August 17, 2008
Groups As Living Things
A while back, it occurred to me that corporations (indeed, all groups of people) have some interesting qualities when viewed as living things.
In some ways, corporations are living things. The law has recognized this for more than a hundred years, giving coporations legal “personhood”. Most people I discuss this with think this is foolish. Corporations aren’t people. They’re dead inanimate objects.
But it occurs to me that corporations are like living things. They are things that we humans create which take on a life of their own. All human groups are like this, to a greater or lesser extent. When you form a club, that club exists almost as a living thing, albeit a very weak one. All groups depend on their members for their continued existence (much as we humans depend on our bodies for continued existence). Some members are more important than others: the loss of a few key people will be the end of a almost any small group. But the larger a group gets, the more immortal it is. The less it depends on and is shaped by any one individual. Just think: if you were to try to change the nature of Ford Motor Company, how many of its people would you have to change? The CEO would not be sufficient. Neither would all its board. It has a distributed life (though some members are more important than others).
Living things share a common basic goal: they all want to continue to survive. If you’ve noticed, groups do too. In fact, corporations are often criticized for this: they prefer their own profitability over the good of individuals. But to a corporation, profitability is life. An unprofitable corparation is a dead organization (or it’s a government or a charity :)). If the most basic drive of a living thing is to survive, why should we be surprised that the living things we create have the same basic drive?
Living things also tend to have a certain insatiability to them as well. Many animals will eat themselves to death, if given the opportunity. Human beings in particular have a “hole in their hearts”: they always want more than they have. Again, the groups we form share the same characteristics: they too always want more.
Corporations generally are very dumb living things. The larger they grow, the dumber they get. This is probably because the more a group grows, the less it depends on an individual for its existence, and the less a single individuals’ intelligence guides it. As a semi-famous quote puts is: “any one of us is smarter than all of us.” Corporations are often criticized for not having the intelligence/humanity to put the interests of others ahead of their own. But children also have a marked tendency to be selfish: selfishness is indicative of immaturity.
The largest single difference I can think of between groups as living things and individuals as living things is what they’re made of. Groups are made of individuals. Individuals are made of lots of things, none of which is sentient apart from the individual. For an individual, the life of the members is and should be wholly subordinated to the life of the body. My body is a tyranny, not a democracy. When a member of my body revolts and does its own thing, we call it cancer.
Groups, however, are made of individuals. Each of which has rights and goals and opinions of its own, which are not subordinated to the rights, goals, and opinions of the group. As an individual, I can destroy my members at a whim (though it is wise to consider their utilitarian value: I’m not going to sacrifice a useful member if I can help it). A group, however, should not do this. A group should destroy individuals only when doing so saves more individuals. A member of my body only has value if I myself think it does. A member of a group has value whether or not the group thinks it does.
Groups have tremendous power. The most powerful groups are many many orders of magnitude more powerful than any individual but God. They have enormous wealth, incredible resources, and vast manpower. People working together have great power. But groups find it very difficult to control their power. Sitting in on meetings and seeing the results should convince anyone of that. Groups do lots of things they don’t quite intend to do, and (like all actions) their actions have unintended consequences. Groups are barely alive and only sort of have their own will and intentions, but they still manage to do a lot of things.
Guilty and Innocent Groups?
Modern conservatives do not consider groups living things. In particular, they do not believe that groups have moral responsibilities. They (accurately) believe that responsibility, guilt, and blame can only be attributed to living things; because they do not believe groups are living things, they don’t believe groups (particularly corporations) have any moral obligations to their members (or to others). This is incorrect: in the Bible, the nation of Israel was condemned and sent into exile for its sins. In the book of Nehemiah, he prays:
let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
Nehemiah 1:6–7, ESV
Nehemiah clearly feels guilt for the nation he is a part of; for the sins of his fathers and his peers as well as his own. Again, this time in the book of Daniel:
we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and rules. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him.
Daniel 9:5–11, ESV
How are we conservatives to factor this into our calculations of guilt and innocence? In the book of Isaiah, God says:
“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.”
Ezekiel 18:2–4, ESV
This is the justice we believe in: people are only responsible for their own sins and actions.
Can an individual be held responsible for the actions of his group? Even the actions of that group occurring before his time? Most conservatives I know are extremely resistant to the idea that they are responsible for the sins of their fathers (one specific example is whether to feel guilt over our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination).
Lest anyone make the argument that mourning over the sins of one’s group is Old-Testament-only, there are numerous times in the New Testament where mention is made of mourning for the sins of one’s group. One specific example: “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.” (2 Corinthians 12:21, ESV).
Yet people do stand apart from their groups and are judged individually all throughout Scripture. Examples: Achan, though part of the victorious Israel, was destroyed for his personal sin of taking things that were supposed to be devoted to God for himself. Interestingly, Israel was also judged for his sin: they suffered a terrible defeat at Ai (Judges 7). Rahab, on the other hand, though part of a condemned city/nation, was delivered by her faith. Moses’ intercession spared the nation of Israel on a couple occasions (Deuteronomy 9:13, Numbers 14:12) as well. Righteousness or evil of an individual has consequences for his group. The most extreme examples of this is are Adam and Christ.
I think that we can extract a few principles:
- God may punish groups for the actions of individuals.
- God may bless groups for the actions of individuals.
