Friday, July 4, 2014

Independence Day, 2014

This Facebook entry was prompted by an NPR feature regarding the recent SCOTUS ruling, popularly called the Hobby Lobby case. 
Today is a good time to be reminded about the importance of conscientious objection to laws. Since I was drafted as a conscientious objector in 1965 this is for me more than an academic discussion. I have more than the usual respect for the "conscious exception" to laws, but it is clear to me that individual people have consciences but companies and organizations do not.

We live at a time when machines and computers are undeniably smarter, stronger and more reliable than human beings. There is evidence that Google's self-driving cars, when finished, will be more efficient, reliable and safer for passengers, pedestrians and other vehicles. But like all machines they will not -- nor ever will be -- able to think, feel or make moral choices.

Corporations, like those cars, are endowed with super-human qualities. They can achieve feats of production, economy, speed and efficiency that surpass the most impressive human qualities. But like those self-driving cars, corporations cannot -- nor will they ever have -- moral agency. That will forever be a uniquely human quality.

Laws that confuse human beings with corporations are fundamentally ill-conceived. Private organizations and companies, both large and small, whether "closely-held" or not, can make all the rules they wish about what they do and who can be or not become a member. But they do not have, nor will they ever have, a human conscience. And no amount of legal prestidigitation will ever make it otherwise.

Courts make rules about the law, but no amount of court rules will endow corporations with feelings or consciences. Those are what make human beings, with all our shortcomings, unique in the world. We often make poor choices, and bring about spectacular disasters by our wrong choices. But in the end we have no one to hold accountable -- individually or collectively -- but ourselves.

I'm not aware of any corporation, machine or other man-made creation capable of feelings of pain, sorrow, excitement, guilt, love or amazement. No human will ever be capable of finding mistakes in production or hidden weakness in a manufactured product as well as a machine. But no machine or corporate structure (or political system for that matter) will ever come close to the human imagination and capacity for evaluating what is happening and take steps to make changes -- and sometime those efforts come at a painful price in suffering, sacrifice and damaged or lost lives. Even following wars and protracted periods of loss or suffering, we as humans still face the grim reality that we brought them on ourselves -- even if it means recalling that horrible warning that "All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

The time has finally come for Congress to find the collective courage and formulate the language to end, once and for all, the ridiculous notion that corporations have the same legal rights as people. Finally, with last week's decision by the Supreme Court, we have clear evidence that the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 actually "restored" nothing that Americans ever lost. Our religious freedom was one of the elements leading to the creation of a "united" assembly of individual states, many of which were formed on the basis of different religious beliefs, but "united" in a political arrangement suiting their collective needs for protection, commerce and "the blessings of liberty" as articulated in the US Constitution.

One of the qualities of our system is the capacity to make changes. Though many of our founding fathers were slave-holders and the growth of the country actually included statutory language defining slaves as 3/5 of a person, and one of history's bloodiest conflicts was the US Civil War, we finally developed to the point that a black president was elected in 2008. A similar litany of change can be traced for women's rights. When my mother was born women had only been allowed to vote for a few years and her mother --my grandmother and her generation -- reached adulthood without ever having the right to vote.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 that "separate but equal" was the best way to thread the racial discrimination needle, that ruling was in effect over half a century until the Brown decision reversed it in 1954. When one of President Clinton's first political initiatives was an attempt the allow gays to serve openly in the military, the best he could achieve was a somewhat opaque concession in the form of "don't ask, don't tell." That standard lasted until recent years when the rights of LGBTI persons have finally started to get full recognition.

That so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act is now over twenty years old. Hopefully we will not have to wait half a century until the fictions on which it rests, along with the bizarre idea that corporations are people, are corrected.

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