Sin and Society

Chapter 2: The Grading of Sinners

Edward Alsworth Ross

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AMERICAN government, the London Times once said, is "cheap and nasty," meaning thereby that the public organs of our democracy are by no means so aloof and self-sufficing as they are abroad. This is especially true of the law-enforcing apparatus. In England the judiciary is far more exalted and independent than it is with us. It is better manned and paid, more stately, more secure, more disdainful of public clamor. Our law officers, on the other hand, are not socially and politically so distinct from the people. Their individuality is not so completely merged in their function as upholders of the majesty of the law. Keenly sensitive to the state of the public mind, they are losing rather than gaining in independence. We dream that we live under a government of laws; we are actually under a government of men and of newspapers.

(24) In a people uncleft by deep class distinctions every man can as censor take part in the defense of society against evildoers. Each of us emits a faint, compulsive beam, and since the agencies for focusing these into a fierce, withering ray of indignation become every day more perfect, public opinion as regulator of conduct steadily gains on priest and judge and sheriff: More and more the law-enforcing machinery slows down the moment it ceases to be urged by public sentiment. The accumulation of "dead " laws in the statute book proves how slight is its automatic action. Much of the control once embodied in the organs of the law is coming to be diffused throughout the community. Constituted authorities are settling and crumbling; they threaten to become as obsolete for defense as have the stone walls of the mediaeval city. In twenty-two years we have lynched over thirty-three hundred persons as against

25) about twenty-six hundred legally executed. Moral vengeance, the lynching of the personality rather than the person, is, however, the characteristic rôle of the public. Cell and noose are still needed for the low-browed, but public condemnation is dreadful to the newer types of delinquent. Courts must still try people, if we do not want them to be tried by newspapers; but there never was a time when formal acquittal rehabilitated a man less than it does to-day.

Public opinion has become so mighty a regulator of conduct, not because it has grown wiser, but because of the greater ease of ascertaining, focusing, and directing it. There is nothing to indicate a gain in intelligence at all answering to its enlargement of authority. Now, as ever, the judgments the average man passes upon the conduct of his fellow are casual, inconsistent, and thoughtless. The public sentiment drawn from such sources is not

(26) fit to safeguard the paramount interests of society. Like a stupid, flushed giant at bay, the public heeds the little overt offender more than the big covert offender. It resents a pinprick more than a blow at the heart. It parries a frontal stroke, but ignores a flank attack. The key to such folly is to be found in certain crude notions which lie at the base of its moral judgments and lead astray its instinct of self-preservation.


This criterion favors the new, spreading, and threatening types of wrong-doing as contrasted with the old, stationary types. Mark how its ratings fly in the face of common sense. The highwayman, with his alternative, "Your money or your life! " does less mischief than the entrenched monopolist who offers the

(27) public the option, "Your money or go without;" but he is, no doubt, a more desperate character. The government clerk who secretly markets advance crop information would hardly steal overcoats, whereas the hall thief is equal to the whole gamut of larceny. The life insurance presidents who let one another have the use of policy-holders' funds at a third of the market rate may still be trusted not to purloin spoons. The official who sells a gold-brick concern the opportunity to use the mails is an accomplice in wholesale robbery ; but for all that he has his scruples against pocket-picking.

No poisoner would shrink from the slow poisonings of the adulterator, whereas the latter would probably draw the line at administering a deadly drug to his unsuspecting customer. Despite the essential identity of their work, the ravisher is undoubtedly a more brutal type than the procurer, and the cut-throat is coarser than

(28) the bandit who ditches a train in order to rob it. The embezzler who guts a savings bank, the corrupt labor-leader who wields the strike as a blackmailer's club, is virtually the assassin of scores of infants and aged and invalid; yet he has sensibilities that make him far less dangerous in most situations than the housebreaker or the sandbagger. Equally limited are the men responsible for the needless extinction of lives by the car stove, at the grade crossing, before the fenderless trolley-car, on the over-insured hulk, or in the treacherous, unfireproofed apartment house. These partial villains, with their piebald consciences, lack the stigmata of the true criminal type. In their crania Lombroso would miss the marks of atavism. They are not the prey of wicked impulses, not Nature's criminals. Bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, they are in their wrong-doing merely the creatures of Crooked Thinking and Opportunity.


