BLOG: A 1922 Address About Morality

Excerpt of a Humanist address, “What’s Wrong With the World,” delivered to First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis by Rev. John Dietrich, January 29, 1922. This is an excerpt of an excerpt, focusing on morality. 

… Our problem today is not so much that of freedom from political tyranny (in spite of the temporary reaction during the war) but rather that of safeguarding the individual from other and more subtle forms of tyranny and exploitation.

We are beginning to realize that the truly democratic state is not the one that leaves all the people free to do as they please, but the one that is so organized that all of its people are made free from the encroachment of selfishness and greed in any form; that provides for all of its citizens, even the lower in the social scale, absolutely justice and equal opportunity. All the protests and revolts and violence, if you please, against existing wrongs and injustice today are simply proof that men have outgrown the old conception of democracy, which was content to let all people do as they please. The demand today is for such a reorganization of the state as to make all forms of injustice and inequity impossible.

The old idea of democracy was based upon the extremely optimistic view of human nature taken by the philosophers of the French Revolutionary period; that if man were only given perfect freedom [from every kind of social and political restriction, as well as from prevailing custom and habit] he would be good. But we are living in a world where human nature must be taken for what it is and not for what we should like it to be. And so our present day political philosophers point out the changes, which are necessary if justice is to be secured. The fact is that the old garments of democracy have been outgrown and humanity must fashion for itself new political garments which will democratize the whole of human life.

… Modern science, modern men of transportation and communication, the development of world trade and commerce, have brought even the remotest corners of the earth into one intimate neighborhood. The nation no longer lives an isolated and separate life. Its very existence is bound up with that of other nations so that the different nations are mutually dependent upon one another in a sense that could not have been dreamed of in the beginnings of national life. …

Today the nations, in their desire to get raw materials and trade, are jostling each other on every sea and rubbing elbows in every corner of the globe. So it is no longer a question of how one nation can develop a strong and independent life, but rather how small and weak nationalities that are mutually dependent can live together in the spirit of cooperation and mutual helpfulness, without dangerous frictions and ruinous wars.

…. As Professor Ross of the University of Wisconsin says: “My vital interests are now entrusted to others. … I rely upon others to look after my drains, invest my savings, nurse my sick and teach my children…” This interdependence puts us at one another’s mercy and so ushers in a multitude of new forms of wrongdoing with the result that people do not see that “… blackmail is piracy, embezzlement is theft, speculation is gambling,  tax dodging is larceny, railroad discrimination is treachery, child labor is slavery.”

The mob is infuriated at one who murders another individual, while it views with indifference the venal mine inspector, the seller of infected milk, the maintainer of a firetrap theater. The petty shoplifter is more abhorred than the stealer of a franchise.

And so we find ourselves every day facing situations with which our old morality does not deal and the old question of right and wrong is not so simple as it once was. This does not mean that there is any variation on the principles of right and wrong…but they must be translated into their social equivalent so that we will cease to condemn the man who steals a loaf of bread while we pay honor to the man who steals a million dollars.

The moral unrest of our times grows out of the inadequacy of the old system, which deals only with individual relations and knows nothing of our complicated social relations.

Click here for thoughts from the same address about labor.

The original introduction and concluding remarks are here.


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