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5.2 Working for Ethically Complicated Organizations

Learning Objectives

  1. Define reasons why an organization’s work may be viewed as unethical.
  2. Consider how working for ethically troubling organizations can be managed.

The Psilocybin Project

The Harvard Psilocybin Project began in 1960 and included some of the university’s leading and most innovative professors, especially from the psychology and related departments. One of their projects—the Concord Prison Experiment—used the newly developed drug psilocybin on inmates. Professors wanted to discover whether the medication could reduce antisocial behavior and recidivism. Another project, this one carried out in tandem with the Harvard Divinity School, used the same drug to experiment with the bond felt between young theology students and their chosen profession. In both cases, significant, even mind-blowing success was initially reported.

The experiments didn’t last. Other Harvard professors raised questions about the ethics of using this drug on humans. An intense conflict erupted in the university. The ethical propriety of the entire Psilocybin Project, the decision came down, was, in fact doubtful. That quickly led to the project’s shuttering and then to the dismissal of several well-known professors who protested too loudly in favor of their work and its value, both scientific and moral.

Not all of those fired professors just went away. Outside the university some continued defending their work with principled stands and meticulous arguments. One of those defenders, Dr. Leary, achieved such broad public recognition that he ended up being mentioned in a song by The Who.

Not only did Timothy Leary defend the Psilocybin Project from outside university walls, he also continued with his avid experimentation. Pretty soon the experiments weren’t only outside the university, they were also outside the law because psilocybin, like its close relative LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), was categorized as an illegal substance.

Is it immoral to experiment on people—especially on prisoners who may feel pressured to participate—with psychedelic drugs, concretely with magic mushrooms (the organic source of psilocybin)? Assume just for the sake of argument that it is wrong and the experiments were immoral. Now who should feel guilty? The leaders of the Psilocybin Project seem like good candidates since they knew exactly what was going on, and they were the ones handing the doses over. What about the graduate students who followed their professor’s lead and joined in the distribution and application of the drugs? Or the administrators at the university who financed the project but maybe didn’t know exactly what the experiments involved? What about the undergrads whose tuition money paid for all this? What about the chemists who derived the substance from mushrooms? Or the lab techs who actually made the stuff? What about the secretary who happened to be assigned to work in the psych department and processed some of the paperwork? Where do we draw the line?

One of the most difficult constellations of questions facing conscientious job seekers is: what kind of organization is it OK to work for? Specifically, to what extent am I personally responsible for the things my company does? There are the two questions here:

  1. What makes a company’s work—or a university’s, or a nonprofit organization’s—unethical?
  2. I’ve got an attractive job offer from an unethical organization: can I work there anyway?

What Makes an Organization’s Work Unethical?

In a world spattered with poverty and desperation, exploitation of workersTaking advantage of workers’ economic or social conditions to acquire their labor at a low cost. is one of the most frequently cited areas of corporate abuse. Advocacy organizations peopled by volunteers who enjoy traveling have proven very effective at locating and drawing attention to overseas sweatshops. The Nike company pays athletes millions to break a sweat for a few hours so they can get some good action video for commercials selling athletic shoes, but they pay sewers in Asia only a few dollars to sweat all day long making those shoes. And what about the cameraman hired to shoot the commercial? He’s earning a lot more than the sewer, but his wages are still closer to the sweatshop level than the NBA star level.

In An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances, authors Steve Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh report on a drug gang studied over the course of several years. It turned out that the street dealers weren’t even getting minimum wage for their dangerous efforts: about $200 a month for dealing. Above them, however, the gang leader made between $4,000 and $11,000 a month. It’s unclear whether he paid taxes.Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, “An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s Finances,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (August 3, 2000): 755–89.

Questions about wages and sweatshops will be pursued more fully in later chapters, but here it’s enough to note that vast discrepancies in wages throughout a company raise concerns that the organization is exploiting employees. That may lead job seekers to think twice before signing on, even if they’re not the ones being exploited.

Exploitation of consumersTaking advantage of consumers’ conditions or knowledge to market products that fail to serve the consumers’ interests. is another murky direction. It’s true that many immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere received interest-only home loans in the early 2000s with repayment schedules beginning low but later ballooning to monstrous levels. It’s also true that no one forced them to sign the contract; they hold responsibility for their acts, no doubt. However, considering their imperfect English and little knowledge of the American world, is it fair for the mortgage company to even offer these kinds of loans, which seem more predatory than cooperative?

Tobacco companies selling addiction sticks, which sometimes become cancer sticks, aren’t clearly removed from charges of exploiting their own buyers.

