The Institutions Cannot Love You
Part One: What We Expect When Expect Things from Bureaucracy
This is the first of a three-part series on the ethics of institutions. None of it is original to me, and as with most things I write, it’s aspirational rather than something that takes deep roots in me. Yet.
Over the Christmas break, I hit upon an idea for a full-scale, bonkers project: articulating the Christian life systematically, with Dorothy Day as my main guide. For several years now, Day has been one of the figures to most consistently nag at me, for no other reason than she absolutely believed and lived what she wrote. She was a writer in whom there was no sense of bullshit, in the technical sense: her words were direct, on target, and that which she adhered to. I had the privilege of interviewing Tom Cornell a few years ago, one of the original members of Day’s short-lived agrarian work (which I’ve written about here), and while he spoke glowingly of her, he also noted that she could be a bit inflexible at times.
One of the parts of her thought—and the one that got me seriously thinking about finally writing an entire book around her—was her understanding of institutions. In a piece that I wrote last year about Day’s abortion and what light this might shed on our own questions surrounding advocacy and law, one of the pieces that attracted the most attention and feedback was this bit:
Day’s unrelenting approach to abortion can be summed up in this way: if you want a law to be undone, make it meaningless to have it. Rather than try to legislate it out of existence, cultivate a world in which abortion is unthinkable because of the love we share with one another, and—when pregnancies happen unwanted—make it possible for children to be received into loving communities.
I’m expanding this piece into a longer essay for Comment, and having done more reading and thinking, I still stand by this initial assessment: Day’s thinking about the role of institutions vis-a-vis the moral life was primarily negative, in that in her estimation, law and institutions did one of two things: 1) they mediated the interests of one part over against the whole, or 2) the became a substitution for the moral life rather than a barrier enabling a more robust moral life.
The second one appears frequently in her work: it’s why she didn’t call the police when there were disturbances at the Catholic Worker house, why she didn’t pay her taxes, why she criticized the New Deal—when we equate beneficent moral actions by institutions, we the recipients of their benevolence begin to equate adherence to the code with virtue. For Day, nothing could be more fatal to the moral life, primarily because it obscures the personalist nature of the moral life: attention to particular people as opposed to treating people as members of a class.
We’ll return to the second criticism next week, one which is more well known in her thought. But the first criticism, which appears a bit more infrequently in her work, is worth considering here as a starting point: institutions—as collections of policy, rule, and guiding principles, embodied in practices and procedures—do not love you.
This is a lesson that I draw from Day, but have learned painfully and existentially over the last five years: institutions do not exist, first of all, to love, but to perpetuate the policy, rule, or principle in a sustainable fashion over time. Put more bluntly, they exist to keep continuing existing: it’s not personal. Their design, though collectively fashioned, bear the mark of one dominant party or person; as such, if they benefit you, it is because the design of the institution and your own particular values and aims align with that of the institution.
If that sounds cynical, consider that the kinds of institutions which we belong to are, in some ways, ones which we opt into: our work environments, school systems, business arrangements, governmental representation (far less here, and far more tricky than we can get into here—but bear with me). When I engage with an institution, it is in part because there is something which that institution does which I need: education, governmental representation, policing, employment, etc. They are, in other words, ones which either in reality or in aspiration are bearing out a function or value which I think is worth tarrying with or helping flourish. When they change course to keep pace with with perceived goals, it’s nothing personal.
When we trust institutions to have our best interest at heart, or to be operating in a morally positive direction, we may be naively falling into her first critique: institutions do not care about you—they “care” about (or rather, are concerned with) enabling the longitudinal existence of their prime value. People come and go; individuals enter, leave, are born and die, but the institution continues to bear out the value over time—through the agency of particular persons to be sure, but not as a way of honoring or valuing that particular person centrally.
For Day, this hits the road when she thinks about government and church (two very different institutions, but alike in this fashion): both may remember your names, but they are not primarily about you. The church, to be sure, is the very presence of Christ in the world, and the U.S. government is an expedient arrangement of people for managing the interests and needs of people gathered in the same geographical region. When we experience “love” from an institution, it’s an alignment of our needs and wishes with the needs and wishes of the institution: don’t take it personally. When church isn’t about you, great!: it never was to begin with! But when we discover that government isn’t about us, it’s for Day illuminating the obvious: it’s far less interested in meeting your needs than in surviving your generation.
Institutions, in other words, exist to facilitate lives but are incapable by design of being affectionate toward any particular lives. Much energy is wasted by conflating the justice by which an institution operates towards its members past, present, and future, with a kind of affection toward you: institutions, even the best ones, are not families, friends, or even—and this is important—looking out for your best interest. Now, this is different than whether or not we owe the institution any more than a reasonable service borne out of care for the fellow persons who interact with that institution. A person can devote themselves to making an institution better, for institutions are necessary and at times can facilitate goods better or worse.
But hinging either our moral lives—and indeed, our care for persons—on what institutions do is folly: if the institutions help that happen, great! But do it anyway, and frequently, you’ll do that by making the institution work against its own procedures. Shrewd as serpents, but as forthright as Dorothy Day. We owe one another an ongoing debt of love, the Apostle says, and institutions can help that happen. But frequently, that happens by not expecting that the institution will do the personal work which only persons can do, and being happy when the institution gives our love a lift.
The reformation of institutions large and small occupies a lot of space in the modern world, some out of an acknowledgment that the institution doesn’t care well for those who inhabit it, and that it needs therefore to change. But not a small amount of this energy comes from the assumption that the telos of our lives are determined by the designs of the institutions which shape the world. In some ways, this remains true: it’s hard, if not impossible, to engage with markets and governments in ways which don’t determine some elements of our existence, regardless of how I feel about them. But in another way, this is a falsehood, a bait and switch: caritas is not made or broken by institutions, though it may be facilitated by them in ways which are more or less efficient.
To assume that institutions are the brokers and the measure of our love for one another is to ultimately say that the self-interest of this collection and procedures aligns with the values I hold: a happenstance of history at best. Better to do that which is just, and let the institutions assist that as they will. Better to do that which is true, and let institutions affirm that truthfulness, though they frequently do that for reasons other than truthfulness. Best of all to do that which comports to the love which creates the universe, though all institutions be liars.