The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Answer of Ethics

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the final section of the lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, by Eli Siegel. It is from his great Goodbye Profit System series of lectures, begun in the spring of 1970. They illustrate and document this fact, which Mr. Siegel was the person to state, and which is affecting in an enormous, permeating way the life of every individual now:

What is being shown today is that without good will, the toughest, most inconsiderate of activities—economics—cannot do so well....The world has now come to such a geographic or historic state [that] ethics... must be honored...for production and distribution in the world to go well. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 2, 159, 161]

In his teaching of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel showed that there are two desires fighting within every person. These are 1) our deepest desire—to like the world, see meaning in it; and 2) our desire for contempt, to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He showed that contempt, while very ordinary, is always noxious. It is the source of every cruelty—from insufficient interest in the feelings of one’s spouse, to bombing a nation of people. The profit motive as such is sheer contempt. When your motivating interest is how much money you can make from someone, you can’t, as I once wrote, be too interested in what that person feels and deserves: it will cramp your ability to make profit from him or her.

Ethics: A Force

In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that ethics as a force working in history had, after hundreds of years, made the profit system no longer able to succeed. He described many ways that ethics had caused the use of human beings for profit to become a permanent failure. Here are two: 

1) Because of unions, by 1970 employers were being made to pay workers more decently, and to provide safer working conditions, and benefits. This long-fought-for greater justice was cutting into the profits of bosses and stockholders. Every cent of wealth a person creates with his hours of hard work is either going to go to him, or is going to be taken from him in the form of profits to people who didn’t do the work. To pay starvation wages, and have people work in poorly ventilated shops, inhaling chemicals that ate their lungs out, was very profitable. Paying better wages, providing safer working conditions, was much less profitable.

2) A second big form of ethics working as force in economic history, Mr. Siegel described this way in June 1970: “America is not the only country now with industrial know-how....There is more competition with the American product” (GPS:U, pp. 46-47). For people of all nations to know more about science, technology, production is an ethical victory—but it is a huge interference to US corporations, which once did not have to contend with rivals. “More competition with the American product”—about which Mr. Siegel spoke as it was beginning—has become a massive thing, making profit-getting increasingly difficult.

In other TROs, I have described what has been done these years to keep big profits coming to a few persons: Americans are being made to work for less, to accept a diminishing standard of living, perpetual job insecurity, a declining middle class, and the impoverishment of millions of American children. Many companies are having work that Americans once did, be done in Guatemala or Indonesia, because while our minimum wage won’t permit a US family to live decently, it also won’t supply the kind of profits that businesses crave.

What People Really Feel

In the final portions of Ownership, Strikes, Unions, Mr. Siegel shows that there has been in Americans a deep dislike of the profit system throughout our history. Today, in 1999, that dislike is larger than it ever was. Men and women in every state may not be able to put it in words, but they despise the fact that people—including oneself—are seen not in terms of “Who is this person? What is he or she hoping for?” but in terms of “How much can be gotten out of this person while giving him or her as little as possible?”

The feeling against profit economics pervades America in thousands of ways. For instance: If you say “Wall Street” to someone, the person’s feeling will not be that something noble has been mentioned, but something selfish, devious, and cold.

In television commercials, when bosses are presented they are usually made to look mean and nasty—in keeping with the feeling of the American people. 

Something Mr. Siegel described in a 1971 lecture has grown and intensified mightily these years. He said, “Never was there such suspicion” on the part of consumers; “there’s a feeling, in buying something, of great discomfort.” Today, in the field of food alone, there is enormous suspicion: the worry that you might take into your body something that can make you sick or even kill you—because big corporations involved in producing and processing food are interested first in profits, and don’t give a damn what happens to you. That feeling is throughout America. And it is the feeling that going after profit is contrary to wanting people to fare well. Every time a person in a kitchen prepares chicken, and is angry having to think about whether she is getting salmonella on her hands or on the counter—she is angry at the profit system. Also, there is a feeling that E. coli bacteria may be in one’s hamburger because the meat industry is interested in profit; and the feeling is not joyful. 

Never was there more fury at drug companies. Americans know that these companies use people’s need for medicine to charge exorbitant prices. Because pharmacy is based on profit, many men, women, and children cannot get the medication they need. And senior citizens can go without sufficient food in order to pay for medicine. There is in Americans a real hate of the fact that what one needs for health is tied in with profit.

There has come to be, too, a feeling that gun manufacturers and sellers, because they’re after profit, are a means of people being killed—including children by other children in American schools. The gun merchants’ profit motive is opposed to their doing all they can to have children live; because if their first interest were in having children not die, they wouldn’t sell as many guns.

A question Mr. Siegel asked is crucial now: are the awful accompaniments of the profit motive—such as tainted food, inability to get medicine, careless sale of weapons—merely incidental things, things that may happen simultaneously with the profit system? Or do they arise from “something underlying,” something central to profit economics itself? Americans are hovering around a conscious asking of this question—and they long to ask it.

One of the most vivid showings in recent years of Americans’ fury at the profit system is the anger at cigarette manufacturers and the lawsuits against them. Millions of Americans have said in various ways, “These tobacco companies want to make profit, and they don’t care if they kill me to do so!” This was a feeling, huge, against the profit motive.

