All Commentary
Tuesday, June 1, 1965

Business Implications of the New Morality

 The Reverend Mr. Brown is Minister to Students of Park Street Church in Boston and a member of the United Ministry to Students at Harvard University.

“Business and religion! What does religion have to do with busi­ness? Theologians are not busi­nessmen.”

Believe that if you will, but to do so you have to ignore basic historic facts. Religious ideas have a tremendous effect on the struc­ture of society and thus on the scope and quality of business per­mitted in it. What is communism itself if not a “religious” idea? It is this-worldly rather than oth­er-worldly, but it is basically a religion, making a dogmatic as­sertion about the evils of private property which can never be proved but which must be taken on faith. This explains the hostil­ity of communism to traditional religion: it is itself a competing religion.

It is not necessary to look to the communists for examples of ways in which religious ideas di­rectly affect the conduct of busi­ness. Prohibition and Sunday closing laws are examples from our own recent history. But over and above such specific legislation, which affects only segments of the business community, religion makes a basic contribution which is vital to business as well as to social and cultural life: the shap­ing of the general moral consensus.

The Moral Consensus

A society does not run on its statute laws alone. On the contrary, written laws can function only if there is a widely accepted moral consensus and if the written laws are in agreement with it. Law en­forcement contributes to shaping this consensus, but religious ideas and the general moral feelings based on them make a much larger contribution. For example, there are laws against shoplifting, and supermarkets employ detectives to prevent it; but their task would be hopeless if there were not a tremendous moral consensus among the general population that shop­lifting is wrong. If the fear of getting caught were the only de­terrent, supermarkets could not keep the products on their shelves. When the moral consensus shifts, or when it is inactivated by some supposedly higher concern, as was the case with last summer’s “civil rights” riots, the force of law and the presence of police is quite in­adequate to prevent widespread looting and theft.

The “New Morality”

For several centuries, Western businessmen have been able to take the moral consensus pretty much as they found it, and all in all it has done them good service. It has provided an atmosphere where, in general, contracts were kept, employees were honest, and work was considered a holy duty rather than a burden to be shirked. This common heritage of Judaic-Christian religious thought, with all of its desirable effects, has been taken for granted for a long time.

Now it is under fire—and not only from the enemies of the Western world, but also from with­in. A group of theologians and church leaders, some of them very prominent, have for some years been talking about a “new theol­ogy.” Only rather recently have the implications of this “new theol­ogy” become clear in what is called the “new morality.”¹ Right now the discussion is confined largely to academic circles—but so was the discussion of Marx’s ideas in the 1890′s, and things move faster in the twentieth century. To un­derstand the trend, and its impli­cations, it will help us to take a look at the “old” morality.

The Judaeo-Christian Consensus

The two main religious roots of Western civilization, Judaism and Christianity, have many differ­ences, but in the moral and ethi­cal sphere, they are agreed and together they have shaped our Western moral consensus, which up to the present time has proved so serviceable to economic prog­ress. This consensus is typified in the Ten Commandments, which are important for two reasons: first, for what they are (or at least claim to be), and second, for what they say. The Commandments are important because they claim to have been given to man by the ultimate Authority, i.e., by God. For this reason they cannot be changed by men—one can accept them or disobey them, but not al­ter them. This “given” quality about the commandments (which theologians discuss under the head­ings of “revelation” or “the divine imperative”) gave a sense of sta­bility and permanence to the moral consensus. (It is precisely this givenness which the new theolo­gians dislike: Bishop Robinson ridicules commandments received “second hand” from God.2) Its details were supplied by what the commandments actually say.

