Businesses & Moral Obligations

Back in the day, the push among those who did not much like the idea of state welfare was to argue that benefits should come through the employer. This was pretty popular in a lot of Catholic worker rhetoric. It is not a stupid idea; businesses pretty much run their own miniature welfare regimes in a lot of cases, providing for illness, vacations and leisure, pensions in old age, compensation in certain circumstances of injury, etc, not to mention wages themselves. If you’re the sort who wants to see benefits like these come through the employer, you’ll probably like what Dorothy Day had to say about that here:

“We believe that social security legislation, now balled as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity…It is an acceptance of Cain’s statement, on the part of the employer. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Since the employer can never be trusted to give a family wage, nor take care of the worker as he takes care of his machine when it is idle, the state must enter in and compel help on his part.”

Day’s complaint was, in part, that if states step in with their own welfare regimes, then employers are free to turn their backs on their employees, refusing them even basic benefits. This certainly doesn’t do much in terms of cohesion among employer and employee, and surrounding community, which is something I would presume you would be worried about if you were generally interested in averting widespread class antagonism. And, further, it doesn’t do much to prevail upon businesses that they do, in fact, have a moral purpose, and that like all elements of human sociality they should perform a positive function toward human flourishing. It allows them to exist in a twilight zone of false moral neutrality, wherein they sometimes weakly protest that they’re generating profit and products which is helping everyone, so we should all hush. (That’s a lie, by the way.)

But, alas, it seems the vision that would have forgone state welfare in favor of responsible behavior on behalf of employers is finally destroyed, and conservatives have killed it. A couple of prime specimens from the last few days include Matt Walsh and Olivia Nuzzi, with the former arguing against employment protections for pregnant women, and the latter arguing in favor of Uber price gouging during, among other calamities, terrorist attacks.

Exhibit A, Walsh*:

“We need to stop crying about our ‘rights’ every time something doesn’t turn out the way we wanted. We need to stop crying ‘discrimination’ every time our employer doesn’t give us the special treatment we desire. We need to stop trying to turn everything into a federal regulation. If you think employers have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women — fine. I agree, to a certain extent. But it can’t become a legal obligation.”
Exhibit B, Nuzzi:
“The fact that Uber allowed surge pricing during a hostage crisis may lead you to believe that the company doesn’t care about you, and you would be correct. But Uber does not have a responsibility to care about you. Uber is not a government entity, and it is not beholden to the general carless public during an unwelcome drizzle of rain or even a time of great distress.”
There you have it: a total dismissal of any actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses. Walsh’s proviso that he does think businesses have a moral obligation to accommodate pregnant women “to a certain extent” is weak and toothless, with the “certain extent” probably correlating pretty nicely with the characterization of pregnant women’s needs as “the special treatment [they] desire.” It’s vestigial rhetoric from a time when people like Dorothy Day really did expect some type of positive innovation in employer-employee relations. The Nuzzi passage is damning on those same grounds, and without any ghosts of bygone years: businesses don’t care about you, they don’t have to, and however you cope with that is your problem, not theirs.
Okay, fine. This directly undercuts current conservative claims that businesses will, if left to their own devices, devise very cushy plans to meet the needs of their pregnant employees. If businesses’ mealy-mouthedly alluded moral obligations can never correlate with legal ones, or if, in fact, those moral obligations never existed in the first place, then pushing benefits through employers is neither actionable nor reliable. In that case, you either have to argue that people — say, pregnant women, people in communities businesses are embedded within, etc — should expect zero protection whatsoever from businesses in times of need, or that there should be protections, and that they should come from someplace else than businesses.
Which works for me. I’m all for rendering paid maternity leave through the state. Other countries do it. We could also socialize Uber, as Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert have argued, if its management is bent on refusing to acknowledge any kind of moral obligation to employee or community. The point here is that if you are going to advocate for an absence of reliable, actionable moral obligations on behalf of businesses, then the provisions that would otherwise come through them will have to come through some other system, or not at all.
*Not encouraging him by linking. Easily locatable via google if you wanna subject yourself to the whole screed.