Institutions, Compliance, and Goodness
Further Reflections with Dorothy Day on the Ethics of Institutional Life
The first installment of this rang a lot of bells: welcome if you’re among the new subscribers!
When I made the claim of institutions that they do not love you—not out of malice, but out of design—it felt like a slight stretch, but I think I’m (mostly) right. The traditions within Christian ethics which view civic law as having a positive pedagogical role run deep: in this way of thinking, law is not only to restrain us from doing evil but shaping us for good. To describe them as I did in the first installment sidesteps whether institutions should perform this function, and asks whether they do by design.
There’s a hypothetical here in which one could suppose that there could be a kind of institution small enough where the institution is co-terminous with the members itself: families are like this, I think. The internal rules of a family are such that they don’t just restrain (“don’t hit your brother”), but also shape us for good (“We eat dinner together because we want to see you and talk to you.”). In a future installment, I’ll explore some of the ways in which (again, with Day as our guide) institutions might be brought to heel as it were, particularly as it concerns what churches are.
The other wrinkle (which we’ll explore in a different week) is what to make of subgroups within an institution. For example, not all institutions are like Wal-Mart, in which the conditions of being a part of a group are codified and bureaucratized. Some institutions, like, say, universities, consist of all kinds of sub-groups: faculty reading groups, student organizations, dorm Bible studies. These, I think, while still existing within the larger ecosystem of the institution and its design, do genuinely care for its members, even when that care and the reason for the group’s existence don’t align. That being said, the existence of the subgroup is still made possible by the institution, and for better or worse, subsists within its architecture: the leisure time of the faculty job, the context of living together for dorm Bible studies, etc.
But it’s the smallness of these examples that succeed which help us to see why Day’s criticisms land, and why believed so much in personalism and subsidiarity (having as local and small a solution as needed for a problem). In the institutionalism which she’s targeting—big, spatially diffuse, temporally extended ones—I think she’s on the money. Again, it’s nothing personal: it’s just what institutions do when they act in ways designed to extend their mission over time. In my own context, I think about this frequently as it pertains to university life, and as it happens, two examples surfaced in the last couple of days that illuminate this almost exactly:
Part of my aim this semester is to do recruiting for my work in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University, to help Baptist students see (frankly) how excellent it would be for them to study here (shameless self-promotion: check it out here.) I’ve made plans to visit a number of places, and was emailing with one place in particular to see if I’d be able to set up a table to talk with students, and received the following response:
“Thanks for reaching out to me. We have our own graduate programs in this area, so we do not let others come to recruit for those programs on campus.”
Now, bear in mind that the degrees which I’m promoting are entirely different than the ones at this university. This makes their response all the more striking, unless one remembers the prime lesson about institutions: they do not love you, and desire to keep existing. And so, when a university—recognizing differences that might benefit some of its students who don’t necessarily want your programs—intentionally keep alternatives away from their students, it’s both understandable and illuminating. It’s what an institution does, to keep its own students in-house to extend its existence, and its refusal to others is nothing personal on that front. This is a pretty naked example, but this happens in far more subtle ways all the time. It’s fine to keep your own students around, but it’s important to remember that the good of the students and institution’s survival are not the same thing.
On MLK Day, on multiple occasions, institutions of various kinds send out banal messages celebrating MLK’s life with messages like “do random acts of kindness”1 or “don’t judge according to the color of your skin but according to the content of your character.”
While—yes—these admonitions toward goodness and love are part of King’s corpus, reading these bits , institutions using these phrases are ways of them fitting into an existing social celebration while having exactly zero at stake that would detract from their central reason for existing. Tire companies and coffee sellers benefit from you being nice (cranky customers are bad ones, I suppose), but I dare say that Firestone is going to go all in on MLK’s vision of excessive materialism as being part of the three-headed monster devouring America.2
Identifying with the stated aims and goals of an institution isn’t bad: I don’t know why one would invest in the health and furtherance of an institiution of any kind (school, nonprofit, governmental agency, church) if you didn’t align with its aims, even if that aim is only “it gives me a job.” But, as much expediency as these can provide, the affection we feel from them is one ordered toward us being a part of furthering their mission over time. We can and should give ourselves selectively to things bigger than ourselves, but ultimately, we should give it to the people within them. Institutions gonna institution: you gotta watch them.
But Day’s criticism of institutions has a second aspect to it, one that I find have more teeth to it: the equation of compliance with virtue. Compliance to a rule frequently is the gateway to being virtuous—not harming someone sets the stage for treating them well, for example. But insofar as institutions exist as forms of policies and goals over time, it benefits them when you and I join into their value and not just their activities. A nonprofit which has the aspiration of housing those in homelessness wants me to not just give them money but to adopt that as a value; a government which has the aim toward expanding access of people to health care has similar ends: adoption of not just that end, but the value of access.
By drawing us in not just at the level of participation but at the level of value, institutions are then able to equate participation in a particular project with certain values: to vote for this or that program is to be virtuous. For Day, this was one of the key ways in which institutions stifled moral growth: equation of participation in this or that delivery system of goods with goodness itself.
Let’s take this example to illustrate it: Dorothy Day was a critic of the New Deal. THE NEW DEAL! The biggest social benevolence program in the last hundred years in the United States! Commenting on the New Deal, she writes that
In our own country the New Deal grew out of such social legislation [compulsory participation in social insurance]. And Catholics throughout the country are again accepting “the lesser of two evils” and trying to apply Christian principles to it. They fail to see the body of Catholic social teaching of such men as Fr. Vincent McNabb, G. K. Chesterton, Belloc, Eric Gill and other distributists, as they came to call themselves, and lose all sight of the little way, which the great modern Saint Therese has pointed out. They go with the crowd and try to sanctify the pagan teaching of modern economists.3
In case you didn’t catch it, she equates advocates of the New Deal as “sanctifying the pagan teaching of modern economists”. Now, Day knew poverty was dehumanizing, that people’s lives were ground to dust in destitution, and that the conditions of poverty made it harder to be good.
So why such harsh words? Precisely because it’s an shortcutting to virtue, forgoing the little way which pays attention to actual people and treats individuals as replaceable units, valued insofar as they help get to the Big Goal of poverty reduction. If that sounds familiar, it’s because in her estimation, this is no different than the logic of capitalism and of socialism, in which persons are measured by the success of the institution, however measured.
The little way of distribution she describes here requires us to see persons face to face, to know particulars, to live with idiosyncrasies to know what is owed to another person. Only in that do we become good as we enact the good toward others: it is the antithesis of assuming that simply because I have committed myself to a good program that I becoming good, for the good that that the institution desires is not your virtue, but your contribution. If you become virtuous along the way, great! But that’s largely by accident: the institution didn’t mean it! The “little way”, characterized by personal attention, by patient love and charity of persons, is wildly inefficient. But it’s also the only way we learn how to love particular people.
It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of this insight today, as political polarization assumes Manichean dimensions of being the children of darkness or light, as political agency assumes first-order prominence in our evaluations of the moral life. You are meant to be a moral being, and being moral is not the same thing with agreeing with the institution which helps facilitate good things. It’s much more than that, and frequently, as we talked about last time, means taking the processes of the institution and making them work against their own tendency of efficiency, slowing them down long enough for us to see one another in the midst of supporting good things.
This particularly egregious one shows up every year: as if MLK was murdered for being kind to people! Again, the issue of MLK’s appropriation is that institutions shouldn’t talk about good things, but they’ll celebrate him in a way which will further their institutional aims. No need to retweet any of this nonsense: just go read him.