There is an old Confucian proverb about a farmer. One day, the farmer’s best horse got loose and ran away. The neighbors came to offer their sympathies for his loss: “such bad luck” they said. “Maybe” he replied. The next day the horse returned, bringing with him two wild horses. The neighbors celebrated the fortunate turn: “such good luck” the exclaimed! “Maybe” the farmer replied. On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but he was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbors (being the nosy bunch that they were) again offered sympathies: “such bad luck!” “Maybe,” he replied yet again. On the fourth day, military officials came to the town to draft young men into the military. They passed the farmer’s son by because of his leg. “Such good luck,” the neighbors replied. “Maybe” said the farmer…
The Catholic social media universe was buzzing following yesterday’s news. Since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was largely an unknown quantity to us here in the United States, most people were trying to piece together an image of the new head of our Church. First came the wave of obvious “firsts” – he’s the first Latin American Pope, the First Pope from outside Europe in over 1000 years, the first Jesuit Pope, and finally, the first Pope to choose the name Francis after Francis of Assisi. Next came his first public address, which he opened by asking the faithful to pray for him rather than by offering his blessing on the faithful. Then came the news that as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had made a point to live in a small apartment, take the bus to work, and to cook his own meals.
For most of my more liberal Catholic friends, this was a day to celebrate. From a conclave that consisted entirely of cardinals named by the past two, highly conservative Popes, the expectation was that another highly conservative Pope would emerge. So when this bus-riding, self-cooking, poor-loving, humble, non-European, non-Vatican-insider emerged, the liberal half of Catholicism rejoiced.
“Maybe,” said the Farmer.
Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective. Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about.
I doubt that Immanuel Kant will be able to convince any of my conservative Catholic friends that the HHS mandate with the Hawaii exception is a workable compromise for an imperfect system.* (Well, maybe Kant himself could, but my use of Kant probably won’t convince anyone). At the same time, I am teaching Kant this week in my intro Ethics course and so I have the categorical imperative on my mind as the HHS mandate question rages on. Thus, I thought it might be helpful to apply Kant to this conundrum and see if there was not something to learn from the 18th Century German philosopher. I am by no means a Kantian, but I do think his emphasis on the universality of moral law is something we need to always keep in mind, and this case is a perfect example.
For those not familiar with Kant’s work, here is a quick and dirty summary: Kant said that ethics boils down to one’s duty to do uphold what he called the categorical imperative. That’s just a fancy way of saying a universal duty – a duty that applies to everyone, always. There is only one categorical imperative for Kant: that we should never do any action that we wouldn’t want everyone else to do. It’s a modification of the golden rule. So Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if we lie when “it is necessary” then we would have to allow everyone to lie when necessary. If we allow everyone to lie when necessary, the we would never know if someone was telling the truth or lying out of necessity, and the whole institution of trust would break down. In short, our actions are only morally legitimate if we can say that we would want everyone else to do the same action.
So lets think about Kant in terms of the health care mandate. What is the maxim that is at stake here?
I will warn you at the outset here that I have no intention of providing any sort of solution to the debate raging in Catholic circles and elsewhere over the health care mandate. What I hope to do here, though, is offer some food for thought on this debate and spur thinking in new directions by comparing the current situation to other situations that we might want to act differently.
To begin, let me outline the contours of the primary debate… The new federal health care regulations require that all employers of a certain size provide their employees health insurance. Included in the regulations is a mandate that this health insurance must cover, among many other things, contraception. Contraception is officially understood as illicit by the Catholic church and so this causes a conflict for Catholic organizations. Now, in the bill, religious institutions such as churches, dioceses, etc. are exempted from having to provide anything that goes against their avowed religious or moral beliefs. Religious schools, universities and hospitals are not considered under this exception. Thus, the mandate for contraception still applies to them.
Now, consider the following questions and parallel cases. Are these the same? Should We follow the same logic?
- If a religious university or hospital should be able to claim religious exemptions to government mandates, then why shouldn’t Catholic owned ‘mom and pop’ business owners be able to claim the same right? Is there a fundamental difference between an institution that claims religious beliefs as part of their mission (like a university) and an individual shop owner whose business may not have anything to do with Catholicism, but which is owned by a Catholic? And if an individual shop owner can make such a decision, then what of corporations – can a Catholic majority on the board of directors of an organization make the same claim? What about an organization with a Catholic majority of shareholders?
- [Update] One of the outcomes of the recent supreme court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission was that corporations were to be understood as persons before the law, and therefore corporations held the same rights (namely, in the Citizens United case, the right to free speech) as an individual would have. Consider this in light of the health care mandate. If corporations are people, then shouldn’t individual people be protected just as corporations are under this mandate? So if the rule is expanded to include religious hospitals schools (corporations in their own right), should it also not include religious individuals (including Mom and Pop shopowners)? Continue reading
Dear Republicans Candidates for President,
I’d like to introduce myself. I am your swing voter in 2012. I voted for President Obama in 2008 because, in my opinion, he was the better candidate of the two we were left with in the end. I held no delusions then, nor do I now, that he is the best person in our country for the job. Of course, those that are the best candidates don’t actually want the job, but that is an aside.
The point is that your ticket to the white house goes through me and those like me. I am the national center. My issues spread both sides of the aisle and while I have a party affiliation, it is only so that I can participate in the primary system and I certainly do not support that party’s stand on every issue. In fact, at different times in my life, I have been registered for each of the major parties and I even dabbled for a time in some third parties in the delusional hope that we might be able to escape the dominant two-party system that neither represents me nor serves our country best.
My point is that not everyone fits the “you are either with us or against us” mantra that has so enveloped the right-wing view on both international affairs but also now domestic political divisions. I am neither black nor white but grey and thus you have left no room for me in the black and white world you paint.I should note that you are not alone in painting this caricature of the American political landscape. The left-wing has not been shy on partisan rhetoric, even if they appear to be the Oscar to your Felix when it comes to getting themselves organized in this political two-step.