Monday, March 19, 2012

Corporate Ethics in an Embodied World

I will be the first to admit that I am one of the many people who is frustrated with the notion that corporations are people too ... or specifically that they are entitled to many of the same rights without many of the same responsibilities.  At the same time I understand that if we value many of our freedoms specifically speech and assembly, then we should want to give some rights to corporations.  For that reason I wanted to try and approach things from a different angle ... what does a world look like if we actually did think of corporations as people.

It seems to me that one of the jarring aspects of this idea is that corporations are so clearly not people ... lacking a body for one thing, but also in terms of a values.  Corporations are artificial constructs with clear purposes.  Those purposes can be good "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" would be a corporate purpose I am a big fan of.  Often when we think of corporate purposes it comes closer to ... maximize shareholder value (make money) while providing some sort of service.  We tend to ascribe higher purposes to humanity than simply maximizing shareholder value (would that be parents?).

How does this get changed if corporations are people?  For one it might change how we act towards corporations.  I have been guilty of hating corporations (something I try to never do with individuals).  I do not see business as a collection of individuals struggling to make money, provide and service, and get on with their lives.  Instead I find easier to think of them as faceless entities chasing the almighty dollar and can ascribe all sorts of unfair/cynical motives to their actions.  If we think of corporations as people it might change our expectations for them and our compassion for them.  I would hope in turn it might change how shareholders and board members think of the actions of the corporation.  If corporations become embodied instead of disembodied maybe it will be easier for corporations to act like people ... ethically and for the greater good.

I know that some of this feels like wishful thinking ... but I don't wonder if the disembodied nature of corporations today in our collective perception is what makes it so much easier for them to be involved in terrible actions.  Corporate raiding takes on a whole new meaning.  Embezzlement also feels less like a victim-less crime.  Maximizing shareholder value can no longer be the soul purpose of a company ... any more than it is socially acceptable for people to live only for themselves with no concern for their neighbors.  What I think I am saying in all of this is ... maybe if we started treating corporations as people ... and ascribing humanity to them ... it might cause them to act more like people and with more humanity.  Just a thought

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Can We Do?

Just this week tragedy struck in the form of another high school shooting.  Every time we hear about this things we start to ask the questions ... how could this happen ... who is to blame ... what can we do to stop this?  Casting around for blame is easy.  We can ask where the parents were.  In the case of the shooting we can try and determine how the individual acquired a gun.  We usually wonder if there were some signs that we could have seen.  Was there a way teachers, friends, or anyone could have known things were about to become violent?  I was in high school when the shooting at Columbine took place.  I remember how things changed at the high school afterward.  Security was tightened, procedures were put in place to lock down the school and keep kids safe.  None of these things felt like they would really make a difference.  The fact of the matter is with that many children around it is impossible to keep everyone safe.

Marianne and I have been watching West Wing.  At one point on the show they talk about how the real nuclear threat from a terrorist organization is not the payload on some missile but a small device smuggled into DC or near some other target.  I like to think we have good security measures in place to keep our leaders safe, but against some threats it is easy to wonder how much can we really do.  As far as I know we never really had a good way to keep us safe from the Soviet threat, except mutually assured destruction.

When we are faced with threats, when we look at tragedies and wonder what went wrong, we want to believe there is something we can do to keep our children safe, to keep our leaders safe, to keep ourselves safe.  We cast about for answers, more gun control or more guns, better parenting, better support in schools.  We want to believe there is something we can do.

The scripture lesson for Sunday is Mark 8:31-38.  This is the first time in Mark that Jesus tells his disciples he is going to be killed.  Peter's response is one of shock, one of outrage.  I think we are like Peter.  Peter had grown up under the rule of the Romans.  He had probably seen friends, family members, or neighbors suffer under what was at times an oppressive rule.  I am sure he had felt powerless and wondered how his country could ever be free from the threat they faced.  Then he met Jesus.  Then he encountered this divine individual who could heal the sick, cast out demons, and perform all manner of miracles.  This was not an ordinary person, this was the Son of God.  If anyone could overthrow the Romans it had to be Jesus.  At least that is what he thought until Jesus said that he would fail, that the Romans would win, that even the Son of God could not defeat the might of Roman.

Like I said, we are like Peter, we want to believe in something that will keep us safe, something we can do to avert these tragedies and make everything better.  Like Peter I think we need to confront the fact that in the end that is impossible.  If, like God, we value free will, then it will always be possible for someone to find a way to cause harm, to hurt others, even to kill.  Jesus challenges us to think about this differently.  Jesus challenges us to realize that dying is not necessarily losing.  In fact sometimes living can be losing.  Jesus "loses" to the Romans because he refuses to play their game, because he refuses to believe that power, violence, and force are acceptable solutions.  He believes that is better to love and lose than to kill to win.

We cannot do something to guarantee that we will always be safe.  I knew people in high school that wore trench-coats like those that the shooters in Columbine wore.  I have friends who felt hurt, isolated, and alone in middle school and high school.  They never turned to violence, but I know there were days they thought about.  I know it sounds trite but I think if we just loved more it would make a difference.  I think it would help on the little things and ripple its way up to the big problems.  We cannot do something to keep us totally safe, but I would rather seek to love everyone and risk dying because of that then trusting no one ... because how else can we really be safe?