First, who ARE those “natural,” real people behind corporations?
In a speech to Congress on September 9, 2009, President Barack Obama made the
following remark: “Insurance executives don't do this because they are bad people. They do it because it’s profitable.”
Um...what? I mean, we’ve all heard plenty of remarks by politicians that don’t pass the BS test, but that one has to be among the worst. When he said it, I couldn’t help wondering about Mr. Obama’s moral compass—so, let’s see...injury to others is okay, as long as the injury happens within the context of profit-making? In this society, certain people can escape a designation as “bad people,” if profit is involved?
Amazed, I had to ask— when did making a profit become a justification for acts —criminal neglect, overt disregard for safety, dishonest, exploitive or unfair practices— that injure American citizens and the environment? Could that work for crystal meth producers too? Putting aside the illegal bit, what could possibly be wrong with people who produce this product and indirectly injure others? If it were legal, there’d be no reason to judge the makers and distributors of the drug—hey, they aren’t bad people; they’re just trying to make a profit!
Hello? How does that work, where the essential immorality of corporate crime in the guise of free enterprise, that is, bad people doing bad things to innocent people, cannot be acknowledged? Obviously, it doesn’t work, except in the upside-down world of the “free” market, where those who make profits at the expense of others are thought to be “amoral,” not immoral, i.e., bad people. And, what does that say about us that we cannot at least hold these people accountable, not only just as we hold common criminals accountable, by exacting criminal penalties —jail— but even minimally in the way we judge their character?
We are allowed to judge character, aren’t we? Martin Luther King:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
...judged by the content of their character, but judged, nevertheless.
I’m sure Mr. Obama has met insurance executives and corporate CEOs and perhaps found them to be charming and intelligent. But let’s be reminded of what the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare has brought to our understanding of human psychology, a check list of personality and behavior traits common to psychopaths. I do believe these traits are not only common to criminal psychopaths, but also to professional sociopaths in business, academia and politics:
conning or manipulativeness
lack of remorse or guilt
lack of empathy
failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions.
I am far from being the first to point out that these are traits fostered and nurtured in America. Dare I say, Americans love a sociopath? “He’s got power and wealth—what a winner!”
And who ARE those not-so-natural, corporate “persons?”
So, if the corporation is a person, what kind of person is it? How many legs does it have? Does it have one head, two heads, or is it a monstrous, multi-headed person, where for each head cut off it grows two more, like the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology? Does it, like the Hydra, have a poisonous breath so virulent even its tracks are deadly? I’m afraid that’s about it, in some cases.
Surely, the Supreme Court has created a monster, this corporate person, which has profit at the top of its hierarchy of values, a monster with superficial charm, and all the other character traits on Hare’s list, including the failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions. But what else does it say about the character of that Learnaean Hydra that it values profit above all? What kind of person puts cold cash as a value above the lives of others, above the health of other species and the planet, above all?
In my opinion, the distinguishing characteristic of the profit-obsessed, corporate “person” (an entity made up of real people) from natural, actual persons, is one important thing: deep indifference.
Deep indifference corresponds with “lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, and failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions” on the Hare check list, but it goes beyond those human characteristics. It is something wholly alien from natural persons. Unlike the failures of natural people in denial of their humanity, or even actively engaging in hatred, the monster corporation’s indifference is wholly disconnected from human feeling: The corporate Hydra is capable of deep indifference, because it is built to be a non-human entity with no other purpose than profit and power. Its managers and CEOs, trained to spite their own humanity and that of others, devote themselves to the purpose of the monster, as mindless converts to the cult of “free” enterprise.
Question: Why not apply enhanced legal penalties to corporate criminals for indifference to the suffering of others?
If we as a society ever evolve to reject the notion that profit-making absolves corporations and their owners of moral and legal culpability for the damage done in the course of their self-interested ambitions, will we allow indifference toward the suffering of others as grounds for the attachment of enhanced penalties for their crimes? Can we say corporate criminals commit crimes of indifference, and, thus, their crimes are as equally deserving of our disgust as are so-called hate crimes?
(Illustration by Zenzoë)