The Right Price.

A friend of mine and I were talking online recently, where he was teasing me about something I’d said, and we were light-heartedly discussing my work in the coal mining industry. Of course, I’ve never worked in the coal mining industry, which my friend knows (hence the joke) and I responded that I was intending to take up a position with Philip Morris instead, the humour being that both of these industries were facing falling profits and had questionable practices when it came to ethics and/or the environment.

I guess you had to be there.

The really funny thing is, that I almost did apply for a job with Philip Morris, years ago. It was as a sales rep, and given that I’d had some supermarket experience and could be quite the persuasive talker, I was probably in with a shot. But I just couldn’t really justify a job like that, when I would be promoting a product which was both addictive and deadly. Of course, there were other jobs available to me. And so I applied for them, and was lucky enough to get one, which didn’t involve a compromise of my ethics.

But what if you’re not lucky enough? We seem to be getting a lot of calls from an overseas location at the moment, where the caller will tell me that s/he is Person With A Completely Made Up Name from Definitely Not Microsoft, and that there is something terribly wrong with my computer, which PWACMUN is going to help me to fix. Most of the time I just hang up on them, because I can’t believe they’re still trying this, but in the past, I’ve questioned the caller as to why they choose such a job, where they’re going to be stealing money from people.

Because why would you? Why would you take a job where you’re doing the wrong thing? It seems so simple a question, but the answer is not at all simple, because I think (perhaps naively) that most people would choose to do right, all things being equal. We just don’t always have that many options, so we choose to do the least bad thing, or we justify it to ourselves that it’s only for a short while, or we acknowledge that it’s not the best company to work for, but someone has to do it and it might as well be us. OR… we need the money.

I remember reading somewhere a quote, and as much as I’ve looked for it, I can’t seem to find who said it or the exact words, but the gist was “one has to be able to afford to be ethical.” Sure, you could criticise that by saying that most ethical acts don’t cost anything, in particular, kindness towards others and a respect for the world around us, but people need to eat (and pay rent, and buy clothing, and repay debts) and what if there were only one job, and you were successful in getting it? What if there were no other options, and you needed the money? How do you make ethical choices, then?

It’s so easy to judge people on why they make the choices they do, but I wonder how many people feel like it’s not a choice. If money makes the world go round, then some of us need to do the jobs that others can’t or won’t. The difficulty is that taking a stand against a job which is unethical often seems futile. In the rat race which is the job market, there are many others lining up to take the job you refuse, based on your principles.

It’s not just about jobs, though. This issue continues to be relevant for many who have found employment, but need continuing funds for research or financial support. Science, medicine and the creative industry are constantly looking for ways to secure investment in their specific areas. How can we ensure that these sources are providing their money without expectation of a particular result? Once we accept money from somewhere, is there not at least a perceived obligation, if not a real one, to the donor?

The simple answer, of course, is to only take money from those who insist that it can be used for whichever necessary purpose, and who don’t require a specific outcome. However, I think this glosses over two important issues: that obligation is almost always implied, even when the philanthropist insists it isn’t, and that those who receive the money still need to be held accountable to ensure they’re not using it for illegal or immoral purposes.

This is a subject which is close to my heart at the moment, as I try to supplement my income, some of which comes from prizes and grants (haha… not that I’ve yet won any, I should add). Some scholarships are offered by huge corporations, such as those in the mining industry, and were I successful in my application, then I have to consider the choice: take the moral high ground, because this company makes a lot of money and doesn’t (to my mind) pay enough tax, and I worry about their impact on the environment; or take the money, which is considerable, given our current situation, and which would make a massive difference to my ability to focus on writing and editing without having to worry about where my next job is coming from. It would make a huge–and I assume, positive–impact on my family, as I would no longer be trying to write and edit and freelance as well as cook and bake and ensure everyone has clean underwear, while making sure we have enough time to read stories together at night. And I would have a company, which practices I might really not agree, to thank for it. What would I do?

Of course, ‘everyone has a price’ and I suppose that’s true. At what point do we admit that our moral stance might not put food on the table? Again, I could just walk away from something like this. I’m probably able to get another job. I don’t have to try to write for a living. I’ve got experience and qualifications in other areas, so I’m choosing to have this dilemma. But for some it’s not as much a choice as a scenario of survival. And if I could accept a stipend which would make my life easier, so I can pursue what I really want to do, who am I to judge someone for taking a job so that they can eat? Maybe the judgement should be on the way we accept that societies can continue where people have to make such choices.

8 thoughts on “The Right Price.

  1. Pingback: The Right Price. | ugiridharaprasad

  2. Engaging the sales-people in conversation – well that’s an approach I haven’t thought of before! We’ve been staying with my mother-in-law for the past five months and she gets five or more such calls every day. We have different methods, from hanging up to whistling to telling them to take my mother-in-law’s name off their list to getting angry!