Breakfast cereals aimed at children frequently boast on the box that the nuggets or the puffs contain 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of various vitamins and minerals. They don’t say anything about sugar highs and crashes. In all these cases, questions about whether consumers are being respected may lead potential employees to question whether they want to get involved in the operation.

Environmental exploitationOrganizations damaging the environment with their operations while avoiding paying cleanup costs. is frequently invisible in the sense that few people suffer direct consequences of pollution, deforestation, and poisoned water and soil. There are orange alert days in many cities now when children are told not to play outside. But for the most part, companies that pollute may carry on without being held directly responsible for harmful consequences. Of course there are extreme cases like the Love Canal, the neighborhood constructed on a landfill covering thousands of rusting steel barrels of industrial waste. Families living there reported acid slicks running down the street during rains, puddles of rancid chemicals forming in their yards, and birth defects at astronomical levels. Whether, finally, an organization exploits the environment in obvious or not-so-obvious ways, workers may ask if ethical obstacles stand between them and continued employment.

Ethically dubious missions and connectionsOrganizational activities directly or indirectly producing ethical concerns. is another category of corporate irresponsibility. The case of Harvard experimenting with acid fits here. So too the drug gang studied by Levitt and Venkatesh. Questions could also be directed toward organizations specializing in reuniting families across borders (people smuggling).

Almost any social hot-button issue is going to double as a source of ethically challenged industries; there’ll be people for it and others against it, but either way the questions are there. Circles of controversy surround

  • abortion doctors,
  • judges sending inmates to death row,
  • advocates of assisted suicide.

One thing all these people, professions, and institutions have in common (besides inciting ethical debates) is that they need to hire workers—telephone operators, assistants and administrators, marketers and finance people—just like any other business. You can work for them.

You could also work for a specific kind of lawyering outfit, the one specializing in clients who are very wealthy and very guilty: there’ll always be law firms—especially in the field of tax law—specializing in raising a reasonable doubt where there really isn’t any.

Massage parlors need receptionists and janitors just like every other business. The horse racetrack hires a small army of diverse workers to keep taking bets. The state lottery contracts actors, directors, film editors, and media experts to make and run ads showing jubilant winners tossing money in the air; on the other hand, they don’t spend much time hiring statisticians to explain to the public what the small print on the back of their ticket means: “Really, the chances you’ll haul in the Super Magnum Jackpot are about zero.”

Conclusion. Ethically conscientious individuals don’t have to look too hard to find jobs that make them ask, am I participating in something that’s wrong?

I’ve Got a Job Offer at an Unethical Company; Can I Work There Anyway?

Yes. The question is how.

Ignore it all is one option, pretend like the ethical stain isn’t there or at least that you don’t see it. Here’s an example of what that strategy can look like. Most cities have at least one free and local alternative culture publication, usually published on newspaper-grade paper; it comes out on Thursdays and is called The Observer or something like that. Their reporters hit the street to get the latest on the alternative music scene and idealistic political grassroots operations and government abuses and, above all, altruistic, principled causes. The Dallas Observer is the Dallas version. In the November 5, 2008, publication there’s an article called “Pole Dancing—Good for the Body, But What About a Woman’s Soul?” It comes with an honest and thoughtful objection to the caricature of femininity that was developed and mass produced with the express goal of turning on a male audience.Megan Feldman, “Pole Dancing—Good for the Body, but What about a Woman’s Soul?,” Dallas Observer, November 6, 2008, accessed May 16, 2011,

A few pages after the author finishes making a strong moral case against the exploitation of this caricature, the full-page spread devoted to Debbie comes. She’s looking tight in her white bikini. She wants to talk to you, and her phone number’s right there on the page. In little print it says it costs $1.49 per minute. On the next page there’s Robert. He’s wearing even less. The phone call costs the same.

It’s not anybody’s fault that Debbie and Robert (or whatever their real names are) figure so prominently on the advertising pages of a newspaper that’s so set against stereotypes like Debbie and Robert. It’s only a fact that that’s where the money comes from to keep the otherwise idealistic and ethically elevated paper in business. So what can the reporters do? They can object to the ads; but without them and their revenue, there won’t be any publication left to print their articles decrying these kinds of ads. It’s a tough spot. There’s no clear way out, which is why it’s understandable to go forward pretending you don’t see the contradiction.

There are pacifists working for Boeing, the same company that makes warplanes. Somewhere there must be a volunteer at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who holds down a day job at L’Oreal, a company vilified on Internet petitions for its animal testing.Cherry Marrone, “Stop L’Oreal’s Animal Testing,” Care 2 Petition Site, accessed May 16, 2011, There are parents working at General Mills who’d die before giving their kids Cocoa Puffs. There are strict Catholics working for the pharmaceutical company that manufactures birth control pills. The list will never end because it’s always possible to pretend you don’t see the conflict between your own moral convictions on one side and the actions of the company you work for on the other.

But the decision to remain blind is difficult because pretending you don’t see essentially means you’re lying—lying to yourself. The question raised here is this: can that lying be justified ethically?

If you’re a strict believer in the standard duties, which normally include the duty to honesty, you’re going to have problems. You can, however, argue that you have a still more compelling duty to provide for your family and loved ones. So if the job you have is the best one you can get, then you can make the case that your responsibility to them is greater than your responsibility to be honest with yourself. Making a similar argument but from a slightly different direction, a utilitarian can point out the benefits a paycheck brings—not just for the worker but also for the family and the economy generally—and from there say that lying to yourself is good because it produces a greater general good.

Of course there are arguments that could be raised against these justifications and so the debate rolls on. What’s important is that pretending an ethical conflict between your convictions and your company simply isn’t there may be justifiable.

Explicitly Accepting Employment at an Ethically Difficult Workplace

Another option for accepting a job offer in an organization you consider to be morally stained is to explicitly accept that I work at an ethically difficult company and go on to justify the decision. There are two directions for consideration here:

  1. How seriously wrong do I believe the company’s actions are?
  2. How close is my work to those actions I believe wrong?

There’s a difference between working for a firm that experiments on animals (L’Oreal) and working for one that experiments on humans (the Harvard psychedelic drug project). Most ethically challenged jobs are more like the former than the latter. That’s not a license to simply discount the reality that the work may participate in a larger and objectionable process, but it does open the way to a move from an absolute to a balanced ethical stance: it’s not that “something’s going on there that’s wrong and therefore I can’t be involved at all”; instead “something’s going on there that’s wrong, but things could be a lot worse, plus, the right and good things I can achieve by taking this job are pretty significant.” So start with the idea that even if you think experimenting on animals is wrong, it’s not as bad as experimenting on humans. Then add the good things that could come from working for an animal-abusing company. Here are two possibilities:

  1. The post allows me to maximize the use of my personal strengths. Ethics isn’t only about duties to others; there are also duties to you. Maximizing your own potential is one of them.
  2. The post allows me to better equip myself to get an improved job further down the line. If you really want to avoid touching unethical work, then your best option may be to do whatever’s necessary to build the strongest résumé possible. Once you’ve done that, your options for working will increase and correspondingly the possibilities for ethically satisfying employment.

Moving to the next question—how close is my work to those actions I believe are wrong?—there’s a difference between experimenting on animals and preparing the tax return for a company that experiments on animals. Making this point sharper, if you adamantly refused to participate in any company that has anything to do with animal testing, then you’re not going to be able to participate in anything. You’re not going to be able to buy paper from the company that sells paper to the animal testers. You’re not going to be able to use Google because people at the animal testing company buy advertisements on Google search pages. The list is endless in an economy that’s totally interlinked, and our economy is pretty close to totally interlinked.

Now, if that’s right, then the relationship between you and the immorality that indisputably exists in the economic world—and probably in the company you work for in one way or another—isn’t an issue of right and wrong so much as a question of distance. In other words, when you’re contemplating a job, the question isn’t whether something bad is happening there; it’s “how close does the stink get to my office?”

More, it may even be that accepting a job at a company can be a route to changing that company’s policy. Of course that’s going to be more than difficult at a giant concern like L’Oreal, but if you’re interested in the environment, you may end up at a small local firm that sells plastic (not biodegradable) bottles of water, and you can advocate the forming of a company recycling program. It’s a small thing. Almost absurd. But it’s no closer to absurd than the other choice, which is the big thing: simply refusing to work for any company that acts objectionably in the world in one way or another.

Key Takeaways

  • There is a wide range of reasons why an organization’s work may be viewed as unethical.
  • There are multiple strategies for managing concerns about working for ethically troubling organizations.

Review Questions

  1. What are four reasons an organization’s actions may be viewed as ethically troubling?
  2. Ethically, how could you justify ignoring the fact that there's a conflict between your convictions and the actions of the company you work for?
  3. Why might a potential employee of an ethically troubling organization ask how seriously wrong the organization’s actions are?
  4. Explain why working for almost any organization may be ethically troubling.
  5. If someone were working for an organization involved in ethically troubling activities, what questions may they ask themselves as they consider whether they should continue working there?