Summarizing for the sake of brevity, we see that the Judaeo-Christian consensus traditionally contains at least three elements which are crucial for the function­ing of our economic life: (1) re­liability or faithfulness in meeting obligations. No economic system could work if every contract had to be enforced by legal sanctions. “Blessed is the man who sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.” (Psalm 15:4) (2) the duty to engage in productive labor: “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work.” (Exodus 20:9) St. Paul makes this point even more strongly when he says, “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” (II Thessalonians 3:10) (3) and finally, there is the obligation to exercise personal concern for the unfortunate, and not leave them to the care of an impersonal state: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred… and did not min­ister unto thee?” (Matthew 25: 44) This principle has until re­cently minimized the social bur­dens falling on the government. Economic and technological changes doubtless will increase the clamor for the state to take responsibility for the poor, the old, and the infirm; but the situa­tion will become a great deal worse if old principles of personal and social responsibility are allowed to disappear. In fact, in many re­spects, the administration of wel­fare is already becoming increas­ingly burdened by the decline of the old consensus.

The Old Sanction

This Judaeo-Christian consen­sus was very useful to society, but it was never followed merely because it was useful. The ration­ale behind it was that these things were right because they were commanded by one who had the authority to say, namely, by God. Even people who were not partic­ularly pious were often influenced by the dim suspicion that above and beyond all human laws and sanctions there was a God to whom they would ultimately have to give an accounting. The obvious feedback from this view to prac­tical affairs is suggested, for ex­ample, by the fact that Jesus Christ often describes this judg­ment in terms of a king examin­ing his stewards’ accounts. Wheth­er or not one firmly believes in a God who will ultimately judge all men, the conviction or even the suspicion that He exists has been a very valuable factor in restraining the human tendency to unbridled self-interest. It is hard to imagine any other concept that will do the job as well.

The New Idea

Where the old morality had some positive, authoritative com­mandments as its starting point, the “new morality” rejects this and even ridicules it, as Bishop Robinson does in deriding it as “second hand.” We must reject such ideas, he says, and form a new morality on our own. The basis for it, in the words of Prof. Fletcher, is this: “Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else.”³

Now love is a very fine thing, and it is the principal part of the Two Great Commandments in both Jewish and Christian thought.

From the traditional view, there is more to God than mere love, however: there is also holiness and justice. From the practical point of view, it is questionable wheth­er any such idea of love will ever be as effective a stimulus to men to do their duty and to abstain from dishonesty as the old con­cept of a righteous Judge is. It is hard to rationalize one’s way around the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” especially if one suspects that one will one day stand before an omniscient Judge. But if “only one thing is in­trinsically good, namely love,” one can always say, “I am not stealing if I am acting out of love.” And indeed this theme is not only put forward, it is more or less taken for granted in much of the avant-garde literature of our day. But you do not have to resort to the writers of existentialist fiction; theologians will be found who ad­vocate the idea of “occult compen­sation,” which holds that a worker who considers himself underpaid can make up the difference with­out being immoral simply by tak­ing things from his employer on the side.

According to the “new morality” nothing is ever right or wrong because of a specific commandment or principle. It is right or wrong because it is more or less loving. The implications of this for family and sexual morality are immedi­ately obvious, and in fact the new moralists are willing to tolerate promiscuity and even perversions if a spirit of love is involved.4 So far their discussion is in fact largely confined to sexual morality, but it will not be long before it spills over into areas of personal honesty (can’t a lie be much more loving than the truth?), willing­ness to work, and the obligation to help those who are less fortu­nate. There will always be a cer­tain amount of sexual looseness in any society, but when it becomes the pattern, it affects not only family happiness, but economic and even national survival—an­cient Rome is only the most dra­matic example from a history full of them.

One of the principles of the “new moralists” is that as long as sexual activity is self-giving instead of exploitative, it is mor­ally unobjectionable, and will not adversely affect society. But the English sociologist, J. D. Unwin,5 and more recently our own Pitrim Sorokin,° have shown that a high level of social energy and produc­tivity in society is rapidly undermined by the spread of sexual looseness. This does not need to be proved from ancient history, for the Soviet Union, which per­mitted a great deal of sexual loose­ness following the Revolution found that this was destructive of social values, and has subsequently retrenched and become more “Vic­torian” than any Western country.

