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Michael Pritchard Professor; Co-Director of The Ethics Center Western Michigan University More Posts
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What Job You Can Accept



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Year 1992
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Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Publisher provided Keywords ENGINEERING Morality professional
Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago

    Some people might think that if Gerald Wahr goes for the
    interview, he is committed to taking the job if offered, but
    that isn't so. He may find out more about what kind of work he
    would be doing with Pro-Growth Pesticides and whether he could
    do it in good conscience. Even if he thinks that it is highly
    unlikely that he will take the job if offered, his having an
    interview is not an act of bad faith.

    But should he take the job if offered? He probably wouldn't
    even consider it if it weren't that the family is in dire need
    of the income, and the income that he would get from an
    engineering job would be significantly greater than from any
    alternative. With no other engineering job in prospect, this is
    his best chance of enabling the family to meet the mortgage
    payments and his father's medical bills.

    Another argument in favor of taking the job is that he would
    learn about the pesticide industry from the inside. His father
    had said, "If you really want to show those pesticide folks a
    thing or two, you've got to be able to talk their language."
    After working in the pesticide industry, he would really be
    able to talk their language. And the job need not be forever.
    While there he can be keeping his eyes open for other positions
    in chemical engineering which do not compromise his ideals, and
    he would get valuable experience. Or his father's medical
    expenses might be paid for, and he could then return to work on
    the family farm, as planned.

    Would an explanation that he is doing it to save the farm be
    a consolation to his father, or cause his father even greater
    distress? Would his father accept his own words ("'ve got
    to be able to talk their language") as a good reason for
    working for a pesticide company, or would his father feel that
    Gerald was using his talents and education in destructive ways?
    Should Gerald even worry about what his father will think?
    Maybe he should take that into consideration, the way that one
    takes into consideration the effect of one's action on anyone
    who is affected, but Gerald should not let his father's
    attitude make his decision for him. Gerald might have good
    reasons for taking the job which his father would not accept or
    that he would not want to state to his father.


    Allen's first argument looks like an excuse that could be
    used to justify being co-opted into doing almost anything. But
    there is some force to it. If a bad result is going to happen
    anyway, your participation or non-participation isn't going to
    make any difference. If pesticides are going to be produced and
    used, it won't help any if you "keep your hands clean." If
    everyone were to refuse to work in the pesticide industry, then
    they wouldn't be produced and used, but since everyone isn't
    going to refuse, what difference does one person's refusal
    make? This argument has many applications elsewhere. If animals
    are going to be grown on factory farms and eaten for food by
    others, what difference does it make that one vegetarian
    refuses to eat meat? If everyone were to refuse to serve in the
    military, there would be no more wars; but, if most people are
    willing to serve, what difference does one pacifist make?
    Gerald could reply that he is setting a bad example by working
    in the pesticide industry, and setting a good example by
    refusing. Others might follow his lead. But it would be naive
    to think that his example is going to make much difference.

    Bob has an intriguing argument. If Gerald takes the job and
    does ineffective work, that might have better consequences than
    if someone else takes the job and works effectively, for
    example discovering ways of making more deadly and
    environmentally more hazardous pesticides, or how to make them
    more cheaply so that they are used in even greater quantities.
    If Gerald were to accept this argument, he would be
    compromising his integrity in two ways, not only by working to
    produce a product that he does not believe should be used, but
    also by working half-heartedly instead of in good faith for his
    employer. But this is not a completely absurd argument.
    Sometimes subversion is more effective in hurting an enemy than
    outright attack.

    Don's argument is different. It is not that Gerald could
    slow down the production of pesticides by poor work, but that
    he might be able to redirect it into production of less harmful

    One danger which his friends don't mention is that if Gerald
    takes the job, he may become corrupted by the environment in
    which he works. Those around him will be believers in what they
    are doing. Gerald may have difficulty finding another job and
    be with the company for years. He may begin to talk himself
    into believing that what the company is doing has to be done. A
    nuclear scientist who was assigned to work on the Clinch River
    breeder reactor in 1966 thought that the danger of an accident
    with such radioactive materials was such a risk that the plant
    should never be built. Ten years later, when the project was
    cancelled, after he had spent the best ten years of his career
    in producing an effective design, he was terribly disappointed.
    He had come to believe that the world fuel shortage justifed
    the use of dangerous nuclear power.


    Even if Gerald has decided that he wants the job, a lie
    would probably not help him get it. A perceptive interviewer
    could see through it. Trying to avoid any answer at all would
    also probably not work. Gerald could honestly express his
    concerns about the environment. Most likely the interviewer
    would then begin to try to sell Gerald on the belief that the
    company shares his concerns.


