Socrates had a fascinating view of evil. He believed that it was the result of human ignorance. The essential argument is that we do wrong because we believe such actions to be beneficial to us. However, behaving badly is, at least in Socrates’ view, always harmful. For that reason, a wise person would never choose it. Over the millennia, Socrates’ position has inspired a certain incredulousness. Aristotle, for example, was unconvinced. The Peripatetics and their intellectual heirs are undoubtedly correct to question so categorical an ethical position. Morality and its antithesis are probably too complex to be summed up by a single cause. For all that, a more modest version of Socrates’ statement – “much evil is caused by ignorance” – is defensible.

I have been reflecting on Socrates’ idea for the past few weeks, as I have been trying to make sense out of the life of George M. Pullman, of railroad car fame. On the one hand, Mr. Pullman had many of the virtues necessary for business success. He was innovative, tenacious, hardworking, and courageous. These virtues helped to make America a rich and prosperous nation. On the other, Pullman had the full suite of vices that have made Americans so suspicious of their business leaders. He could be autocratic, greedy, elitist, venial, and cruel. At times in his life Pullman seemed to be genuinely trying to do the right thing, what we now call showing “social responsibility,” while at other times he seemed hell-bent on behaving as nastily as reasonably possible.

If, as Socrates tells us, most people prefer to be good but do not know how, then there is a question awaiting an answer – What idea was Pullman missing? Benefiting from 20/20 hindsight, what was the misconception that caused so much travail? Answering this question is more than an academic exercise. For it might be that the misunderstanding that confounded Pullman remains with us to day. We will have to see if this is so, but only after we know more.

George Mortimer Pullman was born on March 3, 1831. He seemed to have been a reasonably religious man, a Universalist, with two brothers who joined the clergy. Like many entrepreneurs of those days (and ours), he dabbled in many things. As a teenager Pullman had been an apprentice cabinetmaker. In the 1850s he was raising houses above the flood level in Chicago. In the 1860s he was a gold broker in Golden, Colorado, not far from where I teach. For all that, Pullman is best remembered for the railroad sleeping car that bears his name.

It’s hard for the twenty-first century mind to grasp the centrality of the nineteenth century railroad. The railroad bound the United States from coast to coast, roughly 3000 miles. Other than the earliest pioneers, most settlers in the American west went by train – assuredly not by covered wagon. Along the way, a universal problem faced by passengers was the discomfort of overnight train trips. The benches were hard, and there was no room to lie down. The train rocked and jostled, so the passengers seldom obtained much sleep. Pullman decided to solve this problem by designing a sleeping car. Sleeping cars were not a new idea; they had been used off and on since the early days of railroads, but Pullman’s was a considerable improvement. The Pullman Palace Car Company promised “luxury for the middle class,” and it mostly delivered. His “palace car” (more commonly known as a “Pullman car” or a “Pullman sleeper”) had beds, a beautiful design, and shock absorbing springs to take the bounce out of the ride. It was a veritable hotel on wheels. After President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, he was carried from Washington D. C. to Springfield, Illinois, on board a Pullman car. George Pullman was not one to miss a marketing opportunity, and his company would revolutionize railroad travel. Soon wealthy persons were purchasing their own Pullman cars, and these became the Lear Jets of the Steampunk Age.

Pullman’s other innovation was less about engineering and more about management. He decided not to sell his cars to the railroads. Rather, he would lease them. The Pullman Sleeping Car company received fifty cents for every ticket sold. Pullman also installed his own maintenance crews and staff, providing him with another footnote in history. His “Pullman Porters” were predominately African Americans, many of whom had been born slaves. Within a few years Pullman became the largest private employer of African Americans, and these porters would influence the course of American history. In 1935 the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first Black-run labor union to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor (AFL, now part of the AFL-CIO). The Brotherhood’s principal organizer was A. Philip Randolph, the famous Civil Rights Leader who’s March on Washington Movement would later influence the Reverend Martin Luther King. That’s an important story, but too far ahead of the present history. For the moment we need only observe that by 1893 the Pullman Palace Car Company had 14,000 employees, US$11 million in earnings (this was a lot back them!), and a near-monopoly on sleeping car manufacture.

Pullman’s vision was not limited to financial success. At his best, Pullman could be a man of the future. He looked at the birthing pains of Industrial America with a social reformer’s eyes. He observed the widespread poverty, disease, broken homes, crime, and drunkenness that accompanied the transition from a rural and agrarian society to one that was urban and industrialized. These conditions impoverished the spirit as well as the mind and the body. Pullman wanted to allay all this. He also understood that the struggle between labor and capital that characterized the late nineteenth century was the prevailing problem of the day. It was a top-to-bottom rip in the social fabric of our nation. Pullman, and our nation as a whole, needed a way forward. He was looking, perhaps groping, for a way to heal this rift. Not a man given to partial solutions, George Pullman confronted these problems by constructing his own model community in which his workers could live.

