Friday, March 31, 2017

Life in Prison For Killing a Cow: Law and Religion in Gujarat

At the end of March, 2017, the state of Gujarat in India extended the punishment for slaughtering cows from seven years in prison to life-imprisonment. The penalty for transporting beef was also raised to a maximum of 10 years, from three. The severity hinges on religious assumptions presumed to be beyond questioning or reproof.

Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Gujarat, provided an explanation. “To Indians, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider.”[1] So the cow stands for not only all animals that live on Earth, but also the planet itself. To kill such a symbol is tantamount, I suppose, to killing that which nourishes us. Of course, were every cow alive killed, the other creatures of the world would go on, as would our planet, so the emphasis here is on a symbol. Interestingly, the viability of the symbol is thought to save “the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation,” Rupani added.[2] From a rational standpoint, the claim that people would lead immoral lives in India were cows not protected suffers a lack of causation. Empirically speaking, whether people are ethical, such as at Enron, Authur Andersen, Wells Fargo, and Uber, bears little or no relation to whether one food-source is used or protected.
A person who slaughters a cow for food could spend the rest of his or her life in prison. Prime facie, the punishment can readily seem so excessive that a disrespect for human life may be implied. Even adding in the matter of a living symbol does not alter this point. In fact, the implication is that a symbol is more important than the quality of a human life. For a symbol to take on a life of its own at the expense of actual human beings suggests that the very notion of a symbol has been misunderstood. The mistaken assumption of causality between the protection of cows and the lack of moral and spiritual degradation can be taken as an indication that the very notion of symbol has been warped.
If I am correct in my assertion that the religious and moral assumptions are tenuous (i.e., too extreme), then this case illustrates the danger of superimposing law on top of religious belief. The danger springs from the vulnerability of the latter to a false sense of infallibility. Even the perception of excess can be blocked, and the excessiveness in the law is similarly not caught. Put more generally, the human mind is vulnerable when it comes to religious assumptions, and this fault-line can run through public policy resulting in much harm. It is precisely the allowance for radically disproportioned harm to other human beings that should be the red flag indicating that something has gone very wrong. That this criterion is not the criterion is, I submit, the fault of us all.

1. Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj, “Indian State Expands Penalty for Killing a Cow to Life in Prison,” The New York Times, March 31 2017.
2. Ibid.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Religious Stockholder-Test for Wells Fargo: Confronting Mediocre Accountability

Orienting executive compensation to accountability is easier said than done. For example, it might be supposed that the cause of accountability was aptly served by John Stumpf’s forfeit of $41 million in unvested stock when he resigned under pressure as Wells Fargo’s CEO because of the bank’s systemic overzealousness in signing customers up for unwanted services. Unfortunately, he “realized pretax earnings of more than $83 million by exercising vested stock options, amassed over his 34 years at the bank, and receiving payouts on certain stock awards.”[1] In other words, the man who presided over unethical business practices at the expense of customers received double that which he was forfeiting. How can accountability have any meaning against $83 million? This figure connotes reward rather than punishment. Tim Sloan, who succeeded Stumpf as the bank’s CEO, received compensation in 2016 of $13, up from the $11 million in 2015. Interestingly, it may have been religion to the rescue.

[1] Stacy Cowley, “Wells Fargo Leaders Reaped Lavish Pay Even as Account Scandal Unfolded,” The New York Times, March 16, 2017.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On the Vatican’s Conflict of Interest Regarding Accountability on Sex-Abuse

Integrity is arguably essential to the credibility of religious functionaries—even and especially those with considerable organizational power. So it was significant that Marie Collins, whom Pope Francis had appointed to the Vatican’s commission on sexual abuse by clergy and herself had been a victim of such abuse, resigned on March 1, 2017 due to “fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”[1] Notably, the commission suspended Peter Saunders a year before, “after he accused the panel of failing to deliver on its promises of reform and accountability” even including recommendations that the Pope had approved.[2] What is the basis of the problem? I submit that the conflict of interest that is inherent in having the clergy of a religious organization hold each other accountable is, much like industry self-regulation, culpable in this case.
For example, “a tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable recommended by the commission and approved by the Pope in June 2015 was never implemented,” Marie Collins said in March, 2017.[3] She had no idea whether guidelines issued by the Pope to discipline bishops who had covered up abuse were in force. The Vatican also refused to give the commission an office and staff, and a “Vatican department was refusing to cooperate with a recommendation that all correspondence from victims of clerical abuse receive a response.”[4] The abuse could sadly have been too widespread, in which case the roadblocks in the Vatican are particularly damning.
The integrity and related credibility of the Roman Catholic Church was on the line. “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!,” she said. Moreover, the “reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable,” she added.[5] The Pope himself had lessened punishments for some pedophile priests—one of whom would be convicted by an Italian court for “sex crimes against children as young as 12.”[6]
To be sure, Marie Collins did admit, “The pope does at heart understand the horror of abuse and the need for those who would hurt minors to be stopped.”[7] Yet that administrative clergy at the Vatican were ignoring his decisions on recommendations points to an institutional problem—that of a conflict of interest in having clergy police themselves. That the sexual abuse could become so widespread as to compromise the very credibility of the Roman Catholic Church suggests that the Vatican’s Curia, or government, was not in an intra-clergy accountability mode. In other words, we cannot expect a tight-knit club to self-regulate. In this case, the sense of brotherhood among the clergy is too strong; hierarchical distinctions and the related power differential is no match.
The implication is that the governments of countries should take more of a role in policing priests. Rather than viewing them as organizational functionaries tied to a Roman jurisdiction, they should be viewed as residents of the country in which they live. Society should not expect the Vatican to come down on its own. Moreover, no religious organization can realistically meet this expectation. In other words, the world has been asking too much of the Vatican. That Bishop Law of Boston, for example, was given a plush appointment in the Vatican after being forced out of his bishopric in disgrace is just one indication that the sort of accountability that Marie Collins and Peter Saunders would not happen inside the Vatican—the clergy's own answer, in other words, was no. It is unrealistic to force people in power to do something they simply refuse to do; external means are needed in such a case. Actions speak louder than words, and through its non-actions the Vatican itself had spoken. This is not to say that it cannot or should not be blamed. In fact, we should expect that its integrity and thus credibility rightfully take a hit, but unfortunately what is right often does not materialize, even from the pews.

[1] Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani, “Abuse Victim Quits Vatican Commission, Citing ‘Resistance’,” The New York Times, March 1, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.