Thursday, November 22, 2012

Start with the Idea of Right and Wrong

Recently a friend and I exchanged some thoughts on the Hostess Company bankruptcy.  He noted that bankruptcy seems to be used more frequently as a tool by corporations who want to walk away from a negotiated deal.  When I asked what alternative he would propose, his answer was “start with the idea of right and wrong.”
I’ve been thinking about that statement, and how easy it is to suggest, but perhaps how impossible it would be to achieve, especially if we expect to hold corporations, or individuals to such a standard then don’t we need a common understanding of what is right or what is wrong?
So what is right? (I focus only on right for if we can define it then wrong would be its opposite.)  For some they look to the bible for guidance.  At one time we were principally a Judeo-Christian nation and would look to the Old Testament and draw on the commandments as a basis for the beginning of a common understanding.  From it we also take what is known as the golden rule as described in Matthew 7:12 “Treat others the way you would have them treat you: this sums up the law and the prophets.”  But not everyone believes or accepts the Judeo-Christian theology; there are those who actively reject the teachings of the Church, and view those who believe in its teachings as superstitious fools. So for them their basis of determination of right must be different.
I will admit to a limited, and that is being kind, understanding of the teachings of Islam, but I do know it forms both the moral and legal basis for the societies it dominates.  This link provides a good synopsis for those interested in a better understanding.  One of the things I take from the article is that the expectations for behavior under Shari’ah law are not the same as we have in Western culture.  What I couldn’t find was a simple definition of right.  I am left with the impression that just as in the west, many look to their Mullah’s to interpret Allah’s word into the daily expectations of their lives.  That suggests to me that right is flavored by the personality and opinion of the teacher and if so, cannot be uniquely common across Islam.
How about Buddhism?  Buddhism Beliefs, describes 18 foundational beliefs, but as close as I come to understanding definition of right is in the description of Karma, where it is good to be good, but again I don’t know the religion well enough to know if there is a singular understanding of what is good and therefore right?
I talk about the various theologies only to show that there is not a universal definition of right to be found in religion, and even if there were, could that form the basis for doing what is right in the United States?  Based on the concerns of our founding fathers that if one church were to gain favored status – as in the Church of England, or the Catholic domination of much of Europe, then the freedom of our citizens to worship, as they believe best, or not to worship at all, would be lost.  As in any doctrine, there are various understandings, but the one that seems to withstand the test of time can be traced back to President Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.  This is the original draft; I have emphasized the key line.  The final letter removed the word eternal.
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
Gentlemen The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and, in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing. Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect, [Jefferson first wrote: "confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that." These lines he crossed out and then wrote: "concurring with"; having crossed out these two words, he wrote: "Adhering to this great act of national legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience"; next he crossed out these words and wrote: "Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience I shall see with friendly dispositions the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural rights in opposition to his social duties."] I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & the Danbury Baptist [your religious] association assurances of my high respect & esteem. Th Jefferson                        Jan. 1. 1802.
So we as a nation cannot apply church teaching to the governing of our society. But, in the United States we are a nation of laws and those laws, and the courts application of those laws, are the only thing we have to insure justice.  Unfortunately, justice is not the same as right. 
I know what I believe to be right or wrong, but I am not so arrogant to think everyone agrees with me, or even that my understanding is completely correct.  I know that others operate with different value sets, and the twin ideas of honor and responsibility have wide variance in the general population.  So how do we address the issue of corporations declaring bankruptcy, paying the executives huge bonuses, and dumping employee pensions on the Government? 
For many the simple answer would be to write a law to require that executive bonuses be forfeit, but how do you write a law that would not create more problems than it solves?  For example, didn’t we write a law to protect employee pensions for companies that were in bankruptcy and now we see companies shedding those pensions to the government, and the money those employees paid into their retirement funds are lost.  Didn’t we write a law that said everyone should be eligible for a mortgage, whether or not they could afford it, and didn’t that law ultimately lead to a crash in the housing bubble?  Didn’t we write a law that said our payments into social security should go into a LOCKBOX and the government should care for that money and disperse it to those who’ve paid in upon their retirement, and for years Congress has taken from that mythical lockbox to fund the more immediate desires?  The one constant I do see is that every time the federal government gets involved in social engineering something new gets screwed up, and one more tentacle of the government is created.
At the end of the day, I still don’t have an answer for how we solve the human problems of greed, and selfishness, or what we should do when a company, through irresponsible management, diminishing revenue, worker protest, or other market forces can no longer pay its bills.  I don’t see a way to end the possibilities of individual savings being wiped out when those funds are invested in stocks and bonds that carry an inherent risk of loss through company failure.  But I am certainly open to suggestions if someone could show me a way to change the nature of man without taking away my freedom.

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