    Reading your blog today has made me think about our different perceptions of what is ethical or unethical work. A very close family member of ours thinks that we have chosen an unethical path and we think he has chosen an unethical path. We both, of course, think we are right! This family member thinks that’s my husband and I are in the wrong for having given up our careers in order to live simply and frugally. He thinks we should be contributing to society by earning enough money to pay our taxes. We no longer earn enough money to be taxed, but we also live a life whereby we draw very little from government resources. We pay the taxes and duties linked to boat ownership, and we pay the fees required along the way. I believe we contribute to society in other ways – by the way we raise and educate our daughters, by my writing, and by our day-to-day interactions with people immediately around us.

    And so to our family member. He is a corporate property lawyer who, among other things, oversees the purchase of land by Britain’s biggest supermarket chain, in order to build giant supermarkets. He believes his work is helping to create jobs – more supermarkets = more jobs. Given my anti-consumerist ideals, I find his work unethical as it is linked to environmental damage, minimum-wage zero-hours contract employment, multinational corporations running small local businesses into the ground, etc.

    So, who is right? Me or this family member? I’m a good person and he’s a good person, and we both firmly believe that our way is the best way. But we come from polar extremes of the political spectrum, and we will never understand one another’s way of thinking and living. We’re like Jeremy Corbyn meets Donald Trump!!

    • The funny thing is, when I call them out on this, and ask why they’re doing this, it’s stealing, and stealing from people who don’t necessarily have very much money, they often get really upset and indignant that I’m questioning their choice of employment! Maybe it will be enough to persuade some to move to another job? If, of course, there’s one available!

      Who’s right? Ah, the eternal question! I don’t know… my guess would be that you both are–and that a truly wonderful world would be one where ideas from all along the spectrum are implemented. What’s funny is that I agree with a lot of what Corbyn is saying (or what I’ve read; I’ll admit I’ve not followed him closely in the last couple of weeks) and although Trump is just so ridiculous, there are actually some things he says which are true. I think one of the problems with politics is that we tend to pick a side and then find it hard to either criticise that perspective or admit that the ‘other side’ has good points now and then. I know I definitely find myself doing that. I guess it’s hard to admit that there are so many more shades of grey than we’d like to admit.

      Saying that, accusing you of not contributing to society by earning too little money, while you’re engaging with other people, travelling and being ambassadors for your culture, and bringing up two young women to appreciate the environment, other languages and countries and peoples, and also reinforcing solid relationships between you and your husband and your children? Well, that’s very short-sighted. Money certainly isn’t everything!

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    Glad to hear I am not alone in getting those sales call but sorry that we as consumers have to deal with that kind of tactics. Regarding the job selection, I think that Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs suggests we have to put food on the table feeding our families before we can consider the more esoteric options. And when you do get the offer, follow your heart on what you believe is the “right” job. Just my $0.02.

    • Thanks, Terry🙂

      I definitely think it’s important to look after one’s basic interests first. I was quite happy to be a ‘martyr for the cause’ when I was younger and only had myself (and possibly the Handsome Sidekick) to worry about. But now there are other people who depend upon a stable home environment, I can see why people would take on jobs to ensure there’s food on the table and a roof over their head.

  4. The friend mentioned in the first paragraph sounds like the soul of wit and wisdom.

    I was with you for most of this. Ethics would likely go out the window if my children were starving. (In which case, instead of working for a tobacco company, I’d do something more respectable like robbing a bank.) There are no redeeming features to tobacco sales. However, the mining company? Now you are on relative grounds. The do something useful and needed. Those resources are necessary. Are they perfect? No, but neither are you and I. They pay less taxes than you think they should, and the environmental regulations aren’t strict enough? Maybe so, but do they pay the taxes and follow the regulations required by law? Then they’ve done no wrong. Okay, no doubt they’ve lobbied for those tax rates and regulations, but still legal, and from their perspective ethnically justified. (I’m leaving off the further question of if they’ve broken the law, or actually bribed the politicians.)

    Ethical often depends which side of the table you are sitting on, as it is rarely as black-and-white as we’d like. (Which is not an argument for all options being equal, sometimes one shade of gray is clearly preferable.) What letter is this: M.

    Did you think it’s an ’em?’ Most sorry, I’m in another hemisphere, its a ‘double-you.’ From another angle, it’s the Greek letter sigma. Who is right? Depends where one is sitting.

    • Indeed he is!😀

      Certainly agree that we need the resources which the mining companies provide, and that they are legally justified in doing all that they do… but ethical and legal are too different things, more’s the pity. It’s unfortunate that companies can legally pay very little tax, for example–or, as in the case of an organisation like James Hardie, go to extreme lengths to avoid paying compensation to former workers who suffer/ed from diseases directly caused by the asbestos mined and sold by James Hardie. Is that ethical? Hardly, but it’s legal. Even if you turn something upside down, surely there are basic ethics to which we all should adhere… but then, ethics is not simple, or we would have solved all of these problems centuries ago!

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