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.