After-Dinner Ruminations in the Highest Bobcat-Land

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[This entry is somewhat general (uncharacteristically so, I hope.) I have more specific things to say, but I’m thinking out loud. Also, I usually think reductio ad absurdum, which necessitates the making of positive statements. Judge accordingly.]

I was talking with a friend about the right way to make a living. Somehow I got sucked into discussing corporate responsibility. I hate discussing corporate responsibility: it’s a concept I’ve discarded. The idea of corporate responsibility seems to me a way to feel good about getting nothing done.

I believe there are systems and there are persons. People create the systems and people live within them. Sometimes the system suggests a person do the right thing and sometimes the system suggests a person do the wrong thing. In our time and our society each person almost always has the luxury of choosing to do the right thing.

But the system is like an anthill and people acting in the system are like ants. When a person chooses to buck the system, he or she is pushed aside and another ant takes his or her place. If the system presents me with a morally wrong but otherwise attractive choice, I hope to be aware enough to not choose it. But I never expect that my abstention means that path is not taken by someone else.

We can talk about corporate responsibility but that is just a way of distancing ourselves from talking about who is really responsible. We can ad-hoc hold each person responsible for their actions but no positive change can result from this: in a moral sense each person is already the inheritor of the results of their own actions; and, from the point of view of someone who is not the person making the choice, the action prescribed by the system gets made despite the choice of any particular person.

We can work for the day when every person has the understanding to make the right choice, but pretending that we live in that world today seems like another way of avoiding our own responsibility. We all act within the system, but we all also help create the system. Our responsibility for others’ bad actions is to create a better system. We can blame specific corporations or specific people for bad actions or the lack of good actions, but because blame often replaces our conscious effort to understand and change the system, it is worse than sterile.

Gary Snyder once speculated on the bobcat’s responsibility for doing no harm, exploring the morality of those who needed to live within a system. But the bobcat does not create his or her own system. As individuals we can attend to our own responsibilities, but for others we can only constructively understand how to create a better system.