Sumner says there’s a time to talk about the reasons people get into trouble, and a time to help them.

William Graham Sumner held a professorship in political economy at Yale and did pioneering work in sociology when the field was in its infancy. In addition to doing academic work that spanned a multitude of disciplines, he wrote popular essays for publications like Harper’s Weekly.

Suppose that a man, going through a wood, should be struck by a falling tree and pinned down beneath it. Suppose that another man, coming that way and finding him there, should, instead of hastening to give or to bring aid, begin to lecture on the law of gravitation, taking the tree as an illustration.

Suppose, again, that a person lecturing on the law of gravitation should state the law of falling bodies, and suppose that an objector should say: You state your law as a cold, mathematical fact and you declare that all bodies will fall conformably to it. How heartless! You do not reflect that it may be a beautiful little child falling from a window.

These two suppositions may be of some use to us as illustrations.

Let us take the second first. It is the objection of the sentimentalist; and, ridiculous as the mode of discussion appears when applied to the laws of natural philosophy, the sociologist is constantly met by objections of just that character. Especially when the subject under discussion is charity in any of its public forms, the attempt to bring method and clearness into the discussion is sure to be crossed by suggestions which are as far from the point and as foreign to any really intelligent point of view as the supposed speech in the illustration. In the first place, a child would fall just as a stone would fall. Nature’s forces know no pity. Just so in sociology. The forces know no pity. In the second place, if a natural philosopher should discuss all the bodies which may fall, he would go entirely astray, and would certainly do no good. The same is true of the sociologist. He must concentrate, not scatter, and study laws, not all conceivable combinations of force which may occur in practice. In the third place, nobody ever saw a body fall as the philosophers say it will fall, because they can accomplish nothing unless they study forces separately, and allow for their combined action in all concrete and actual phenomena. The same is true in sociology, with the additional fact that the forces and their combinations in sociology are far the most complex which we have to deal with. In the fourth place, any natural philosopher who should stop, after stating the law of falling bodies, to warn mothers not to let their children fall out of the window, would make himself ridiculous. Just so a sociologist who should attach moral applications and practical maxims to his investigations would entirely miss his proper business. There is the force of gravity as a fact in the world. If we understand this, the necessity of care to conform to the action of gravity meets us at every step in our private life and personal experience. The fact in sociology is in no wise different.

If, for instance, we take political economy, that science does not teach an individual how to get rich. It is a social science. It treats of the laws of the material welfare of human societies. It is, therefore, only one science among all the sciences which inform us about the laws and conditions of our life on earth. Education has for its object to give a man knowledge of the conditions and laws of living, so that, in any case in which the individual stands face to face with the necessity of deciding what to do, if he is an educated man, he may know how to make a wise and intelligent decision. If he knows chemistry, physics, geology, and other sciences, he will know what he must encounter of obstacle or help in Nature in what he proposes to do. If he knows physiology and hygiene, he will know what effects on health he must expect in one course or another. If he knows political economy, he will know what effect on wealth and on the welfare of society one course or another will produce. There is no injunction, no “ought” in political economy at all. It does not assume to tell man what he ought to do, any more than chemistry tells us that we ought to mix things, or mathematics that we ought to solve equations. It only gives one element necessary to an intelligent decision, and in every practical and concrete case the responsibility of deciding what to do rests on the man who has to act. The economist, therefore, does not say to any one, You ought never to give money to charity. He contradicts anybody who says, You ought to give money to charity; and, in opposition to any such person, he says, Let me show you what difference it makes to you, to others, to society, whether you give money to charity or not, so that you can make a wise and intelligent decision. Certainly there is no harder thing to do than to employ capital charitably. It would be extreme folly to say that nothing of that sort ought to be done, but I fully believe that today the next pernicious thing to vice is charity in its broad and popular sense.

In the preceding chapters I have discussed the public and social relations of classes, and those social topics in which groups of persons are considered as groups or classes, without regard to personal merits or demerits. I have relegated all charitable work to the domain of private relations, where personal acquaintance and personal estimates may furnish the proper limitations and guarantees. A man who had no sympathies and no sentiments would be a very poor creature; but the public charities, more especially the legislative charities, nourish no man’s sympathies and sentiments. Furthermore, it ought to be distinctly perceived that any charitable and benevolent effort which any man desires to make voluntarily, to see if he can do any good, lies entirely beyond the field of discussion. It would be as impertinent to prevent his effort as it is to force co‐​operation in an effort on some one who does not want to participate in it. What I choose to do by way of exercising my own sympathies under my own reason and conscience is one thing; what another man forces me to do of a sympathetic character, because his reason and conscience approve of it, is quite another thing.

