The Collapse of Conscience

VOLUME 161

NUMBER 1

JANUARY 1938

BY J. DONALD ADAMS

THE word ‘crisis’ has become a commonplace. It confronts us in every morning’s newspaper, in every other magazine article. It stares at us from the title pages of books. Every week we are told that the world trembles on the brink of war, that the capitalist system verges on collapse, that there is a crisis in democratic government. Civilization itself, cry the prophets, stands at the crossroads. We of the contemporary world are like runners in the high hurdles; one after another, steady as a drumbeat, the obstacles rise before us, and the straightaway at the end of the track is beyond the range of our vision.

Yet underneath all our crises, little and big, lies one, larger and deeper, that cuts across all the rest. And I am thinking now particularly, though by no means exclusively, in terms of the United States. It is not the kind of crisis that finds its way easily into the newspaper headlines, yet it is one that every living man and woman has had to meet. It is the crisis created by personal conscience.

I contend that personal conscience in the United States has fallen to a new low in our history as a nation. It has been largely lost to our sight in all the din and dither that have been raised about that other moral concept, the social conscience, which, we are constantly reminded, has a nobler and more widely embracing function. And the more we hear of the one, the less we hear of the other. The personal conscience has been steadily submerged; the very foundation upon which any broader conception of individual responsibility towards society must rest is being washed away. What we were once taught to recognize as ‘the still, small voice’ has become indeed still and small.

There is a distinct flavor of cant about much of the talk concerning social conscience. The phrase slips readily from the tongue; it offers a large and easy generalization, and substitutes a vague beneficence for definite individual responsibility. As with that other phrase which has rapidly been gaining currency, ‘men of good will,’ its use identifies one as a marcher in the van of social progress. It costs nothing and sounds good. It pats your fellows on the back and leaves you duty-free. The true social conscience, it seems to me, is simply the sum of individual consciences. It creates itself, and is not called forth by incantation.

Copyright 1037, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

We are asked nowadays to look back with unreserved condemnation upon the men who exploited the nation’s resources and ruthlessly carved out their personal empires in the decades of expansion that followed the Civil War. They lacked, it seems, a social conscience. No doubt they did, in the sense in which we now conceive the term, but they were, many of them, men who acted according to their lights, often with a serene sense — as in John D. Rockefeller’s case — of ethical justification. Many of them sincerely believed their enterprise was making for the common good, and so, to a degree, it was. That their rewards should be limitless they took for granted; we now think otherwise. But if they were hogs, at least they rooted in the open, and they were what they were.

Their greed is not what is best worth remembering about them and the period in which they lived. With greed we have always to contend, and we always shall. What we are in danger of forgetting is that the American character then was positive. Its faults were positive faults, not the weaknesses that develop when character crumbles. Let your mind run over for a moment, before we turn to its graver manifestations, the little ways in which that sapping has been going forward.

Every day, in every newspaper and magazine that you pick up, it is spread before you in advertising testimonials endorsing a product never used by the endorser, a fundamentally dishonest practice which has received the cachet of the socially elect. Who is certain today that a public man speaks in his own words thoughts and convictions which he has himself arrived at? The ghostwritten speech, the ghost-written article, the ghost-written book, all fundamentally dishonest practices, are accepted as a matter of course. We observe a steadily mounting dishonesty in advertising copy, claiming qualities for a product which even the chicken-brained must sometimes realize have not the slightest basis in fact. But we laugh it off because ‘nobody believes it anyway.’ In our callous acceptance of these and kindred deceptions is the measure of how far the decline has progressed in the value we set upon integrity.

Very recently many Americans, I think, awoke to a shocked realization of that devaluation in the case of Mr. Justice Hugo Black. That a man named for one of the highest offices in the American system of government could sit silent in the Senate while his colleagues gave his nomination an approval which they must have withheld had he admitted facts which they were entitled to know, was behavior no subsequent conduct can condone. But the apologists for Mr. Justice Black ask us to believe that because he has shown evidence of possessing a social conscience we can afford to overlook this passing dereliction from traditional ethical standards. If ever there was sophistry, if ever there was evasion of the line between right and wrong, it lies in such a contention. The simple fact remains that an office of the highest trust was obtained under false pretenses.

We have seen a President of the United States a silent apologist for such a course of action; we have seen a State Governor — with an example, to be sure, of high precedent before him — name his wife to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. Surely these are significant straws in the wind in a department of our national life where integrity is of the gravest consequence. They denote a collapse of personal conscience which is duplicated in a variety of other fields. They are climactic instances of a disintegration which has been spreading through the national character for years. That many Americans were shocked by the Black case is, perhaps, heartening; but in at least equal measure the fact that many others were willing to let bygones be bygones when Mr. Justice Black publicly admitted that he hud joined the Klan is profoundly disturbing. In less than a month after the Justice took his seat on the Supreme Court bench we were obliged to witness the spectacle of a member of that court unable to perform a function for which he was appointed (the Scottsboro decision) because of an incident in his past which, had it been earlier admitted, would unquestionably have prevented his elevation.

The most serious indictment that can be brought against the present Administration is, to my mind, an indictment that rests squarely on ethical grounds. A people takes its moral tone from the leadership it accepts and ratifies. Whatever its objectives, and however desirable their consummation may be, that leadership which subordinates means to ends, which is repeatedly disingenuous in its appeals for continued support, must in the end defeat and destroy itself.

