Morality, by Contract

So, maybe it’s the crazy wind that was blowing around here all day yesterday, but I’m beginning to wonder about corporate sanity (if there is such a thing).  Specifically, I’ve been hearing about more and more contracts with ethics clauses written into them.  This is downright weird.  Does the signing of a contract make one ethical?  It’s like that silly page that comes up on some workplace servers saying you’re very naughty if you’re not the person you’ve logged in as.  We all know that.  That’s why hackers hack and the rest of us comply.  But legislative morality?  Via contract?  The notion is strange because ethics relies on an agreed-upon set of standards.  If Trump has taught us anything it’s that there’s no agreed-upon set of standards.  Some of us can honestly say that we weigh our own ethics every time we do anything.  Send me a contract and see!

The first time I saw an ethical behavior clause it was in a contract from a Christian company.  They wanted no business dealings with the corrupt, misbehaving, and one might guess, pagan sort.  When such a contract is sent to a business, it means that said business will monitor the morality of all its employees.  That’s something I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of.  Rationalization is too easy and far too human.  Let the one without sin cast the first whereas.  Well, one would think that a Christian company might take that point of view.  The way some Christians have treated me over the years makes me shudder at the advantages taken.

This idea seems to be spreading out to secular companies as well.  You read about contracts with ethical clauses in them—anyone who’s not ethical will have no qualms about signing a contract stating s/he is!  Why offer a contract at all if someone’s morals are in doubt?  One of the things you learn from taking ethics courses (of which I had several) is that, beyond widely agreed-upon standards (it’s wrong to kill, for example, or take something that belongs to someone else) the details quickly fade to gray.  People find ways of living with themselves while trying to survive in society.  An ethics clause in a contract suggests I should live by the standards set by the issuer.  It attempts to vouch for my future behavior without knowing my future circumstances.  I’m all for ethical behavior, and I try to abide by my own moral code daily.  It’s just that putting morality into contracts implies thinking poorly of the party of the second part.  Better to add a sanity clause.

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Search Yourself

I was searching for someone on the internet (surprisingly, not myself).  Since this individual didn’t have much of a platform, I looked at MyLife.com.  Such sites draw in the curious and you soon end up paying (I suspect) for any salacious information such as arrest or court records.  In any case, what stood out is that we all presumably have a meter on the site that shows whether we’re good or bad.  It’s like a Leonard Cohen song.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what religion used to do.  Some forms of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) tell you that you can never be good enough.  Others are more lax (Episcopalians come to mind), as long as you go to mass enough and feel some guilt for misdeeds, you’ll get in.  All the various groups, however, have metrics by which you’re measured, largely based on what you believe.

The odd thing—or one of the odd things—about religion is that it is now categorized as what you believe.  Historically religions began as a kind of bellwether of what you do rather than what you believe.  The two are related, of course.  The motivation behind an action might well be good while the end result is less so.  Secular justice regularly seeks to answer the question of why someone did something.  Was there malice involved?  Aforethought?  Was it an unfortunate accident?  Religion drives over this ground too.  Without getting into the many shades of gray that are morality, value judgments as to the goodness or badness of an action (or a person) were traditionally the purview of religion.

The internet itself has become a kind of god.  We turn to it for all kinds of answers.  It’s both a Bible and encyclopedia rolled into one.  When we want to know something about someone we google them.  Some of us have tried to control the narrative about ourselves by making websites.  (This, of course, presumes others will be interested in us.)  Social media also injects us into larger arteries of traffic.  People judge us by what we post or tweet.  Often without ever meeting us or getting to know who we really are behind our physical walls.  So this person I searched had left little to find.  Scraps here and there.  I didn’t believe everything I saw on MyLife.  After all, not everyone wants to subject her or himself to the constant scrutiny of the connected world.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.

Financial Ethics

In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common.  That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit.  We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics.  This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine.  In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope.  Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?

Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal.  If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious.  I sometimes buy things online with PayPal.  It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it.  So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account.  What am I to do with it?  Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms).  One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?”  Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.

Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so.  This is nothing new.  But the question of ethics now looms extra large.  For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal?  My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone.  What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting?  Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do?  That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical.  What would Moses say?  Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time.  A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.

Canadian Care

Amazon, probably not purely out of kindness, gives some customers access to the most read stories in the Washington Post. Apart from talking to my wife, this is about the only way I learn about what’s happening in the world (mine is a small world after all). I have no idea what Amazon’s metrics are for determining which stories to share, but I was amazed at one focusing on doctors in Canada. The story also appeared in Newsweek and other media sources. Unlike many medical professionals, these Canadian physicians are petitioning the government for lower salaries. They say they already have enough money and other healthcare workers aren’t being paid adequately. Why not share when you have extra? I’ve always thought Canada was far ahead of its southern neighbor in the ethics department, and this about clinches it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for doctors. (You should see how much money I give them!) Nobody wants to go through life with this or that hurting or aching all the time. Most of the doctors I’ve met have been kind and descent people. Seldom as strapped for cash as I am, but then my doctorate is in a more intellectual field; serves me right. What really becomes a star in my personal firmament is that somewhere in this world enamored of capitalism, a privileged class has said, “this isn’t right.” Economists have been warning us for years that unbridled capitalism isn’t sustainable, but that falls on deaf ears in this country. Maybe our political leaders should see an otolaryngologist? Maybe they’ve got some wax build-up in there.

Doctors work hard. They have long hours and have to put up with smelly and messy situations. There’s a reason we have to pay so much to compel them to look where the rest of us are told to avert our eyes. At the same time, every other major developed nation in the world has some form of socialized medicine—it is a basic human right. Everywhere but here. If you drive through New Jersey you can’t help but be taken by the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies that call this state home. There’s gold in them thar hills. As I gaze at them from the highway, my thoughts are driving across the border to a land that’s both affluent and caring. When’s the last time we heard an American entrepreneur say, “I’ve got enough—give the rest to someone else”? When too much is never enough, that’s something it’s going to take a Canadian doctor to treat, I fear.

Apologizing for Whatever

Maybe you’ve felt it too. The insecurity of liking something other people don’t. Having grown up an Evangelical, I had to try to explain myself at multiple points for liking scary stuff. I love Halloween. I spent my young Saturday afternoons watching monster movies on our black-and-white television. After losing a long-term job at a decidedly gothic seminary, I began consoling myself with horror films. I don’t know why. I also don’t know why other people shun those of us with this particular habit. It’s not like I’m going to make you sit down and watch them with me if you don’t want to. You don’t even need to buy my book, and if you do (thank you!) you don’t have to read it.

One of the issues I’ve often grappled with is why “Christians” dislike horror. Reading the accounts of the martyrs is way worse than almost anything I’ve seen on screen. Revelation, let’s face it, is a horror show of Schadenfreude and ultra-violence. The Calvinistic idea that God would create the vast majority of people to burn in an eternal Hell of fire for reasons best kept to himself (yup, he’s a guy) is hardly charitable. So why do Christians say you shouldn’t watch horror? One of the observations from this lowbrow viewer is that the message behind horror is often good. Moral. Ethical even. We have trouble getting around the form of the message to see its substance.

I seldom talk about horror movies. Maybe that’s why I write about them so much. But the fear of judgment remains strong, even with maturity. The lurking Evangelical fear is that watching horror will entice the young to become interested in evil. I think it’s fair to say that all Christians are somewhat fascinated by evil—where does it come from? Why doesn’t God stop it? Horror films seldom glorify the monster. The protagonists, often flawed, fight evil and sometimes succeed. Do I really need to justify this interest at all? It’s no exaggeration to say that, although no longer an Evangelical I still feel the weight of both their stares and those of others who can’t understand why a nice guy watches such unbecoming things. My book doesn’t answer those kinds of questions, but it may contain implicit answers within. Of course, you’ll only know that if you read it. Not that I’m asking you to do so—it doesn’t even have a title yet.

