In the Gospel of Mark, when a group of Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples were gathering wheat on the Sabbath—something which was evidently seen as unlawful—Jesus answered that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This statement is, in a nutshell, the principal contribution of Christian philosophy to the world we live in today. You only have to read a few samplings of the classical Greek writings, for instance, to begin to understand the difference between the Christian way of thinking, which has become so ubiquitous in modern times that we take it for granted, and the Pagan worldview that it in many respects replaced.
When Aristotle wrote on subjects like slavery, his thinking was categorical: when someone becomes a slave, to him, they are fulfilling a role that is determined by their essential nature in the context of a greater system of cosmic laws. The occasional moral anguish of someone like Thomas Jefferson about his use of slaves would have seemed very strange to an Aristotle, and this fact is in no small part due to the influence on Western culture of Christian ideas, which, in the beginning, promised to completely invert the values and hierarchies of it’s day. In an ideological way, it did: in the Christian world, as in the Jewish that it is meant to be a continuation of, our existence wasn’t determined by the cosmos, rather the cosmos existed for humankind.
In the secular sphere, the notion that institutions exist for people, not the other way around—and that a law or sovereign entity is only valid if it is fulfilling the needs of the people subject to it—is the basis of Western liberalism, both classical and modern. So, unlike Aristotle’s writings on slavery, when a person like, say, Milton Friedman defends the modern equivalent—sweatshop labor—his reasoning is consequential rather than categorical: sweatshops benefit the workers, who otherwise would go hungry, just as much as their cheap labor benefits society, he would argue. For Milton and his Friedmanites, the beneficence of the sweatshops is demonstrated by the fact that the workers have freely chosen to work there (unlike slaves); in many cases, they immigrated from their countries of origin just for the opportunity of the work. Of course, many would dispute the degree that choice or freedom has been a determining factor in the lives of anyone who winds up making handbags or iPhones from dawn ’till dusk, for pennies per hour. Rather it seems like the people who run large institutions, like corporations, nations, and NGO’s, have had a larger say with respect to how life is going to be in the world’s poor communities.
Even in the first world, these questions are prominent. Recently, both free enterprise and religion itself have become the subject of fierce disagreement as to whether or not they are being good stewards of their domain. Debates about the nature of corporate personhood and to what degree a corporation is qualified to have “freedom of religion,” the way a human-person does, have brought these issues together. Though this problem has been present in this country from the beginning. Back in the day, Alexis de Tocqueville realized this in conversations with local clergymen and an esteemed physician in Maryland, who told him that, even without state involvement in religious life, churches were still able to bend the will of the public through private means.”If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever,” the doctor told Tocqueville, “the man’s career would almost certainly be broken.”
In this way, citizens who were nominally free to do and say as they pleased were silenced via economic and social means. And while the hegemony of the church in society is not as ubiquitous as it was in 19th century Southern colonies, organized religion continues to seek out whatever avenues of coercion it can find, whether it be through the Catholic church funding hospitals—on the stipulation that they don’t perform abortions—or through religious businesses micromanaging the lives of their employers and/or refusing to serve customers that in some way defy the religion’s mores. In a nation that has become much more free in terms of access to information and personal choices, whether or not a woman has access to reproductive healthcare is still dependent on who owns the hospital, or her bosses religious views. As Corey Robin wrote in his blog:
There’s a reason so much of American repression is executed not by the state but by the private sector: the government is subject to constitutional and legal restraints, however imperfect and patchy they may be. But an employer often is not. The Bill of Rights, as any union organizer will tell you, does not apply to the workplace…A newspaper—like any private employer in a non-union workplace—can fire you, simply and transparently, for your political speech, without any due process.
In response to these concerns, there are, of course, those who would say that the powers of private institutions are not comparable with the powers of the state. But their arguments tend to be procedural—that is, they are not concerned with any of the consequences of private power, but with private power’s formal or categorical qualities. In this way of thinking, the form of an action alone justifies or condemns the content. Charitable actions are just as evil as repressive actions, if they are being performed by a public institution; the same actions are equally fine if performed through private means. (You may have noticed that we are back to the thinking of Aristotle, as opposed to the Christian view that it is “by the fruits that ye shall know them.”)
One of the main reasons for this absolutist position is an assumption that state aggression is the only alternative to private property. Coming from this premise, any critique of property as an institution is automatically perceived as favoring state violence. This is part of the reason there is so much anger from the right towards those who feel that businesses like Hobby Lobby shouldn’t be allowed to decide whether a female employee will have access to reproductive health care. In their minds, an employee has no business dictating, by way of public fiat, the way that her compensation is provided. To force a business owner to stop interfering with the ways that a worker’s compensation can be used—the insurance is, after all, part of the worker’s compensation, and not actually the employer’s property—is perceived as forcing a private individual to pay for something that is against their beliefs.
Religious conservatives tend to strongly support the rights of private property (though not always, as the controversies over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” had shown), because of it’s ability to extend the influence of religion. Though this isn’t true for a religious employee, who may have to compromise their values to keep their job. As Ayn Rand stated, in another context, “a man’s rights are not violated by a private individual’s refusal to deal with him.” To try to interfere with the individual’s right-to-not-deal would, in fact, be morally disastrous. Thus it is up to the employee to find a job that will not obstruct her access to medical necessities, if such a job is available, just as it is her responsibility to figure out, presumably beforehand, which hospital will allow her to terminate a life-threatening pregnancy, and make sure that she lives somewhere near enough that she can access it.
It isn’t the fault of well-disposed respecters of the market that some people want to use their private power for evil, but it’s pretty clear that, as wealth continues to be consolidated, our system’s disincentives to being evil are inconsistent at best, and limited to only certain conditions (mainly, the ability of consumers and workers to withhold their money and time). This leaves us with what one could call an “archipelago of governments,” where human beings function as the auxiliaries of churches, corporations, rentiers, and creditors, and every aspect of life is partitioned off by some agency or firm. In this way the metaphysical notions of the ancient world are restored—slavery is with us again—but with none of the nobility, poetry, or interest in the stars.