from the sins of passion.

The darling sins that are blackening the face of our time are incidental to the ruthless pursuit of private ends, and hence quite go; without prejudice." The victims are used or sacrificed not at all from personal ill-will, but because they can serve as pawns in somebody's little game. Like the wayfarers run down by the automobilist, they are .offered up to the God of Speed. The essence of the wrongs that infest our articulated society is betrayal rather than aggression. Having perforce to build men of willow into a social fabric that calls for oak, we see on all hands monstrous treacheries, - adulterators, peculators, boodlers, grafters, violating the trust others have placed in them. The little finger of Chicane has come to be thicker than the loins of Violence.

The sinister opportunities presented in this webbed social life have been seized

(7) unhesitatingly, because such treasons have not yet become infamous. The man who picks pockets with a railway rebate, murders with an adulterant instead of a bludgeon, burglarizes with a "rake-off" instead of a jimmy, cheats with a company prospectus instead of a deck of cards, or scuttles his town instead of his ship, does not feel on his brow the brand of a malefactor. The shedder of blood, the oppressor of the widow and the fatherless, long ago became odious, but latter-day treacheries fly no skull-and-crossbones flag at the masthead. The qualities which differentiate them from primitive sin and procure them such indulgence may be clearly defined.


To-day the sacrifice of life incidental to quick success rarely calls for the actual spilling of blood. How decent are the pale slayings of the quack, the adulterator, and

(8) the purveyor of polluted water, compared with the red slayings of the vulgar bandit or assassin! Even if there is blood-letting, the long-range, tentacular nature of modern homicide eliminates all personal collision. What an abyss between the knifeplay of brawlers and the law-defying neglect to fence dangerous machinery in a mill, or to furnish cars with safety couplers

The providing of unsuspecting passengers with -cork "life-preservers secretly loaded with bars of iron to make up for their deficiency in weight of cork, is spiritually akin to the treachery of Joab, who, taking Amasa by the beard "to kiss him," smote Amasa "in the fifth rib; " but it wears a very different aspect. The current methods of annexing the property of others are characterized by a pleasing indirectness and refinement. The furtive, apprehensive manner of the till-tapper or the porch-climber would jar disagreeably upon the tax-dodger "swearing off" his property,

(9) or the city official concealing a "rake-off" in his specifications for a public building. The work of the card-sharp and the thimblerigger shocks a type of man that will not stick at the massive "artistic swindling " of the contemporary promoter. A taint of unworthiness, indeed, always attaches to transactions that force the person into humiliating postures. Your petty parasite or your minor delinquent inspires the contempt that used to be felt for the retailer. The confidence man is to the promoter what the small shopkeeper was to the merchant prince.


The stealings and slayings that lurk in the complexities of our social relations are not deeds of the dive, the dark alley, the lonely road, and the midnight hour. They require no nocturnal prowling with muffled step and bated breath, no weapon or offer

(10) of violence. Unlike the old-time villain, the latter-day malefactor does not wear a slouch hat and a comforter, breathe forth curses and an odor of gin, go about his nefarious work with clenched teeth and an evil scowl. In the supreme moment his lineaments are not distorted with rage, or lust, or malevolence. One misses the dramatic setting, the time-honored insignia of turpitude. Fagin and Bill Sykes and Simon Legree are vanishing types. Gamester, murderer, body-snatcher, and kidnapper may appeal to a Hogarth, but what challenge finds his pencil in the countenance of the boodler, the savings-bank wrecker, or the ballot-box stuffer ? Among our criminals of greed, one begins to meet the "grand style " of the great criminals of ambition, Macbeth or Richard III. The modern high-power dealer of woe wears immaculate linen, carries a silk hat and a lighted cigar, sins with a calm countenance and a serene soul, leagues or months from the evil

11) he causes. Upon his gentlemanly presence the eventual blood and tears do not obtrude themselves.

This is why good, kindly men let the wheels of commerce and of industry redden and redden, rather than pare or lose their dividend. This is why our railroads yearly injure one employee in twenty-six, and we look in vain for that promised "day of the Lord " that "will make a man more precious than fine gold."


The covenant breaker, the suborned witness, the corrupt judge, the oppressor of the fatherless, - the old-fashioned sinner, in short, - knows his victim, must hearken, perhaps, to bitter upbraidings. But the tropical belt of sin we are sweeping into is largely impersonal. Our iniquity is wireless, and we know not whose withers are wrung by it. The hurt passes into that vague mass, the "public," and is there lost

(12) to view. Hence it does not take a Borgia to knead "chalk and alum and plaster" into the loaf, seeing one cannot know just who will eat that loaf, or what gripe it will give him. The purveyor of spurious life-preservers need not be a Cain. The owner of rotten tenement houses, whose pull " enables him to ignore the orders of the health department, foredooms babies, it is true, but for all that he is no Herod.

