Fortezza, Umilitade, e Largo Core - Courage, Humility, and Largeness of Heart.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

An Ethic of Responsibility: The Estate Tax Debate

There are some that believe that we should sell our possessions and become homeless ourselves; Jesus himself calls for us to sell our possessions and follow him (Mk 10:21; Lk 12:33; 18:22; Mt 19:21) but I know that money equates to power and the ability to be heard within society. Chuck Collins is an example of one that takes the ethic of responsibility further than I feel comfortable with, yet he was able to maintain his power, voice, and influence.
Chuck Collins, the great-grandson of Oscar Mayer and a Unitarian Universalist, at the ripe age of 26 gave the entirety of his birthright “to foundations and groups that he knew needed funding”[1] believing it to be an important step on his journey towards creating a more just society. An article from 2003 covers his defense of the Estate Tax by starting with his early life experience, the source of his authority. Discussing his early life experience working in disadvantaged communities, such as Appalachia, we see how Collins arrived at the decision to give away his inheritance. Collins is a “radical meritocratist”[2], operating out of a responsibility ethic, who believes that each generation should start out fresh instead of inheritance allowing those of less quality to end up in positions of power based solely on the merits of their forefathers.
I was challenged to decide if Collins was acting out of teleology, deontology, responsibility, care, narrative, or virtue ethics as he does not come from a solely Christian perspective (but instead a Unitarian Universalist perspective) so the article was missing the key “buzzword” clues to help me locate his method for arriving at his decisions. Sola scriptura or the Kingdom of God are not what drives him but coming from another faith tradition, Collins uses different terms that may have similar overall intentions. This required me delving deeper into his method, looking at his intention.
As Collins is focused not on the end result but rather evaluating his decision based on the guiding principle that it was the “right thing to do”, I see a strong argument for deontology using Lovin’s chapter 3. Lovin states on page 42, “Deontological ethics evaluates actions by asking whether this action was the right thing to do according to a rule, not by assessing what happens as the result of the action”; since we know that Collins was less concerned about the consequences of giving up his inheritance but was instead driven by his need to do what he felt was right stating, “Wealth that just creates more wealth seemed wrong”.[3] Even when his father pleaded with him to consider possible, future children and their care considerations, Collins was not swayed from making what he believed to be the right decision. But Collins’ reasoning does not seem to be guided by “rules”, so it appears he is not a deontologist.
An argument could be made for teleology when French writes, “He began to see that inherited wealth—including his own trust fund—was a piece of the problem he was working to solve.”[4] The visualization of goal begins to take form but this is the only real instance of goal-centered language, so apparently Collins is not a teleologist. We could also say that Collins comes from a care ethic based on the fact that he created United for a Fair Economy which indicates his emphasized value on relationships and his focus on what he sees as just. To Gilligan’s point on 35, Collins is perceiving and responding to the perceived need. And since Collins seems to be able to balance two different moral orientations, again a reasonable argument could be made for an ethic of care but I just don’t hear him using terminology that Gilligan would ascribe to care (38).
Like many people, Collins does not operate out of solely one location: he seems to secondarily operate out of virtue/narrative ethic; in fact, I had a hard time deciding if he was more responsibility ethic or virtue ethic. As Lovin states on 64, virtue ethics are what help us arrive at a “systematic understanding of the moral life”. Just as Aristotle calls for us to develop a pattern of behavior that becomes so engrained that it becomes second nature, we see Collins through his life making conscious decisions to help create a more just society. As Lovin points out, “The balance between self and others has to be struck … those choices [must] add up to a coherent plan for life for the person who is making them” (74) Collins states, “You can’t be too rigid or ideological.”[5] Collins walks the middle way, putting money in his kids’ college fund and giving to the United Students Association, an organization that works to lower tuitions. He is the model for the person who Lovin believes will be able to maintain this level of ethical living. The article wraps up by focusing on Collins’ daily life and the daily decisions he makes in order to make the world a more just place for everyone, with Collins asking, “Am I going to have special privilege in relation to this problem?”[6] Thereby clearly illustrating how he has made his virtue ethic a habit.
However I came to the conclusion that Collins is operating primarily out of an ethic of responsibility. It was Niebuhr’s description of the second element of responsibility that confirmed my conclusion. Niebuhr speaks of asking “‘What shall I do?’ by raising the question: ‘What is going on?’” (202).  Collins recognized the inequality that is present in the United States while working to help educate the people about economics by creating the workshop, The Growing Divide, which morphed into United for a Fair Economy.[7] “If there is to be any debate or change, he figures, ordinary people have to understand the wealth gap and what is wrong with it, just as the early patriots and Progressive Era reformers did.”[8] While working with United for a Fair Economy, he engaged in street theater (among other things) and published The Activist Cookbook in order to help others take similar actions. He is about action: action, interpretation, and accountability (Niebuhr, 202). Collins not only noticed what was going on but also continued in his thinking to figure out how he can respond.
When we look at Collins’ strong emphasis on social solidarity, we can clearly see that he is acting out of an ethic of responsibility. Collins enacts what Trimiew calls for us to do: “responsible selves have an obligation to participate in the struggle for the fulfillment of basic human needs…” (85). Collins is acting out of knowledge that we are living in an “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”[9] (the Seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle) his Unitarian Universalist faith builds his understanding that we are social creatures and are accountable to each other for the dynamic outcomes of our actions. Collins is coming from an ethic of responsibility; he does not preach or give imperatives, he speaks to what feels right to him, how he wants the world to look and what he can do to make it so.
“In none of them shall I take the deontological stance, saying, ‘We ought to be responsible’; nor yet the ideal saying, ‘The goal is responsibility’; but I shall simply ask that we consider our life of response to action upon us with the question in mind, ‘To whom or what am responsible and in what community of interaction am I myself?’” (Niebuhr, 204).
Collins never states an imperative for others; he does not use words like ought or goal, he acts with mindfulness of the outcomes and those that may be effected, he responds within the greater community.
In conclusion, Collins, operating out of an ethic of responsibility, calls for support of the Estate Tax and he himself gave away the entirety of his inheritance. While I see merit in his argument, I believe that there is another option, one that allows for greater balance, which could operate here. Due to his being the great-grandson of Oscar Meyer, he already had social connections that allow him to navigate a system that can be difficult for those without money or power to break into. He, like Trimiew’s critique of Niebuhr, forgets about the marginalized moral agent. Collins is perfectly happy acting as the empowered moral agent on behalf of the marginalized. I believe that a greater middle way could be struck, even though I am uncertain as to what that would look like.

[1] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under first section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[2] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under last section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[3] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under first section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[4] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under second section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[5] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under last section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Note: Collins was a co-founder of both The Growing Divide and UFE.
[8] Kimberly French, “From Riches to Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax,” UU World (Mar/Apr 2003), under fifth section, (accessed April 5, 2012).
[9] Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, “Our Unitarian Universalist Principles,” Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. (accessed March 6, 2012).

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