The grading of sinners according to badness of character goes on the assumption that the wickedest man is the most dangerous. This would be true if men were abreast in their opportunities to do harm. In that case the blackest villain would be the worst scourge of society. But the fact is that the patent ruffian is confined to the social basement, and enjoys few opportunities. He can assault or molest, to be sure; but he cannot betray. Nobody depends on him, so he cannot commit breach of trust,-that arch sin of our time. He does not hold in his hand the safety or welfare or money of the public. He is the clinker, not the live coal; vermin, not beast of prey. To-day the villain most in need of curbing is the respectable, exemplary, trusted personage who, strategically placed at the focus of a spider-web of fiduciary relations, is able from his office-chair to pick a thousand pockets, poison a thousand sick, pollute a

(30) thousand minds, or imperil a thousand lives. It is the great-scale, high-voltage sinner that needs the shackle. To strike harder at the petty pickpocket than at the prominent and unabashed person who in a large, impressive way sells out his constituents, his followers, his depositors, his stockholders, his policy-holders, his subscribers, or his customers, is to "strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."

No paradox is it, but demonstrable fact, that, in a highly articulate society, the gravest harms are inflicted, not by the worst men, but by those with virtues enough to boost them into some coign of vantage. The boss who sells out the town and delivers the poor over to filth, disease, and the powers that prey, owes his chance to his engaging good-fellowship and bigheartedness. Some of the most dazzling careers of fraud have behind them long and reassuring records of probity, which have served to bait the trap of villainy.


Not that these decoy-virtues are counterfeit. They are, in fact, so genuine that often the stalwart sinner perseveres in the virtue that has lifted him into the high place he abuses. The legislator conscientiously returns the boodle when he finds he cannot " deliver the goods." The boss stands by his friends to his own hurt. The lobbying lawyer is faithful to his client. The corrupting corporation-president is loyal to his stockholders. The boughten editor never quite overcomes his craft-instinct to print "all the news there is." In a word, the big and formidable sinners are gray of soul, but not black, so that chastisement according to their character rather than according to their deeds lets them off far too easily.



Primitive-minded people abhor the wrong-doer, not from a sense of danger, but out of sympathy with his victim. This is why our mobs lynch for murder, assault, rape, arson, wife-beating, kidnapping, and grave-robbing, but pass over such impersonal offenses as peculation, adulteration, rebating, ballot-fraud, bribery, and grafting. The public, while less ferocious than the mob, is nearly as sentimental. It needs a victim to harrow up its feelings. Villainy must be staged with blue lights and slow music. The injury that is problematic, or general, or that falls in undefined ways upon unknown persons, is resented feebly, or not at all. The fiend who should rack his victim with torments such as typhoid inflicts would be torn to pieces. The villain

(33) who should taint his enemy's cup with fever germs would stretch hemp. But -think of it! -the corrupt boss who, in order to extort fat contracts for his firm, holds up for a year the building of a filtration plant designed to deliver his city from the typhoid scourge, and thereby dooms twelve hundred of his townspeople to sink to the tomb through the flaming abyss of fever, comes off scatheless.

The popular symbol for the criminal is a ravening wolf, but alas, few latter-day crimes can be dramatized with a wolf and a lamb as the cast! Your up-to-date criminal presses the button of a social mechanism, and at the other end of the land or the year innocent lives are snuffed out. The immediate sacrifice of human beings to the devil is extinct. But fifteenth-century Marshal de Retz, with his bloody offerings to Satan, has his modern counterpart in the king whose insatiate greed, transmitted noiselessly through administrative belting

(34) and shafting, lops off the right hands of Congolese who fail to bring in their dues of rubber; in the avaricious nobleman who, rather than relinquish his lucrative timber concession on the Yalu, pulled the wires that strewed Manchuria with corpses. Yet, thanks to the space that divides sinner from sinned-against, planetary crimes such as these excite far less horror than do the atrocities of Jack the Ripper or black Sam Hose. The public, being leaden of imagination, is moved only by the concrete. It heeds the crass physical act, but overlooks the subtile iniquities that pulse along those viewless filaments of interrelation that bind us together. At the present moment nothing would add so much to the security of life in this country as stern dealing with the patent-medicine dispensers, the quack doctors, the adulterators, the jerry-builders, the rookery landlords, and the carrying corporations. These, however, escape, because the community squanders the vials of its

35) wrath on the old-style, open-air sinner, who has the nerve to look his victims in the face as he strikes.

The childishness of the unguided public appears very clearly from a certain modern instance. What is it that is doing the most to-day to excite wrath against the rich? Is it the clash of capital and labor, the insensate luxury flaunted by the Emerged Tenth, the uncovering of the muddy sources of certain great fortunes, the exposure of colossal frauds by high "captains of industry," the frequent identification of the " men who do things " with the men who " do " people, the revelation of the part played by "business interests " in the debauching of our local governments? No, it is none of these. It is the injuries pedestrians and other users of the highway have suffered from a few reckless drivers of the automobile !

