December 27, 2006

Sinners in the Hands of an Ignorant Stockholder

by PG

Unsurprisingly, the first comment on Raffi Melkonian's latest post, about "why I think things like premarital sex, homosexuality, and so on, should continue to be designated as sins, even while society has grown entirely tolerant of those things, and, indeed, believes them not to be sinful," is someone remarking "Ah yes, for some reason the Catholic church likes to castigate homosexuals as sinners. The true sinners are the leaders of the church for not accepting everyone as equals." My reaction upon reading that sentence: being attracted to members of the same sex isn't even a sin within the Church, as far as I know, except inasmuch as the desire to have sex before marriage is sin -- i.e., that of unacted-upon lust, or what Jimmy Carter called adultery in one's heart. Regardless of its accuracy, Raffi's point,

transferred into lawyer speak, is that the church is simply offering safe harbors by being possibly over-inclusive with the definition of sin. Put it this way: we don't know what God thinks is sin or not. It might be that everything we think is sinful is actually not, and vice versa. The church, operating in that state of uncertainty, has done its best to divine what God thinks. If you follow those rules, and it ends up that the church was wrong, then the church represents that it will intervene on your behalf. But, that's no reason for you to agree with the church. As an independent moral agent, you're welcome to act however you like. The risk you run, however, is that you are wrong about what God thinks is sinful, and you won't have the church to back you up. Sin, to me, isn't so much restriction as liberation. If you keep to the relatively simple rules the church sets out, then you don't have to do much of the moral spade-work in trying to figure out what God might think. Otherwise, you're afloat in an unfathomable world. I realize that a lot of this sounds like I've been spending too much time reading SEC regulations.
Actually, to me this sounds like Raffi's been reading SEC regulations without realizing why those regulations exist.

Behind the Securities and Exchange Commission's obsession with disclosure is a tacit acknowledgement that it has a limited mandate to force companies to do things, but a nearly unlimited one to force companies to tell things. It can't make Acme Corp. pay its CEO a nonridiculous salary and benefits package, but it can make Acme put that package in terms of increasing simplicity. I attended the SEC meeting this summer where they voted on the new disclosure rules, and the emphasis on methods of communicating information -- narratives! graphs! tables! -- as well as the repeated use of the phrase "plain English" almost made me want to read a 10K just to see how obscure the prior rules had allowed lawyers to be, and whether there were contenders for the Golden Bull in there. Perhaps the SEC ought to start giving its own awards for compliance and lack thereof with its handbook.

The idealistic regulator hopes that if companies tell their stockholders what's happening, the stockholders will exercise their voting rights and kick out the board that messes up, particularly given the difficulty in successfully litigating against a board that messes up with even a modicum of good faith. But here is where the audience for the misbehaving corporation, falling away from the SEC's rules, differs from that for the sinner falling away from the Church's teachings: whereas God is popularly supposed to be omniscient, the vast majority of stockholders don't even know what's contained between the covers of the massive documents sent to them. And God knows when you've sinned and damned yourself to hell (if as free-willed creatures we damn ourselves, and God is just the all-knowing Bystander), whereas as long as earnings stay up, stockholders mostly will stay happy and uncritical. Certainly the failure to disclose information that, if known, might have caused stockholders to act differently can be reason for a lawsuit, but it doesn't seem to have taken any company down.

Of course, stretching the comparison this far requires the assumption that much as a company exists to do something other than inform its stockholders of what it's doing, humans exist to do something other than avoid sin. In Christianity, the avoidance of sin -- which in any case is impossible -- is less important than belief in Christ. Acme makes widgets and obeys the SEC rules; Christians believe in Christ and obey their Church. If you follow the rules without doing what you exist to do, it's not really much help when it comes to the day of (business) judgement.

December 27, 2006 10:08 PM | TrackBack

PG - I think we're somehow talking past each other here, but a variety grab-bag of answers follow:

1. As an unrelated side note, I think the Chancellor was quite right in Disney. I realize you didn't say otherwise, but I'm reacting to the implication.

2. I was using homosexuality to refer to the act of having homosexual sex, as my reference to premarital sex immediately before suggests.
Both of which certainly are sins.

3. I wasn't referring to disclosure rules at all, so I think your problems with my not-serious analogy don't work. I was talking about rules that give you immunity if you do X, and leave it to a case by case analysis if you do X+Y. Think "best price rule". Relatedly, I don't understand how you think I've misunderstood the purpose of SEC regulation. I hope I'm not being obtuse, but I really don't get what you mean.

4. Obviously, someone concerned about Christian ideas of sin *would* believe in Christ, and I never suggested that merely by avoiding sin, a catholic's done what he needs to do. But it is emphatically not the case that belief in Christ is a sufficient condition for salvation in Catholic theology. You can't avoid sin, but it needs to be atoned for specifically, not by some overarching belief. In that context, it seems to me that the question of why the church doesn't move "sin" is a valid question.

Posted by: Raffi at December 30, 2006 12:35 PM

Inasmuch as we're talking past each other, it's probably because I'm a) joking and b) fairly ignorant about both SEC regulations that don't deal with compensation and Catholic doctrine.

Re 2) It would be most accurate to say the Church condemns *non-marital* sex, as it doesn't recognize marriage between people of the same sex, and adultery is worse than pre-marital sex.

Also, I think we view the relevant tribunals differently. You're thinking of the SEC as the ultimate entity that punishes, i.e. God; whereas I'm thinking of the SEC as the Church, laying down the rules, and more of the litigious stockholder (or in the case of best price rule, allegedly wannabe shareholders) as God. In both cases, the regulating entity has its own ways of getting those who stray from the rules into trouble, but the rules also are meant to serve a larger end for the ultimate punishing entity. It can be possible for the SEC to shield companies from liability under U.S. law, but I'm not clear on how Catholic Church doctrine *promises* to shield the person who avoids the Church's concept of sin from damnation.

Notice that the Catholic Church's "rules" you chose to cite are ones that still have some practical sense, inasmuch as nonmarital sex statistically increases the likelihood of one's getting an STD. You didn't choose to mention the grossly impractical rules against contraception, which lead to increased STD rates and unwanted pregnancies. And then there's also the Church's bias against war and execution, which no one seems to care about at all. I suppose war and execution aren't classed as sins, perhaps partly because they are done by nations rather than individuals, although that hasn't stopped entire organizations from being excommunicated.

Posted by: PG at December 30, 2006 05:08 PM
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