Better Than We Think

Is this, as the pessimists say, "a time for despair ? Or could it he that we who have been working in a democracy have taken for granted, and so overlooked, the notable progress achieved since 1910? According to Sumner II. Slichter, ours is one of the great creative eras in history. Born in Madison, he took his A.B. at the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and is today Lament University Professor at Harvard and chairman of the Research Advisory Board of the Committee for Economic Development.


IT IS fashionable today to regard the world as experiencing a moral crisis and to look on the future of mankind as dark. A famous British novelist has written: “The nations of the West are all sick societies disintegrating under the impact of an advancing technology.”An eminent American theologian has said: “ There is so little health in the whole of our modern civilization that one cannot find an island of order from which to proceed against disorder.” A distinguished Princeton philosopher has declared in this magazine: “Our ideals and moral ideas have in the past been rooted in religion. But the religious basis of our ideals has been undermined, and the superstructure of ideals is plainly tottering. ... It would therefore look as if the early death of our civilization were inevitable.”

A case for pessimism is easily constructed. It rests partly upon the record of the last generation or two and partly upon the formidable accumulation of problems that await solutions and that seem to call for more wisdom and altruism than men can be expected to supply. The record of the last generation, superficially at least, looks bad. Two world wars within thirty years seem to mean that men have botched the handling of their problems; the spread of political philosophies which recognize no civil rights seems to mean that men are abandoning the idea of the supreme importance of the individual which has been a foundation stone for Western civilization for two thousand years; the organized cruelties inflicted by more than one government upon tens of thousands of persons seem to mean that humanitarian sentiment is becoming weaker; the breakdown of accepted standards of right and wrong in some fields of activity and ihe absence of accepted standards in other fields suggest that the community lacks the moral purpose necessary to provide rules of conduct for a rapidly changing world.

The accumulation of problems that confront men is terrifying. The rapid changes in technology during the last two centuries have created a multitude of situations in which traditional rules of conduct do not apply. Consequently, men are confronted with the necessity of revising their ideas of right and wrong about many matters, and of extending the ethical system into new areas. The rise of corporations requires an ethical code for directors and managements; the growth of trade-unions requires the development of many new rules of conduct in the field of industrial relations. The broad interdependence created by modern technology requires that people attach more and more importance to the interests which they have in common. Most important of all, the growing destructiveness of war requires that nations achieve a new capacity to maintain peace.

The case for pessimism is persuasive, but it is superficial and misleading. Much of the indictment of ihe present age does not apply to the United States or to the democratic countries of Western Europe. Neither world war was started by the United States or its associates. And while each war represented in a sense the failure of men to master their problems, in the case of the United States and Britain, at least, the wars also represented willingness to fight for important ideals. Certainly such willingness is no less important than capacity to find solutions for difficult problems.

Political philosophies which deny individual rights did not originate in the United States or the Western democracies, and have found little favor in them. Furthermore, governments founded on these philosophies do not seem to flourish. Two of the principal dictators are no longer with us, and some leading dictatorships of today maintain themselves only by cutting their subjects off from communication with the rest of the world.

The best answer to the pessimists, however, is the record of the last generation or two. In the United Stales at least, and in most countries of Western Europe, this record is truly impressive and stamps the twentieth century as an age of remarkable moral progress. This statement will strike many persons as surprising, but the recent accomplishments of Western civilization, particularly in the United States, indicate deep and widespread concern for human well-being and a growing capacity on the part of the community to deal with its problems. Certainly these achievements afford no evidence that the country is indifferent to moral issues. On the contrary, they afford evidence of broad and keen interest in ethical problems and of a determination to create new rules of conduct to fit new situations.


IN six important areas moral progress in recent times has been particularly noteworthy. Let us examine each of them briefly.

Concern with how people fare

The community is showing more concern than ever before with what is going on, and is keeping track of what is happening more closely than ever before—a sign of the concern of men with the general welfare. One manifestation of the interest of the community in what is happening is the large output of local, state, and national laws. Many of these laws, of course, are highly controversial. Many people think that the community should be more willing to let nature take its course and less willing to yield to the pleas of special-interest groups. Perhaps a more malure democracy than ours would be less willing to legislate. One thing, however, is certain — namely, that much of the large volume of legislation is evidence that the community is concerned with the conditions under which its members live and work.

A more significant manifestation of the concern of the community with the general welfare is the collection and dissemination of statistics. This statement may cause the reader to smile, for statistics seem to be drab and prosaic, things. The great growth of statistics, however, is one of the most remarkable characteristics of the age. Never before has a community kept track from month to month, and in some cases from week to week, of how many people are horn; how many die and from what causes; how many are sick; how much is being produced; how much is being sold; how many people are at work; how many people are unemployed; how long they have been out of work; what prices people pay; how much income they receive and from what sources; how much they owe; what they intend to buy.

