Charity Walks and Exploding Cars

I don’t often make it a point to study major Christian theologians, but I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society in one of my first college classes, and some of its ideas have stuck with me. In what is I’m sure a gross simplification, Niebuhr says we individuals can overcome the self-interest and greed that usually motivates us in our battle for survival, leading us to do moral things, such as helping others. Nations, however, and social groups, generally lack that ability to transcend self-interest in the name of justice or serving the greater good.

The book is stowed in a box in my parents’ basement (but will rejoin the personal library after the CT move), so I don’t recall if Niebuhr includes corporations in the list of immoral “societies.” I always have. I’ve been known, ahem, to rail against the immoral nature of corporations in their quest for profits at any cost. Now, I understand that making profits for investors is why businesses exist; hey, I don’t do my paid gigs out of altruism, and I own shares in several companies. I am no Marxist. But it’s the “at any cost” part of the equation that gets my blood a-boilin’, the heartless way some decisions are made, the calculations that say it’s cheaper to pay a fine or settle a lawsuit for doing something wrong, than doing what is right (think polluting; think Pinto).

Car go boom

Car go boom

So we have the immoral corporate society, comprised of, in theory, moral men and women. Or at least potentially moral Individuals who, when they step outside of their job, can donate time and money to charities, serve on public boards, live exemplary lives. But something happens to that side of them in the corporate structure and they become another cog in the immoral machine.

I suppose some really upright folks quit rather than help formulate immoral policies at work. Others simply don’t see the possible consequences of those policies. And of course, just because we have the capacity to transcend greed on an individual basis doesn’t mean we do it. I gotta think not too many head honchos at Enron were truly moral individuals, regardless of how much they donated to charity (sing it, Bob: “Anyway they already expect you to just give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations…”).

I thought about the whole moral employee/immoral company thing the other day, when I was taking part in a charity walk. One of the sponsors is near and dear to me, because it provides half of my family’s household income and really decent healthcare, which I know I am very fortunate to have. The company also has a great reputation for treating its GLBT employees well. It puts minorities in top positions. And yet – lots of folks have a beef with the nature of its business, and could probably give you horror stories of some specific practices that have been very hurtful. Because face it, when the charity walk is done, the corporate sponsors are still about maximizing profits at any cost. After they get those tax deductions too, and the chance to burnish their image with good deeds.

I know some of the execs out walking that day are moral people. The underlings too. And the corporations can do helpful things. I just can’t always square that with the fact that corporations also use campaign contributions to get laws passed that don’t serve the public good. Many treat their employees (or “contractors,” so they can avoid all the legal responsibilities they’re expected to follow for employees) like crap. And corporations certainly don’t want to help fight our foreign wars or improve infrastructure or end a list of social ills. Because if they did, they would pay their fair share of taxes.

At any cost.


~ by mburgan on September 28, 2008.

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