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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Immoral Jobs?

Last semester, when I taught employment law, I remember having a conversation with some students that ended up carrying over into a question I kept asking (seemingly) everyone.  The question was, what do you think is an “immoral” job and why?  The responses I received varied widely.  One friend, an entrepreneur - and also a fan of the Sopranos – replied that his only category was “hitman” but then, under my intensive questioning, qualified that answer with “anything illegal.”  But of course, that begs the question of what is illegal and why, etc., which wasn’t really what I was thinking about, at all.  To the other extreme, another friend was adamant that plastic surgeons belonged on the list.  Me, personally?  I think if your job is “spammer,” well, that might be immoral.  (No one mentioned any law-related jobs, but that might be because everyone I was talking to knew I was a lawprof…)

Posted by Miriam Cherry on September 26, 2006 at 12:03 AM in Workplace Law | Permalink


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Professor Rob Atkinson of FSU Law School has written an excellent article called "HOW THE BUTLER WAS MADE TO DO IT: THE PERVERTED PROFESSIONALISM OF THE REMAINS OF THE DAY" analyzing Remains of the Day and its implications on lawyers' professional morality. It can be found at 105 YLJ 177.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Sep 26, 2006 11:18:02 AM

Ah, the Buddhist would agree that such advertising is immoral, given her concern with what is known as 'trishna,' (diacritics unavailable), lit. 'thirst,' or 'craving,' and meaning those sorts of desires that are unnecessary or superfluous, distracting one's attention from what truly counts, from acting on proper desires (bereft of 'attachment,' for example) guided by knowledge and insight. According to the Buddhist, trishna and 'avidya' (ignorance) are the twin roots of our enmeshment in the causal web of suffering.... With sufficient reason and not unsurpringly, one discovers books like Robert E. Lane's The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000). Similarly, the economist Juliet Schor, sounding a bit like a Buddhist (and speaking more of the big picture), says 'Yet for all its popularity, the shopping mania provokes considerable dis-ease: many Americans worry about our preoccupation with getting and spending. They fear we are losing touch with more worthwhile values and ways of living. But the discomfort rarely goes much further than that; it never coheres into a persuasive, well-articulated critique of consumerism.' (please see the New Democracy Forum topic, 'The New Politics of Consumption,' at the Boston Review: http://bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html) For a nice discussion of the actual mechanics of advertising as fuel for the fire of status emulation, see the chapter on 'consuming' in Nicholas Xenos' Scarcity & Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1989).

I must read Layard. Thanks for mentioning this.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 26, 2006 9:13:05 AM

Richard Layard suggests (in his book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science) that many forms of advertising are immoral, for inciting expensive or unnecessary wants.

For any libertarian offended by this: note that some economists in Layard's camp they do take your concerns seriously!

Posted by: Frank | Sep 26, 2006 8:21:23 AM

It's rather interesting that in the Buddhist tradition under the heading of the Eightfold Path (of ethics, meditation and knowledge/wisdom), one of the eight members is 'right livelihood.' In this tradition, the question of the right way to make one's living is a paramount and practical one, and in the Buddhist case linked to a consequentialist reckoning regarding the possible contribution to the relief or elimination of suffering and the furtherance of Buddhist virtues (compassion, generosity, etc.). Buddhists rule out occupations that cause needless suffering to human (prostitution, pimping, slavery, human trafficking, etc.) and non-human animals (e.g., the treatment of animals used for food in factory farming and consumed by non-compassionate omnivores), as well as activities that directly or indirectly inhibit proper 'mind-training' (e.g., the consumption of alcohol and other [non-prescription] drugs, as well as such occupations that facilitate same: drug-dealing, bartending, working in a brewery, etc.). So it seems relevant that one consider the ethical tradition (Kantian, utilitarian, virtue-ethics) or religious worldview from which the moral criteria will be derived in making such determinations (i.e., an immoral job or not). What is more, perhaps certain jobs lend themselves to any number of temptations such that we're confronted routinely with ethically questionable actions or choices (the plastic surgeon who prefers the income from surgery on the rich and famous to treating burn victims; the perks and connections associated with public office...), unlike, say--all things being equal--the schoolteacher, the gardener, and the miner who are not in number or degree faced with such ethical decisions. And perhaps jobs that squander our potential or waste our talents might be seen in some sense as ethically troubling to the extent we make no effort to change them. Where money and power collude with any of the seven deadly sins to trump other interests and values, a moral miasma is sure to flourish. I'm not convinced that the propagation of 'professional ethics' of one sort or another (or even business ethics for that matter) is sufficient to immunize us from the hazards and harms of immoral occupations or the manipulation of our jobs or working lives toward immoral ends.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 26, 2006 1:14:37 AM

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