In 1879 Pullman purchased about 4000 acres of land for the then princely sum of US$800,000. The site was along the Illinois Central Railroad line and was located just south of Chicago. (Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln worked for the Illinois Central when he was still a lawyer.) Pullman christened the town with this own name – Pullman, Illinois. His goal was to build a clean and beautiful community for the people who worked in his adjacent factory. It was an amazing place. Unlike the squalor of the period’s working class neighborhoods, the town of Pullman had open space, theaters, churches, and a library. It won awards for its Victorian Architecture. No small number of the inhabitants flourished. According to available statistics, the town was unusually healthy for its day. Everyone – even the churches – had to pay rent to the company, but the rents were generally reasonable, at least at first.

It is important to recognize that the town of Pullman was a residential arm of the Pullman Palace Car Company. The town had an almost feudal atmosphere, which compromised the workers’ autonomy and freedom. Company Inspectors would visit workers in their homes and make sure that the employees were living a healthy lifestyle, such as avoiding drink. The effort was probably well-meaning, alcoholism was a serious problem at the time, but intrusive inspectors violated privacy and curtailed freedom. Corporate control trickled down to even the most mundane matters of life. The Pullman Company even chose the plays that could be performed and the books in the local library. The worker/residents used to say: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”

For all that, there seemed to be more good than bad. The town flourished for nearly 14 years. In 1896, one year before things fell apart, Pullman was named the “World’s Most Perfect Town.” People didn’t know it at the time, but all of this was going to come to an end with the Panic of 1893.

1893 was one of those years in American economic history that we would like to forget. It was not quite as bad as 1929, but it was a lot worse than 1987 and 2007. The Panic of 1893 triggered a full-blown depression. Worse, the culprit behind this economic turmoil was the overbuilding of railroads and the dubiously inventive ways that these railroad expansions were financed. As the soon-to-be-struggling railroads were Pullman’s principal customers his business plummeted. Indeed, 74 different railroads companies went bankrupt. So Pullman resorted to those time-honored productivity boosters that we always see in economic downturns — wage cuts plus longer hours. Longer hours in this case meant twelve hour days. As if that was not bad enough, the town of Pullman would not reduce rents. Income from the town had already dropped 4% as a result of the downturn, and management was not going to allow additional cuts. These stubbornly high rents, when coupled with diminished wages, left some workers destitute. George Pullman never lacked for tenacity. He declined even to meet with a delegation of workers.

In response, there was a wildcat strike. Eugene Debs ordered the American Railway Union to launch a boycott in support of the Pullman strikers. Workers in railroads all over the country declined to operate trains that included Pullman cars. Eventually, 40,000 workers would walk off their jobs. Pullman’s production was shut down, and railroad traffic west of Chicago had ground to a halt. This forced President Grover Cleveland’s hand. The president ordered Federal Marshals to quell the strike. Deciding that this force was insufficient (it was), Cleveland then ordered General Nelson Miles to use 12,000 troops to end the walk-out. (If you have lived in Arizona, as I once did, you will recognize General Miles. This is the same Nelson Miles who captured the Apache warrior Geronimo.) The strikers fought it out with Federal troops, but there was never any real question about the outcome. The Pullman Strike was broken, Debs went to prison, some workers were “blacklisted,” and the rest went back to the factory for poor wages.

Leaving us with our original question – How could a man who did so much good, end his career doing so much harm? On the one hand, if Pullman had been an irredeemably evil man, it seems unlikely that he would have been so generous with the workers who initially settled in his town. On the other hand, if Pullman had been a saintly man then it seems likely that he would have lowered his rents, at least temporarily, to avoid the violent strike or perhaps he would have been more forgiving when the battle had been won. Here we return to our earlier thoughts. Pullman appeared to be an ambivalent sort, acting sometimes with responsibility and other times with cruelty.

If we follow from Socrates, then we should argue that Pullman was ignorant of something. More kindly, we might say that he “didn’t know any better.” A close look at George Pullman’s business might tell us what he was missing.