    As indicated above, it is possible to be corrupted once
    one's self-interest is involved. If one's work and one's
    ethical commitments don't match, one is likely to solve the
    discomfort by compromising one's ethical ideals. Furthermore,
    people are likely to do better work if they believe
    enthusiastically in what they are doing. If they are working
    merely for a paycheck, without any belief that the work they
    are doing is serving any good purpose, they will feel alienated
    from the work, feel that they are simply putting in time on the
    job in order to receive a salary to spend on what they consider
    their real life. But work ideally can be an expression of one's
    self, of one's productive powers, of one's contribution to the

  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago

    Before commenting on Gerald Wahr's circumstances, it appears
    that a logical inconsistency in the presentation of the facts
    of the case need some attention. It is not convincing that
    Gerald must interview Pro-Growth Pesticides, Inc. in order to
    save the farm. In the second paragraph it is stated, "Since
    Gerald had expected to return to the farm, he already missed
    many opportunities for job interviews". Well, since Gerald had
    planned on returning to the farm anyway it is reasonable to
    suppose that the Wahr family anticipated additional income from
    his presence. With his father in the hospital the extra income
    would not materialize, but bills would. If the hospital stay
    will be for an "extended period of time," it is not clear why
    Gerald couldn't work on the farm, for at least a while, and
    wait for additional engineering employment opportunities to
    present themselves. There would have to be a breathing room
    period during which the medical bills and mortgage payments
    would not yet be overdue. Gerald's presence on the farm would
    maintain farm income at previous levels, and other engineering
    employment opportunities could possibly materialize.

    To make the urgency of the Pro-Growth Pesticides interview
    more compelling and convincing, it might be advisable to
    restate some of the circumstances of the case. For example,
    Gerald might be in the middle of the first semester of his
    chemical engineering M.S. degree program when his father
    unexpectedly passes away after an expensive hospital stay
    during which the bills quickly mounted. Further, the economic
    times might be so bad that Gerald is lucky to have even just
    the one interview with Pro-Growth Pesticides. Grim
    circumstances, but realistic--and perhaps more convincing for
    the questions that follow.

    Having said all of the above, let us now presume that Gerald
    is faced with the real quandary of whether or not to interview
    Pro-Growth Pesticides. It would almost appear that this
    situation raises questions of common sense as much as ethics,
    although there are ethical dimensions to the situation that
    need to be discussed as well. Let us turn to Shakespeare for
    some guidance on the common sense issues. In "Hamlet", Polonius
    gives the following sage advice (in addition to quite a bit
    more) to his son Laertes who is about to travel abroad: "To
    thine own self be true, for it then follows as the night the
    day, that thou canst not then be false to any man." If Gerald
    interviews and subsequently accepts a job with Pro-Growth
    Pesticides, he clearly will not be true to his own or his
    father's views on pesticides. If he is truly convinced that
    pesticides are not only harming the environment generally, but
    farm products in particular, then there is no way that he will
    be able to honestly act as a faithful agent or trustee for his
    employer (NSPE Fundamental Canon #4). It does not take much
    imagination to envision situations in which, as a Pro-Growth
    Pesticide employee, he will have to act in violation of his own
    conscience (while being false to others) and probably of one or
    more strictures of the NSPE Code of Ethics.

    Turning to Gerald's conversations with his friends (part
    II), several ethical issues do immediately arise. Allen's view
    that the work will be done even if Gerald refuses the interview
    ("Your refusing the job won't change a thing") is an age-old
    rationalization for doing something we know may be or is wrong.
    If enough people turn their backs on such a rationalization,
    maybe things will change. Change for the better, whether
    evolutionary or revolutionary, comes about because a critical
    mass of people do opt for the morally right path.

    Bob's utilitarian argument is based on the premise that
    Gerald will slow things down a little by not being gung ho
    after he takes the pesticide job. This raises serious issues
    involving the means-end principle. Does the good end (organic
    farming eventually prevailing) justify the dubious means of
    Gerald dissembling on the job by being less than gung ho?

    Don's advice to take the job and try to introduce a few
    reforms from the inside only makes sense if Gerald is up-front
    about that in his interview. If Pro-Growth Pesticides is
    willing to hire someone with Gerald's entrenched views on
    pesticide use, then maybe he could make a difference. But then
    Gerald better make sure there are mechanisms within the company
    to raise differing professional opinions. A number of companies
    have such mechanisms as company ombudsmen, ethical hotlines or
    reword procedures for productive disagreements with company
    policy. If it is Gerald's intent to change the company from
    within, he better make sure that the opportunities are there to
    do so.

