Tammy Mackenzie in Philosophy 10 minutes

The Responsibility of Business Owners in the Questions of Human Extinction

Update April 2017: A note of warning to the reader.

This article discusses topics that may trigger feelings of fear or anger, which can lead to social problems for all of us. According to psychologists (Harvard Health) theologians (Researchgate), and neurologists (University of Southern California), practicing gratitude and compassion can reestablish good mental health and relationships. Thank you to a wise advisor, Geshe Ngawang Sonam, for insight and inspiration on the importance of doing so. -Tam.

Once upon a time, you saw a way to do something a little differently, a little better.

How We Got Here

American philosopher and humanist Noam Chomsky wrote an essay called “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”. In it, he calls out the intellectuals of his country, demanding that they take a rational stand against American imperialism and atrocities abroad, and cease seeking the trappings of power through justifications of genocide. It’s a critical argument against a global “cult of the expert” that allows only some powerful, generally rich, male, beige people, to speak as experts in morality and ideology. He argues that such questions are subjective, and so cannot give rise to general expertise. He further goes on to detail the charlatanism of those who claim to be experts in public policies and international affairs, their blatant lying and thefts, misrepresentations of history, and active role in crimes from blackmail to mass murder.

The “Responsibility of Intellectuals” was published in 1967, and Mr. Chomsky was talking about the war in Vietnam. His questions were: what is the responsibility of intellectuals in war-mongering, and what is the responsibility of a people whose country goes to war? As a case in point: what of those many, many German civilians who knew and who let World War II happen, who supported the massacre of their neighbors?

Today, we face global extinction. What now is the responsibility of powerful people, of rich people, towards the rest of life? We benefit as did Mr. Chomsky’s intellectual class from the pinnacle of human ingenuity, of centuries of technological and social innovations, of health, safety, and access to information the likes of which no humans saw, ever, nor likely will again. What is our responsibility, having benefited from the habits and wastes that now cause death worldwide, and risk killing off all hope for life?

In the 1790’s, within the context of the start of the Industrial Revolution, Britain and America began to pass laws that are today the business laws and free trade agreements of every country on earth (Wikipedia’s history of Corporations). Incorporation means “to be put into a body”. It works like this: a person or group of people pay to create an Imaginary Person. Like a Real Person, that Imaginary Person can sign contracts and own assets. It can give money to its Real friends. It can operate a business, and this Imaginary Person pays less tax than a Real Person doing the same work. It can benefit from the proceeds of most criminal acts, and take part in crimes domestically and overseas but, being Imaginary, it can’t be put in jail. (“Could GM Be Charged With Murder?” Hint: No, “it” can’t.) The only laws that can touch the Real directors of a corporation are tax laws and some civil tort, mitigated by intricate and expensive accounting and lobbying. Lastly, quite unlike a Real Person, an Imaginary, in-corporated Person has a geas – a set of rules it must absolutely follow, chief among which is: “Profit at any cost.”

geas ɡeSH/noun 1. (in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person.

Incorporation laws were specifically set up to allow a small group of rich and powerful people to continue to grow more rich and powerful. Today, thanks to those laws, we have some Incorporated Persons, like Inhuman Evil Masterminds who are legally bound to kill us by doing things like holding oil reserves in excess of what the planet can carry, and fighting climate policy to keep doing it. Corporations of all kinds, large and small, who purchase the advantages of lower taxes on income and deductible expenses, while closer and closer to home people are starting to starve. Skipping meat (other than for important health, environmental, and ethical concerns), skipping fresh produce, because it would mean eviction. (See: Poverty and food quality, See: Rise in food prices, See: Food insecurity in Montreal).

Never mind the civilians. Why didn’t soldiers stop? The police? Because they’re human: The Stanford Prison Experiment.

The question of whether a person ought to help another in need is ancient. We find it in religion (The Good Samaritan, Buddhist compassion), in philosophy, (Categorical Imperative), and at home (Blue balls). Generally, people have asked and answered two questions about beneficence – acting in a way that benefits another person:

Should we? Probably. Must we? No, we have free will, or something like it.

This is the space in which those German citizens lived, and American citizens during the 20-year Vietnam massacre. In so-called classical philosophy as in historical narratives, we can possibly forgive them, those unknown people long ago. That German laborer should have said no to murdering others, but he had a job for the first time in 30 years, and a bit of pride and hope for the future, and could be expected to make the best choice for himself and his family. Our cultural heritage, our writing, and our thinking, all say that though the German people should have helped, they and we must be free to not help, to not act, should we so choose.

