Monday, February 22, 2010

"Economic Disobedience": Morally Justified?

Yesterday the Boston Globe ran a story, Tracking a New Kind of Civil Disobedience, by Kathleen Burge, that discusses a surprising revelation in Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (published by the New Press published late last year). Apparently the harsh, inexorable impoverishment of the working poor is having an effect on some of the individuals who are employed to manage them:
As Newton resident Lisa Dodson, a Boston College sociology professor in the thick of a research project, was interviewing a grocery story manager in the Midwest about the difficulties of the low-income workers he supervised, he asked her a curious question: "Don't you want to know what this does to me too?''

The interview changed the way Dodson talked with other supervisors and managers of low-income workers, and she began to find that many of them felt the same discomfort as the grocery store manager. And many went a step further, finding ways to undermine the system and slip their workers extra money, food, or time needed to care for sick children. She was surprised how widespread these acts were....

As Dodson's questions grew more pointed, she began to hear fascinating stories. Andrew, a manager in a large Midwest food business, said he put extra money in the paychecks of those earning a "poverty wage,'' punched out their time cards at the usual quitting time when they had to leave early for a doctor's appointment, and gave them food.

Andrew had decided that by supervising workers who were treated unfairly - paid too little and subjected to inflexible schedules that prevented them from taking care of their families - he was playing a direct role in the unfair system, and so he was morally obligated to act.

Dodson concluded that Andrew and many like him were following the American tradition of civil disobedience - this time, against the economy - and creating a "moral underground.''

But her book, which came out late last year, has provoked debate about the morality of such acts.

After Dodson talked about her book on a radio program, American Public Media's "Marketplace,'' some listeners posted comments on the show's website arguing that supervisors like Andrew are cheating their employers.

Referring to the show's host, a listener from Leesburg, Va., wrote, "I was surprised that throughout the entire interview, neither Tess Vigeland nor Ms. Dodson touched on what would seem to me a rather crucial point - that these ‘Ordinary Americans' are stealing from the companies who employ them.

"The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous. It's one thing for me to see someone in need and open my wallet; its quite another to address that need by giving something I've stolen from my neighbor.''

Although Dodson makes clear where she stands - the subtitle of her book includes the phrase "unfair economy'' - she said she believes the debate is important.

"I think that this is a really important conversation that we should have in this country,'' Dodson said. "What is the worst wrong here? Is it to break a rule or to pass some food over, or is it that we have tens of millions of children and people in families that are working as hard as they can and they can't take care of their families?''
So where would such "economic disobedience" fall on the Kholberg scale, I wonder? Stage Three, or Stage Six?

Here's Wikipedia's summation of Stages Three-Six:

In Stage three (interpersonal accord and conformity driven), the self enters society by filling social roles. Individuals are receptive to approval or disapproval from others as it reflects society's accordance with the perceived role. They try to be a "good boy" or "good girl" to live up to these expectations,[2] having learned that there is inherent value in doing so. Stage three reasoning may judge the morality of an action by evaluating its consequences in terms of a person's relationships, which now begin to include things like respect, gratitude and the "golden rule". "I want to be liked and thought well of; apparently, not being naughty makes people like me." Desire to maintain rules and authority exists only to further support these social roles. The intentions of actions play a more significant role in reasoning at this stage; "they mean well ...".[2]

In Stage four (authority and social order obedience driven), it is important to obey laws, dictums and social conventions because of their importance in maintaining a functioning society. Moral reasoning in stage four is thus beyond the need for individual approval exhibited in stage three; society must learn to transcend individual needs. A central ideal or ideals often prescribe what is right and wrong, such as in the case of fundamentalism. If one person violates a law, perhaps everyone would—thus there is an obligation and a duty to uphold laws and rules. When someone does violate a law, it is morally wrong; culpability is thus a significant factor in this stage as it separates the bad domains from the good ones. Most active members of society remain at stage four, where morality is still predominantly dictated by an outside force.

The post-conventional level, also known as the principled level, consists of stages five and six of moral development. There is a growing realization that individuals are separate entities from society, and that the individual's own perspective may take precedence over society's view; they may disobey rules inconsistent with their own principles. These people live by their own abstract principles about right and wrong-principles that typically include such basic human rights as life, liberty, and justice. Because of this level's "nature of self before others", the behavior of post-conventional individuals, especially those at stage six, can be confused with that of those at the pre-conventional level.

People who exhibit postconventional morality view rules as useful but changeable mechanisms - ideally rules can maintain the general social order and protect human rights. Rules are not absolute dictates that must be obeyed without question. Contemporary theorists often speculate that many people may never reach this level of abstract moral reasoning. [7][8][9]

In Stage five (social contract driven), the world is viewed as holding different opinions, rights and values. Such perspectives should be mutually respected as unique to each person or community. Laws are regarded as social contracts rather than rigid dictums. Those which do not promote the general welfare should be changed when necessary to meet "the greatest good for the greatest number of people".[8] This is achieved through majority decision, and inevitable compromise. Democratic government is ostensibly based on stage five reasoning.