These elaborate attempts of the country to keep informed about what is happening mean that the community is concerned with how its members are faring and with the conditions under which they live. For this reason the present age may take pride in its numerous and regular statistical reports and in the rapid increase in the number of these reports. No other age has evidenced such keen interest in the conditions of the people.

Provision of opportunities

Great progress is being made in creating opportunities for individuals. Some of the increase in opportunities has been unplanned; it has been the result of technological progress and of the rise in per capita incomes. These two causes explain why, for example, the number of jobs has been growing faster than the population, and in particular why the number of professional and technical jobs has been growing several times faster than the total number of jobs. Much of the growth in opportunity, however, has been planned; it has been a result of acceptance of the idea that the abundance of opportunity should not be left to chance.

Especially has the great increase in educational opportunities reflected plans of parents and of the community, and the desire of donors to make education available to everyone regardless of means. Few periods in the world’s history have made more rapid progress than the last fifty or sixty years in breaking down the economic barriers to education. Back in 1890, for example, only one out of fourteen children between fourteen and seventeen years of age was in school; by 1945, however, the proportion had grown to four out of five. The number of high school graduates has been increasing since 1890 about thirteen times as fast as the population, and the number of college graduates six times as fast. The removal of racial and religious barriers to employment has been planned, and has taken a new form. Previous periods had seen the removal of legal disabilities; the present age has seen an attack on a less tractable kind of discrimination — discrimination embodied in hiring practices.

Interest in the needy

The community today is showing more interest in the welfare of its needy members than in any previous period. Especially during the last twenty years there has been a rapid change in the attitude of the community toward the needy. Back in 1929 this country had fewer than 500 private pension plans and no public social insurance schemes except workmen’s compensation laws applying in cases of industrial accidents. Total payments to persons on the basis of need represented only 1.2 per cent of all personal incomes.

Today the country has over 9000 employerinitiated pension plans, many plans negotiated by unions, a scheme of Federal old-age pensions which covers about three workers out of five, and a system of unemployment compensation which covers about seven workers out of ten. In addition, the country has a program of public welfare under which hundreds of millions of dollars are disbursed every year, and it has many thousands of private sick-benefit plans. Payments on the basis of need now run at the rate of about 12 billion dollars a year and represent over 6 percent of all personal incomes.

There are still many gaps and inadequacies in the country’s arrangements for providing the needy with incomes, but no community has ever shown as much willingness to help the unfortunate as does the United States today.

Civil rights in industry

The community has greatly extended the area of civil rights, introducing civil rights into the internal operations of business enterprises where they had not previously existed. This great accomplishment is immediately the result of the rise of trade-unionism and the spread of collective bargaining, but the growth of the trade-union movement has been greatly aided by public policies.

It is usual to think of collective bargaining merely as an arrangement through which employees and employers bargain over wages and the hours of work. This, however, is not the most significant aspect of collective bargaining. Its most important aspect is the framework of rules which are formulated in negotiations and which both men and managers must observe, these rules mean that decisions of management may be challenged by employees and that management may be compelled to rescind certain decisions which violate the rights of employees. In other words, at the very time that some governments have been going to great extremes in asserting the claims of government against the individual, the United States has been helping millions of individuals to acquire important new rights.

Tolerance for critics

The community today shows great tolerance for dissenters and critics, and this tolerance seems to be increasing. In fact, the community is more than tolerant toward dissenters and critics; it shows a lively curiosity about their ideas, it buys their books and magazines, it listens to their lectures, and it even elects a few of them to public office. 1 do not assert that the life of a dissenter is an easy one, but it would be difficult to find an age in which the challengers of accepted values or of established institutions found a readier audience.

Perhaps the community has been lax in not demanding that critics inform themselves more adequately about the matters which they discuss; perhaps the community has been too ready to listen 1o crackpots and to be intrigued by the possibility of panaceas for this or that group of problems. The United States, however, may take pride in the fact that it furnishes an environment favorable for protest and criticism, and that most people now take it for granted that no practice or institution or rule of conduct is above challenge. Whether the subject be public policies, methods of business management, social conditions, or canons of taste in painting, literature, music, or architecture, the flow of criticism is large and vigorous.

Some people look on this widespread challenge of accepted values and established institutions as unhealthy. The most dignified and important thing that man does, however, is to reach decisions about what is right and wrong, fair and unfair, desirable and undesirable, beautiful and ugly. Consequently, the large volume of criticism and dissent is healthy. A decaying or disintegrating community would be holding fast to old judgments and displaying little interest in revising its ideas about values.

Success in working together

Despite the rapid rate of technological advance, the community has succeeded in remaining basically coöperative. The rapid changes in technology during the last century might well have divided the community into bitterly warring groups. There were large new streams of income to be fought over; and new kinds of property, not sanctified by tradition, invited seizure and expropriation. The age has, of course, been one of great, economic controversies. Able and persuasive men have endeavored to convince people that the essential relationship between men is one of conflict, that the course of history is explained by conflict between classes, and that the problems of mankind can be solved only by revolution and dictatorship.

