The Moral Culpability of Employers
One of the side debates in the discussion of the Hobby Lobby case, the discussion of culpability, leaves me unsatisfied, so I’d like to broach it and focus on it here.
[Note: This is not a post about the Hobby Lobby case, and it is not a post about contraceptives or reproductive care. I just want to focus on the logic of a general argument, not make any statements about those issues. So if you use the words “Hobby Lobby” or “contraceptives” (or any variant) in a comment, I’ll change them to “bunnies” and “lemon meringue pie” respectively. If it turns into just another Hobby Lobby thread, I’ll shut it down. We’ve got one of those going, and it’s working just fine.]
The argument was first made by Murali three months ago, as he reminded me.
Living in a democratic society means that there are going to be some things the government spends its money on. There is a sense in which it is up to the state’s discretion as to what it spends tax dollars on. That government officials spend money on sinful things is thus their own fault and the burden of that sin is on them, not on me.
Similarly giving money to an employee also leaves the decision up to the employee. The employee has discretion about whether to purchase [lemon meringue pie]. This is precisely the same way that there is no sense in which I am morally liable if my employee decides to take his pay check to buy a gun and shoot the president.
But if I were to buy a sniper rifle for my employee who then used it to shoot the president, you can bet your ass that I will feel guilty (and very dirty). The same could very well be said if I let my employee charge all his purchases at the sports store to my tab. In fact, if I were required to cover my employee’s tab at the sports store, wouldn’t you be able to see why I would prefer if the tab covered only non-firearm purchases?
Responding to my rebooting of that argument, Tod wrote:
Situation One: Employer cuts check to [baker]* — [baker] fully insures employee — employee is prescribed and purchases [lemon meringue pie] — insurer reimburses employee for the [lemon meringue pie] after the purchase
Situation Two: Employer cuts check to employee — employee buys [lemon meringue pie]
… Purchasing [lemon meringue pie] in Situation One is actually twice as removed from the employer as is purchasing [lemon meringue pie] in Situation Two. Yet no one, as far as I know, is suggesting that by committing the act of cutting an employee a paycheck the employer in Situation Two is “directly purchasing [lemon meringue pie]” for his employee. In fact, I think we’d all agree that to say so would be ridiculous.
So why is Situation One closer to, as you say, “[buying] the [lemon meringue pies] and [putting] them in the women’s pay envelopes” than what occurs in Situation Two?
I don’t think Tod successfully answers Murali’s point about responsibility. It seems to me that the fact that there is an extra party involved in his situation one–the baker–doesn’t actually make the purchase of lemon meringue pies more removed from the employer, because in that situation the employer is participating in the decision of how the compensation is used, what goods or services it buys. That is, Tod’s argument suggests that by specifying at least one good the employee’s compensation will purchase, the employer is further removed from participation in the determination of what goods that compensation is used for, and I don’t see how that makes sense.
Let me mix and modify Murali’s and Tod’s examples.
Situation 1: Employer cuts check to employee. Employee buys gun. Employee commits suicide by shooting himself.
Situation 2: Employer cuts check to National Rifle Association.** Employee can buy guns at any gun shop, and is reimbursed by NRA. Employee commits suicide by shooting himself.
There is no legal culpability here, let’s say. Suicide is not illegal in the state where this occurs. So focusing just on moral culpability, I have two questions.
1. Thinking just in terms of logic, does the employer bear more moral culpability in one of these cases than the other?
2. Thinking in terms of public perception, would we, the people, tend to see more culpability for the employer in the one case than the other?
*”Insurer” in Tod’s original.
**Yes, yes, I know the NRA doesn’t play this role. This is a thought experiment, ok?
[Image source: The Atlantic]