Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Ethic of Community

Liberty University, a private Christian school has lodged a legal challenge to the universal health insurance plan (the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) being implemented right now. Its complaint is founded on the notion that its forced participation in the plan would cause the university, as an employer, to provide benefits for medical services that conflict with its religious beliefs. The focal point of its concern is that the university would (indirectly, through the plan) offer to pay for abortions and birth control.

The complaint is obviously based on an assumption that a corporation has its own civil rights to religious freedom. If it does, can its rights legally trump individual civil rights by association? Liberty is so convinced of this ideology and in its religious convictions that it has chosen to risk the embarrassment associated with disclosing that it knows that its employees’ morals aren’t uniformly aligned with its own. [If it were confident in this uniformity, it would not be so aggressively opposed to offering a benefit which would effectively go unused by individual choice.]

As someone whose religious beliefs are nearly uniformly in some degree of moral conflict with the current manifestation of Western culture, I am bombarded by violations of my morality. Maybe I should stop paying my taxes until I am free from the things that assault my morality. Off the top of my head, I can think of that death penalty thing, corporate personhood, concentration of media ownership (especially radio) and the use of government resources to transfer corporate risk onto individuals.

The true test here is between an ethic of community and an ethic of individual.

An ethic of community prioritizes the welfare of the community over the welfare of the individual. This means that by choosing to live in a community, we are incented to ensure the welfare of each other first and from that individual success, preference and convenience will be possible. The natural resting place for authority in an ethic of community is in a system of “power-with”, or stewardship of each other for the purpose of empowering individual happiness (success).

An ethic of individualism assumes that for the community to succeed, it must first be populated by successful individuals and therefore prioritizes the welfare of the individual as a path to community success. The natural resting place for authority in an ethic of individualism resides then in a system of “power over” to ensure that individuals are empowered to attain their own success and therefore ensure community success. As it evolves, individuals are incented to influence authority using a system created and curated by the powerful. In an ethic of individualism, authority can become a self-serving cycle in which power and influence feed off each other with only casual and gradually reducing attention paid to the welfare of the community.

The Liberty complaint is an experiment in testing which ethic is authentic. Will the result of this complaint confirm that true authority means stewardship under an ethic of community, or will it rather authenticate and possibly formalize an ethic of individualism?

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