Endings

It’s hard not to feel sorry for survivors. In a hostile world, the ability to resist the entropy lapping at your toes is a feat that inspires admiration. Although independent bookstores are making a comeback, there aren’t many around. An evening spent at Barnes and Noble, if allocated well, can evoke some sympathy even for a dying giant. While my wife had an appointment next door, I spent a good while in the fiction section—really the only part of our local B&N that is well stocked. My time among books, excessive to some, is my solace. It’s not a bad vice to have. Seeing others out shopping for books also delivers a message of hope to a world disinclined to read.

In the B section I saw an edition of A Clockwork Orange. If you read my post on Anthony Burgess’s book in the last few weeks, you’ll know that the American edition has always lacked the last chapter. I wondered if maybe, just perhaps, if this edition might contain the missing ending. It has been several decades since the original embargo. I picked it up and, indeed, the last chapter was intact. I stood in the aisle and read it. Say what you will about Barnes and Noble, but nobody thinks this kind of behavior odd. Once again I was transferred back to Alex and the world of his droogs, only to discover that the ending was something like I had anticipated. If you’ve read the standard American edition you know that it ends abruptly. Writers know how to draw a story to a close. Herewith I offer a spoiler alert.

Alex, now 18, has a new band of droogs. They sound quite a bit like his previous gang. Then he notices he doesn’t feel like the old ultra-violence one night. He goes to a coffee shop where he finds Pete, his old gang-mate, now married and holding a respectable job. He realizes with a kind of horror that having a child and wife appeals to him. He’s growing up. Critics often said Burgess was a moralist with Christian sensibilities. The original ending to A Clockwork Orange might suggest that’s true. Alex may be converted, but he’s unrepentant. Indeed, as he thinks of being a father he envisions his son being just like he was, and the cycle of violence and reform spinning on and on into the future. Shortly after I closed the cover, my wife met me in the store. I was amazed at how 15 or 20 minutes immersed in reading had shifted the mental world I inhabited. New information had changed me. This is the power of books, even when they’re found in Barnes and Noble.

Doing the Math

Erich Fromm once defined evil as “attraction to what is dead, decaying, lifeless, and purely mechanical.” Certainly Fromm doesn’t hold the cachet he once did, but this way of thinking about evil has stuck with me. It’s not so much the dead, decaying, or lifeless part—that’s part of nature—but the purely mechanical. I don’t disparage the many machines we have that make life easier, and modern life possible—can you imagine your job without computers? The problem in my mind, as Fromm defines it, lies in the word “purely.” Purely mechanical. By the numbers. You see, we often forget that being human, and thought itself, isn’t about pure logic. Our brains evolved to be half emotive and have rational. Our feelings can be smart. When we reduce all of life to numbers, according to Fromm’s definition, we’ve entered the realm of evil.

Some, in the past as well as present, have posited numbers as the only real truth. No matter where you are in the universe 2 + 2 = 4. It’s about the only certainty we have. I think what Fromm was concerned about was not this kind of certainty, but rather that which sees only numbers as being important. Think of the multibillionaire who’s lost sight of the human misery he (and it’s generally a he) has caused to become so wealthy. It’s not something towards which an enlightened individual would aspire. Purely mechanical it is, by definition, evil. We’ve all known people like that—those who just can’t get beyond the numbers whether they be the bottom line or the instructions for the doomsday device. The human element is missing. Are we truly beyond good and evil?

Does it add up?  Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Does it add up? Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Governments, once upon a time, were put in place in democracies to protect the interests of the people. When people are mere marks—numbers at an inauguration or cheated at the polls—we’ve entered the realm of purely mechanical. Of course, intellectuals are out of favor now. Why be troubled with the news when you can make up your own? 2 + 2 need not equal 4 if you say it loud enough. Behind stage, however, you’ll make sure your accountants know the score. Those who wish to start a New World Order must insist that the classics are outdated. While we’re counting out the days in our prison cell it might be a good opportunity to read. I plan to have Erich Fromm on my list. I’m only human after all.