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The Man of Principle in Business.
That the business man, whether mechanic, trader, or merchant, is exposed to many temptations, and some of them peculiarly trying, from their very nature, to his integrity, it would be alike unjust and idle to deny. I look upon business of every kind, but especially the pursuits of the merchant and the trader, as a school, a severe discipline of the moral nature, as well as a means of livelihood and accumulation. There is no greater or sterner test of principle, no more certain method of determining the measure of a man's moral power, than to push him forth into the great business world, and there leave him to make his way through it. If there is any good in the man, it will show itself now; if any evil, this will show itself also.
The temptations starting up in the path of this man, and making trial of his moral strength, come in the shape of speculation, often the twin-brother of gambling; the passion for a fortune; the power and social position which wealth gives to its possessor; concealment and deception in purchase and sale; over-trading, and straining of credit, to unjust and dangerous extent; oppression of those ernployed, by compelling much labor for little
pay; the adoption of a loose code of morals in business, as, for example, "all is fair in trade;" infidelity to contracts; the slighting of work, substituting an inferior work or article in the place of what was agreed upon, because the employing or purchasing party may not be in a situation to detect the cheat; asking and taking more than the market price and the fair value of an article, because the ignorance of the buyer may be security against discovery.
These are some of the temptations to which the man of business is perpetually exposed; and to resist them all successfully and steadily, and at the close of business, or of life, to come forth from the fiery furnace unscathed, without spot or blemish, with unshaken integrity, and a conscience void of offence--this is a great thing. Shal. low thinkers and flippant talkers may say that this is no more than what every one ought to do, that all are bound to be honest and just. But how many of us do what we ought to do, or are what we are bound to be. And are these vain talkers themselves without sin ? Have they withstood the trial successfully in all points ?
But now let us come more directly to the point intended for review - the relation of these temptations to the moral nature, the moral life of the man; and the importance of settled, fixed principles of action, as the only hope and promise of a safe deliverance out of these difficulties.
It is not always easy to decide as to the right. Conscience in many cases seems a ruler and a judge, rather than a guide ; and commands only to do right, but does not show us what the right is. There are men, business men, who mean religiously to obey the voice of conscience, who resolve to do no wrong thing; but still often find it difficult to determine how to act in obedience to this resolve, difficult to decide upon the nature and moral relations of a given transaction of trade or labor. A thoughtful man cannot be insensible to the complex difficulties of this sort, which not unfrequently beset the action of the business community; and would not be censorious, nor indulge in mere declamation, but frankly allow, and endeavor to feel, their perplexities.
As an example,--Cicero two thousand years ago pro
posed the following: A corn' merchant of Alexandria arrived at Rhodes, in a time of great scarcity, with a cargo of grain, and with the knowledge that a number of other vessels laden with corn, had already sailed from Alexandria for Rhodes, and which he had passed on the voyage. These would probably arrive on the morrow, or the next day. Now was this merchant morally bound to inform the buyers of this fact ? was he obligated to say to the Rhodians, that several cargoes of corn would be in port in a day or two, which would materially reduce the price? Cicero declares that he was, and Cicero was a heathen; but the Christians Grotius, Puffendorf and others, say no.
There is much to be said on both sides of this question, which is only one of a thousand. The superior sailing of the Alexandrine merchant may have been the result of years of study, and labor, and skill in building and fitting his ships. Shall he have no reward for all this? And on the voyage he may have been up day and night, watching the winds, trimming his sails, and laying his course to the best advantage. Shall'he derive no profit from his industry, enterprise and exposure ? And perhaps through his superior diligence, and the superior build and sailing of his ships, the news of the scarcity at Rhodes was known much sooner, and the supply the the sooner returned, and the suffering sooner ended. Shall he be the only one who has no advantage from this? Perhaps the scarcity at Rhodes might have been prevented by the merchants of that place, had they been as prudent, watchful and energetic as he. Moreover, if he tells of the ships in the offing, they will not buy of him, they will wait till they arrive, and the market falls ; and so he loses his voyage, and perhaps by this and similar actions, becomes bankrupt, injures his creditors and beggars his family.
These are certainly considerations worthy of being weighed before a verdict is made up. But then there is something to be said on the other side. All trade or traffic must rest on the basis of truth, honesty, fairness; or it ceases to be trade, and becomes virtual
1 Dewey has cited this illustration. Works ii. 173.
The very idea of trade implies a mutual confidence and honesty, and also mutual advantage. If I ask you a certain price for an article you wish to purchase, it is implied, nay, it is universally understood, that I think it is worth the price asked. You have a right to demand of me that I shall not deceive you, that I shall speak and act truth. If I conceal from you any defect in the article, or any knowledge I may possess affecting its price or market value ;-or, in other words, if I know certain things or circumstances affecting the value of the article, and conceal these from you that I may extort from you a price which, if you knew them, you would not give, simply because the article is not worth it--then is not this deception ? is it not a fraud, a practical lie? And if so, how far can the conventional laws of trade, established by man, modify or change the eternal laws of truth and justice established by God?
Suppose the Alexandrine merchant had found a man of the Rhodians reduced to utmost distress by the famine, but unable to purchase any grain previous to his arrival; suppose the merchant, seeing this man's distress, takes advantage of it, and compels him to give up all his property in exchange for a few bushels of grain to keep himself and family from starving-concealing from him of course the fact that the next day, on the arrival of the other ships, there would be an abundance at a reasonable rate. What should we say of this? Would it be trading, or robbery ? Could any conventional mercantile rules, or any risks of traffic, justify this act ?
But if it is wrong to go to this extent in using to selfish ends one's superior knowledge, skill or enterprise, to what extent may one go lawfully, morally speaking? How high a price may the merchant or trader justly put upon these ? and who is to be the judge, the buyer or the seller ? Doubtless the Alexandrine corn-merchant is entitled to some premium for his diligence, watchfulness, and that skill which is the fruit of years of painful toil and studybut how much? And precisely here is the difficulty, respecting which the man of principle finds it often quite impossible to satisfy himself. He is ready to obey the dictates of conscience, if she will speak intelligibly, distinctly. He will do right if she will lay her finger