With many of the social objectives of the Roosevelt Administration most public-minded Americans are in sympathy. But an increasing number of these citizens are growing acutely uneasy about the means and manner employed to attain them. Some are uneasy simply because they believe that the President, out of undue haste, is seeking to effect a fundamental change in the character of American institutions — a change which they are not prepared to accept as one for the better. That is a question whose pros and cons do not fall within the scope of this article. What does concern us here is that a smaller number of citizens are uneasy because they believe the President himself, in his eagerness to accomplish his aims, has, consciously or unconsciously, waived moral considerations which ought deeply to concern him. They believe that you cannot place social conscience before personal conscience; that the one is meaningless without the other.

To be specific: take but three proposals (one of them already effected) among those closest to the heart of the Administration — the Social Security Act, the reorganization of the courts, and the government reorganization bill. Probably a majority of citizens look with favor upon some form of old-age insurance; all reasonable citizens wish to see the courts in step with the times and abreast of the work which they are called upon to do; there are few among us who would not approve the utmost simplification and coördination in the machinery of the Federal Government.

But there are those of us who feel that these measures have been disingenuously urged, that the cards were not laid face down upon the table, that the people were not told all that they had a right to know about the true character of these proposals, that there were concealed elements which even a majority might not sanction. The Social Security Act proves not to be insurance, as the public has been taught to understand the word, but direct, concealed taxation; the bill for the reorganization of the judiciary was pot-holed with deceptions; the government reorganization bill strikes indirectly at the independence of the great Federal Commissions. These were not honest measures, honestly put forward; they may in general have been fathered by a social conscience, but personal conscience was thrown into the discard. It will be argued that the Administration has in many matters displayed an admirable integrity, and that is true; but the fact does not excuse such lapses, nor does it lessen the destructive force which is released by these defections.

I said that American character has become less positive than it once was, that the faults we have been developing are those of weakness rather than of strength. I think a further indication of this change is to be found in the nature of our reactions to conduct which we know to be wrong. Our indignation has too short a lease; our anger is too often stillborn. We are cursed with a readiness to laugh things off. We have lost the capacity to get mad and stay mad until we have smashed the thing that angered us. The Black case had scarcely gripped the national consciousness (and conscience) when we began to read and hear the wish expressed that talk about it would cease — as if the fundamental issues involved were any less alive to-day than they were when the new Justice put on his robes! Just as anger against Samuel Insull, a few years back, burned fiercely for a moment and then guttered out, washed over by a wave of sentimentality.

We will put up with a Mayor Walker if he is funny enough, for we are like the Caliph in Scheherazade: we will refrain from action so long as the performance does n’t pall. A truly humorous people, which we once were, can be capable of a slow and steady anger (witness the Chinese); but our humor has become a brittle wit. Humor rests upon a solid base, — a reasoned and confident attitude toward life, — but the wisecrack is sufficient to the hour thereof. All our emotions are a flash in the pan.

The factors that have united to produce the slackening in our moral fibre are twofold at least. They are factors which have been operating elsewhere in the world, and I am not, indeed, attempting to point to the United States as a horrible example. We hold no corner in ethical disintegration. We are not yet, at least, endeavoring to bring up an entire generation of miserable little spies and snoopers; we can still raise our voices in honest argument without the fear that our neighbor in the next apartment, or the guest in our own, will betray us to the secret police.

Beyond a doubt the responsibility goes back in part to an embittered man, reading and writing the long day through, decades ago in the British Museum. Charge up a share of it to Karl Marx and the completely materialistic philosophy that his followers deem sufficient to feed the soul of man. Personal conscience, where it does not conjoin with duty to the state, holds no meaning for the Marxist, or for the Nazi whose blood brother and brother in blood he is. A figment from a discarded ethics, the personal conscience shrivels to death in the totalitarian state. Of what use is conscience to a slave?

One does not need to embrace Communism in order to fall prey to its specious moral doctrine. That doctrine has seeped through as a result of the effort to view sympathetically an experiment in which, as never before in the world’s history, the subordination of means to ends has been glorified. If one may with clear conscience sacrifice an entire generation of men for the purely problematical good of those to come, one may as readily dose one’s child with an unproved and potentially fatal antitoxin.

If Communist dogma has been a factor in breaking down moral concepts whose worth has been tried through untold generations of men, so too, of course, have been the decline of faith and the failure of the churches. The personal conscience is nourished and sustained by faith, and organized religion, when effective, is a further buttress and guide. ‘ Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,‘ wrote Martin Luther, and lived the proof of it.

There is, it would seem, no way out of our dilemma, no means of once more stiffening our moral fibre, except by the rekindling of faith and by the ready assumption of individual moral responsibility for individual acts. That a keen spiritual hunger stirs in the world no man who reads thoughtfully in the literature of our time can for a moment question. In several countries men are accepting, whether voluntarily or not, a baser equivalent in the dictators’ call to discipline and complete subservience to the state. They accept from hunger of spirit as well as from hunger of body. Some find their faith, or profess to find it, in the new ideologies; those of us to whom these are unacceptable must find and hold to our own. This we must do, or perish as free men; for where personal conscience dies, there is no freedom.