Years ago, back during the Reagan Recession of the early ’80s, a friend dropped by hoping to borrow $40, which I simply didn’t have. He’d moved into a rented house a few days before along with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and 3-week-old baby. It was December and the house was cold because the electricity, the only source of heat, had been shut off and the power company refused to turn it back on unless he paid a deposit. There are laws against turning off electricity during the winter months for inability to pay the bill, but, apparently, none that required the company to keep the juice flowing without a deposit. He’d pleaded poverty and a newborn in the house but was told that no one could violate company policy.
Having no money to loan him, I went to the company’s local office on his behalf and asked for compassion and reason to alleviate his distress but was firmly rebuffed. Leaving the building we talked about tying a vicious dog, preferably a Rottweiler, to a power pole while one of the company’s lineman was above and then holding him captive for $40 ransom. In the end we kept asking around until we found a friend of ours who had $40 he could temporarily spare for a worthy cause.
Who wins in such a conflict, where laws and rules trump reason and compassion? More importantly, who loses? And what is lost? What doth it profit Pacific Gas and Electric that they should gain $40 and lose their souls?
We expect certain things of our fellow humans, and are bewildered when company policy forces people to engage in inhuman behavior. Healthy people are constantly aware of a wide range of factors when making decisions. There is a moral code which we live by, one that requires us to “Do more than is required by the law and less than what is allowed.”
We live as moral creatures, our limits imposed by conscience, yet, we daily encounter agencies, institutions and corporations which, in pursuit of abstract and artificial goals, are not answerable to anything but statutes. Should “we the people” become business-like and impersonal in our everyday dealings or should business and government become more humane?
Henry David Thoreau struggled with that question back in 1848. “It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience,” he wrote in “Civil Disobedience.”
The great struggle of our time, of this new century, is one of conscience. We are human and we live moral lives. We must live conscientious lives or go insane. A sane culture encourages people to use their innate sense of goodness in all their dealings, public and private.
I have heard many complaints over the years about declining morals in our society. Few, if any, of these worried people have pointed to how we conduct ourselves in our business and institutional lives as a source of fear and frustration. Yet, over the past century we have become more reliant on corporations, agencies and institutions for the basic things in our lives — our food, shelter, clothing, medicine and information.
Who, or what, we turn to in order to survive makes a great deal of difference, whether we turn to ourselves or to others. We cannot avoid these large structures and how we are treated by them affects how we see ourselves and how we see our neighbors. Is it any wonder that those who have been treated with indifference sometimes demand respect with gun in hand?
Robert Leo Heilman is an award-winning essayist who lives in Myrtle Creek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.