Dr. Manchester is an educator, formerly of the Department of English, University of Wisconsin.
While reading recently in The Federalist, I was struck by a quality of its thought which bore no relation to my immediate interest, but which seemed significant, and whose significance has grown upon me with reflection. This quality I call moral realism. As to its nature and importance I should like the reader to form, first of all, a completely independent opinion, and shall therefore set down without comment a series of passages in which it appears. If the series seems long, I ask his indulgence. If I quote so much, it is only because I wish the Lextual basis for my subsequent remarks and speculations to be broadly and firmly established. Here, then, are the passages:
1. Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.
2. Has it not… invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interests, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, or justice?
3. There are few men who would not feel much less zeal in the discharge of a duty, when they were conscious that the advantages of the station with which it was connected must be relinquished at a determinate period, than when they were permitted to entertain a hope of obtaining, by meriting, a continuance of them. This position will not be disputed, so long as it is admitted that the desire of reward is one of the strongest incentives of human conduct, or that the best security for the fidelity of mankind is to make their interest coincide with their duty.
4. To presume a want of motives for such contests [frequent and violent contests between the states if they should be wholly or partially disunited], as an argument against their existence, would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.
5. Nothing was more to be desired [in the system of electing the President] than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican [that is, popular] government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the
6. If the impulse and the opportunity [on the part of a majority to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression] be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.
7. The legislature, with a discretionary power over the salary and emoluments of the chief magistrate [the President], could render him as obsequious to their will as they might think proper to make him…. There are men who could neither be distressed nor won into a sacrifice of their duty; but this stern virtue is the growth of few soils; and in the main it will be found that a power over a man’s support is a power over his will. If it were necessary to confirm so plain a truth by facts, examples would not be wanting, even in this country, of the intimidation or seduction of the executive by the terrors or allurements of the pecuniary arrangements of the legislative body.
8. If we should reject the union of the colonies] our commerce would be a prey to the wanton intermeddlings of all nations at war with each other; who, having nothing to fear from us, would, with little scruple or remorse, supply their wants by depredations on our property, as often as it fell in their way. The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by an adequate power. A nation despicable by its weakness forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.
9. As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican [that is, popular] government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government, and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.2
The Moral Nature of Man
All these excerpts are manifestly concerned, directly or indirectly, with the moral nature of man. What do they say? Reduced to essentials, simply this: that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious; that they are moved by passion and self-interest; that if you would have them do their duty you had better make it to their interest to do it; that, with rare exceptions, a power over a man’s support is a power over his will; that men are prone to cabal, intrigue, and corruption; that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as adequate control on the injustice and violence of individuals, and, still less, on the injustice and violence of groups; that, combined into nations, men will contrive against one another—and even, as suitable occasion offers, openly rob one another, "with little scruple or remorse"; and, finally, that along with the depravity in man’s nature there is also virtue.
I have named the quality illustrated moral realism—"moral" for an obvious reason, "realism" because it seems to me an essentially correct, authentic, factual representation of the aspect of reality concerned. This is what, once you penetrate to the bottom of their nature, men are really like.
A Realistic Appraisal
The picture painted is not a flattering one—yet these are no bishops of a fanatically strenuous church, the authors I have quoted, but simply hardheaded men of the world, tried in the fires of a perilous revolution, well acquainted with history, the greatest by far of moral laboratories, and intellectually qualified to profit by their learning and by their experience. Moreover, this was no light and ordinary undertaking in which they were engaged, but one which offered the strongest and most practical reasons for dealing only in cold fact. They were recommending a document which, if accepted, would be of the most critical importance to the welfare of the nation, and they were well aware that their premises and conclusions would be subjected to the severest scrutiny. A sound constitution for a country was necessarily a constitution that took into account the naked truth, however uncomplimentary, regarding its citizens ("citizens," they believed, were "the only proper objects of government"); and upon clear statements of this truth they built their case.
