The business career in its public relations Part 1

The business career in its public relations.

by Albert Shaw.


Despite all that can still be said against trade practices, against the business lies that are told, the false weights and measures that are used, the trade frauds to which the public is subjected, we are nearer a high commercial standard than ever before in the world's history.

Man's confidence in man is greater than ever before, the commercial loss through fraud and dishonesty is constantly diminishing and standards are slowly but surely moving upward. The honest man's chances for success in business are better than ever before, and the dishonest man's chances for lasting commercial success are less than ever before.

To grow rich by failing in business is no longer regarded as an act of cleverness. The professional bankrupt finds it more and more difficult to get credit. He soon discovers that even his cash will not win for him the attention that his poorer neighbor commands simply by his character.

Education has done splendid service in raising commercial standards. As a rule, the high-toned business man is enlightened, and, as a rule, the dishonest, unscrupulous man in business is ignorant. Great aid in the direction of raising commercial standards may be rendered by the further spreading of knowledge and enlightenment. There are still many misguided men in business who imagine that there can be no success without false weights and measures, without lies and deceit. It is the duty of every man in business, who loves the work in which he is engaged, to do whatever he can to correct this mistaken notion, and to arouse the same sense of honor in the circles of commerce that, as a rule, is found in professional life.

In the decades to come men will take as much pride in being engaged in trade as men always have taken in being members of a liberal profession.

It seemed to me that a step toward hastening such a day might be taken by inviting the best thoughts of some of the country's best minds on the subject of "The Morals of Trade."

What better platform for the expression of such ideas than that furnished by the College of Commerce of the University of California?

What better way to spread such thoughts than by means of their distribution in printed form? What better way to train to higher commercial standards the minds, not only of the youths who are seeking a university education and who have in view a business career, but also of the many already engaged in business who have not had the benefit of a college training?

It seemed to me that such a step might set in motion a commercially educational force which would prove far-reaching in its influence and most helpful in raising business character.

Thoughts such as these prompted the recent establishing of the lectureship on "The Morals of Trade" in connection with the College of Commerce of the University of California.

Let the hope be expressed that this is but the beginning of a movement which may be taken up by abler and wealthier men in business and broadened in many ways. A growing literature on "The Morals of Trade,"

representing the best thoughts of our best minds, is likely to live and to do splendid service in elevating commerce and in raising its standards.


The purpose of this discourse is to set forth some of the social and public aspects of trade and commerce in our modern life. We have heard much in these recent times concerning the State in its relation to trade, industry, and the economic concerns of individuals and groups.

Rapidly changing conditions, however, make it fitting that more should be said from the opposite standpoint;--that is to say, regarding the responsibilities of the business community as such toward the State in particular and toward the whole social organism in general.

Some of the thoughts to which I should like to give expression might perhaps too readily fall into abstract or philosophical terms. They might, on the other hand, only too readily clothe themselves in cant phrases and assume the hortatory tone. I shall try to avoid dialectic or theory on the one hand, and preaching on the other. I take it that what I am to say is addressed chiefly to young men, and that it ought to serve a practical object.

In the universities the spirit of idealism dominates. The academic point of view is not merely an intellectual one, but it is also ethical and altruistic. In the business world, on the other hand, we are told that no success is possible except that which is based upon the motive of money-getting by any means, however ruthless. We are told that the standards of business life are in conflict irreconcilable with true idealistic aims. It is this situation that I wish to analyze and discuss; for it concerns the student in a very direct way.

Our moralists point out the dangerous prevalence of those low standards of personal life and conduct summed up in the term "commercialism." We are warned by some of our foremost teachers and ethical leaders against commercialism in politics and commercialism in society. So bitterly reprobated indeed is the influence of commercialism that it might be inferred that commerce itself is at best a necessary evil and a thing to be apologized for. But if we are to accept this point of view without careful discrimination, we may well be alarmed; for we live in a world given over as never before to the whirl of industry and the rush and excitement of the market-place.

This, of all ages, is the age of the business man. The heroic times when warfare was the chief concern of nations, have long since passed by. So too the ages of faith,--when theology was the mainspring of action, when whole peoples went on long crusades, and when building cathedrals and burning heretics were typical of men's efforts and convictions--have fallen far into the historic background. Further, we would seem in the main to have left behind us that period of which the French Revolution is the most conspicuous landmark, when the gaining of political liberty for the individual seemed the one supreme good, and the object for which nations and communities were ready to sacrifice all else.

