Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE STATE AS AN ETHICAL PERSON - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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THE STATE AS AN “ETHICAL PERSON” - William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays 
The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914).
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THE STATE AS AN “ETHICAL PERSON”
THE STATE AS AN “ETHICAL PERSON”
We meet often, in current social discussion, with the assertion that “the state is an ethical person.” This is not a proposition concerning a relation of things, which is said to be true, nor is it an observation of fact which can be verified by a new examination; it is an assertion in regard to the standpoint which should be adopted or the mode of conceiving of the matter which should be accepted. Such assertions are, no doubt, extremely useful and fruitful when they are correct; but they are also very easily made, which implies that they are very liable to be incorrect, and they furnish broad ground for fallacious deductions. Let us examine this one.
The student of social welfare finds that the limit of social well-being of the society in the progress of time depends on the possibility of increasing the capital faster than the numbers increase. But so soon as he comes to consider the increase of capital, he finds himself face to face with ethical facts and forces. Capital is the fruit of industry, temperance, prudence, frugality, and other industrial virtues. Here then the welfare of society is found to be rooted in moral forces, and the relation between ethical and social phenomena is given in terms of actual facts and not of rhetorical abstractions. It comes to this: that the question how well off we can be depends at last on the question how rational, virtuous, and enlightened we are. Hence the student of society finds that if the society has developed all the social and economic welfare which its existing moral development will justify or support, then there is no way to get any more welfare, save by advancing the moral development. It is possible that there may be obstacles in the political or social organization which prevent the actual moral power of the people from attaining its maximum result in social and material welfare. In any existing society there are such obstacles, and the field of reform lies in dealing with them. But if we may imagine such obstacles to be removed and all the social machinery to be perfect, we should then have distinctly before us the fact that for every increase of social well-being we must provide by ourselves becoming better men.
It is only putting the same statement in another form to say that whatever deficiencies there are in our society which are important or radical — that is to say, which surpass in magnitude the harm which comes from defects in the social machinery — are due to deficiencies in our moral development. We are as well off as we deserve to be. We are as well off as such moral creatures as we are can be. The solidarity of society holds us together so that, although some of us are better than others in industrial virtue, we must all go together.
Now arises the interesting question: Where can we get any more moral power? Where is there any spring or source of it which we have not yet used? What new stimulus can be applied to the development of moral energy to quicken or intensify it? When, therefore, we are told that the state is an ethical person, the question we have to ask is this: Is the state a source of moral energy which can contribute what is needed? Can it bring to us from some outside source that which, by the facts of the case, we lack? If it can, then indeed it is the most beneficent patron we possess; it has a function which is on the same plane with that ascribed by some theological doctrines to the Holy Spirit. Or, if not that, then it has a function similar to that of the church and the school, only far more elevated and incomparably more direct and effective; and it executes this function, not by acting on the minds and hearts of men, but by mechanical operations, regulations, and ceremonial activities. If the assertion that the state is an ethical person does not mean this, if it does not mean that, in the midst of our social struggles and perplexities, the state is an independent source of power which can be called in to help, by contributing the ethical energy which we need, then that assertion is an empty jingle of words, or, at most, it refers vaguely to the general advantage of the association and co-operation of men with each other. It appears, therefore, that the assertion that we ought to conceive of the state as an ethical person does not rest upon any such solid analysis of the facts of life and the nature of the state as would make it a useful and fruitful proposition for further study of social phenomena, but that it is a product of the phrase-mill. It is one of those mischievous dicta which seem to say something profound; but, upon examination, prove to say nothing which will bear analysis. In current discussion, especially of state interference, this proposition is always invoked just when the real crisis of discussion comes, and it serves to cover the lack of true analysis and sound thinking.
If we turn aside from the special field of social discussion for a moment to call up accepted principles of ethics and of sound thinking, we shall find it undisputed that the source of ethical energy is in the hearts and minds of human beings and not anywhere else. Institutions of which the family, the church, and the school are the chief, which have for their purpose the development of ethical energy in the rising generation, cost energy and give it back. The institution itself produces nothing. It is like any other machine; it only gives direction and combination or division to the forces which are put into it. It is the moral force of the parent and teacher which develops the moral force of the child; the institution is only a convenient arrangement or apparatus for bringing the one to bear on the other. The institution is at its best when it allows this personal contact and relationship to be most direct and simple — that is, when the institution itself counts for the least possible. When we turn to the state, we find that it is not even in nature and purpose, or pretence, an institution like those mentioned. It has its purposes, which are high and important, and for these it needs moral power and consumes moral power. The family, the church, and the school are preparing men and women of moral power for the service of the state; they hand them over, such as they are, to be citizens and members of the commonwealth. In that position their moral capacities are drawn upon; speaking of the society as a whole, we must say that they are used up. The practice of virtue increases virtue, whether it be in the state or the store, the profession or the handicraft; but there is no more reason on that account to call the state an ethical person than there is to apply the same high-sounding epithet to trades or professions. There is no sense in which it may be properly used in the one case in which it would not equally well apply to the other.