An idea expressed in the last of the quoted passages I want to recur to immediately, before it can fade from memory. Popular government, we are told, presupposes the existence of the better qualities of human nature in a higher degree than any other form. This observation, plainly of the highest political significance, finds definite support, and even a striking extension, in a remark made long after the appearance of The Federalist by the nineteenth-century English philosopher Herbert Spencer. “The Republican form of government," he said, "is the highest form of government; but because of this it requires the highest type of human nature—a type [I am adding the emphasis] nowhere at present existing."3
The Changing Attitudes
To this idea I shall return; but at the moment I want to inquire why it was that the moral realism of The Federalist, especially its vivid recognition of the evil in man, so much attracted my attention. Not of course because it is new: there is nothing new in it. "The heart is deceitful above all things," said Jeremiah, some twenty-five hundred years ago, "and desperately wicked." The reason is, I suggest, that I seem never to encounter matter of this kind in current political discussion. If my experience in this regard is representative, how is the fact it indicates to be accounted for? Have we to do here with a change in fashions—from eighteenth-century love for abstraction and generalization to twentieth-century addiction to factual detail? Conceivably, to some extent; but the explanation is inadequate. All political arrangements, whether constitutions or laws, are for the control or benefit of men—"the only proper objects of government"—and if the unsophisticated facts of human nature go unmentioned in a statesman’s speech, provide him and his auditors with no solid ground for his argument, I suspect that they are absent also from his inmost thought.
If they were indeed thus absent, the circumstance could hardly occasion much surprise in anyone acquainted with certain philosophical developments in the Occident of recent centuries.
Emphasis on Natural Science
Basic among these has been a major shift of investigative attention from human nature to physical nature. The science of man has largely given way to what is inaccurately called natural science—inaccurately because there is no justification for restricting the word nature and its family to such things as air and atoms. The importance of this development is difficult to overestimate. In the millennia preceding the European Renaissance, it was to human nature, almost exclusively, that the world had devoted its most strenuous thought, with a resulting vast accumulation of moral wisdom. The Occident originally shared in this treasure. But with the Renaissance, and subsequently, it has gradually become more and more absorbed in searching out the secrets of its physical environment and in using these to better its material life; and in so doing it has tended to lose its grasp on its most precious heritage. For moral wisdom, unhappily, is not self-perpetuating. Its universal accessibility in public or private libraries in itself avails nothing. If the ultimate truth of man’s nature is not constantly rediscovered and confirmed, constantly contemplated and meditated upon, it readily becomes obscured, diluted, distorted, and at last hopelessly confused in the midst of sophistries without end.
A sophistry that appeared in eighteenth-century
Original Sin vs. Natural Goodness
The doctrine of original sin reflected an extreme view of man’s depravity, and its very extremeness helped the opposite theory of man’s goodness to gain acceptance. Acceptance it did gain, widely, and it is obviously still active in contemporary thought. So long as the capital accumulated during centuries of moral realism, with its accompanying disciplines, continued to yield large dividends in conduct, there was some plausibility in the new doctrine; and by the time capital and dividends had dwindled to the point where the wickedness of man was too obvious to overlook, saving explanations were ready. Men who do evil do it, not because they are not naturally good, but because they are brought up in a bad environment; let society but provide a proper environment, and their conduct will be different. Or, if evil behavior develops even despite a benign environment, it can be attributed to some physiological or psychological defect. Between the two ideas individual responsibility—without which morality has absolutely no meaning—all but disappears.
In proportion as the theory of natural goodness prevails, spontaneous feelings of friendliness, love, compassion, fill the ethical firmament, at the expense of the severities of restraint, and moral realism succumbs to sentimental morality. Then is born the ethical sentimentalist. The ethical sentimentalist is aware of kindly dispositions in his own bosom, and these dispositions, present in himself, he assumes to be present also in others—as indeed, in varying degree and with varying continuity, they commonly are. But, if they are, what more proof does one need that men are naturally good? More, very much more, would be the stern reply of a man known to me only by family tradition. "If you cannot say anything better about me than that I am good-hearted," ran his novel request, "please say nothing at all." Behind that request, one surmises, lay much enlightening experience. He had listened to the affectionate but meaningless maunderings of neighbors in their cups. He had discovered in his everyday dealings with his fellow men that fine feelings may be followed by dastardly deeds.
