Friday, March 20, 2009

Conscientious Objectors

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.
Woman on plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?
Narrator: You wouldn't believe.
Woman on plane: Which car company do you work for?
Narrator: A major one.
--Fight Club

To what degree should one's own beliefs play a role in one's job or public role? The general rank and file Nazis are decried for contributing, via their mundane office work, to the deportation, imprisonment, or death of millions of people. From the secure vantage point of modern-day America, it seems obvious they should have taken a moral stand and refused to continue contributing to such a horror. Well, yes. Of course, it's not all that easy, and of course it wasn't as obvious at the time what was happening or especially how it would all end. (Incidentally, I highly recommend Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil about Adolf Eichmann's post-WWII trial to anyone who hasn't read it.) At any rate, most of us think that ideally, the lower- and middle-rank Nazis (the higher ranks all being written off as pure evil, of course) should certainly have allowed their personal moral and religious beliefs (which, yes, most of them had) to trump the demands of their jobs, even if we admit this might have been difficult for them to do for various social and psychological reasons.

Conversely (though also obviously a less extreme example), John F. Kennedy promised to do exactly the opposite if elected to the presidency. He declared that his religion would not influence his decisions: "Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates." (I suppose this is slightly different as he is talking about the church's structure and demands rather than personal opinions, but he is still putting the national interest at the fore.) This was certainly a relief to many at the time, although it seems many people in more recent election years prefer their president's decisions to be heavily informed by his faith (but only when it agrees with their own—so maybe this isn't all that different from the JFK situation after all).

In ordinary life, where is the line to be drawn? Should pharmacists be able to refuse to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill or even ordinary birth control? My opinion: certainly not. They're there to perform a job. Yet there are plenty of circumstances in which I do not feel it is appropriate to use "it's my job; I have to" as a justification. For example, if your job entails encouraging people to take out loans they can't afford, denying needed medical care, covering up for legally dubious actions taken by your employer, or bombing civilians in a war, you should refuse. (These specific situations may not be the most universally morally abhorrent—plug in something better if you think of it.)

But there is grayer area yet. Working for a fast food chain could be morally problematic if one disagreed with any of the following practices (not an exhaustive list, I'm sure): industrial farming, grain-fed beef, CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), high fructose corn syrup, supersizing, advertising junk food, not providing nutrition information in an easily accessible format, exploiting workers at low wages and limited benefits, and yes, even having gender-differentiated kids' meal toys.

The majority of jobs I can think of have the potential for conflict between one's personal values and one's duty. Health insurance—denying people with preexisting conditions affordable medical care because (gasp!) they actually need it? Marketing/advertising—for toys that turn children's brains to mush, for clothing companies who use sweatshop labor, for gas-guzzling cars? Near-monopolistic corporations (Microsoft, Wal-Mart)? Entrapping customers (Comcast,

Clearly these dilemmas mentioned are slanted a little toward my personal ethical framework and tendency to overthink everything, but in almost any job, there are potentially such dilemmas. How much compromise is too much? To what degree is it desirable that one lose one's sense of agency and become merely a representative of the company while at work? I'm sure, thanks to atrocities perpetuated by people simply doing their jobs, nobody really thinks everyone should do what is requested of them by their employer, no matter what. But obviously society would fail to function pretty quickly if large numbers of people made big ethical stinks about any given aspect of their job that bothered them. (Actually, that's probably not true. Ethical people who made such stinks would be replaced by scabs who would do whatever was asked of them, and the workforce would suddenly be almost entirely unethical.) We can't all run our own businesses, so how should we deal with this?

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