What, now, is the reason why we should help each other? This carries us back to the other illustration with which we started. We may philosophize as coolly and correctly as we choose about our duties and about the laws of right living; no one of us lives up to what he knows. The man struck by the falling tree has, perhaps, been careless. We are all careless. Environed as we are by risks and perils, which befall us as misfortunes, no man of us is in a position to say, “I know all the laws, and am sure to obey them all; therefore I shall never need aid and sympathy.” At the very best, one of us fails in one way and another in another, if we do not fail altogether. Therefore the man under the tree is the one of us who for the moment is smitten. It may be you to‐​morrow, and I next day. It is the common frailty in the midst of a common peril which gives us a kind of solidarity of interest to rescue the one for whom the chances of life have turned out badly just now. Probably the victim is to blame. He almost always is so. A lecture to that effect in the crisis of his peril would be out of place, because it would not fit the need of the moment; but it would be very much in place at another time, when the need was to avert the repetition of such an accident to somebody else. Men, therefore, owe to men, in the chances and perils of this life, aid and sympathy, on account of the common participation in human frailty and folly. This observation, however, puts aid and sympathy in the field of private and personal relations, under the regulation of reason and conscience, and gives no ground for mechanical and impersonal schemes.

We may, then, distinguish four things:

  1. The function of science is to investigate truth. Science is colorless and impersonal. It investigates the force of gravity, and finds out the laws of that force, and has nothing to do with the weal or woe of men under the operation of the law.
  2. The moral deductions as to what one ought to do are to be drawn by the reason and conscience of the individual man who is instructed by science. Let him take note of the force of gravity, and see to it that he does not walk off a precipice or get in the way of a falling body.
  3. On account of the number and variety of perils of all kinds by which our lives are environed, and on account of ignorance, carelessness, and folly, we all neglect to obey the moral deductions which we have learned, so that, in fact, the wisest and the best of us act foolishly and suffer.
  4. The law of sympathy, by which we share each others’ burdens, is to do as we would be done by. It is not a scientific principle, and does not admit of such generalization or interpretation that A can tell B what this law enjoins on B to do. Hence the relations of sympathy and sentiment are essentially limited to two persons only, and they cannot be made a basis for the relations of groups of persons, or for discussion by any third party.

Social improvement is not to be won by direct effort. It is secondary, and results from physical or economic improvements. That is the reason why schemes of direct social amelioration always have an arbitrary, sentimental, and artificial character, while true social advance must be a product and a growth. The efforts which are being put forth for every kind of progress in the arts and sciences are, therefore, contributing to true social progress. Let any one learn what hardship was involved, even for a wealthy person, a century ago, in crossing the Atlantic, and then let him compare that hardship even with a steerage passage at the present time, considering time and money cost. This improvement in transportation by which “the poor and weak” can be carried from the crowded centres of population to the new land is worth more to them than all the schemes of all the social reformers. An improvement in surgical instruments or in anaesthetics really does more for those who are not well off than all the declamations of the orators and pious wishes of the reformers. Civil service reform would be a greater gain to the laborers than innumerable factory acts and eight‐​hour laws. Free trade would be a greater blessing to “the poor man” than all the devices of all the friends of humanity if they could be realized. If the economists could satisfactorily solve the problem of the regulation of paper currency, they would do more for the wages class than could be accomplished by all the artificial doctrines about wages which they seem to feel bound to encourage. If we could get firm and good laws passed for the management of savings‐​banks, and then refrain from the amendments by which those laws are gradually broken down, we should do more for the non‐​capitalist class than by volumes of laws against “corporations” and the “excessive power of capital.”

We each owe to the other mutual redress of grievances. It has been said, in answer to my argument in the last chapter about the Forgotten Women and thread, that the tax on thread is “only a little thing,” and that it cannot hurt the women much, and also that, if the women do not want to pay two cents a spool tax, there is thread of an inferior quality, which they can buy cheaper. These answers represent the bitterest and basest social injustice. Every honest citizen of a free state owes it to himself, to the community, and especially to those who are at once weak and wronged, to go to their assistance and to help redress their wrongs. Whenever a law or social arrangement acts so as to injure any one, and that one the humblest, then there is a duty on those who are stronger, or who know better, to demand and fight for redress and correction. When generalized this means that it is the duty of All‐​of‐​us (that is, the State) to establish justice for all, from the least to the greatest, and in all matters. This, however, is no new doctrine. It is only the old, true, and indisputable function of the State; and in working for a redress of wrongs and a correction of legislative abuses, we are only struggling to a fuller realization of it—that is, working to improve civil government.