The authors of The Federalist assumed, and by implication asserted, a measure of virtue in man—a measure sufficient for success in self-government; but the virtue they had in mind, being realists, was something—one may be quite sure—very different from the facile outpouring of friendly emotion. It was ultimately neither emotion, nor yet reason, but a moral or spiritual agency distinct from either. It was what marks the man we like to think of, and to honor, as the man of principle.
But to get back to our statesmen. If from their inmost thought, as from their speeches, the maxims of moral realism were absent, the fact would not be difficult to account for, as we have seen, on the basis of certain developments in Western philosophy. Still, to show that a thing might very naturally be, is by no means to prove that it is. We cannot know a man’s inmost thought. Possibly our statesmen do indeed meditate upon such concepts of human nature as I have adduced from Hamilton, Madison, and Jay—but in any case, from the point of view of the American electorate, the question at issue is largely academic. What this electorate is ultimately interested in, as an electorate, is not what goes on in the consciousness, or conscience, of its governors, but whether they put into practice a realistic view of human nature in the laws they pass, the administrative structures they set up, the judicial decisions they make, or accept, and the conduct in other respects of the public business. What, as regards these things, is their recent record?
This is a spacious question, inviting a spacious answer, but this I must leave mainly to my reader, contenting myself with brief consideration of a few relevant topics which I have lately had much in mind. The first three of these are related, each having to do with a domestic area of government in which gross abuses or failures in duty are reported convincingly to have arisen: military procurement, the national highway program, and unemployment compensation. I will first try to suggest the facts involved in each case—I can here do little more—and then make my comment.}
The first area is that of federal procurement of military supplies. The Defense Procurement Act of 1947 ruled that "all purchases and contracts for supplies and services shall be made by advertising, except that such purchases and contracts may be negotiated by the agency head without advertising if—(1) Determined to be necessary in the public interest during the period of a national emergency declared by the President or by the Congress. (2) The public exigency will not admit of the delay incident to advertising, etc." Other special circumstances, all to be exceptions, were defined. In a speech delivered on June 13, 1960, Senator Paul H. Douglas revealed that for the fiscal year 1959 the Defense Department "procured 22.7 billion in supplies through contracts with firms within the United States," and that "of this amount, some 19.7 billion, or 86.4 per cent, was procured through negotiated contracts, and only a little over 3 billion, or less than 14 per cent, was procured through contracts let by competitive bidding. "5 The provisions "put in the law to allow negotiation under some limited circumstances where unusual conditions existed," observes the Senator, "have now been used merely to universalize negotiated contracts."
The Senator made further charges, among them: that as of June 30, 1959, about one-third (valued at 14.3 billion dollars) of the supplies on hand in the Defense Department was "in excess of the needs either to run the military on a day-by-day peacetime basis, or of their needs if we had to go to war tomorrow morning"; and that the Defense Department "eventually plans to dispose of as much as $60 billion at the rate of $10 billion to $12 billion per year over the next 4 to 5 years…. The records indicate in general that the Department of Defense has been able to obtain only about 2 cents on the dollar, or 2 per cent, for the stock disposed of."
Illustrations of Waste in Procurement
As illustrations of his charge of waste in procurement, Senator Douglas lists ten items. The first of these is a four-foot cable with a plug at each end, worth about $1.50; price paid by the military, $10.67. The second is a small wrench set with case, worth about $4.50; price paid by the Army, $29. The third is a small socket for a lamp, about one inch in length, sold at a retail store for 25 cents; price paid by the government, $21.10. For the remaining seven items anyone interested may consult the Senator’s astonishing speech.
