Moral Mazes: On "bureaucratic ethics" (Introduction, part 2).
A Walk On the Lighter Side: Charlie Berens's "The Midwest Survival Guide."

Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 ("Moral Probations, Old and New")

I'll be the first to admit that old Robert Jackall has really got to jazz up his chapter titles. I'm not even sure what "Moral Probations, Old and New," means. For one thing, when I hear the word "probation," I think people who have committed a crime and have to complete a period during which they are supervised. But "probation," of course, also means this: "the process or period of testing or observing the character or abilities of a person in a certain role."

And that makes sense. This first chapter in Moral Mazes is largely the story of how Jackall found some corporations that would let him do observational field work at their locations and among their managers. You may not be surprised to learn that finding such corporations, who would allow their bureaucratic processes (and the effect of those processes on the morality of their managers) to be observed, was extremely difficult.

But in the beginning of the chapter, Jackall first draws your attention to the history of bureaucracy (generally) and to the Protestant work ethic (specifically).

My whole life I've been hearing about the Puritan and Protestant ethic and work ethic, and I've never really known much about it. (Not least because I'm Catholic and the family culture I grew up in was a weird mix of feeling discriminated against by Protestants, and also feeling superior to Protestants. I also never paid much attention to American history in school because I was an indifferent student and was quite bored by American history.)

Jackall starts the chapter by saying that before we can understand the connections between managerial work and bureaucracy and morals, you must first understand the original Protestant ethic ("Protestant ethic" being the term used by Max Weber to "describe the comprehensive worldview of the rising middle class that spearheaded the emergence of capitalism.")

Basically, the Protestant ethic refers, Jackall says, to the "set of beliefs, and, more particularly, to the set of binding social rules that counseled 'secular asceticism'--the methodical, rational subjection of human impulse and desire to God's will through 'restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling.'" (p. 6.)

We're barely a paragraph in to this first chapter and I feel like I have to take a break. Jackall packs a lot of information (and history) into a few pages here. But, basically? You are familiar with the Protestant ethic, particularly if you live and work in the United States." That Protestant ethic humming along in the background is what leads to sensational news headlines like these:

"It's Time for Americans to Get Back to Work" and "In Biden's America, It's Better Not To Be Employed."

This all led, in American history, to what Jackall calls the enduring significance of the Protestant ethic; it linked proving one's self, work, and eternal salvation together. As Jackall says:

"This rational and methodical pursuit of a worldly vocation, when it was crowned with economic success, proved a person before others." (p. 7.)

Personally I find it kind of funny that something that started out as a way to please God turned into a way to "prove" yourself before other people. Anyone else?

At first, Jackall goes on to explain, hard work was also linked with self-denial and an emphasis on saving to help future generations build capital. Eventually, however, individuals with money began to engage in conspicuous consumption.

So here's the paragraph(s) I'm going to leave you with today. I would suggest reading it a couple of times, and then think about whether it seems like an accurate description of the United States in the late 20th century. I think it does, but maybe that's just me. Do feel free to offer your opinion in the comments!

"With the shaping of the mass consumer society later in this [20th] century, accompanied by the commercialization of leisure, the sanctification of consumption fueled by consumer debt became widespread, indeed crucial to the maintenance of the economic order.

Affluence and the emergence of the consumer society were responsible, however, for the demise of only some aspects of the old ethic--namely, the imperatives for saving and investment. The core of the ethic, even in its later, secularized form--self-reliance, unremitting devotion to work, and a morality that postulated just rewards for work well done--was undermined by the complete transformation of the organizational form of work itself. The hallmarks of the emerging modern production and distribution system were administrative hierarchies, standardized work procedures, regularized timetables, uniform policies, specialized expertise, and above all, centralized control--in a word, the bureaucratization of the economy." (p. 8.)

Today's takeaways?

Ask yourself if the above is what it feels like to live in the United States today. To me the above reads like 1. our economy demands constant growth to remain stable (never mind if that's good for the earth), 2. at one point, even when it lost its attachment to religious belief, the Protestant work ethic promised that if you did good work you'd do good; and 3. this all led to a system where everything was systematically controlled through hierarchies.

I have to ask myself, upon reading this book, how is that system controlled by hierarchies holding up for us currently? I would argue it's working well for managerial types (see Jamie Dimon, who now makes $34.5 million a year) to make a lot of money, not so well for those of us wondering why you can't find and buy N95 masks or COVID home tests even if you have the means.

Next time? More of Chapter 1, including how America combined the worst parts of rugged individualism with a love for authority.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go: