Islam: Day 27 – My workplace ethical dilemma

Last Friday my manager called me into his office and told me the company was putting me on a project for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

My political views are generally libertarian, so I believe that this government agency shouldn’t exist.

This put me in a bit of an ethical bind, do I just accept that it’s part of my job that I will have to work with clients I am fundamentally against? Or do I refuse and accept the consequences.

Luckily for me, the circumstances changes and it turned out I didn’t have to work on the project. However, I thought I’d detail some of the moral reasoning and criteria I used to determine whether or not I should work on the project.

Would I be a hypocrite?

I’ve been fairly vocal to friends about my political beliefs (though I’m not a political activist by any means), and I’ve certainly espoused the evils of the CFPB specifically.

How could I tell anyone they should or should not do or believe something if I work with an agency that I told them shouldn’t exist? It would be like someone that said, “tobacco companies are evil, and they should be banned” and then took a job with a tobacco company.

Is my obligation to keep my job (and therefore support myself)?

There is a good chance that if I refused to work with this client, I could get fired. Probably not immediately, but my company would certainly question whether it makes sense for me to work there if I’m not willing to do the work they assign me.

The Stoic in me says I should be true to my values regardless of the potentially negative consequences.

However, there are also ancient teachings in the Abrahamic religions about the importance of being self-sufficient and not becoming a financial burden on others. These warnings are generally intended to ensure people don’t withdraw from the world completely and use religion as a justification to become a beggar.

Is this political belief worth losing my job over? Is it really that strong of a belief?

Do I have ulterior motives by refusing this assignment?

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of my current job. I realize that it’s my fault, and that it’s something I need to work on, but still, the desire to quit tomorrow and damn the consequences is appealing. It’s even better if I get fired and can justify it by saying I was fired for defending some noble political principle.

Also, the type of work they wanted me to do seemed particularly boring. Am I just using ethical principles to get out of doing boring work?

Am I consistent in my political beliefs with my other projects?

Libertarian principles say that government should be reduced so that it only provides essential services (defense, justice, protection of rights, etc.). I can perform some mental gymnastics to justify working on my other projects, but I’m very aware that I’m performing mental gymnastics.

For example, I work on a project for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). A true libertarian would probably say we shouldn’t be sending money overseas. It’s not our business. On the other hand, I could say USAID is in the foreign policy business, which is a subset of defense, which would make it ok.

Why am I being less rigorous, ethically, with USAID than with CFPB? Should I even be working in government consulting if I think most government agencies should be disbanded?

Are my political beliefs bullshit?

Libertarianism is a modern and mostly American political philosophy that has much to say about the role of federal government, but not much to say about how people should conduct their personal lives. They only say that people should be free to pursue their own individual desires so long as they don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

Libertarian philosophy is the most viable (I believe) political philosophy for the United States, but shouldn’t I follow a more rigorous and more personal moral and ethical system to guide my own behavior?

Should my libertarian views dictate any of my actions outside the voting booth? Or should I take Jesus’ advice, which says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

What did I do?

I brought up my concerns with my manager (after I was already told I wouldn’t be on the project) and he was polite and respected my views. He said he would try to keep me off this project in the future, but that it may not be possible, and there may indeed be a risk of being fired (he used more diplomatic terms) if I refused the work.

I appreciated his honesty, and he even admitted that he often disagreed in principle with the work the clients are doing.

However, he did the work anyway, justifying that it is the “professional” thing to do.

I did get a little irritated with him at that point, as I don’t think there is any ethical code of “the professional” in a general sense. It sounds like it means putting aside your personal values so you don’t suffer career consequences. At best, it is amoral. At worst, it is a moral failure.

Fortunately, I’ve been practicing humility this month and I was able to take a step back and realize that these types of decisions are complex, and that just because I feel like my manger’s moral reasoning is faulty, it doesn’t mean he is a bad person. It doesn’t mean I’m superior to him. Indeed, he is probably a better person than me overall; he has many admirable qualities.

I lucked out for now in that I didn’t have to make any difficult decisions, but if it comes up in the future, I’ll have do further research and reflection.

  • Serge Gorodish

    Well, taking the libertarian point of view… generally speaking, the owners of private property should be allowed broad latitude to utilize that property as they see fit. This would include the right of company owners to hire the employees they choose and serve the clients that they choose. An employee who contracts to provide certain services to the company ought to carry out the terms of the contract, which may or may not include an “opt-out” provision for cases that disturb the employee’s personal sensibilities. If the contract is vague, then a little conversation ought to clarify matters (it sounds like you have already done this). If the contract does not allow opting out, then the employee usually retains the ultimate freedom of seeking employment elsewhere. Sound harsh? Well, libertarian arguments often come out that way. For this and other reasons, I would describe myself as “libertarian-sympathetic” but not a genuine libertarian.

    • I agree with the libertarian principles your outlined, but trying to live the principles was a much more interesting experience than intellectually agreeing to them (hence this post).

      • Serge Gorodish

        I agree. I see libertarian philosophy as analogous to Newtonian physics–a major intellectual achievement which offers excellent guidelines in many or most real-world situations, but breaks down in others. (Interesting that many Libertarians see post-Newtonian physics as “depraved.” Too bad–the world is what it is, and if physical reality conflicts with some particular philosophy the philosophy needs to adapt because the world is not going to.) For example, libertarian principles don’t work so well in a society that includes children. It is difficult to argue that a baby girl should be allowed to die because she lacked the foresight to purchase health insurance.
        This point of view means that I am quite fond of free-market principles, but feel no sense of crisis if they don’t seem to work out in a particular situation.

        • Good points. I would say the libertarianism works best as a political philosophy, rather than a personal one.

          In your dying baby girl situation, I think religion handles those types of situations much better (encouraging people to donate to charitable causes, offering good faith efforts to help, etc.).

  • OTL

    Firstly I’d like to say that I think this blog is great and I find what your doing really interesting. I can totally get how a libertarian consulting for state bureaucracies would be tricky.

    I think this is a really good post fro brining up the limitations of personal religion to living an ethical life.

    As a libertarian, working on that project would be the wrong thing to do. You got lucky this time, but sooner or later you might be asked to work on a similar project. For example if %15 of projects became like this one you would be in an untenable position. As a worker your not in a great position to turn down requests. If the firm wanted fewer workers then you would be the rational choice. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem if you could walk right into a job consulting on, I don’t know, libertarian think tanks or something, but capitalism doesn’t work like that.

    But if we take a step back aren’t are entire lives like this? You probably wrote this entry on a device that was made in China – hardly a libertarian state. Every time you and I pay our taxes we tacitly support things we think our wrong. I always tell my liberal friends this when they bug me to recycle just before they get on a plane to go on holiday!

    Likewise if we went back in time 200 years the world economy was reliant on slaves. An ethical person wouldn’t own slaves. To go one step further they might not even buy cotton, sugar etc… produced by slaves. But they could never be sure that everybody they traded with, or worked for, didn’t do the same. In an indirect way they would be complicit in the very bad system of slavery.

    In that situation everybody is dirty to a greater or lesser extent – until slavery is abolished that is. The average person is in no way responsible for slavery (or any other systemic wrong) but they cannot live ethical lives as individuals; only by working together to remove the injustice. I think at their best Islam and Christianity get this.

    Your dilemma reminds me of my job. I work in a big law firm that mainly does (re)insurance work. However I’m a communist. Most of the work is either pointless or harming people. I often think it’s very sad that me and my co-workers/management (who are very nice and smart people) are wasting our lives doing this kind of work.

    But what can I do? Turn down every contract that is for a capitalist firm (that would be all of them!). Get a job as a lawyer at a communist party? (does that role even exist?)

    Just quit? What would I do for money? Live a “pure” life in a cabin in the woods?

    In conclusion, I don’t think whatever personal beliefs I held would change the facts on the ground about what I was doing. At my office there are Christians and Muslims but they all have to things that contradict what they believe in (usury would be the example I could think of off the top of my head).

    I would advise you do whatever your boss asks you to do while at the same time never falling into the trap of thinking

    a) that what you are doing is ethical

    b) that it can never be changed or;

    c) not to take any opportunity to work for a libertarian organisation

    Yes these decisions are complex and I wouldn’t blame your boss (what would happen to him if he turned down particular projects?) but, and this is just my opinion, religion can only go so far in living an ethical life.

    p.s Can I suggest Sikhism as your next religion, (just cos I wanna see you in a turban!)

    • It’s funny you’ve had similar dilemmas as a communist (in my mind, the opposite of libertarianism ;)).

      As far as the limits of religion in living an ethical life…that’s an interesting point. However, I’m not sure that religion is intended to solve every single ethical dilemma.

      In fact, there is a long tradition of religion trying to bring you to the edge of reason, to the point where your brain can’t make an effective decision.

      Consider the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He complies but God stops him at the last minute.

      To the rational mind, that is of course absurd, and it is an impossible choice to make, and makes religion seem silly (to us modern, non-religious folks).

      But maybe that point is not “make sense” of it, but rather, learn that sometimes you’ll have to make impossible decisions, and those impossible decisions will make you experience something divine.

      I agree that it is probably impossible to lead a live of perfect ethical harmony (unless we live in the woods as you suggested), but I really don’t think that is the goal of religion. Religion has universally acknowledged that life is messy and complex, but they place a high value on making the effort to live a good and just life, even if we’ll inevitably fail. I credit this project for getting me to even think this much about my workplace dilemma.

      Thanks for reading.


      PS: Regarding Sikhism, I may explore that in a few months. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to wear a turban though 😉

  • Less_Antman

    I’m greatly enjoying your series and would like to offer my two cents on your libertarian dilemma (I’ve been a libertarian anarchist for 35 years). Just another opinion.

    If you are not personally engaging in violence against non-violent people, there is no libertarian ethical dilemma. You are responsible for your own actions and not the actions of others. What you face, to the extent it involves libertarianism, is a strategic decision as to whether your participation in a project will increase the likelihood of others initiating violence. As far as I can tell, it will not. Indeed, to the extent your participation leads to recommendations that are less invasive than those of another consultant, you might actually reduce the amount of unjustified force against innocent people. More likely, the level of violence will be the same and the CFPB will continue to exist and use the same amount of unjust force whether or not you are on your company’s project.

    A more significant issue is your attitude toward your present job. We all have to pay the bills, but should find ways to master useful skills whose exercise benefits others and earns us our incomes in the most important sense of the word “earn.” If you don’t think what you do is useful and you’re not trying to get better at what you do for a living, I don’t see how that can lead to happiness down the road. Only you can decide for you, but ask yourself whether you can master skills in your present job either to do useful work there or to prepare to do useful work somewhere else. Mastery is the first step before you get the autonomy to choose how you serve others.

    My guess is that none of the spiritual traditions would recommend staying at one’s present job with a lousy attitude. Either do one’s best with the task one has been given or find another task to perform. I think the libertarian question is a distraction in this situation from the real dilemma.

    Anyway, these are only my impressions from the limited knowledge I have of the situation.

    • It sounds like you’ve been reading Cal Newport’s blog (re: your mastery comment). I agree with the mastery point.

      To your point about the libertarian dilemma being a distraction from the core issue that is probably correct, hence my suspicions about me having ulterior motives.

      “My guess is that none of the spiritual traditions would recommend staying at one’s present job with a lousy attitude. Either do one’s best with the task one has been given or find another task to perform.”

      That’s been a tough issue for me. I suspect I should cultivate good attitudes towards my work first, rather than finding a different task or job. However, is there a tipping point where you determine that you can never have a good attitude towards certain tasks and it makes sense to switch?

      I hope to investigate that issue in the context of ancient wisdom more deeply.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Less_Antman

        Yes, I read Cal Newport, although I’ve been taking his advice since before he was born. 😉 I see his writings as a splendid modern expression of Stoicism, and also see the idea of doing your best at the task you’ve been given in the other ancient traditions (e.g., the Biblical parable of the talents). Martin Luther King’s fabulous “street sweeper” speech from the 1960s is an inspiring expression of the same idea.

        There is a tipping point, absolutely, just as there are times when a libertarian supports the use of violence. But the standard should be high and the evidence strong. When in doubt, stick it out. Only you can decide when you’ve done your best to make it work.