    However, from part III of the case (The Interview), it is
    made pretty clear that Pro-Growth Pesticides, Inc. does not
    agree that change is needed. Once Gerald is asked his views on
    pesticides, he pretty much has to have made a decision, in
    advance, to either have changed his mind or to prevaricate on
    the issue. If his family's welfare, and the farm are that
    important to him, Gerald must recognize that he must forego the
    luxury of his previous strong feelings about pesticides. Only
    if he can make that conscious decision is he justified in
    continuing the interview, once into it.

    In part IV of the case (Jobs) the question is raised about
    what kinds of engineering related jobs might be declined
    because of ethical concerns. Many graduating engineers
    carefully limit the kinds of companies they interview to rule
    out (or in) companies involved in Defense Department weaponry
    contracts or environmentally impact-prone companies. Whatever
    the case, and whichever the concerns, it is wise for
    interviewee to think through these issues before even signing
    up for an interview.

  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago

    At the most general level the problem in this case is the
    possible conflict between moral values and job selection. In
    this particular instance a conscientious chemical engineer is
    faced with the problem of working for a pesticide company, an
    area of commercial activity that his family and he have long
    opposed. The general problem confronts people in many areas of
    possible employment. Should a person opposed to gambling work
    in a casino? What about working as a janitor in a casino rather
    than operating one of the tables? Should a person opposed to
    drinking liquor work serving beverages to customers in a bar?
    What about working in a restaurant that has a bar attached to
    it? In a military context, of course, the problem arises in the
    case of conscientious objection to military service, or at
    least military service that involves the possibility of killing
    other persons. Should an engineer who is a pacifist work in a
    defense-related industry? Some job situations may involve
    political commitments. Suppose you are a civil engineer who is
    Jewish, a strong supporter of Israel, and work for a
    multinational firm. What should you do if you are assigned to
    head one of the firm's construction projects for a government
    that is an enemy of Israel?

    It is one thing to be opposed ethically to the product or
    service provided by a potential employer; it is another thing
    to decide not to use that product or service personally. A
    person who does not smoke, for example, might have no
    difficulty working for a cigarette manufacturer. There are a
    number of bartenders who are teetotalers. The problem that
    confronts Gerald in the case is not one of being forced to use
    pesticides in his own farming; it is rather the compromise of
    his own convictions as well as the tacit approval of pesticide
    production and use which his working for Pro-Growth Pesticides
    might convey. This approval of pesticides would not only be in
    opposition to his own ethical views but would oppose his
    family's strong convictions. Indeed, his father's opposition to
    pesticides seems to have been one of the major motivating
    factors in leading Gerald to a college career in chemical

    There are at least four ethical considerations that confront
    Gerald: first, his own ethical opposition to pesticide use;
    second, his obligation to uphold his family's commitments;
    third, his obligation to use and develop his own skills in the
    best ways possible; and fourth, his obligation to help support
    his family in time of hardship. Let us consider this latter
    obligation a little more thoroughly. We certainly cannot assume
    that, if Gerald does not get a job with Pro-Growth Pesticides,
    he will have no opportunity within the coming months to get
    another engineering position. There may be other possibilities
    looming in the future that he does not yet know. Moreover, we
    know that engineering is a demanding curriculum, requiring
    skills in mathematics, design, general scientific knowledge,
    knowledge of specific applications in equipment and processes,
    familiarity with timetables and organization of work,
    experience in working in groups and with group projects, and
    possibly training in business and management skills. In short,
    there may be other job opportunities available to Gerald
    outside of engineering, opportunities to use many of the skills
    he has picked up in his chemical engineering program.

    We should also look at this situation from the points of
    view of the potential employer, Gerald's engineering college,
    and Gerald's classmates. At least two considerations are
    relevant here. First, the pesticide company, in granting an
    interview to Gerald, is assuming that he is a legitimate
    candidate for a position; otherwise, they wouldn't waste their
    time and effort in discussing the matter with him. If he is not
    interested in the position, he should let them know up front.
    To fail to do so would not only waste the company's resources
    but also possibly undermine the chances of another student
    interviewing with the company. In many cases such company
    officials can meet only a limited number of students, usually
    preselected. Second, it is possibly wrong for Gerald to assume
    that the pesticide company is interested only in pesticides.
    The company may be planning to expand into other areas of farm
    chemicals, perhaps into areas to which he has no conscientious
    objection. In short, Gerald should be up front with the company
    about his own feelings, and if the company representative still
    wants to go through with the interview, Gerald may find out
    that some of his objections are not valid. However, if Gerald
    goes to the interview without initially telling the company
    about his objections, his actions may harm other potential
    candidates and reflect poorly on his school. The decision is
    not merely a matter of going or not going to an interview; it
    is rather a decision of how to address the question of an
    interview in such a way that his college is not harmed, the job
    prospects of Gerald's fellow students are not harmed, the
    company is not harmed by wasting its resources, and possibly
    Gerald himself is not harmed by getting a bad reputation among