Through these and other periods characterized by their own especial aims and ideals, we have come to an age when commercialism is the all-absorbing thing; and we are told by pessimists that these dominant conditions are hopelessly incompatible with academic idealism or with the maintenance of high ethical standards, whether for the guidance of the individual himself or for the acceptance and control of the community. It is precisely this state of affairs, then, that I desire briefly to consider. And I shall keep in mind those bearings of it that might seem to have some relation to the views and aims of students who are soon to go out from the sheltered life of the university,--under the necessity, whether they shrink from it or not, of becoming part and parcel of this organism of business and trade that has invaded almost every sphere of modern activity.

I have only recently heard a great and eloquent teacher of morals, himself an exponent of the highest and finest culture to which we have attained, speak in terms of the utmost doubt and anxiety regarding the drift of the times. To his mind, the evils and dangers accompanying the stupendous developments of our day are such as to set what he called commercialism in direct antagonism to all that in his mind represented the higher good, which he termed idealism. The impression that he left upon his audience was that the forces of our present-day business life are inherently opposed to the achievement of the best results in statecraft and in the general life of the community. He could propose no remedy for the evils he deplored except education, and the saving of the old ideals through the remnant of the faithful who had not bowed the knee in the temple of Mammon. But he pointed out no way by which to protect the tender blossoms of academic idealism, when they meet their inevitable exposure in due time to the blighting and withering blasts of the commercialism that to him seemed so little reconcilable with the good, the true, and the beautiful.

To all this the practical man can only reply, that if, indeed, commercialism itself cannot be made to furnish a soil and an atmosphere in which idealism can grow, bud, blossom, and bear glorious fruit,--then idealism is hopelessly a lost cause. If it be not possible to promote things ideally good through these very forces of commercial and industrial life, then the outlook is a gloomy one for the social moralist and the political purist.

It is not a defensive position that I propose to take. I should not think it needful at this time even so much as briefly to reflect any of those timorous and painful arguments _pro_ and _con_ that one finds at times running through the columns of the press, particularly of the religious weeklies, on such a question as, for example, whether nowadays a man can at the same time be a true Christian and a successful business man; or whether the observance of the principles of common honesty is at all compatible with a winning effort to make a decent living.

I am well aware that the thoughtful and intellectual founder of this lectureship, under which I have been invited to speak, takes no such narrow view either of morality on the one hand or of the function of business life on the other. His definition of morality in business would demand something very different from the mere avoidance of certain obvious transgressions of the accepted rules of conduct, particularly of that commandment which says: "Thou shalt not steal."

Nor, on the other hand, would his definition of the functions of business life be in any manner bounded by the notion that business is a pursuit having for its sole object the getting of the largest possible amount of money.

Those people who are content to apply negative moral standards to the carrying on of business life remind one of the little boy's familiar definition of salt: "Salt," said he, "is what makes potatoes taste bad when you don't put any on." According to that sort of definition, morality in business would be defined as that quality which makes the grocer good and respectable when he resists temptation and does not put sand in the sugar. The smug maxim that honesty is the best policy, while doubtless true enough as a verdict of human experience under normal conditions, is not fitted to arouse much enthusiasm as a statement of ultimate ethical aims and ideals.

If it were admitted that the sole or guiding motive in a business career must needs be the accumulation of money, I should certainly not think it worth while, in the name of trade morals, to urge young men who are to enter business life that they play the game according to safe and well-recognized rules. I would not take the trouble to advise them to study the penal code and to familiarize themselves with the legal definitions of grand and petit larceny, of embezzlement, or fraud, or arson, in order that they might escape certain hazards that beset a too narrow kind of devotion to business success. It is true, doubtless, that a business career affords peculiar opportunities, and is therefore subject to its own characteristic temptations, as respects the purely private and personal standards of conduct.

The magnitude of our economic movement, the very splendor of the opportunities that the swift development of a vast young country like ours affords, must inevitably in some cases upset at once the sober business judgment of men, and in some cases the standard of personal honor and good faith, in the temptation to get rich quickly; so that wrong is done thereby to a man's associates or to those whose interests are in his hands, while still greater wrong is done to his own character.

But, even against this dangerous greed for wealth and the unscrupulousness and ruthlessness which it engenders, it is no part of my present object to warn any young man. I take it that the negative standards of private conduct are usually not much affected by a man's choice of a pursuit in life. If any man's honor could be filched from him by a merely pecuniary reward, whether greater or less, I should not think it likely that he would be much safer in the long run if he chose the clerical profession, for example, than if he went into business.