- Individuals are held responsible for their own sins, not the sins of others. Judgment for the sins of others may fall on the groups an individual is part of, but not personally on the individual.
- As part of a group, it is appropriate to mourn the sins of its members, both past and present. You may not be personally responsible for them, but your group is partly responsible.
I think it’s safe to say that guilt can be borne by both groups and individuals, and that it’s a different kind of guilt. One is personal; you yourself have it. One is shared: all of you in a group have it. This matches the point of this whole post: that groups themselves are a kind of living thing that can have responsibilities and guilt. As a member, you share those responsibilities and guilt, but you share them. You do not carry them alone.
Can a group be saved or condemned? I hesitatingly advance that it can, though individual members of it may not share in its fate one way or the other, depending on their actions. Israel as a nation was sent into exile, though individuals were spared and a remnant was left. Christ threatened the church of Sardis in Revelation:
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“ ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’“
Revelation 3:1–6, ESV
The church as a whole was threatened with judgment, but hope was held out for individuals. The reverse is also true; the author of Hebrews points out that the nation of Israel was delivered from slavery, yet the majority of its members perished in the wilderness because of their sins. The group may be delivered, but the individual perish.
I suppose all this goes to say something simple: groups are real, and individuals are real. They can be guilty and they can be judged and they can be saved. Groups are judged as groups (and all their members are affected), and individuals as individuals, and they stand alone.
Morality of Groups
As alluded to earlier, groups are different from individuals. Their morality is also different. But what is that morality? How is it different? How is it the same?
I don’t think I have answers to that. I’ll try to muse about it a while, but I don’t know if much will come of it.
Groups are different from individuals because they are composed of individuals whereas individuals are composed of ... well, not of individuals, anyway. Both individuals and groups have to generally relate to three kinds of “others”: groups have to relate to their own members, to the members of other groups, and to other groups. Individuals have to relate to their groups, to other individuals, and to groups they are not part of. They also have to relate to God. I guess groups do to: the Bible contains lots of stuff directed at groups as well as individuals. God is concerned with groups as well as individuals, so it seems that groups also need to be concerned with God as groups.
A group is very nebulous. It almost always has leaders, but it has lots of non-leaders as well, and they also matter. Leaders have an enormous influence in a group, but the sum total of their influences is less than the total influences on the group. There is no one person who makes the decisions for a group (generally there’s something sick and dangerous in a group where one person controls it totally. A healthy group has more than one active person.) A leader bears more responsibility for the group than a non-leader (James 3:1). A group bears some responsibility for the actions of its members. This is clearly demonstrated in the Bible.
When is an action the full responsibility of a group, when the full responsibility of a member? I don’t think either of those extremes really exist. Any action of a member has some relevance to the group, and any action of the group is taken by its members (and almost never all of them), so they always bear some individual burden as well. I was pondering the question of how a group can repent. We see an example of a group repenting in the book of Jonah:
The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.
Jonah 3:6–10, ESV
I doubt that all of Nineveh repented, but enough of them did to “save” the group. Indeed, it doesn’t take many people to “save” a group: Abraham wheedled God down to 10 to save Sodom. (Genesis 18:22)
I suppose the question of the morality of groups is intimately tied to the morality of the groups’ members. Because all actions of every member affect the group, the “good” actions of a few can “save” a group, and the “evil” actions can also condemn it (or call down judgment, anyway). But when can the group be said to be acting? I suppose the answer to that is anytime a member of the group acts. The more members act together, the greater the impact. (That’s where groups get their power).
So does the morality of a group reduce down to the sum of the morality of its members? Or does it have responsibilities as a group? According to my previous conclusion that both groups and individuals are real, it must. Sodom was judged as a group. Nineveh repented as a group. So what is a group action? A group action is something its members do together. Can a group be said to be under the same law as individuals? To “love the Lord with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself?” Does the group have a heart? Yes; it is a living thing. Obeying this law would obey all four of its responsibilities: to God, to the members of others, to other groups (both qualify as neighbors), and to one’s own members (to love your neighbor as yourself, you must love yourself, to love yourself, you must love your members).
A group is much clumsier than an individual. It almost has to be; it is much bigger. So how does a group love its neighbors? The same way one loves anything: by genuinely acting for its good. So how could a group genuinely act for the good of others (which is what we often want corporations to do)? I suppose its obvious how groups could act for the good of others; what is not obvious is how to get the group to do so. A group tends to be highly immature and dumb. How can you get a child to willingly act for the good of others? I suppose by telling them to and (much more) by doing so yourself yourself.
I’ve heard it said that children will follow in the footsteps you thought you’d covered up. In general, we individuals in today’s culture do not love the jobs we have or act in the best interests of the companies of which we are a part. The general attitude I see in people is a desire to get as much as they can from their company and being grudgingly willing to work to get it. They do not love their group and do not really act for its benefit. And they wonder why the group grows up to act the same way toward them: the corporation grows up to desire to get as much out of its employees as possible and is grudgingly willing to give them various benefits to get those things. So I suppose the first step in teaching a group to love others is to love the group.
I think that’s enough for now. I wonder how many of you made it through this whole post? It’s a really long, meandering, philosophical one. Maybe nobody. :( I suppose it was valuable anyway, since it let me think through my philosophy of groups, but I hope it benefited someone else too.