Social Process

Chapter 10: Success and Morality

Charles Horton Cooley

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APPARENTLY the minds of men have always been troubled by the question whether it really does pay to be righteous. One gets the impression from certain of the Psalms and other passages in the Old Testament that the Jews were constantly asking themselves and one another this question, and that the psalmists and prophets strove to reassure them by declaring that, though the wicked might seem to prosper, they would certainly be come up with in the long run. "Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass."[1] "I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree, yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not; yea I sought him but he could not be found."[2] "I have been young and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread."[3] The question is also mooted by Plato, in the Republic and elsewhere, While Shakespeare, in his 66th Sonnet, mentions "captive good attending captain ill" among the things which make him cry for restful death. Even the Preacher says: " Be

(100) not righteous overmuch, why shouldst thou destroy thyself ? " Is honesty the best policy, and, if so, in just what sense?

I would answer that there is never a conflict between a real or inner righteousness and a real or inner success; they are much the same thing; but there may easily be a conflict between either of them and an apparent or conventional success. Conscious wrong-doing must always be detrimental to a success measured by self-development and social service. Its effect upon the wrong-doer himself is to impair self-respect and force of character. He divides and disintegrates himself, setting up a rebellion in his own camp, whereas success calls for unity and discipline. A man who is bad, in this inner sense, is in so far a weak and distracted man. As Emerson remarks, one who "stands united with his thought" has a large opinion of himself, no matter what the world may think.

It is also true that the sense of righteousness and integrity gives him the maximum influence over others of which he is capable, and so the greatest power to serve society. If we are weak and false to our own conscience, this cannot be hidden, and causes us to lose the trust and co-operation of others. It is not at all necessary to this that we should be found out in any specific misdeed; our face and bearing sufficiently reveal what we are, and induce a certain moral isolation, or at least impair our significance and force. Character is judged by little things, of which we ourselves are unaware, and rightly, because it is in these that our habitual tendency is revealed. They register our true spirit and mode of thinking, which cannot be concealed though we are the best actors in the world. If there is anything disingenuous

( 101) about us, anything which will not bear the light, those who consider us will feel its presence, even though they do not know what it is.

In so far as a man consciously does wrong he tears himself from that social whole in which alone he can live and thrive. In this way it is true that "The face of the Lord is against them that do evil."[4]

I suppose that so long as it is kept on this high ground few would deny the truth of the principle. Men generally admit that spiritual significance is enhanced by moral integrity. Some, however, would question whether it has much application to success in a more ordinary and perhaps superficial sense of the word, to the attainment of wealth, position, and the like.

But even here it is in great part sound. If we take the ordinary man, whose moral conceptions do not differ much from those of his associates, and place him in an ordinary environment, where there is a fairly well-developed moral sense according to the standards of the group, it will be true that righteousness tends, on the whole, to prosperity. The lack of it puts one at odds with himself and his group in the manner already noted. The unrighteous man is swimming against the current, and though he may make headway for a while it is pretty sure to overcome him in time. Men of experience almost always assert, sincerely and truthfully, I believe, that honesty and morality are favorable to success.

The sceptic, however, is apt to say that though the principle may be plausible in itself and edifying for the graduating class of the high school, common experience

( 102) shows that it does not work in real life; and he has no difficulty in pointing to cases where success seems to be gained in defiance of morality. It may be worth while, therefore, to discuss some of these. I think they may be brought under three classes: those in which success is only apparent or temporary; those in which a wrongdoer succeeds by uncommon ability, in spite of his wrongdoing; and those which involve a lack or divergence of group standards.