We each owe it to the other to guarantee rights. Rights do not pertain to results, but only to chances. They pertain to the conditions of the struggle for existence, not to any of the results of it; to the pursuit of happiness, not to the possession of happiness. It cannot be said that each one has a right to have some property, because if one man had such a right some other man or men would be under a corresponding obligation to provide him with some property. Each has a right to acquire and possess property if he can. It is plain what fallacies are developed when we overlook this distinction. Those fallacies run through all socialistic schemes and theories. If we take rights to pertain to results, and then say that rights must be equal, we come to say that men have a right to be equally happy, and so on in all the details. Rights should be equal, because they pertain to chances, and all ought to have equal chances so far as chances are provided or limited by the action of society. This, however, will not produce equal results, but it is right just because it will produce unequal results—that is, results which shall be proportioned to the merits of individuals. We each owe it to the other to guarantee mutually the chance to earn, to possess, to learn, to marry, etc., etc., against any interference which would prevent the exercise of those rights by a person who wishes to prosecute and enjoy them in peace for the pursuit of happiness. If we generalize this, it means that All‐​of‐​us ought to guarantee rights to each of us. But our modern free, constitutional States are constructed entirely on the notion of rights, and we regard them as performing their functions more and more perfectly according as they guarantee rights in consonance with the constantly corrected and expanded notions of rights from one generation to another. Therefore, when we say that we owe it to each other to guarantee rights we only say that we ought to prosecute and improve our political science.

If we have in mind the value of chances to earn, learn, possess, etc., for a man of independent energy, we can go on one step farther in our deductions about help. The only help which is generally expedient, even within the limits of the private and personal relations of two persons to each other, is that which consists in helping a man to help himself. This always consists in opening the chances. A man of assured position can by an effort which is of no appreciable importance to him, give aid which is of incalculable value to a man who is all ready to make his own career if he can only get a chance. The truest and deepest pathos in this world is not that of suffering but that of brave struggling. The truest sympathy is not compassion, but a fellow‐​feeling with courage and fortitude in the midst of noble effort.

Now, the aid which helps a man to help himself is not in the least akin to the aid which is given in charity. If alms are given, or if we “make work” for a man, or “give him employment,” or “protect” him, we simply take a product from one and give it to another. If we help a man to help himself, by opening the chances around him, we put him in a position to add to the wealth of the community by putting new powers in operation to produce. It would seem that the difference between getting something already in existence from the one who has it, and producing a new thing by applying new labor to natural materials, would be so plain as never to be forgotten; but the fallacy of confusing the two is one of the commonest in all social discussions.

We have now seen that the current discussions about the claims and rights of social classes on each other are radically erroneous and fallacious, and we have seen that an analysis of the general obligations which we all have to each other leads us to nothing but an emphatic repetition of old but well acknowledged obligations to perfect our political institutions. We have been led to restriction, not extension, of the functions of the State, but we have also been led to see the necessity of purifying and perfecting the operation of the State in the functions which properly belong to it. If we refuse to recognize any classes as existing in society when, perhaps, a claim might be set up that the wealthy, educated, and virtuous have acquired special rights and precedence, we certainly cannot recognize any classes when it is attempted to establish such distinctions for the sake of imposing burdens and duties on one group for the benefit of others. The men who have not done their duty in this world never can be equal to those who have done their duty more or less well. If words like wise and foolish, thrifty and extravagant, prudent and negligent, have any meaning in language, then it must make some difference how people behave in this world, and the difference will appear in the position they acquire in the body of society, and in relation to the chances of life. They may, then, be classified in reference to these facts. Such classes always will exist; no other social distinctions can endure. If, then, we look to the origin and definition of these classes, we shall find it impossible to deduce any obligations which one of them bears to the other. The class distinctions simply result from the different degrees of success with which men have availed themselves of the chances which were presented to them. Instead of endeavoring to redistribute the acquisitions which have been made between the existing classes, our aim should be to increase, multiply, and extend the chances. Such is the work of civilization. Every old error or abuse which is removed opens new chances of development to all the new energy of society. Every improvement in education, science, art, or government expands the chances of man on earth. Such expansion is no guarantee of equality. On the contrary, if there be liberty, some will profit by the chances eagerly and some will neglect them altogether. Therefore, the greater the chances the more unequal will be the fortune of these two sets of men. So it ought to be, in all justice and right reason. The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization. But if we can expand the chances we can count on a general and steady growth of civilization and advancement of society by and through its best members. In the prosecution of these chances we all owe to each other good‐​will, mutual respect, and mutual guarantees of liberty and security. Beyond this nothing can be affirmed as a duty of one group to another in a free state.

This essay appeared in an anthology of Sumner’s work titled What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.