When it comes to our consumption habits, most of us could probably rattle off a list of things we feel at least a little guilty about. We eat factory-farmed animal products, use phones containing minerals mined by horrifically mistreated workers, fly to vacation spots on carbon-spewing planes.
But we rarely apply this same lens to our work, even though most of us could.
Maybe we handle logistics for oil companies planning pipelines across rural America, or process paperwork for collection agencies that inundate overburdened borrowers with threatening calls. Or — er — write freelance articles in a market that rewards snappy, clickable takes over deep reporting on important topics.
We live in a culture that regards working to support ourselves and our families as inherently good, no matter what we actually do all day. And most of us have limited choices about the jobs we do to pay the bills anyway. So it's easy to see why we aren't as likely to put our work lives into a moral framework. But maybe we should.
Here's the thing: We all want to see what we do as ethically correct. Sociologists Andrew C. Cohen of Yale and Shai M. Dromi of Harvard found some fascinating examples of this when they interviewed dozens of advertising professionals for a 2018 paper. Many of the advertisers recognized that people around them saw their work as morally dubious, but they insisted that they were doing the right thing, providing a service to their clients and to society as a whole. One advertising creative justified doing work for a tobacco company on the grounds that it offered the chance to make appealing, fun commercial art: "They want to do something cool. They want to have their brand stand for something and they're fun to work with." An account planner working for the same client argued that the work ultimately helped customers: "I am against [selling tobacco] of course, but you cannot change the mind of the people that are doing it. … I think if you are just like a regular person that likes [tobacco] or whatever then it's [your] choice, so you deserve advertising … there is something that people can do for you to show you what's the better quality or the most economic thing, the cheapest one."
These contortions are just the extreme end of something most of us do. We all want to put the things we have to do for our jobs in the most positive light possible. But there's a lot of work that would be better left undone, from high-frequency trading to piloting private jets. In fact, nearly all economic activity causes some harm, if only by putting more commuters on the road, increasing pollution, and causing more crashes. To justify itself morally, our work should at least do enough good to counterbalance that.
It's probably pointless, and definitely kind of mean, to criticize other people for what they do to pay the bills. But, for each of us, there's reason to spend a little time in our own private brains genuinely considering the ethical implications of our work. The idea of moral standards in our work lives is a centerpiece of many religious and philosophical traditions, from the Buddhist idea of right livelihood to the Christian concept of vocation. Numerous studies have also found demonstrable mental health benefits from doing work that helps other people, as well as negative consequences of work in environments like slaughterhouses where people are forced to act against their moral instincts.
So, what if, upon reflection, you think your job might be a little ... evil? Maybe you conclude that you can still do good from inside a morally questionable organization — pushing for a supply chain that takes human rights into account, for example, or talking your boss out of launching a nuclear strike. Maybe you commit to effective altruism, make a lot of money any way you can, and give most of it away. Or you might end up deciding that you simply need to do an evil job to support your family.
But maybe, for some of us, the right choice is to reorganize our work lives to align with our ethics. That's not a radical proposition. It's the reason so many people choose to be elementary school teachers or home care workers even if they could make more money working in health insurance or at a call center.
It's also a potentially powerful force for change. The most visible example of this right now is in Silicon Valley. There, highly valued technically skilled employees are pushing their employers by refusing to take part in projects that enable immigrant detention in the U.S. or surveillance of citizens in China.
Like our individual consumption habits, our individual choices about where and how to work will never be enough to solve society-wide moral problems. But disposing of the idea that work itself is inherently moral could help us shift policy as well. It could reduce the tendency, at all levels of government, to give fossil fuel companies, Amazon offices, and defense contractors whatever they want in exchange for "creating jobs." It could encourage us to think about economic models that focus less on maximizing economic activity at all cost and more on how to actually get necessary work done.
It might matter for us as individual people too. As Aristotle never actually said, we are what we repeatedly do. If that's putting our creative energy into making tobacco look cool or accelerating the burning of the planet, we may not be creating the best versions of ourselves. It's probably worthwhile to spend as much energy thinking about that as we do scrutinizing our meat consumption or our use of plastic straws.
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