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How to balance your career goals with ethical values

Would you work for a cigarette or gambling company? What about in oil and mining? The military? Big pharma?

Many less attractive industries often come with an inflated pay packet that can be hard to resist – even if it might mean compromising your values.

Whether you’re an accountant, lawyer, PR professional, scientist or otherwise, these moral decisions are ‘unavoidable’ because there’s ‘probably no such thing as completely clean hands in any company,’ argues Deakin moral philosophy expert Associate Professor Patrick Stokes.

That’s why it’s so important to know where you draw your personal line, and when you might be willing to cross it.

How should we approach these moral choices?

If you’re lucky enough to be able to choose a career that gives you a sense of meaning, you’re likely thinking about what kind of work will feel satisfying. When choosing a job, Assoc. Prof. Stokes urges everyone to also consider:

  • ‘Is it morally permissible for me to do this particular kind of work or for this particular company?’
  • ‘Is it the morally optimal or best use of my time to take on this sort of work?’
  • ‘Am I ultimately making the world better or am I making it worse?’

‘Unfortunately, there’s no real mathematical formula that’s going to tell you when it is okay or when it isn’t okay to do something,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes suggests.

He recommends applying what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’ – a kind of practical judgement – rather than trying to adhere strictly to a set of rules or principles.

‘There will be situations sometimes where morally, you can do more good or make the world better by taking a job in a potentially problematic environment. On the other hand, it’s very easy to delude yourself that you are making a difference from within or changing a problematic organisation.’

It’s worth asking yourself: ‘if I was setting society up from scratch, would this industry or role exist?’ but even then, it’s not that simple.

‘For example, you’re just out of uni and looking at taking a job with fossil fuel company,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes proposes. ‘You could say, “These industries will still be with us for a time, and I can help make their transition out as effective as possible.”

‘You’ve got to ask yourself seriously if you take that job, are you going to end up doing more damage than good?’

Another way to balance your values with your need to make a living is spending time outside of work volunteering or doing good in some other way.

Is it possible to improve an unethical organisation from the inside?

Whether it’s a trade-off for money or something else, taking a questionable job can be a slippery slope to compromising your values.

‘We might think, “I can do that and come out clean,” but when you’re in the moment and you’ve got pressures on you, you might not be thinking about the realities of what you’re doing,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes warns.

That’s why it’s important to balance these moral decisions with your own personal career goals and interests.

‘Things can go really wrong with utilitarianism, which is the idea that you should always choose the action that’s going to produce the best overall net good, if it means completely ignoring your own values and concerns,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes explains.

Consider, for example, the following famous 1970s thought experiment from the British philosopher Bernard Williams: a man called George has just finished his PhD in chemical engineering and he needs a job to support his family. His friend offers him a job alongside him at a chemical weapons lab, but George doesn’t want to take it because he disagrees with chemical warfare.

However, as Assoc. Prof. Stokes explains, George’s friend says:

‘Oh, I absolutely agree with you, so what I do is I deliberately do a really poor job – not so poor that they’re going to notice and fire me, but just bad enough that the chemical weapons leaving our lab are not going to kill as many people as they would if I was actually doing my job really well.

‘You could take the job and do that too. In fact, if you don’t take a job here, they might give the job to someone who’s really good at making chemical weapons and has no such qualms, and so will produce really deadly weapons and kill more people. So really, you’re morally obliged to take this job!’

Do you have a moral responsibility to develop your potential?

While the chemical engineer story is an extreme example, it’s a reminder to ask yourself: ‘do I have a responsibility to others to do the kind of work that produces good?’ and ‘do I have a responsibility to myself to develop my talents?’

‘Some philosophers have thought that there is something morally significant about the squandering of potential,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes adds.

‘In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls gives the example of a fantastic mathematician who just wants to walk around the lawns at Harvard University counting all the blades of grass. On one hand, they’re happy doing what they’re doing, but on the other, it does seem like a waste.’

18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant insisted everyone has a duty to themselves to develop their talents, but it is an ‘imperfect duty,’ as Assoc. Prof. Stokes explains:

‘Kant said you have a duty to do it, but it’s up to you how and when you do it. You can’t develop every talent and you can’t spend every moment developing your talent, so you’ve got to make choices.’

Why we need to keep revisiting these questions

While it might not be possible to make a perfect choice in any career, it’s important to keep checking in with yourself to decide whether what you’re doing aligns with your values.

‘It may be that there are jobs or careers that people take today that we don’t think twice about, but in future people will look back on in the same way that we might look today at, say working for a tobacco company,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes points out.

With more information out there than ever before, it’s possible to stay informed about companies’ unethical behaviour – whether it’s dealing with dodgy suppliers, treating workers poorly or supporting disagreeable policies. Then it’s up to you to decide what to do.

It’s not enough just to come up with a whole bunch of nice theories about right and wrong,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes says. ‘These situations very often involve making sometimes arbitrary looking judgement calls, they’ll leave room for regret, they’ll leave room for second guessing, and they’ll always be open to revision.’

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Patrick Stokes
Patrick Stokes

Associate Professor,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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