In Stage six (universal ethical principles driven), moral reasoning is based on abstract reasoning using universal ethical principles. Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Rights are unnecessary, as social contracts are not essential for deontic moral action. Decisions are not reached hypothetically in a conditional way but rather categorically in an absolute way, as in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.[16] This involves an individual imagining what they would do in another's shoes, if they believed what that other person imagines to be true.[17] The resulting consensus is the action taken. In this way action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon. Although Kohlberg insisted that stage six exists, he found it difficult to identify individuals who consistently operated at that level.[13]

Individual or collection actions trying to stop or go around foreclosures surely raise the same issue. But isn't it getting a little hard to believe that non-community, corporate banks out to defraud the world own the moral high ground? I myself take heart when I hear that the State of New Mexico will be moving all its money (a few billion) out of those banks and into credit unions and community banks...


Nancy Jane Moore said...

I probably shouldn't comment, because I haven't really studied the Kohlberg scale, but based on the way you set things out, I don't think this behavior fits neatly into either 3 or 6. I think it's simply the kind of things most people do when they know the rules are unfair -- probably even when they'd publicly state that rules are rules and must be obeyed.

As someone who would make those same choices as a manager -- though always with the concern that I don't give too many breaks to one person at the expense of the other workers (someone has to fill in, after all) -- I get outraged every time I hear those "rules are rules" people opine on the subject. The worst in my mind are those who think the undocumented must be punished for breaking the law by crossing the border. I cannot for the life of me equate crossing a line on a map with any morally reprehensible crime, and fail to see how people can be such sticklers for such a petty law.

In traditional civil disobedience actions over laws viewed as wrong, it is considered important to state one's objections publicly and take the consequences. That is partly because it is a political act intended to force change. The small breaks managers give their workers help the people out, but they do nothing to change the system. If one was to critique their actions morally, one might want to say they should take a stand against the unfair wages and polices (and, of course, be fired themselves, leaving both them and their workers in a worse spot).

People standing up do make real changes, but at great personal cost. I suspect there's a lot to be said for small, unknown acts of disobedience that give ordinary people a break so they can get through their daily life with less stress.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Spot-on, Nancy, in all your points. First, about the Kohlberg scale: a couple of decades ago, Carol Gilligan expressed significant dissatisfaction with the Kholberg scale when she began researching "moral development in women." Kohlberg's terms, she decided, rendered most women's moral judgment infantile or adolescent because his scale excluded factors & reasoning that didn't fit into his nice neat categories. Her conclusion was that his scale was sexist. I imagine this is at least partly because feminist theorists in the early eighties didn't think they had the standing to challenge the whole shebang & so Gilligan concentrated on its inapplicability to the women she was studying.

Second, what Dodson calls "economic disobedience" and The Boston Globe in its headline is calling "civil disobedience" certainly doesn't fit my notion of civil disobedience. More comparable, I think, is the way juries and jury pools in Seattle (& no doubt elsewhere) have on occasion forced prosecutors to think twice about some of the drug charges they bring, and have even brought them to change the law to accommodate the community sense of what is just & fair.

When juries refuse to convict because they think the charges & penalties are unreasonable, they are flouting the rules (because they've been specifically told they have no business doing anything but applying the evidence to the judge's instructions); on the other hand, when in that same situation too many members of the jury pool get themselves dismissed for cause during voir dire for saying that they are disposed to a not-guilty verdict because they think the law is unfair, they are taking the role of whistle-blowers (though without any deleterious consequences to themselves, of course, except to be denied a further role in the proceedings).

Although jury duty is a time-sink, I must reluctantly acknowledge that speaking out thoughtfully during voir dire sessions (which at least here in Seattle are no longer constituted by a series of one-on-one interrogations but instead have taken a sort of talk-show format, complete with a roving microphone for the jurors) is a form of civic participation (particular when one gets excused for cause or because the prosecutor thinks I'd be bad news for his/her case).

Unknown said...

Oh my, a lot of interesting things to think about here.

First off, Kohlberg's Stage 3 seems to have a contradiction that wouldn't exist in a just society. It's driven by "interpersonal accord" and "conformity." That is, people follow rules in order to treat each other with "respect and gratitude." But these two values are in direct conflict in the situation here, where a manager is expected to follow a company's rules even where it will hurt a worker.

Now for the listener's comments, which confused the terms "company" with "neighbor."

The listener wrote: "The examples Ms. Dodson gave . . . are acts of theft from the companies, yet they are described as if somehow moral and virtuous. It's one thing for me to see someone in need and open my wallet; its quite another to address that need by giving something I've stolen from my neighbor.''

If a company is a neighbor, then a company is a person. A company is not a person.