Where We Can Go

Though war apologists have a disproportionate effect on the business laws of the land, they need not dictate our shared values. Thankfully, we have a frame of reference for criminal responsibility, in that we have generally agreed to certain laws that limit free choice. When our liberties infringe about those of another person, when our actions become maleficent, then we are committing a crime, and we must stop. Legally and historically, humans concur on the process that follows a crime: stop, assess the consequences, and make amends. This, like the questions at the borders between obligation and charity, is a religious, philosophical, and personal truth in our society, the definition of a crime and its consequences.

Thus we can ask: if bailing water on the Titanic would have helped, would it be a crime to not pick up a bucket? Would the passengers and crew all be required to haul water? What if she was the last ship on earth, and held the last of all life? Certainly by dictate of biological instinct, and by right of every law against violence that has ever in the history of mankind been spoken, written, or pronounced, yes they should bail water to save humanity, and to abstain from bailing is to commit a grave crime. At once genocide, a suicide, and the homicide of friends and family, unacceptable by any measure we set.

Yes, if business people can act to save the world, then we must. Because our privileges are the proceeds of murder, past, present, and ongoing. We must stop. We must be truthful. We must make amends.

I’m glad you’re reading about this.

Refusing to participate in such a charade is how we stop. We stop exploiting people and seemingly low-cost options for inferior products. It’s not true that our 2$ gizmo from China cost only 1$. It burned petrol, it’s made of carelessly toxic anything, and represents underpaid, unsafe, and undervalued labour in the whole supply chain, including in our offices. And the full costs are paid not only by people who will be treated as dead weight to feed when they can no longer produce economical products, but will be also paid by me, and you, and your family. Paid for in lost years of life, specifically because the production and transport of all these things are poisoning our only environment, and generally because humans under pressure tend to react violently. Even could no ethical or legal case be made, we must out of self-preservation stop accounting for things based on their last-paid cost, and taking them at their true, systemic costs.

Because climate change and murder, meine freund.

Governments are not acting fast enough to save us, and they can’t. They have their own geas, the inevitable weight of human institutions when they have ceased functioning for the masses. They have furthermore been created to maintain business as usual, and to do so in hiding. The effect of Mr. Chomsky’s “cult of the expert”, on both “sides” of the political spectrum, in combination with a huge market of distraction, a media that has only two topics of discussion (How bad it is elsewhere, how it’s getting a little better here), and an educational system too afraid of a youth revolt to teach critical thinking, is to create a culture in which lying is ok. In fact, in which lies are frequently defended as “a matter of opinion”, and “free speech”, instead of being understood, respectively, as “destroying the credibility of public discourse” and “propaganda” or “hate-mongering”.

We have as a culture accepted that experts in social questions, in government or out, can be trusted to act in our best interests, and that against every piece of historical fact or evidence. They act in their own self-interest, that of the very small, very rich minority in charge of governments. That interest is in keeping the status quo, this situation that is going to kill us. Far from outsourcing our critical thinking to a narrow caste, “educated” in the extraordinarily selfish and short-sighted views of a hero-myth in which they and only they can save us, we must instead be giving the tools and information to make those decisions to absolutely everyone, and promoting cooperation towards useful ends, and that as urgently as humanly possible.

The German citizens lived in a culture and power structure identical to ours, and it’s thousands of years old. They should have done better, and the stakes weren’t anything like what they are today. Yet, perhaps we can do better. We have a few great advantages in our century, among them the almost free exchange of information and translations. Solutions, though lacking in powerful support, are emerging at every level of human activity.

We can set triple-bottom line accounting standards that take into account social and environmental costs in addition to traditionally counted expenses. Lobby for, invest in, purchase from, and support people who are fighting to build a survivable economy. Fight to stop oil subsidies and other earth-killers. To hold board members personally accountable for the criminal acts of a corporation. To reinstate progressive taxation. To create an educational system based on cooperation, creativity, and critical thinking. To leverage technology to eliminate or minimize representational politics, to be replaced with proportionality and public service. To remove money from all levels of political campaigns. Close the party system. Increase inheritance taxes. Insist on a free press. Fund artists. Fund inventors. Trust people. There are many other rational and required initiatives. You get to pick.

You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.” -Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake

I understand that it’s hard. I know that you were told a lie about how the world worked, about your place in it, and about how other people lived their time here. I was told the same. I forgive you for those years when you didn’t know that our way of life was killing people. But now you do know. (If you don’t yet, then watch these: Before the Flood, This Changes Everything). Very, very few humans have any choice or power at all in this train wreck, but we do, and it bears repeating: because business people can act, we must. The cost of our victory in the economic wars is extermination, and there is no power yet in place to defeat us. Stop doing it. Stop lying about it. Fix it. Because after us come the revolutions, and after that, the end.