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Into the Volcano

The horrors of the Penn State rape scandal should remind us of a truth too easily lost in this era of corporate personhood: institutions of all kinds and sizes are by their nature morally empty.

I suppose our culture’s general sexual ineptitude is one reason this fact is easier to see in instances of violent brutality involving organs of sex. But ugly institutional moral failures of many kinds happen all around us every hour, every day. Some examples: the public humiliation of an employee by a boss bent on demonstrations of authority and control; massive, life-destroying layoffs used as corporate talking points for Wall Street analysts; de-facto euthanasia to protect the bottom line of health insurance companies.

All of these are rationalized as necessary for the health or survival of the institutions involved. Such rationalizations disguise the fact that the only moral worth within an institution inheres in the individuals that belong to it. We are morally broken when we believe the future of Penn State or its athletic program are more important than a young boy raped in a school shower by an employee.

Collective ventures are necessary for our survival. I can’t build my own roads. I can’t see to the education of my neighbors’ children. I can’t manufacture microchips or ship them to Apple. I can’t police my neighborhood or perform a heart transplant.

If I am going to be responsible for others as well as for myself – a guiding moral principle of American democracy – I need others to step up with me. In other words, we need institutions. But we can’t let that need lead us to believe they have more importance than an individual human life.

Orthodox American Individualists (libertarians, for example) make the mistake of believing collective enterprises are the enemy. Nothing matters but individual will. Good luck finding a road to drive on to get that heart transplant. Orthodox collectivists, from jingoistic nationalists (“My country, right or wrong”) to corporate barons to old school Soviet communists make the opposite mistake, believing the good of the collective transcends the moral worth of the individual.

Despite libraries full of inconclusive treatises about the individual vs. society, I don’t think the issue is particularly complex. Every human life is precious, and because we bear responsibility for ourselves and for others, we create institutions, from governments to farmer’s markets, to serve our needs. We can cherish these institutions. We can look upon them with pride and work for their futures. We err only when we subvert individual care for fealty to some abstract corporation, brand or country.

It’s odd that we often come to see our inventions as more important, valuable or powerful than we are. Inevitably, our institutions are as flawed as their creators (that’s us). When we free them from moral responsibility we create our own untouchable oppressors.

The concept of corporate personhood endangers even those that made it up and profit from it. You can almost hear a devil laughing in the darkness, amused at the lengths we go to fool ourselves.

But we make the same mistake every time we sacrifice the life of an individual for some imagined greater corporate good. Like Penn State athletics. Or the Catholic Church.

Our institutions flourish only when the individuals within it flourish. When we toss virgins into volcanoes, we all fall with them.

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