Naturally, the Defense Department replied to the charges—but in part, the lesser part, only. On the general, basic criticisms it was silent. The rebuttal, says Senator Douglas, "takes several forms which, upon examination, are either absurd or raise even more serious charges than I made." This rebuttal I have not seen, but the Senator’s counterstatement, patiently, exhaustively detailed, seems devastating—and definitive, leaving no opening for effective further argument. Reading it, one marvels how the Defense Department could have had the temerity to answer the Senator as it did. One suspects it had sadly underestimated the tenacity, thoroughness, earnestness, and caution of its critic.
"We know," said Senator Gruening, in the course of Senator Douglas’s speech, "that Senator Douglas always understates a case." Yet it is Senator Douglas’s contention that the waste involved in use of negotiated contracts (a negotiated contract, according to Senator Ervin, is "something like kissing; it goes by favor, not as a matter of right") is "appalling and runs into billions of dollars."
The Federal Highway Program
The second area I referred to is the national highway program. This, a beautiful "dream" sold in 1956 to the American people, "has become a nightmare of recklessness, extravagance, special privilege, bureaucratic stupidity and sometimes downright thievery." Originally thought to require an outlay of 27 billion, "Already many engineers and builders privately estimate that 50 billion dollars will not touch its total cost." The law governing the project, which was to be paid for almost entirely (90 per cent or more) by the federal government, provides that "local needs shall be given equal consideration with the needs of interstate commerce," but "too many cities are giving all consideration to their own needs." "Although only 12 per cent of the Interstate Network mileage is slated to go into or around cities, at least 45 per cent of the network money is being spent on urban roads such as Omaha’s"—which "is being driven through the heart of the city at an estimated cost of 42 million dollars, though an alternate route, around the town, would cost less than 15 million."
The article I am citing supplies varied examples of abuse or dereliction besides the one just noted, including duplication of already existing roads; building of bridges supposed to accommodate the military to unpardonably erroneous specifications; purchase of land (contrary to federal policy) in advance of appraisal; excessive employment of private engineering consultants; and what are politely referred to as "hush-hush deals." Senator Harry Byrd would appear to be well within the facts when he alleges that the road program is in an "inexcusable mess," and that there has been great "temptation to grab land, hike prices and profiteer."
The third and last of the areas mentioned is that of unemployment compensation. A federal-state system set up by Congress twenty-five years ago required that to qualify for compensation "workers had to be ‘ready, willing, and able to work.’ Benefits were to go to legitimate wage-earners who had clearly lost jobs through no fault of their own, to tide them over until they could find employment.—The collapse of these standards is shocking." "The solid planks on which [the system] was built… have been so warped by the pressures of our growing welfare bureaucracy that hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted on loafers, quitters, honeymooners, schemers, parasites and a host of others for whom it was never intended."
A few illustrations will point the generalities. An industrial worker retiring at the age of sixty-five with a monthly income of $338, in addition to his Social Security checks, registered as a job seeker, and in this status ultimately collected over $2,000. "In
Such instances as I have given beat the system, we are told, "within the law." There are also illegal abuses. "In the last three recorded years 170,000 cases of fraud were officially reported…. The officially admitted take by gypsters: more than 12 million dollars."
There they are—the three areas of shame. What if anything do they suggest regarding the presence of moral realism in those who in the last decades have made or administered our laws? The reply to this question, I for one think, need not be doubtful, or vague. For either in the making or in the administering of the legislation concerned, or in both, this indispensable quality appears to have played a monstrously inadequate role; and it is reasonable to assume that in moral matters a quality that is absent from an action is absent also from the agent.
Global Moral Delinquency
Moral delinquency has many gradations—by no means all of them appearing in our quotations from The Federalist. In the present context it ranges all the way from indifference, carelessness, irresponsibility, physical indolence, to conscious violation of oath or duty, and finally to downright venality, theft, or even treason. Both legislation and administration should guard against the entire scale of human weaknesses, with an elaborateness and an intensity proportionate in each individual case to the seriousness or magnitude of the risks involved.
Moral realism, then, in our internal affairs, if we may judge by the three instances cited, is, to say the least, insufficiently active; but obviously such a condition in our internal affairs is prima facie evidence of its presence also in our external affairs. If we are not to stop midway in the course of our argument, we must therefore take a look at our recent foreign policy.