Sooner or later his character would disclose itself. It is not, then, of the private and negative standards of conduct that I wish to speak,--except by way of such allusions as these. And even these allusions are only for the sake of making more distinct the positive and active phases of business ethics that I should like to present in such a way as to fasten them upon the attention.

Many young men, to whom these views are addressed, will doubtless choose, or have already chosen, what is commonly known as a professional career. The ministry, law, and medicine are the oldest and best recognized of the so-called liberal or learned professions. Now what are the distinctive marks of professional life? Are the men who practice these professions not also business men? And if so, how are they different from those business men who are considered laymen, or non-professional? Obviously the distinctions that are to be drawn, if any, are in the nature of marked tendencies. We shall not expect to find any hard and fast lines. Many lawyers, some doctors, and a few clergymen are clearly enough business men, in the sense that they attach more importance to the economic bearings of the part they play in the social organism than to the higher ethical or intellectual aspects of their work.

I have read and heard many definitions of what really constitutes a professional man. Whatever else, however, may characterize the nature of his calling, it seems to me plain that no man can be thought a true or worthy member of a profession who does not admit, both in theory and in the rules and practices of his life, that he has a public function to serve, and that he must frequently be at some discomfort or disadvantage because of the calls of professional duty. The laborer is worthy of his hire; and the professional man is entitled to obtain, if he can, a competence for himself and his family from the useful and productive service he is rendering to his fellow men. He may even, through genius or through the great confidence his character and skill inspire, gain considerable wealth in the practice of his profession.

But if he is a true professional man he does not derive his incentive to effort solely or chiefly from the pecuniary gains that his profession brings him. Nor is the amount of his income regarded among the fellow members of his profession as the true test or measure of his success.

Thus the lawyer, in the theory of his profession, bears an important public relation to the dispensing of justice and to the protection of the innocent and the feeble. He is not a private person, but a part of the system for supporting the reign of law and of right in the community. Historically, in this country, the lawyer has also borne a great part in the making and administering of our institutions of government. If, as some of us think, the ethical code of that profession needs to be somewhat revised in view of present-day conditions, and needs also to be more sternly applied to some of the members of the profession, it is true, none the less, that there clearly belongs to this great calling a series of duties of a public nature, some of them imposed by the laws of the land, and others inherent in the very nature of the occupation itself.

It is true in an even more marked and undeniable fashion that the profession of medicine, by virtue of its public and social aspects, is distinguished in a marked way from a calling in life in which a man might feel that what he did was strictly his own business, subject to nobody's scrutiny, or inquiry, or interference. The physician's public obligation is in part prescribed by the laws of the State which regulate medical practice, and in very large part by the professional codes which have been evolved by the profession itself for its own guidance. It is not the amount of his fee that the overworked doctor is thinking about when he risks his own health in response to night calls, or when he devotes himself to some especially painful or difficult case. Nor is it a mere consideration of his possible earnings that would deter him from seeking comfort and safety by taking his family to Europe at a time when an epidemic had broken out in his own neighborhood.

I need not allude to the unselfish devotion to the good of the community that in so high a degree marks the lives of most of the members of the clerical profession, for this is evident to all observant persons.

On the other hand, it cannot be too clearly perceived that there is nothing in the disinterestedness, and in the obligation to render public service characterizing professional life that amounts to unnatural self-denial or painful renunciation,--unless in some extreme and individual cases. On the contrary, professional life at its best offers a great advantage in so far as it permits a man to think first of the work he is doing and the social service he is rendering, rather than of pecuniary reward. I have myself on more than one occasion pointed out to young men the greater prospect for happiness in life that comes with the choice of a calling in which the work itself primarily focuses the attention, and in which the pecuniary reward comes as an incident rather than as the conscious and direct result of a given effort.

The greatest pleasure in work is that which comes from the trained and regulated exercise of the faculty of imagination. In the conduct of every law case this faculty has abundant opportunity, as it also has in the efforts of the physician to aid nature in the restoration of health and vigor in the individual, or in the sanitary protection of the community. I hope I have made clear this point: that pecuniary success, even in large measure, in the work of a professional man, may be entirely compatible with disinterested devotion to a kind of work that makes for the public weal, while it is also worthy of pursuit for its own sake, and brings content and even happiness in the doing. And it is clear enough, in the case of a professional man, that he is false to his profession and to his plain obligations if he shows himself to be ruled by the anti-social spirit; that is to say, if he considers himself absolved from any duties towards the community about him; thinks that the practice of his profession is a private affair for his own profit and advantage, and holds that he has done his whole duty when he has escaped liability for malpractice or disbarment.

