As we celebrate our 100th anniversary, our History Sub-Committee is taking a look back in our club’s rich history and is sharing highlights from the past century. This week’s message is shared by committee member Rich Leffler:
The Rotary Code of Ethics for Business Men of All Lines
At one time, Rotary had an astounding Code of Ethics, as once required by the Bylaws. But for reasons that are unclear, the Code fell into disuse. Once, it was widely published and distributed. Today, it can hardly be found. We are publishing this remarkable Code of Ethics here, along with a brief history of its rise and fall as a tenet of Rotary.
In 1912, Rotary president Glenn C. Mead proposed that the newly formed Business Methods Committee prepare a code of business ethics for “the advancement of business morality.” (The Rotarian Commemorative Centennial Edition [June 2005], 89) The chair of the committee was Robert W. Hunt of Sioux City, Iowa. Much of the Code was composed by an unofficial committee of Hunt’s fellow Iowa Rotarians while en route to the June 1914 convention in Houston. One of these Iowans, J. R. Perkins, explained that “the articles of the code were revised both as to phrasing and content. The third, eighth, and ninth articles, in their basal ideas . . . grew out of the general discussion. The tenth article, which in the writer’s judgment is the highest ethical upreach of them all, did not appear in [the original] manuscript, tho it was held to be germane to the whole and really expressive of what is fundamental in Rotary.” Perkins also explained that the stunning final paragraph of the “Summary” was “a bit of pragmatic philosophy from William James, but he really borrowed it from European philosophy.”(J. R. Perkins, “History of the Rotary Code of Ethics,” The Rotarian 10, no. 2 [February 1917], 119–21).
The Rotary Code of Ethics for Business Men of All Lines, printed here, was adopted by the Sixth Annual Convention of the International Association of Rotary Clubs meeting in San Francisco in July 1915. Great faith was put into the power of the Code. A report to the 1919 Convention argued that “if the business men of the world would adopt the Rotary Code of Ethics as their rule of conduct, as their guide in commercial intercourse, the world would be a safe place for democracies. . . . Had the business world been operating according to a standard of practices which conform to our Code of Ethics, does any real Rotarian believe that we would have been plunged into a night of horrors such as lasted from August 1914, to November 1918?” (Robert H. Timmons, “Report of Committee on Publicity,” Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Convention . . . [July 16–20, 1919], 430–31)
In 1921, when the Rotary Club of Madison celebrated the sixteenth birthday of Rotary with a full-page spread in the Wisconsin State Journal, it proudly published the Code of Ethics and declared that Rotary is “based on the following Code of Ethics.” (WSJ, February 23, 1921) And the History of our Club recalls that in the mid-1920s the Club’s “leadership began to use it [the Code] as the focal point of a number of somber investigations into the allegedly unethical business dealings of some of its most prominent members.” (John Jenkins, History of the Rotary Club of Madison [Madison, 1990], 56) This latter point deserves scrutiny in future blogs.
But as early as 1921, there were objections to the Code. Ironically, it was Rotary President Mead who asked “Is the Rotary Code of Ethics a code of ethics at all? Is it not a confession of faith or a creed?” (The Rotarian 19, no 1 [July 1921], 39) Similarly, in 1924, Rotary president Guy Gundaker echoed Mead when he observed that the Code was “more in the line of a confession of faith, or a creed.. . . [The Code] should be specific, plain-spoken, and expressed in commonly understood terms; also that its provisions should be given as rules of conduct expressed as ‘Shall and Shall Not.’ This, of course, does not preclude preambles to any of the sections of an informative character.” (The Rotarian 25, no. 3 [September 1924], 42) By 1931, Rotary began to consider itself less a business club than a service club, and Rotary International adopted its “Aims and Objects,” which had application beyond business matters. The Board appointed a committee to revise the Code of Ethics. The Code continued to be published in the Manual of Procedure, but it was no longer separately distributed. In 1943, the Four-Way Test was adopted, and it became a sort of substitute code of ethics with broad application.
In 1951–52, the Board discontinued the distribution of the Code of Ethics entirely. In 1977, an attempt was made to “revive the publication and dissemination” of the Code. But the following year, the Board determined that “because of changes in the realm of business and professional life since the adoption of the code, any revision and updating for the purpose of re-instituting the publication and distribution of the code would be ineffectual.” So the Board voted not to revise the Code or to distribute it. In 1980, reference to the Code was removed from the RI Bylaws.
Although the Four-Way Test is often referred to as a Code of Ethics, it has never been so designated. In fact, the 1981 Manual of Procedure stated that “The Four-Way Test should not be referred to as a ‘code’ in any sense.” So, presently, Rotary has no code of ethics. Our Club is, however, as concerned as ever about ethical behavior, and our annual Ethics Symposium program extends outward to high school students in the Madison area. It is one important way of serving the community.
This introduction is partially based on Doug Rudman, “The Rotary Code of Ethics,” The Rotary Global History Fellowship (An Internet Project) (http://rotaryfirst100.org/history/headings/ethics.htm and Rudman, “Is the Four-Way Test a Code of Ethics?” (ibid.).