    Let us suppose that Gerald follows the advice of his friends
    and goes ahead with the interview without alerting the company
    about his conscientious feelings regarding pesticides. Let us
    suppose that what happens as a result is described in section
    III of the case study. Both the interviewer and Gerald are now
    in a very unhappy situation. Here Gerald seems to have only two
    alternatives, neither of which is acceptable: either he lies
    about his views on pesticides or he tells the interviewer his
    true views on pesticides, thus exposing him to the legitimate
    charge of proceeding through the interview under false

    The advice of Gerald's friends does not seem to be worth
    much. Everything that Allen says in his first statement may be
    true: somebody else may take the job; it won't go away because
    he stays away from it; the job's going to be done anyway. But
    none of these claims is directly relevant to the question of
    whether Gerald should compromise his ethical values. Both Bob's
    and Don's suggestions seem to call on Gerald to compromise his
    professional standards. One of them suggests that he become a
    subversive within the organization; the other one suggests that
    he become a reformer inside the organization. In both cases,
    Gerald is being asked to compromise his professional obligation
    to serve his client or his employer as faithfully as he is

    The civil engineer and writer Samuel Florman (The
    Existential Pleasures of Engineering) has emphasized that
    engineering is and ought to be a creative, satisfying, socially
    valuable, and respected career choice. Much of a professional's
    self-identity and self-respect is essentially bound up with his
    or her career. On the other hand, we all have the experience of
    doing jobs we don't like. They may be jobs that seem demeaning;
    some may involve boring work that doesn't use our talents; some
    may require doing unpleasant tasks, such as an auto mechanic
    telling a car owner that her car isn't worth repairing, or a
    retailer telling a customer that he can no longer extend him
    credit, or a supervisor telling an employee that she is going
    to be demoted because her work is substandard. The type of job
    situation confronting us in this case, however, is potentially
    more serious. We may be wrong in some of our convictions, and
    certainly our moral viewpoints do undergo change. But change in
    this sense usually leads to greater personal integration, not
    disintegration. If an individual such as Gerald takes a
    position that daily requires him to split his personality--to
    compromise his ideals, to consider himself a person with whom
    he would not want to associate--there is a likelihood of
    self-inflicted psychological damage in addition to the damage
    he might bring to his employer.

  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago

    Gerald's dilemma is not a problem in professional ethics.
    Rather, it is a problem in personal ethics which is generated
    by his professional training and his professional aspirations.
    Like all dilemmas, Gerald's problem involves a conflict between
    two competing obligations. On the one hand, he wants to be true
    to his own moral ideals, which include his belief in the
    superiority of organic farming. This belief is probably related
    to a general commitment to environmental causes about which he
    and his father care very deeply. On the other hand, he feels
    morally bound to do what he can to save the family farm. No
    doubt this sense of moral obligation is also related to strong
    emotional ties to his family and to the land where he was
    raised. Probably his family has lived on the farm for several

    Gerald's predicament has all of the earmarks of a classic
    moral dilemma. He feels himself pulled in opposite directions
    by powerful emotional forces and by persuasive moral
    considerations. Yet he apparently cannot satisfy both of the
    demands. He feels that he would do something wrong no matter
    what he does. Yet he cannot do nothing. "Doing nothing" would
    presumably be to continue in school, but the decision to stay
    in school might well involve sacrificing the family farm. So he
    is forced to decide, and yet both decisions seem wrong. A
    classic moral dilemma!

    Such dilemmas can produce a sense of panic which often
    results in paralysis of thought as well as of action. We are
    inclined to either freeze up or to decide irrationally. "Just
    put two numbers on two pieces of paper and place them in a
    basket, "1" for staying in school and "2" for getting the job
    with Pro-Growth. Then pick one of the numbers and act
    accordingly." We all know that neither of these methods of
    deciding is appropriate, so we need to think more carefully and

    One way of escaping from the dilemma is to argue that one of
    the options really is better than the other. All of Gerald's
    friends appear to adopt this tactic. They argue that taking the
    job with Pro-Growth really is better than abandoning the family
    farm to its fate. Furthermore, the arguments of Gerald's
    friends are all of a certain type: they are all utilitarian
    arguments That is, they reason in terms of the consequences of
    the two courses of action. The consequences are evaluated in
    terms of human happiness or well-being.