Implications for Business

Business is not directly depend­ent on religion, but it is certainly dependent on the moral consensus to which religious ideas contrib­ute so greatly. Thus, the “new morality,” which at the moment is more or less confined to the college campuses and theological seminaries, has frightening im­plications for our whole social or­der. Business and professional men, with rare exceptions, are not theologians or preachers, and they are not expected to be. But the vast majority of men who have accomplished something of value have done so only because they have a certain moral integrity, at least enough to enable others to trust them and to be influenced by them. This integrity is com­patible with the old Judaeo-Chris­tian moral consensus, and wins support and praise from it (quite apart from whether the men in question are believing Christians or Jews), but it cannot survive and co-exist with the “new moral­ity.” Businessmen converted to Christianity in a society where Judaeo-Christian principles have not been part of the consensus frequently complain of the tre­mendous difficulty of trying to live by these principles in a society which does not recognize them. In the twentieth century it does not take long for an academic fad to become universally accepted, and this is what will happen with the new morality, which is so pleasant, so agreeable, so easy to take, and so little demanding—if it is not checked.

A Counter-Measure

Business and professional men cannot be expected to herd their colleagues and employees into re­ligious meetings to check this problem. Religion is seldom very convincing when it is advocated as a means to an end. Nevertheless, short of a national religious re­vival, there is something which individuals can do: they can de­cide where they stand on moral issues, and make it clear, gently but firmly, to those about them. When Joshua was leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, he was faced with a mutiny. He gave the people freedom of choice: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” but at the same time—and this is crucial—he gave a clear statement of his own po­sition, “but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

One of the saddest stories to come out of my own work with college students was told by a psychiatrist on the Harvard fac­ulty. He had as a patient a college girl, the daughter of a well-known surgeon. Troubled by the tempta­tions to moral laxity all about her, this girl wrote to her father ask­ing what he thought of pre-mar­ital intercourse. His reply went like this: “My dear, you will have to make up your own mind; if you decide in favor of it, let me rec­ommend a doctor who can supply you with the necessary contracep­tives.” The psychiatrist’s comment was brief but apt, “That’s a h–of a thing to tell your daughter.” The girl had freedom of choice, indeed; but she had asked her father for his convictions on the subject, and he evaded the ques­tion. Perhaps he had some, per­haps he had none, but in any case the daughter had the right to an answer instead of an evasion. It was left to the psychiatrist, then, to help her achieve a worth-while set of values where her own father had left a vacuum.

In the moral ambiguity of the present day, which is being ren­dered more and more desperate by the “new morality,” evasiveness of people who do have stand­ards is not modesty; it is an abdi­cation of responsibility and a real crime against the rising genera­tion. Like Joshua, we must recog­nize that freedom of choice exists, but like him, we must have the courage and principle to say, “but as for me and my house…” And we must finish that sentence and take our stand, not in pious hum­bug, but in the full honesty derived from moral strength and convic­tion.

Foot Notes

¹ See Joseph Fletcher, “The New Look in Christian Ethics,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, October, 1959; John A. T. Rob­inson, Honest to God, Westminster, 1963; Douglas Rhymes, No New Morality, Bobbs, 1964. British authors Sir Arnold Lunn and Garth Lean have spelled out the deadly implications of the “new morality” for Great Britain in their joint work, The New Morality. Bland-ford, 1964.

2 Robinson, op. cit., p. 106.

3 Joseph Fletcher, “The New Look in Christian Ethics,” Harvard Divinity Bul­letin, October, 1959, p. 8.

4 Thus Douglas Rhymes in No New Morality, following Towards a Quaker View of Sex, permits homosexuality, and H. A. Williams praises prostitution.

5 Sex and Culture, Oxford, 1934.

6 The American Sex Revolution (Ex­tending Horizons Book), Sargeant, 1957.