The United Nations, I take it, was mainly our idea. The monologuist of "Locksley Hall," an early poem of Tennyson’s (published in 1842), tells of how in his rapturous youth, dipping into the future "far as human eye could see," he beheld, among other things, the "nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue…
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled
In the parliament of man, the federation of the world"—
but to this happy consummation he affixed no date.6 Could it be that the attempt to realize it in our time was definitely premature, and was this attempt due to the birth and spread during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the modern belief in a broadly based democracy, and was this belief itself the product, in part at least, of that faith in the natural goodness of mankind, that sentimental morality, with the advent of which its burgeoning coincided? There is plausibility in the idea; and if there is reason to doubt the wisdom of setting up the United Nations in the first place, that reason could hardly fail to be enhanced by reflection on what has lately happened in the organization and on its probable future development.
Gradations of Morality in the Pyramid of Civilization
As to what has happened, could not much of it, in essentials, have been readily anticipated? What is the United Nations, in one aspect, but a two-level popular government—insofar as its power extends; and what was it The Federalist said about popular government? It said that popular government (it used the word republican) presupposes the existence of the better qualities of human nature in a higher degree than any other form—a degree which Herbert Spencer declared in effect, as we have seen, was realized by no society of his time. Well then, if popular government is so exceedingly exacting, what is to be expected of the United Nations, a popular government in which the units governed are societies occupying, some one, some another, nearly all the stages, from the lowest to the highest, on the present pyramid of civilization?
And now, leaving the United Nations, what shall we say of our conduct of the struggle between ourselves and our communist enemy? Has that represented a policy of adequate moral realism? Into our relations with him has there not appeared, here too, that dangerous illusion which I have called sentimental morality?7 What of the Spirit of Geneva and the Spirit of Camp David, ghosts scarcely to be referred to without irony; what were they, after all, but chance expressions of our current national mood, our predilection for thinking, where human relations and values are concerned, not with the head, as did the distinguished moral realists who wrote our greatest political commentary—but with the heart? 4
1 In the following list the arabic numerals identify the quoted passages as distinguished in the text, the roman numerals (in parentheses) the essays in The Federalist from which they are taken: 1 (XV), 2 (VI), 3 (XXI), 4 (VI), 5 (LXVII), 6 (X), 7 (LXXII), 8 (XI), 9 (LIV). Essay X is by James Madison, Essay LIV by John Jay; the rest of the essays cited are by Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist, it will be recalled, was written in explanation, and defense, of the Constitution proposed for the colonies by the great convention of 1787.
2 One may here be reminded of Pascal: "It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both." (Translated by W. F. Trotter.)
3 From The Americans (Bartlett’s Quotations, 1948, p. 581).
4 The material used in my account of this first area is derived from the Congressional Record, Senate, of June 13, 1960 (pp. 11,524 ff.) and from a mimeographed document entitled "Statement of Senator Paul H. Douglas Concerning Defense Department Reply to His Charges of Gross Waste in Procurement and Supply Practices of the Military Departments" the latter marked for release from the office of the Senator on July 11, 1960. (For both sources I am indebted to the Senator’s kindness.) The material for the second area comes from an article entitled "Our Great Big Highway Bungle" (Reader’s Digest, July 1960), by Karl Detzer; and that for the third area from an article entitled "The Scandal of Unemployment Compensation" (Reader’s Digest, April 1960), by Kenneth 0. Gilmore.
5 Elsewhere in the speech Senator Douglas observes: "If any mayor of a city were to purchase 86 per cent of the goods for his city under negotiated contracts such a storm of public disapproval would arise that he would be driven from office."
6 In darker mood the monologuist soon follows these lines with others of ominous present import:
"Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion, creeping nigher,Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly dying fire."
7 For a brilliant account of sentimental morality, see Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism, Chapter IV: "Romantic Morality: The Ideal" (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1919)—now obtainable in Meridian Books (Meridian Books, Inc., New York).