There was never much doubt that the Supreme Court would take the side of Hobby Lobby’s owners, in favor of their “religious freedom” to refuse to pay the birth control portion of their employees’ mandatory health care. I am not a lawyer and have not read the decision, but the headline summary on Al Jazeera America makes clear that there are limits to what an employer can refuse to provide. Blood transfusions and vaccinations — procedures where life and death stand more immediately at risk — fall outside religious liberty. (If only this latter applied also to parents…)
Why would this case divide the for-profit business community, as it has done? On the surface, the Court has made a decision which increases capital’s arbitrary powers. But look again. The logic advocated by Hobby Lobby is that even for-profit corporations have moral obligations. And since moral obligations can only apply to beings with the capacity to make moral decisions, this decision can be used to vitiate the most killing assertion of the twentieth century’s drive for corporate power: that corporate management’s highest and single duty is to make the most possible money for its shareholders.
Let me say that again: the Supreme Court has articulated that because corporations are legally persons, they have the right to exercise their consciences.
“What consciences?” you’re asking. And that’s just it: in matters of employee treatment and environmental depredation, our whole experience has taught us to believe that corporations have no consciences. They tell us that all the time. It’s at the heart of what Mary Barra asserts when she says that she (or, more accurately, her predecessors) has no personal accountability for the deaths caused by the General Motors “culture” of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” It’s also at the heart of her strategy to fire particular individuals in order to avoid incurring a trial and penalty against her corporation, based on its culture — i.e, its moral code.
Corporations suffer these trials all the time, in civil suits. But if corporations are moral actors –as this decision dictates — voters can also require corporations to exercise the self-education and foresight that every individual has to display toward protecting the lives and property of others. It is illegal to receive stolen goods, to vandalize other people’s property, to poison their children’s food. In the hands of creative lawyers, this ruling opens a path, finally, to start cutting back on the corporate First Commandment for externalizing (avoiding) as many costs as possible. And if something bad happens, well, that’s just collateral damage, sacrificed to the virtue of maximizing shareholder income.
I have no doubt that leftist political orthodoxy, completely rejecting the idea that insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, in hopes of getting different results, is already ginning up protests about “the war on women.” Advocates of birth control long ago lost public support when they persisted in separatist rhetoric, rather than offering personal testimonies about how much men, especially those in established family commitments, require options for, and participate in decisions about, using birth control. Instead, gender warriors in both sexes bring constant delight to superficial headline writers by playing up these age-old zero-sum fallacies.
This mistake would be more than a shame; it would be a lost opportunity. The Supreme Court has taken a major step toward humanizing the personhood of corporations; it’s now up to us to demand that corporations subscribe to the responsibilities imposed on the rest of us — as humans.