The ethic of “first, do no harm” would require major changes

There are laws, and there are ethics. Corporations in the U.S. have been granted legal “personhood” when it comes to matters such as political speech and campaign contributions. Some “closely held” corporations, such as Hobby Lobby, are allowed to extend their founders’ religious convictions to take precedence over laws that otherwise would apply.

But what are the ethics of corporate personhood? What would it mean for corporations to live by the ethic that many professions claim, not only doctors: first, do no harm?

Sometime in the course of raising children, I concluded one very important marker of maturity is not that one does not make a mess. The marker is that one cleans up the messes one makes. In my version of “common sense,” cleaning up one’s own messes should apply everywhere from individuals to families, from corporations to governments. It is an ethic, akin to “do no harm.” Perhaps the ethic reads like this: “When you do harm or make a mess, work to clean, heal, or rectify the situation.”

I am heartened by stories such the one about J-M Farms in Oklahoma. Upon learning there was a hole in a liquid compost (which is gold to gardeners but toxic to fish) pipe, and the compost polluted the local creek, the company took immediate and extensive action to clean up its mess. There are some companies that have consistently been good citizens in their communities and for the world.

But, is an ethic of corporate adulthood the norm?

Consider:

  • A recent editorial by (my pastor) the Rev. David Wiggs in the Tulsa World: “constitutional carry,” otherwise known as permit-less carry, is now the law in Oklahoma (and over a dozen other states). For houses of worship that can afford security measures and personnel, there are costs incurred due to the high rates of gun ownership, gun violence, and the unknown threat level of someone walking around public spaces with firearms. For congregations that can’t afford security systems and personnel, they live with the cost of increased fear. Who pays for security? Not the gun manufacturers, nor the state.
  • When children and families deal with unspeakable trauma for the rest of their lives after being among the survivors of a mass attack, who pays?
  • When homes are damaged by earthquakes or water tables have become salinized due to fracking wastewater injection wells, who pays to repair the homes and for digging new wells? Not the energy companies.
  • In heavy cancer zones, economically poor communities living in deltas where carcinogenic residues accumulate both in the deltas and in the people’s bodies, who pays for medical care? Not the fertilizer companies or anybody else up-river.
  • When public spending on roads and bridges is woefully inadequate for decades, and car repair bills average some multiple of four figures annually, why do we opt for paying repair shops rather than higher taxes to reduce the repairs (and spilled coffee stains from pock-marked roads)? In lieu of taxes, we pay repair shops or drive with shaky vehicles.
  • There are pipelines which feed the industrial prison complex. We know there are factors—such as quality of schools, family support, societal equity and fairness, and economic development—that are upstream of prisons. Why are we so willing, so often, to pay for more prisons than to deal effectively with the upstream issues? Again, who pays?
  • Facebook has made an enormous amount of money providing a platform that “connects” more human beings that any other “communication” platform in history. It has a quasi-public function, but it is not a government entity and, therefore, is not required to abide by federal “free speech” laws. When Facebook knowingly aids violence-inciting groups and completely fictional political advertising, they make money. But who pays for Facebook’s profit?
  • Venice, Italy was sinking before modern climate change (it is built in a lagoon). Now, between sinking, rising sea levels, and the notorious corruption associated with Italian public works projects that has delayed a flood-control system, it is likely that Venice will become the modern Atlantis, underwater by the end of the 21st Venice is just one city that will be affected by climate change. Billions of human beings’ lives are being changed by the changing climate, with much more damaging change to come. Yes, climate change can’t be laid only at the feet of corporations; whole developed societies have colluded, including our own. Who will pay? A huge burden is being laid on future generations.
  • Global health and life expectancy have been improving over the past 30 years. However, that trend is changing. A new study points to a dimmer future for our children and their children. Who pays for today’s decisions?
  • The Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid out over $3 billion to pay settlements to survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy. That figure represents only a third of identified survivors. Who pays (the Church, yes, but from where and who did the Church receive its money?), and who is going to pay?

Apparently, “first do no harm, and if you do, work to remediate the harm and clean up the mess you made,” is an ethic that would fundamentally change a great deal about our lives, and the lives of generations to come. It is also apparent: there is another ethic at work that allows harm to be done by one party and borne by another, for the sake of short-term gains.

If we were thinking about equity and justice today and for future generations, we’d be demanding—of ourselves and others—an ethic of “first, do no harm.”