A dense population lives in peace by aid of a protecting social order. Those who rack and rend this social order do worse than

(36) hurt particular individuals; they wound society itself. The men who steal elections, who make merchandise of the law, who make justice a mockery, who pervert good custom, who foil the plain public intent, who pollute the wells of knowledge, who dim ideals for hire, -these are, in sober truth, the chiefest sinners. They are cutting the guy ropes that keep the big tent from collapsing on our heads. They should be the first to feel the rod. To spare them because such sins furnish no writhing victim to stir our indignation is as if a ship's passengers should lynch pilferers, but release miscreants caught boring with augers in the vessel's bottom.

As society grows complex, it can be harmed in more ways. Once there were no wrongs against the whole community save treason and sacrilege, and against these, strong reaction habits early grew up in the public mind. Later, our frontier communities learned to react promptly with a rope

(37) on the man who furnished whiskey to the Indians, started a prairie fire, cut a levee, spread smallpox, or turned revenue informer. Now, however, there are scores of ways in which the common weal may take hurt, and every year finds society more vulnerable. Each advance to higher organization runs us into a fresh zone of danger, so there is more than ever need to be quick to detect and foil the new public enemies that present themselves.


The proper grading of sinners is skewed by taking into account their education, breeding, manners, piety, or philanthropy. The primitive tribal assembly takes an allround view of the culprit, and the sentence it pronounces passes upon his walk and conversation as well as upon his guilt. The court of justice, however, wisely throws out

(38) such considerations as irrelevant, and narrows down to the question, "What Punishment does this deed deserve? " In no other way can men be made to stand on a level before the law. Now, long ago we attained in theory the equality of all men before God, and the equality of all men before the law; but the equality of all men before the bar of public opinion is still to be achieved. No judge would dare show himself such a respecter of persons as is the public. How often clean linen and church-going are accepted as substitutes for right-doing! What a deodorizer is polite society ! Who smells the buzzard under his stolen peacock plumes! Any one can sense turpitude in the dingy "hobo," but a well-groomed Captain Kidd, of correct habits, with a family "reared in the lap of luxury " as a background, is well-nigh irresistible.

There are other ways in which sinners profit by the delusion that the cardinal thing in men is something else than good

(39) faith. The heads of religious, philanthropic, and educational work have influence, and hence the adept of the Higher Thimblerig seeks by gifts to the cause and by a feigned interest to gain their valuable favor and thus compound with society for his offense. Too often, in their zeal for the special social good committed to their charge, they rashly sacrifice the greater good, and ply the whitewash brush on public enemies. Nothing can check this creeping paralysis of the higher nerve-centres of society but the heartfelt conviction that no fillip to religion, philanthropy, or education can atone for tampering with the underpinning of social order. What, in sooth, are professors, preachers, charity-workers, and organizers of philanthropy but betrayers, if, wrapped up in their immediate aims, they condone the social transgressions of their patrons ? Fair play and trustful cooperation, bedded on truth and honesty, are the very foundations of

40) social existence, without which the higher life could not endure ; and no college, church, hospital, or social settlement can avail to counterpoise crime that weakens these foundations.

The conclusion of the whole matter is this:-

Our social organization has developed to a stage where the old righteousness is not enough. We need an annual supplement to the Decalogue. The growth of credit institutions, the spread of fiduciary relations, the enmeshing of industry in law, the interlacing of government and business, the multiplication of boards and inspectors, beneficent as they all are, they invite to sin. What gateways they open to greed! What fresh parasites they let in on us! How idle in our new situation to intone the old litanies! The reality of this close-knit life is not to be .teen and touched; it must be thought. The sins it opens the door to are to

(41) be discerned by knitting the brows rather than by opening the eyes. It takes imagination to see that bogus medical diploma, lying advertisement, and fake testimonial are death-dealing instruments. It takes imagination to see that savings-bank wrecker, loan shark, and investment swindler, in taking livelihoods take lives. It takes imagination to see that the business of debauching voters, fixing juries, seducing law-makers, and corrupting public servants is like sawing through the props of a crowded grand-stand. Whether we like it or not, we are in the organic phase, and the thickening perils that beset our path can be beheld only by the mind's eye.

The problem of security is therefore being silently transformed. Blind, instinctive reactions are no longer to be trusted. Social defense is coming to be a matter for the expert. The rearing of dikes against faithlessness and fraud calls for intelligent social engineering. If in this strait the pub-

42) -lic does not speedily become far shrewder in the grading and grilling of sinners, there is nothing for it but to turn over the defense of society to professionals.


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