Raphael Sassower
Raphael Sassower

The Panama Papers, which disclosed numerous off-shore bank accounts of the rich and famous, haven’t made much of a splash in the United States — at least compared to the ongoing media adulation or disgust with presidential candidate Donald Trump.

In addition to an amazing feat of secrecy held together across national boundaries, these papers revealed a systematic sheltering of capital in a country that offers a tax haven for those who refuse to pay taxes on the interest generated by their fortunes.

The names of Russia’s president, Iceland’s prime minister and the British prime minister were exposed; some demurred, some resigned because of public outcry. Not much public response in the U.S.

Why is there no outrage in the U.S.? Why has there been no pressure on businesses like Apple, who have been stashing the profits they have made in the U.S. in countries like Ireland? Is American tolerance of corporate maleficence entrenched?

Perhaps the answer is in the complicated relations between moral norms, social conventions and the legal systems they engender.

Academics have portrayed this complex relationship in a linear model: First come moral norms, the ones found in religious texts like the Bible with its Ten Commandments; those are followed by social conventions based on them, whether tribal or eventually within civil society; and finally there are the rules and laws that make up the legal system of nation-states.

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The trajectory from moral norms to the legal system is reassuring so that we can always trace our laws — however confusing — to some moral foundation, some deep principle, like equality or liberty (All humans ought to be treated equally as ends and never as means. Humans should be able to do anything they want so long as they don’t hurt others’ ability to do the same).

This trajectory doesn’t always obey a linear progression. For example, by the time women’s liberation took hold in the case of Roe vs. Wade in 1973 and was nationally implemented, the 1980s came along and a whole new conservative sensibility emerged.

Examples like this don’t simply challenge the linear trajectory assumed by academics, but also explain the incessant debates about abortion and other hot-button social issues we hear about in the media: The law follows social changes too slowly.

There is also another critique of the linear model (morality to social conventions to law): Not all moral principles or social norms ought to be part of the legal system.

For example, we may find prostitution immoral or anti-social behavior, but should we attempt to legislate its demise? Can we? The same goes for modesty and marriage: Should there be laws about them? Why not leave such matters to one’s conscience or religious commitments?

What becomes obvious is that some relationships shouldn’t be a matter of law, but a matter of civic decency. Being courteous to your clients and vendors should be obvious to you, if you want to develop lasting relations with them.

Likewise, business cheating, or even theft, should be self-policed out of existence rather than because business owners are worried about being caught. Besides, there aren’t enough laws on the books to account for all potential business mischief. Does anyone want more laws?

Domino’s Pizza was recently sued by the New York attorney general because of exploitation; workers cleaned and prepped their stations without clocking their timecards. This violation of common decency and fairness should never have happened. Will only a lawsuit stop such practice?

Is the business world only focused on profits at all costs? Recent economic models, such as the Knockoff Economy or the Sharing Economy, suggest that hybrid market models are much more effective in the long run. There is a limit to how much profit can be squeezed out of any business model, and there is much to gain from peer-to-peer exchanges, even remixing others’ ideas.

It is a sad state of affairs if the only moral boundaries we recognize are those of the law. Our daily behavior should be centered on our moral and social convictions, on the religious ideals of charity and generosity, caring for the community as a whole. As members of our own community, its overall well-being is our business, too.

Especially for those who want limited government or no government regulation at all, the Panama Papers and Domino’s Pizza remind us that it’s not about the law — it’s about greed. When greed is packaged as freedom, when selfishness is couched in a principled manner, one wonders what moral principles one knows; they are definitely not those found in the Bible or secular humanism.

As the sociologist C. Wright Mills said, “Laws without supporting moral conventions invite crime, but much more importantly, they spur the growth of an expedient, amoral attitude.”

Raphael Sassower is professor and chairman of the philosophy department at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com.