The question in the title of this blog has been on my mind for the last week or so in the wake of the health care/birth control debate. I’m not interested in weighing in on that debate per se, but in linking it to broader questions about individual conscience and the public good.
To review the birth control debate, under President Obama’s new health care plan, churches could be exempted from certain provisions of the law for religious reasons, most notably the requirement to provide insurance that covers contraception, but church-run hospitals, schools, and other institutions that employed people beyond the members of that church were not exempt. Catholic bishops complained that forcing Catholic schools and hospitals to provide insurance that covered contraception was a violation of Catholic social teaching. President Obama offered a compromise: insurance companies serving such hospitals and colleges would be required to provide contraception coverage, but church-related institutions would not be required to pay for it directly. Catholic leaders still protested that they would still be paying for contraception indirectly through higher insurance premiums.
This debate has raised for me two questions: First, is paying for something you find objectionable a violation of conscience? Furthermore, does it matter how directly you are paying for it?
Certainly Catholic bishops did regard it as a violation of conscience to be forced to pay for contraception, even for non-Catholic employees. Let us be clear, Obama was never trying to force Catholics to use birth control, nor were Catholic bishops really trying to stop non-Catholics from using birth control. The debate was over money, not behavior. When we think about violations of conscience, we usually think about coercion of behavior, but this case is somewhat different. Paying for something is different than doing something. It’s providing resources that may enable others to behave a certain way, but it is different than behaving that way one’s self.
To draw an analogy from the opposite side of the political spectrum, part of our tax money goes to support the military. For those from pacifist religious traditions, war is an immoral activity which violates their conscience. There are legal exemptions from military service for religious pacifists. Nevertheless, pacifists are still expected to pay their taxes, some of which support war. By requiring pacifists to pay taxes that support the military, is the government violating their conscience? It’s not coercing behavior, but it is requiring them to pay money that enables behavior to which they are opposed.
The issue becomes more interesting when the method of payment becomes less direct. The higher insurance premiums which the Catholic bishops feared were not a direct means of paying for contraception. They were indirect. Yet the bishops still found these objectionable. This same logic undergirds many politically-motivated boycotts of companies. Whether it’s a call for boycotting the Beijing Olympics because of China’s human rights record or divesting one’s self of investments in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa back in the 1980s, the goal is to not lend indirect financial support to actions one finds morally reprehensible.
I recognize that the issue of indirect financial support of immoral behavior is up for debate, but I think there are dangers in assuming that any time we give money to an organization that is in any way connected to something we find objectionable, we are violating our conscience. Ultimately, we’re connected to so many companies, individuals, and organizations in modern society that we can’t assume that everyone supports the moral (or immoral) actions of every other person and group with whom they interact. To do so would both be ridiculous and lead to a form of moral absolutism that could only result in withdrawal from the rest of society. If we want to maintain an inter-connected, inter-dependent society (and all of us who drive on public roads or buy things that we didn’t make ourselves do), we must be willing to do business with people who may do things we disagree with, even if they take some of the money we’ve paid them and use it to do those disagreeable things. We may, of course, decide in some cases to not do business with them to influence their actions (as in boycotts as a political strategy rather than a moral statement). Yet I don’t think we should assume all association with people with opposing morals represents moral compromise. We may not be happy that some of our money is indirectly support things with which we disagree, but it seems to me to be a better alternative than the absolute breakdown of social, economic, and political interdependence that is the alternative.