It is always possible to gain an immediate advantage by disregarding the rules that limit other people, but in so doing one defies the deeper forces of life and sets the -mills of the gods at work grinding out his downfall. He may cheat in fulfilling a contract or in a college examination, but he does this at the expense of his own character and standing. "Look at things as they are," we read in the Republic of Plato, "and you will see that the clever unjust are in the case of runners, who run well from the starting-place to the goal, but not back again from the goal; they go off at a great pace, but in the end only look foolish, slinking away with their ears down on their shoulders, and without a crown; but the true runner comes to the finish and receives the prize and is crowned." Montaigne held with Plato, and said: "I have seen in my time a thousand men of supple and ambiguous natures, and that no one doubted but they were more worldly-wise than I, ruined where I have saved myself: Risi successu carere dolos."[5] I recall being told by a man of business experience that "sharpness" in a young man was not a trait that promised substantial success, because he was apt to rely upon it and fail to cultivate more substantial qualities.

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Saint Louis, who was the exemplar of all the virtues of his age, enlarged his dominions, withstood aggression and built up his administration all the more successfully for his saintly character. "He was as good a king as he was a man," and his unique position as the first prince in Europe " was due not so much to his authority and resources as to the ascendancy won by his personal character and virtues." [6]

Apparently the world is full of injustice; men often get and keep places to which they have no moral right, as judged by the way they function; but the unconscious forces inevitably set to work to correct the wrong, and as a rule, and in due time, the apparent success is revealed as failure. It is a wound against which the moral organism gradually asserts its recuperative energy.

Again, wrong-doing is often associated with uncommon ability, which is the real cause of a success that would probably be greater, certainly of a higher kind, if the man were righteous. We cannot expect that a merely passive morality-not to cheat , swear, steal, or the like-should suffice for an active success. That requires positive qualities, like energy, enterprise and tenacity, which are indeed moral forces of the highest order, but may be associated with dishonesty or licentiousness. We might easily offset Saint Louis with a list of great men, more in the style of Napoleon, whose personal behavior was not at all edifying. Since life is a process, and the great thing is to help it along, it is only just that active qualities should succeed.

Those cases of successful wrong-doing where a lack of group standards is involved can be understood if we take

(104) account of the network of relations in which the man lives. The view that success and morality go together supposes that he is surrounded by fairly definite and uniform standards of right kept alive by the interplay of minds in a well-knit group. This is the only guarantee that the individual will have a conscience or a self-respect which will be hurt if he transgresses these standards, or that the group will in any way punish him.

But the state of things may be so anarchical that there is no well-knit, standard-making group, either to form the individual's conscience or to punish his transgressions. This will be more or less the case in any condition of social transition and confusion, and is widely applicable to our own time. If the economic system is disintegrated by rapid changes, there will be a lack of clear sense of right and wrong relating to it, and a lack of mechanism for enforcing what sense there is: so that we need not be surprised if piratical methods in business go unpunished, and are practised by men otherwise of decent character. Beyond this an enormous amount of immorality of all kinds, in our time, may be ascribed to the unsettled condition in which people live. They become moral stragglers, not kept in line by the discipline of any intimate group. This applies not only to those whose economic life shifts from place to place, but also to those who have a stable economic function, but, like many "travelling men," lead a shifting, irresponsible social life.

It is often much the same with men of genius. The very fact that they have original impulses which they must assert against the indifference or hostility of the world about them, compels them to a certain moral isolation, and in hardening themselves against conformity they lose also the wholesome sense of customary right and

( 105) wrong. So they live in a kind of anarchy which may be inseparable from their genius, but is detrimental to their character, and more or less impairs their work.

You may, if you please, pursue the same principle into international relations and the political philosophy of Machiavelli. Among nations bad faith and other conduct regarded as immoral for individuals has flourished because international public opinion has been faint and without hands. This is more true of some epochs than others, and was particularly the case among the small, despotic and transitory states of Italy in the time of the Renaissance. Machiavelli, I suppose, desiring above all things the rise of a Prince who, by gaining supreme power, should unite and pacify the country, laid down for his guidance such rules of success-immoral if applied to personal relations-as he believed were likely to work in the midst of the moral anarchy which prevailed. There is, however, no sound reason for erecting this opportunism into a general principle and holding that international relations are outside the moral sphere. They come within that sphere so fast as single nations develop continuity and depth of life, and nations as a group become more intimate. Then moral sentiment becomes a force which no nation can safely disregard.