Often there are no victims. If the crazy hulk sent out for "just one more trip " meets with fair weather, all is well. If no fire breaks out in the theatre, the sham "emergency exits" are blameless. The corrupt inspector who O. K.'s low-grade kerosene is chancing it, that is all. Many sins, in fact, simply augment risk. Evil does not dog their footsteps with relentless and heart-shaking certainty. When the catastrophe does come, the sinner salves his conscience by blasphemously calling it an "accident " or an "act of God."


Still more impersonal is sin when the immediate harm touches beneficent institutions rather than individuals, when, following his vein of private profit, the sinner drives a gallery under some pillar upholding our civilization. The blackguarding editor is really undermining the freedom of the press. The policy kings and saloon keepers, who get out to the polls the last vote of the vicious and criminal classes, are sapping manhood suffrage. Striking engineers who spitefully desert passenger trains in mid-career are jeopardizing the right of a man to work only when he pleases. The real victim of a lynching mob is not the malefactor, but the lawabiding spirit. School-board grafters who blackmail applicants for a teacher's position are stabbing the free public school. The corrupt bosses and " combines " are murdering representative government. The perpetrators of election frauds unwittingly assail the-institution of the ballot.

(14) Rarely, however, are such transgressions abominated as are offenses against persons.

Because of the special qualities of the Newer Unrighteousness, because these devastating latter-day wrongs, being comely of look, do not advertise their vileness, and are without the ulcerous hag-visage of the primitive sins, it is possible for iniquity to flourish greatly, even while men are getting better. Briber and boodler and grafter are often "good men," judged by the old tests, and would have passed for virtuous in the American community of seventy years ago. Among the chiefest sinners are now enrolled men who are pure and kindhearted, loving in their families, faithful to their friends, and generous to the needy.

One might suppose that an exasperated public would sternly castigate these modern sins. But the fact is, the very qualities that lull the conscience of the sinner blind the eyes of the onlookers. People are sentimental, and bastinado wrong-doing

(15) not according to its harmfulness, but according to the infamy that has come to attach to it. Undiscerning, they chastise with scorpions the old authentic sins, but spare the new. They do not see that boodling is treason, that blackmail is piracy, that embezzlement is theft, that speculation is gambling, that tax-dodging is larceny, that railroad discrimination is treachery, that the factory labor of children is slavery, that deleterious adulteration is murder. It has not come home to them that the fraudulent promoter "devours widows' houses," that the monopolist 6-grinds the faces of the poor," that mercenary editors and spellbinders - put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." The cloven hoof hides in patent leather; and to-day, as in Hosea's time, the people " are destroyed for lack of knowledge." The mob lynches the red-handed slayer, when it ought to keep a gallows Haman-high for the venal mine inspector, the seller of in-

16) -fected milk, the maintainer of a fire-trap theatre. The child-beater is forever blasted in reputation, but the exploiter of infant toil, or the concocter of a soothing syrup for the drugging of babies, stands a pillar of society. The petty shoplifter is more abhorred than the stealer of a franchise, and the wife-whipper is outcast long before the man who sends his over-insured ship to founder with its crew.

There is a special cause for the condoning of sins committed in the way of business and without personal malice. Business men, as a rule, insist upon a free hand in their dealings, and, since they are conspicuous and influential in the community, they carry with them a considerable part of the non-business world. The leisured, the non-industrial employees, the bulk of professional men, and many public servants, hold to the unmitigated maxim of caveat emptor, and accept the chicane of trade as reasonable and legitimate. In England till

(17) 1487 any one who knew how to read might commit murder with impunity by claiming " benefit of clergy." There is something like this in the way we have granted quack and fakir and mine operator and railroad company indulgence to commit manslaughter in the name of business.

On the other hand, the active producers, such as farmers and workingmen, think in terms of livelihood rather than of profit, and tend therefore to consider the social bearings of conduct. Intent on well-being rather than on pecuniary success, they are shocked at the lenient judgment of the commercial world. Although they have hitherto deferred to the traders, the producers are losing faith in business men's standards, and may yet pluck up the courage to validate their own ethics against the individualistic, anti-social ethics of commerce.

Still, even if the mass turns vehement,

(18) it is not certain the lash of its censure can reach the cuticle of the sinner. A differentiated society abounds in closed doors and curtained recesses. The murmurs of the alley do not penetrate to the boulevard. The shrieks from the blazing excursion steamer do not invade the distant yacht of her owners. If the curses of tricked depositors never rise to the circles of " high finance" that keep the conscience of the savings-bank wrecker, why should the popular hiss stay the commercial buccaneer? All turns on the power of the greater public to astringe the flaccid conscience of business men until they become stern judges of one another. If we have really entered upon the era of jangling classes, it is, of course, idle to hope for a truly public sentiment upon such matters. Nevertheless, in the past, antiseptic currents of opinion have mounted from the healthy base to the yellowing top of the social tree, and they may do so again.


While idealists are dipping their brushes into the sunset for colors bright enough to paint the Utopias that might be if society were quite made over, one may be pardoned for dreaming of what would be possible, even on the plane of existing institutions, if only in this highly articulated society of ours every one were required to act in good faith, and to do what he had deliberately led others to expect of him.


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