Employment Ethics

I’m working on becoming a vegetarian, and I happen to think that there are at least two really good moral reasons for other folk to start working on that veg head project as well. I also happen to think that as a result of our relatively recent ability to significantly and positively impact the life of the world’s poor, that we have a pretty serious obligation to help them out. We are in a perpetual good Samaritan-situation. We have to daily choose between a new pair of shoes and the life of some Haitian child, and I think a pretty good case can be made for choosing the life of the Haitian. So, I think it would be good if folk ate less meat and spent more money on helping the world’s poor.

Enough of my eccentric moral convictions for now. More practically (and self-interestedly), I am also working on becoming an employee somewhere, sometime during this summer. There seems to be an interesting conflict here, a conflict that’s got me a bit confused about how I (morally) ought to behave, or, alternatively, how God would have me act.

Here’s the conflict stated simply: I think the world would be a better place if we didn’t eat meat and stopped choosing new shoes over the lives of Haitian babies. However, many of my employment opportunities are going to be at establishments that run on meat-eating and on caring-about-shoes-more-than-starving-Haitians. So, this question arises: Should I contribute to an establishment that runs on practices that I think makes the world a crappier place?

Here’s one answer: It does not matter if you contribute to these establishments as an employee since you already contribute to these establishments as a consumer. Two (related) things can be said in response to this. In the first place, it might be wrong to contribute to these establishments both as a consumer as well as an employee in which case I should refrain from buying junk from these places and from working at these joints.

Secondly, even if I am permitted (or excused) for contributing to these establishments as a consumer, that might not be hold true for my contributions as an employee. One reason why this might be so is that I will obviously be contributing much more to these morally problematic establishments if I happen to work there than if I simply bought a few things occasionally. Thus, this answer doesn’t really settle the issue, and it’ll take some deeper digging in order to come out with a more helpful answer.

Here’s another (deeper) answer to the question: You are not responsible for the decisions of others. If they want to eat meat and/or buy clothes, then there is nothing morally problematic about you providing them what they want. And in any case, they are going to buy that stuff anyway. If you don’t work there, someone else will and in the end it won’t make a difference.

In order to see that this answer is also problematic, lets consider a case of something that is obviously morally problematic: rape. Now, consider the fact that the same reasoning in the above paragraph can be used to justify working at a brothel that runs on rape: “You are not responsible for the decisions of others. If they want to rape others, then there is nothing morally problematic about you providing them what they want.  And in any case, they are going to rape people anyway. If you don’t work there, someone else will and in the end it won’t make a difference.”

This is clearly a reductio of this line of reasoning; if we can use this argument to justify working at a “rape brothel,” then its probably a bad argument. I think, moreover, that we should conclude from this failed argument that we intuitively think that we are some times  when we are responsible for the decisions of others, or, at least, that we ought not to contribute to the conditions under which people will make morally problematic choices.

Here is another (related) argument that might fare better: Its not buying shoes in itself that is morally problematic. Rather, it is the purchasing of extra pairs of shoes at the cost of failing to aid the dying destitute that is the moral error. Not all consumers are making this moral error, and thus, your work in retail need not necessarily be morally problematic since many customers will be making unproblematic purchases. Similarly, some customers at restaurants will order vegetarian options, so you need not worry about the morality of working at these restaurants.

I am afraid, however, that not even this argument can stand up. Let us return to the rape brothel example. Suppose that the brothel offers a mixed batch of services: the conjugal services of both consenting and not-so-consenting adults. Even assuming that there is nothing morally problematic about prostitution itself,  we intuitively think that it is morally problematic to work even at one of these brothels.

Working at a restaurant that offers a vegetarian option seems uncomfortably like working at this kind of mixed-service brothel. In order to work at either establishment, I would have to consciously recognize that some of the services that both offer are morally problematic, yet still think that (somehow) its not morally problematic that I work there.

Lets pause for a moment and review the answers we’ve examined so far. One answer was that working at an establishment that runs on morally problematic practices is not problematic since we already contribute to such establishments as consumers. My response to this answer was basically this: maybe we shouldn’t be contributing to these establishments as consumers in the first place, and even if we are permitted to contribute qua consumers, it is another thing entirely to contribute qua worker since contributing in this way is much more extensive than contributing simply as a consumer.

Another answer was that we are not responsible for the decisions of others and that our lack of contribution to morally problematic establishments wouldn’t make a difference overall, so I should just go ahead and work wherever this summer. The problem with this answer is that the reason upon which it relies also justifies working at rape brothels. Yikes.

Finally, we considered an answer that noted that not all purchases in retail and at restaurants are going to be morally problematic, and thus, working in either of these industries need not be problematic. Unfortunately, this answer is uncomfortably similar to trying to justify working at a “mixed brothel” simply because some of the workers happen to be consenting adults.

I cannot address all of the possible ways we could answer this question, but I think that these are some rival answers that might contend with the answer I am not about to articulate.

This, I think, is how we should respond to the question we have been trying to answer from the outset: Working in retail or in food is only justified insofar as it is necessary to further the moral goals to which I am committed. Working at, say, Ross, in other words, is only justified because I can use the funds I gain from this morally problematic institution to put myself in a financial situation in which I can further the cause of the economically least of these.

The upshot of all of this is that I have an additional reason – aside from the fact that we are in a perpetual good Samaritan situation – to use the funds that I receive in a way that will allow me to help the world’s poor: if I refrain from doing so, my working at Chickfila or Ross or whatever will not be justifiable, and I will be culpably complicit in participating in a process that makes the world a crappier place, i.e., I will be hindering the coming of the kingdom.

May I be given the discipline to be one of those who aids in the ushering in of the kingdom rather than the hindering of it.

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