But the three oldest and best recognized professions no longer stand alone, in the estimation of our higher educational authorities and of the intelligent public. In a democracy like ours, with a constantly advancing conception of what is involved in education for citizenship and for participation in every individual function of the social and economic life, the work of the teacher comes to be recognized as professional in the highest sense. Teaching, indeed, seems destined in the near future to become the very foremost of all the professions.

This recognition will come when the idea takes full possession of the public mind that the chief task of each generation is to train the next one, and to transmit such stores of knowledge and useful experience as it has received from its predecessors or has evolved for itself.

It is obvious enough that the work of the teacher gives room for the play of the loftiest ideals, and that its functions are essentially public and disinterested. But there are other callings, such as those of the architect and engineer, which have also come to be spoken of as professional in their nature. Their kinship to the older professions has been more readily recognized by the men of conservative university traditions, because much of the preparation for these callings can advantageously be of an academic sort. Architecture in its historical aspects is closely associated with the study of classical periods; while the profession of the engineer relates itself to the immemorial university devotion to mathematics. And in like manner the man who for practical purposes becomes a chemist or an electrician would be easily admitted by President Eliot, for example, to the favored fellowship of the professional classes for the reason, first, of the disciplinary and liberalizing nature of the studies that underlie his calling, and, in the second place, of the public and social aspects of the functions he fulfils in the pursuit of his vocation.

The architect, the civil or mechanical or electrical engineer, and the chemist, as well as the professional teacher, the trained librarian, or the journalist who carries on his work with due sense of its almost unequaled public duties and responsibilities,--all these are now admitted by dicta of our foremost authorities to a place equal with the law, medicine, and the ministry in the list of the professions; that is to say, in the group of callings which, under my definition, are distinguished especially by their public character. And in this group, of course, should be included politicians, legislators, and public administrators in so far as they serve the public interests reputably and in a professional spirit. Nor should we forget such special classes of public servants as the officers of the army and navy; while nobody will deny public character and professional rank to men of letters, artists, musicians and actors.

In all these callings it is demanded not merely that men shall be subject to the private rules of conduct,--that they must not cheat, or lie, or steal, or bear false witness, or be bad neighbors or undesirable citizens,--but in addition and in the most important sense that they shall be subject to positive ethical standards that relate to the welfare of the whole community, and that require of them the exercise of a true public spirit.

The man of public spirit is he who is able at a given moment, under certain conditions, to set the public welfare before his own.

Furthermore, he is a man who is trained and habituated to that point of view, so that he is not aware of any pangs of martyrdom or even of any exercise of self-denial when he is concerning himself about the public good even to his own momentary inconvenience or disadvantage. Public spirit is that state or habit of mind which leads a man to care greatly for the general welfare. It is this ethical quality that to my mind should be the great aim and object of training.

On its best side, what we term the professional spirit is, then, very closely related to this commendable quality in men of a right intellectual and moral development that we call public spirit. The chief difference lies in this: that whereas all professional men may be public-spirited in a general sense, each professional man should, in addition, manifest a special and technical sort of public spirit that pertains to the nature of his calling. The lawyer should have a particularly keen regard for the equitable administration of justice.

The doctor should truly care for the physical wholesomeness and well-being of the community. The clergyman should be alive to those things that concern the rectitude and purity of life. The journalist should be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the enlightenment of public opinion; and so on. Without either the general or the technical manifestations of public spirit, in short, the so-called professional man is a reproach to his guild and a failure in his neighborhood.

Now, what has all this to do with the moral standards that belong to the business career as distinguished from the professional life? My answer must be very clear and very direct if I am to justify so long an analysis of the ethical characteristics of the professions themselves.

I have merely used the time-honored method of trying to lead you by way of familiar, admitted points of view to certain points of view that, if not wholly new, are at least less familiar and less widely recognized.

The whole thesis that I wish to develop is simply this: that however it may have been in business life in times past and gone, there has been such a tremendous change in the organization and methods of the business world and also in the relative importance of the functions of the business man in the community, that the distinctions which have hitherto set apart the professional classes have become obsolete for all practical purposes in many branches and departments of the business world.

Chapter end

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