What Motive Do We Want?

In the 1971 lecture I referred to, Mr. Siegel said, “Economics is production. But what has gone on in it is an arousing of man’s enmity to man. The question of motive has to be looked at. Is the exercise of this motive a good thing? It has shown its being out of date. There is a motive of man to know, which Aesthetic Realism sees as the most beautiful motive. There is greater feeling than ever that man was not born to make money from other people. There is the feeling, This is not the way to spend one’s life!” 

He said people in America should be asked, “What do you think of the profit system? And do you know what it is? What do you think is wrong with the present way of production?” He said people think that if they question the profit system, they will immediately find themselves with certain words that they’re afraid of. 

But the economy America truly wants is not something people associate with those scare words. It is something new: an economy based on the sincere answering of another question Mr. Siegel asked in that 1971 class: “Do you want to use economics to have contempt for people or respect for people?” He said, “There is a certain kind of feeling about other beings, which the profit system is not interested in people’s having.”

What that feeling is—which the American people long for, and which they hate the economy for squelching and betraying—can be seen through this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The self of everyone has a great opposite which is the world, and consists of everything outside us, including another person. Across this vast, beautiful land of America, people long to feel that in the way we work and buy and sell, in the way we think about someone when we’re alone, those great opposites are one: we want to feel, “I am strengthening people who are not me, and I am being strengthened by them.” That is ethics and aesthetics, and it is what Americans want our economy based on. It is good will. Can things be produced, Mr. Siegel asked, on that basis—or is the ill will of the profit motive necessary for there to be cars, food, clothing, television sets?

Mr. Siegel himself, all his life, embodied that most beautiful of motives, to know. As a result, his knowledge was vast in its scholarship; vibrant, magnificent in its immediacy and kindness. He said in 1970, “The whole purpose of history is to show that the greatest kindness is the greatest power.” His own great mind was evidence for the truth of that statement.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Ethics Has Spoken

By Eli Siegel

I’m going to read a poem [of the 1840s] that has to do with the idea of profit in liquor. While the present-day feeling is not for prohibition, there is the larger feeling in the poem—that people would be for dealing in anything, as long as it made a profit. 

The history of profit as to the liquor business is a very big thing—the history of profit as to things that weren’t so good. This poem, by William Henry Burleigh, is called “Satan and the Grog-Seller”; and it represents American opinion, which was two ways: it was for temperance, and also could be taken by a rollicking drinking song.

I may say about the reason for The Drunkard’s playing*: people did laugh at it, laughed at the famous line “Lips that touched liquor will never touch mine”; but still, people wanted to know about it because the idea of temptation and weakness affects people. The audience came to laugh, but they also found some power in it. Then, there is the book by T.S. Arthur, Ten Nights in a Barroom, which is powerful. Arthur is seen now as a writer who presented American industry in the 1830s and ’40s, before the Civil War. 

[Note. In “Satan and the Grog-Seller,” the owner of a tavern is thinking to himself late at night:]

"The fools have guzzled my brandy and wine—

Much good may it do them—the cash is mine!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He! He! Those fellows are in my net—

I have them safe, and I’ll fleece them yet!

There’s Brown—what a jolly dog is he—

He swills the way that I like to see;

Let him dash for a while at this reckless rate,

And his farm is mine as sure as fate.”

There have been stories about persons drinking up their farms, also drinking up their jobs. Then, there are quite a few doctors who were so good to the town, but at the same time were fond of the changing liquid. —This has a good junction of somnolent lines and speedy lines:

“I’ve a mortgage now on Tomkin’s lot—

What a fool he was to become a sot!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

...Won’t his wife have a ‘taking on,’

When she learns that his house and his lot are gone?

How she will blubber and sob and sigh—

But business is business—and what care I?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And Gibson has murdered his child, they say—

He was drunk as a fool here, yesterday.”

Then, retribution begins:

...And lo! In a corner, dark and dim,

Sat an uncouth form with an aspect grim—

From his grisly head, through his snaky hair,

Sprouted, of hard rough horns, a pair.

This carries on the Dickens idea that if you make too much money, you are going to be visited by supernatural powers—which hasn’t wholly caught on yet. [Among the Devil’s statements to the grog-seller is the following:]

"Do you think I’ve come for you?—never fear;

You can’t be spared for a long while here!

There are hearts to break,...

...homes to be rendered desolate;

...trusting love to be changed to hate;

. . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

For, to pamper your lust for the glittering pelf,

You rival in mischief the Devil himself!”

Well, this poem has to do with profit; and profit is very much in the history of the world. There is a profit that is good, as there is an anger that is good; and there’s another kind that can be called not good. 

All the goodness and evil of profit, as I say, is now in question; and an answer was given last month. I think the answer will stay. In later discussions I’ll give more reasons why the answer of ethics—which is as eternal steel, and as eternal flexibility of air, and as eternal pervasiveness, and as eternal reality itself—the answer of ethics will stay. Ethics has spoken, and various financially adroit people in Washington cannot annul what it has said. 

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*According to The Oxford Companion to American Literature, 1941 edition, this play by W.H. Smith “was produced in 1844 as a sentimental plea for temperance, but has recently been revived for purposes of burlesque.”