In many cases of what we judge to be bad conduct the man belongs to a group whose standards are not the same as those of our own group by which we judge him. If his own group is with him his conscience and self-respect will not suffer, nor will lie, so far as this group is concerned, undergo any blame or moral isolation. Practically all historical judgments are subject to this principle. I may believe that slaveholding was wrong; but it would

( 106) be very naive of me to suppose that slaveholders suffered from a bad conscience, or found this practice any bar to their success. On the contrary, as it is conventional morality that makes for conventional success, it would be the abolitionist who would suffer in a slaveholding society. It is simply a question of the mores, which, as Sumner so clearly showed, may make anything right or anything wrong, so far as a particular group is concerned.

The conflict of group standards within a larger society is also a common example. The political grafter, the unscrupulous man of business, the burglar, or the bad boy, seldom stands alone in his delinquency, but is usually associated with a group whose degenerate standards more or less uphold him, and in which he may be so completely immersed as not to feel the more general standards at all. If so, we cannot expect his conscience will trouble or his group restrain him. That must be done by the larger society, inflicting blame or punishment, and especially, if possible, breaking up the degenerate group. In many, perhaps most, of such cases the mind of the individual is divided; he is conscious of the degenerate standards and also of those of the larger group; they contend for his allegiance.

There is no question of this kind more interesting than that of the effect upon success of a higher or non-conforming morality. What may one expect when he breaks convention and strives to do better than the group that surrounds him? Evidently his situation will in many respects be like that of the wrong-doer; in fact he will usually be a wrong-doer in the eyes of those about him, who have no means of distinguishing a higher transgression from a lower.

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In general this higher righteousness will contribute to an intrinsic success, measured by character, self-respect, and influence, but may be expected to involve some sacrifice of conventional objects like wealth and position. These generally imply conformity to the group that has the power to grant them.

The rewards of the first sort, if only a man has the resolution to put his idea through, are beyond estimate--a worthy kind of pride, a high sense of the reality and significance of his life, the respect and appreciation of congenial spirits, the conviction that he is serving man and God. The bold and constant innovators-whatever their external fortunes may be-are surely as happy a set of men as there is, and we need waste no pity upon them because they are now and then burned at the stake.

The ability to put his idea through, however, depends on his maintaining his faith and self-reliance in spite of the immediate environment, which pours upon him a constant stream of undermining suggestions, tending to make him doubt the reality of his ideas or the practicability of carrying them out. The danger is not so much from assault, which often arouses a wholesome counteraction, as from the indifference that is apt to benumb him. Against these influences he may make head by forming a more sympathetic environment through the aid of friends, of books, of imaginary companions, of anything which may help him to cherish the right kind of thoughts. From the mass of people he may expect only disfavor.

The trouble with many of us is that, though we reject the customary, we have not the resolution and the clearness of mind to carry out our own ideals and accept the consequences. We try to serve two masters. Conscious

(108) that we have deserved well of the world in striving for the higher right, we are not quite content with the higher sort of success appropriate to such a striving, but vaguely feel that we ought to have external rewards too-which is quite unreasonable. This falling between two stools is a much more common cause of failure than excessive boldness. To gain wealth or popularity is success for some, and for them it is a proper aim; but the man of a finer strain must be true to his finer ideal. For him to " decline upon " these things is ruin.

Sir Thomas Browne remarks that "It is a most unjust ambition to desire to engross the mercies of the Almighty" by demanding the goods of body and fortune when we already have those of mind, and goes on to say that God often deals with us like those parents who give most of their material support to their weak or defective children, and leave those that are strong to look out for themselves.[7] Ordinary success--wealth, power, or standing coming as the prompt reward of endeavor--is, after all, for second-rate men, those who do a little better than others the jobs offered by the ruling institutions. The notably wise, good, or original are in some measure protestants against these institutions, and must expect their antagonism. The higher success always has been and always must be attained at more or less sacrifice of the lower. The blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the church.