Pullman appears to have grounded his moral thinking in the profit motive. He never got over the idea, common among Americans, that leaders should exhibit social responsibility because this, in the long run, is good for business. To his credit, Pullman had a viable plan. If corporations gave workers pleasant and enriching surroundings then their lives would be improved and, by extension, they would become more productive. Everyone would win in the end. Pullman saw his utopian experiment as a way to improve the lives of working people so that they would become more productive and loyal employees. In other words, Pullman’s commitment to the well-being of his workforce was instrumental. He was not building the town out of a concern for their interests; he was building it out of a concern for his own. The ultimate objective was profit, or some other form of business success, while healthy living conditions were a subordinate goal.

If you understand Pullman, Illinois, as a business investment, then you can understand why Mr. Pullman was so intransigent with his workforce. When a depression commenced in the 1890s, the town was no longer a sound use of the company’s limited capital. Given this changed economic climate, his financial resources had to be re-allocated. As the worth of the community was predicated on its supporting his business model, when it could no longer fulfill this role it was of much less value.

If we are willing to push this point just a bit further, we can uncover George Pullman’s misunderstanding. An action is ethical if it is grounded in moral principles or if it seeks to improve the lot of others. If the goal of action is subordinated to business needs, then it may well be a canny investment strategy, but it is not “moral” as most people understand that term. This is because the commitment is to economic success and not to proper conduct or to the needs of others. Here was George Pullman’s mistake. He was not really behaving decently to his employees; he was trying out a new technique for maximizing the productivity of his human resources. When he didn’t get the return that he needed on this investment, he changed the model.

Pullman was not an ethicist. He was a business leader. Consequently, he framed morality as a business problem, viewing ethics in economic terms. Business, and by extension business success, was the lens through which he viewed his conduct. As such, he only had a partial understanding of genuine ethics. Specifically, he was correct, even visionary, in understanding the practical benefits of social responsibility. Behaving decently might forestall government regulation, please investors, prevent litigation, appeal to customers or – as George Pullman argued – motivate workers. However, this view is a painfully incomplete guide to the ethical life. Treating morality as a means to business success rests the former on an unstable pedestal. It implies, actually it explicitly indicates, that companies should behave ethically because doing so it profitable. As such, this justification subordinates morality to the economic goals, as happened at Pullman. What is one to do on those occasions when ethical conduct is not profitable? Generally, one abandons investments that do not offer the opportunity for profit. From this sort of thinking, George Pullman was able to derive a ready answer – stop “wasting” money. I am skeptical as to whether this was a sound business move, but I am certain that it was the tawdriest form of “ethics.”

That was how the utopian dream of Pullman ended. After the strike, all that was left was for the lawyers to clean things up. In 1898 the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against the company, ordering it to sell all its property in the area that was not devoted to industry. In 1889 the City of Chicago annexed the former township, and all of the houses were privately owned by 1907. Today it is an historic district in Chicago. Thankfully for history but more for beauty, the residents of the district have preserved most of the 900 or so original homes. If you would like to get a quick sense of Pullman’s Victorian charm, rent the Christmas movie The Polar Express. The architecture of Santa’s North Pole is based on Pullman, and St. Nick himself exits from the clock tower building.

Pullman-the-man fared less well than Pullman-the-town. A federal commission rested much of the blame for the strike on Pullman, and many of this business contemporaries felt that he had handled the situation poorly. In 1897 he died of a heart attack. To prevent desecration of the corpse, he was interned late at night in a secure vault. Concrete was poured over the coffin so that he could not be exhumed.

Pullman was a tragic character in a Socratic drama. He seems to have genuinely tried to do the “right thing,” but he could go only as far as his understanding allowed. Like each of us, Pullman was constrained by his lack of knowledge. His behavior during the great Pullman Strike of 1894 was logical, at least initially, if one accepts the starting assumption that business ethics is a sort of investment in business success. Conversely, Pullman’s behavior becomes dubious, only for persons who believe that there is more to life than running a profitable corporation.

In this column I have given you a good story and a sound philosophical analysis. You can take it as you will, but I plan to heed the advice of the Buddhist masters and show a little compassion for the reviled memory of George Mortimer Pullman. To be sure, he was a flawed man. He did not understand all that it meant to be ethical. He confused morality with business acumen, and he implemented his utopian project like a ham-handed feudal lord. But some of the same can be said for us moderns; we still have a lot to learn. There remains a lingering tendency in twenty-first century business culture to view moral behavior as instrumental to profit-making (e.g., “doing well by doing good,” “social responsibility is a competitive advantage,” and other slogans from corporate recruiting brochures). If I may venture a guess, I would speculate that George Pullman may not even have known that his view of morality was in any way incomplete or controversial. He was simply reflecting the “commonsense” assumptions of his times. Likewise, we may be reflecting the unfinished assumptions of our own age.