“The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Everyone of them wore chains…some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together.” (Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol)
Flipping through a recent issue of Ethics & International Affairs trying to find something for a last minute project, I happened on a piece by Toni Erskine that posited the difficulty of punishing institutions like the state without causing undue harm to individuals. For him, institutions are corporate identities that can be held moral accountable as moral agents that deserve moral praise or blame for their actions. While there are cases where it is more appropriate to hold morally accountable only a responsible few leaders instead of the entire institution’s personnel, there are other cases where the institution itself independent
The problem with holding institutions morally accountable is that they are not subject to harm in the same way as individuals are and they often get harmed in the process of punishing the institution, impairing the ability of an institution to fulfill its duties to individuals. Can one “jail” a multinational corporation for underpaying its labourers in another country? Can one “convict” the World Bank for development programs that impoverish rather than enrich the livelihoods of the people it is supposed to help? Are fines, wars, sanctions really appropriate or effective punishments for institutional entities? I disagree and Erskine has his own skepticisms of wars of punishment as exemplified by Iraq and Afghanistan
On my part (in addition to Erskine’s proposals) dissolution of a “delinquent” institution may also be suggested as a radical alternative punishment. Also replacing the upper echelons of the institution or giving it back to the people may also be more humane, but radical ways of punishment that relegate responsibility directly to individuals (public ownership) who may have more control over moral responsibility than a corporate entity. Of course, such solutions are problematic within the current structure, but restructuring is already required in light of the fact that the decline of the nation-state signals that the state as a mechanism of rule is no longer adequate to address postmodern issues of political, economic, and social developments such as Agamben’s state of exception. Will the state erode under stricter moral responsibilities? What institutions will remain after such moral constraints are demanded? If the institution’s constitution or founding principles (that is, its structure) was already riddled with moral loopholes or poor interpretations then systemic moral “delinquency” is remediated only by my proposed solutions.
One last point of view: what if “delinquency” were an abuse of the privilege of institutions to be free of reproach? Here we may recall Aristotle in his Politics that a community is more virtuous than the individual due to the sum of its parts. In theory, institutions themselves are set up with virtuous intent and are virtuous or good in themselves, but certain individuals or groups within them can corrupt them and bypass virtue for self interests. This would override Erskine’s idea that institutions are subjective as moral agents because institutions would be objectively good. It is the corrupt few who are the moral agents and therefore targets of moral praise or blame, reward or punishment. This would, of course, ignore bureaucratic practices in institutions which would create systemic and consistent moral delinquency, but again, it is best to assume that the original intent behind the institution held merit otherwise the institution would not have lasted. Unfortunately, institutions are also often kept alive by power politics and serving particular interests. Therefore, it is important to hold the institution accountable to its original principles when considering punishment and the moral responsibility of such entities.