We ought to be prepared for sacrifice; and yet in these more tolerant times there may be less need for it than we anticipate, and many a young man who has set out pre- pared to renounce the world for an ideal has found that he was not so much ahead of his time as he thought.

( 109) Sometimes he has gained more honor and salary than was good for him, and has ended in a moral relaxation and decline. I think that even if one were advising a young man with a view to worldly success alone, and it were a question between conformity and a bold pursuit of ideals, the latter would usually be the course to recommend, since the gain in character and intrinsic power in following it would more than offset, in most cases, the advantage of conventional approval. Ministers who offend churches by modern views, politicians who refuse to propitiate the corrupt element, business men who will not make the usual compromises with honesty, are as likely as not to profit by their course, though they should be prepared for the opposite. That which appeals to the individual as a higher right seldom appeals to him alone, but is likely to be obscurely working in others also, and on the line of growth for the group as a whole, which may therefore respond to his initiative and make him a leader.

Perhaps this same principle may illuminate the general question of Might versus Right in the social process. We mean by might, I suppose, some established and tangible form of power, like military force, wealth, office, or the like; while right is that which is approved by conscience, perhaps in defiance of all these things. It would seem at first as if these two ought to coincide, that the good should also be the strong.

But if we accept the idea that life is progress, it is easy to see that no such coincidence is to be expected. If we are moving onward and upward by the formation of higher ideals and the struggle to attain them, then our conscience will always be going out from and discrediting the actual forms of power. Whatever is will be wrong, at least to

( 110) the aspiring moral sense. We have, then, between might and right, a relation like that between the mature man and the child, one strong in present force and achievement, the other in promise. Right appeals to our conscience somewhat as the child does, precisely because it is not might, but needs our championship and protection in order that it may live and grow. As time goes on it acquires might and gradually becomes established and institutional, by which time it has ceased to be right in the most vital sense, and something else has taken its place. In this way right is might in the making, while might is right in its old age. Unless we felt the established as wrong, we could not improve it. The tendency of every form of settled power-ruling classes, the creeds of the church, the formulas of the law, the dogmas of the lecture-room, business customs-is bound to be at variance with our ideal. The conflict between might and right is permanent, and is the very process by which we get on.

This way of stating the case would seem to indicate that it is right that precedes and makes might, that a thing comes to power because it appeals to conscience. But it is equally true that might makes right, because ruling conditions help to form our conscience. As our moral ideals develop and we strive to carry them out, we are driven to compromise and to accept as right, principles which will work; and what will work depends in great part on the existing organization, that is, on might. If an idea proves wholly and hopelessly impracticable, it will presently cease to be looked upon as right, The belief in Christian principles of conduct as right would never have persisted if they were as impracticable as is often alleged; they are, on the contrary, widely prac-

( 111) -tised in simple relations, and so appeal to most of us as pointing the way to reasonable improvement in life at large.

Might and right, then, are stages in the social process, the former having more maturity of organization. They both spring from the general organism of life, and interact upon each other. That which proves hopelessly weak can hardly hold its place as right, but no more can anything remain strong if it is irreconcilably opposed to conscience. A heresy in religion is at first assailed by the powers that be as wrong, but if it proves in the conflict to have an intrinsic might, based on its fitness to meet the mental situation, it comes to be acknowledged as right. On the other hand, a system, like militarism, may seem to be the very incarnation of might, and yet if it is essentially at variance with the trend of human life, it will prove to be weak. Behind both might and right is something greater than either, to which both are responsible, namely, the organic whole of onward life.


  1. Psalm 37.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. I Peter 3:12.
  5. See his Essay, Of Glory.
  6. Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, 412.
  7. Religio Medici, par. 18.

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