The remarkable fact is, not that these doctrines acquired great vogue in Eastern Europe, but that their influence in Western Europe, and especially in Britain and the United States, has been so limited. The people of this country have been engaged in vigorous and continuous controversy over the fairness of the distribution of income and the rights of property. In spite of vigorous and frequent economic controversies, however, the United States has remained basically a coöperative country. Most people think of themselves as members of the community rather than as members of special-interest groups. Even the parties to the recent coal and steel strikes were in agreement on the fundamental issue that there should be pensions; the differences related to less basic matters, such as the amount of the employer’s contribution and whether there should be a contribution from employees.

Since most persons think of themselves primarily as members of the community rather than as members of special-interest groups, the people have maintained a vigorous public spirit and a lively concern with common interests. A standing criticism of the principal American political parties has been that it is frequently difficult to tell the difference between them. This difficulty, however, is not necessarily a reason for criticism of the parties; to some extent it reflects the fact that frequently the people are pretty close to one mind on major issues, and that the principal difference between large groups in the community is over how rapidly the government should move in attacking certain problems or in experimenting with new policies.


IT is paradoxical that the remarkable accomplishments of Western societies in adapting their institutions and their rules of conduct to revolutionary changes in technology should be so little appreciated— that the societies which have done these things should be held in such low esteem and should even be described as “sick” and “disintegrating.”

I do not know the explanation. Part of it probably is that much remains to be done. Preoccupation with unsolved problems causes men to overlook how much has been accomplished. Part of the explanation is probably found in the fact that, the development of new institutions and rules of conduct does not follow a master plan which everyone can see. The changes are worked out bit by bit and the process of making them is far from edifying. It evokes fierce controversies in which special-interest groups of all sorts urge extreme and selfish claims. The influence of particular groups is much less than it seems to be because the various special interests tend to offset one another. They are, however, far more noisy and unabashed in asserting their claims than the more or less unattached middle-of-the-roaders who ultimately make most of the decisions. Consequently, the process of adjusting institutions and values to new conditions seems unworthy of the great achievements which it produces.

Do the encouraging accomplishments of the Western countries during the last generation mean that people would be justified in believing that mankind may solve the greatest problem of all: the avoidance of another major war? No prediction on this point is worth making; the unknowables are too many and too important. Perhaps it is worth remembering that there have been few wars between democratic countries. Furthermore, if the democracies are right in their claims that they furnish an environment more favorable for the advancement of knowledge than do the dictatorships, then the democracies are likely to gain military power faster than the dictatorships, and thus be too powerful to be attacked.

The remarkable moral progress of Western civilization in the twentieth century, however, does justify the prediction that history will not regard the Western countries as sick and as disintegrating under the impact of technology. On the contrary, history will consider our era one of 1 he world’s great, ages. Historians will regard present Western societies as remarkably vigorous, robust, and dynamic. They will see that the great problems of the twentieth century are largely the products of this robustness and vigor — that these problems stem from the rapid changes in technology and conditions of living produced by these dynamic societies.

Two things in particular, I think, will cause historians to regard the present age as great. One is that it has been morally creative. Its efforts to adapt its institutions to revolutionary changes in methods of production have been truly heroic and, by and large, successful. The present age has accepted more completely than any previous one the idea that men must do more than obey accepted rules of conduct — that they must, strive to improve those rules and that they must develop new rules to fit new conditions.

The process of extending or modifying the ethical system has produced much stormy discussion and, one must concede, many self-seeking arguments. Disagreements over what is fair may produce, for the time being at least, a sort of moral chaos, but it is a healthy kind of chaos. It does not mean that people are indifferent to right and wrong; on the contrary, it means that people are keenly interested in the rules which govern conduct, that they are searching for better rules, and that they are willing to support their positions vigorously.

The second feature of the presenl age which will cause historians to regard it as great is its unprecedented effort to translate ideas about the good life into reality — to give men the opportunity to live the good life here and now, and to bring this opportunity to people of small means.

Other ages have produced inspiring discussions of the nature of the good life, but the people of the twentieth century have not been satisfied with reflections and discussions. They have insisted that, the educational opportunities of men of all classes be enlarged, that economic and social barriers to opportunity be broken down, that men be given some minimum protection against the principal economic hazards. No other age has done so much to bring some minimum of education, opportunity, and security to all members of the community.

Willingness to challenge accepted rules of conduct and institutions and to seek to improve them, and recognition that the community has the obligation to give all its members a fair chance at the good life, are not the characteristics of a sick and disordered society. They do not mean that the community is disintegrating under the impact of a rapidly changing technology. Rather they mean that the community is adapting itself to new conditions.

hhe people in the United States and Europe who have helped produce the important moral achievements of the last fifty years may hold their heads high. Their accomplishments will bear honorable comparison with those of any of the world’s great ages. Not only have they produced one of the most creative periods in the history of morals but, by making the development of new rules of conduct a democratic process, they have given new dignity and significance to the lives of millions of men.