03 May 2011

The Morality of Promise-Receiving Part 1

A day ago I argued here that corporations incur moral obligations when they make promises and that human beings incur a moral obligation when they make promises, even to corporations. I was writing in part in response to Adam Levitin’s piece that had claimed to the contrary. What in part motivated Levitin were the bad or at least grossly negligent actions of banks and other mortgage lenders who made mortgage loans to people who had parlous prospects of repayment. Of course, the attribution of bad motives to corporate actions belies the non-morality principle, which is how I characterized Levitin’s claim about the incoherence of the notion of corporate moral obligations. Yet the outrage of Levitin and those who commented on his blog are typical of many who believe that underwater mortgagors have no moral obligation to repay their loans. Bob Maxey, one of my commenters on that piece, describes a specific example of the sort of lender practices that generate such outrage.

On the one hand, Curtis Bridgeman, to whose article Levitin was responding, seems largely unconcerned about lender (im)morality. On the other, Levitin takes lender immorality, inconsistently it seems to me, as a universal solvent of any lingering notion of borrower moral obligation. But surely this does not follow: an individual wrongdoer does not thereby lose her human dignity. My upcoming piece in the Campbell Law Review symposium issue grounds human dignity, upon which the contemporary notion of human rights depends, in the theological concept of humanity’s creation in the image of God. Regardless of whether one is persuaded by my theological foundation for dignity, something accounts for it and, if human rights are inalienable, dignity cannot be lost by committing a wrongful act. Without belaboring yesterday’s arguments, I believe the same holds for corporate entities.

Levitin also points to the existence of the discharge of an individual’s obligations in bankruptcy as another reason for concluding there is no underlying moral obligation to pay one’s contractual debts. This too does not follow. Since modern times legal obligations have been creatures of the State. So too the State can withdraw its legal remedies for failure to carry out one’s legal obligations. But the Bankruptcy Code nowhere addresses the moral obligations of the debtor; it is a work of secular legislation. And we should remember that bankruptcy discharges debts owing both to individuals and corporations indiscriminately. Thus, to argue that the availability of the discharge proves there is no moral obligation to corporations proves too much, or at least more than I think Levitin wants to claim.

But what of the bankruptcy discharge? Are we to understand its effect, limited as it is to legal obligations, reflects nothing of morality? In other words, is there a moral justification for the discharge? Here I can do no better to point to another entry on my blog that linked to a wonderful piece by the late Bill Stutz called Law and the Christian Story. The bankruptcy discharge reflects forgiveness, another moral obligation. Not only are promisors morally obligation to perform, promisees may be morally obligated to forgive. More about this next time.

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