    Allen, Bob, and Don argue that, with respect to the
    environmentalist perspective, the consequences of Gerald's
    taking the job will be no worse than the consequences of
    someone else's taking the job, and they may even be more
    desirable. If Gerald does not take the job, someone who is less
    sympathetic with environmental considerations might take it.
    Thus, by not taking the job, Gerald may both harm the
    environment and fail to do what he can to save the family farm.
    From a strictly utilitarian standpoint, this is a powerful

    There are two problems with this argument. The first problem
    is a difficulty even from the utilitarian standpoint. We have
    to ask whether Gerald's three friends have correctly assessed
    all of the consequences of the course of action that they
    recommend. If Gerald makes his reservations about pesticides
    known to the interviewer, it is possible he/she might reply,
    "You know, we have a small unit that is attempting to develop
    products for use on organic farms, so we will be in a position
    to take advantage of this market when it develops. We could put
    you in this unit." Or, perhaps Gerald's criticism of pesticides
    might prompt the company to set up such a unit. Again, if
    Gerald goes to work, there is the chance that he might never
    finish his degree. Finally, Gerald's friends might have
    underestimated the chances of saving the family farm by other

    A second problem with the recommendation of Gerald's three
    friends is that it fails to take into account the effects that
    following their recommendation might have on Gerald himself.
    This is perhaps a type of consequence, but it is a consequence
    of a different order. It is an effect on Gerald's sense of
    integrity, on Gerald's status as a free moral agent who lives
    in terms of his own moral convictions. In terms of the
    philosophy of Immanuel Kant, their recommendation requires that
    he treat himself as a "mere means" to some higher good, namely
    the salvaging of the family farm, and that he do this by
    violating his own conscience. Should one ever violate his
    conscience in order to achieve some supposedly "higher" end?
    This is not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes people
    do feel justified in doing this. For example, a legislator may
    agree to support a piece of legislation which he thinks is
    wrong in order to gain passage of another piece of legislation
    which he thinks is vastly more important. Is this justified? If
    so, is this analogous to Gerald's situation?

    Before attempting to answer these difficult questions, it
    might be well to investigate in a more careful way whether
    there is any way to satisfy both of the moral demands that
    created the dilemma in the first place. If we can satisfy both
    of these demands--even in a modified form--we might come out
    better, from a moral standpoint, than trying to satisfy one and
    reject the other. Here is where one's imagination comes into

    These two demands--saving the family farm and not violating
    one's conscience--might be satisfied in various ways. Could
    Gerald get a loan on the basis of his good job prospects? If he
    could do this, he could save the family farm without violating
    his conscience. Could he take a short-term job with Pro-Growth?
    This would require his violating his conscience to some extent,
    but it would also allow him to save the family farm. Could he
    encourage his family to sell off part of the family farm in
    order to pay the debts on the remaining part? This would
    require at least a partial fulfillment of his obligation to his
    family without violating his conscience. Or perhaps he could
    both get a short-term job with Pro-Growth and encourage his
    family to sell part of the farm. This would require a partial
    violation of both of the original moral demands, but also allow
    him to respect those demands in a modified form.

    If we knew more about the specifics of the situation, we
    might be able to think of additional compromises. But of course
    there are those who say that such moral compromises are wrong.
    Moral demands are absolute and unqualified. If this is true,
    then we must go back to our earlier considerations in order to
    determine which demand should receive priority. However it is
    important to keep in mind that most moral demands are not
    really unqualified. We might be inclined to say, "Never lie."
    But we all know we cannot hold to this absolute, unqualified
    norm in all situations. When someone with a knife in his hand
    who is obviously deranged asks for the whereabouts of our
    friend, we would be justified in lying. Similarly, we may not
    be able to hold to a moral requirement such as, "Never in any
    way violate your conscience." On the other hand, actions that
    violate our conscience should not be undertaken lightly.

  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago


    Due to an unforeseen family emergency, Gerald Wahr needs a
    job fast, and one is available--with a company whose business
    Gerald opposes. Should he try for the job at the pesticide
    company, given that both he and his farmer father think that
    pesticides harm the environment and are bad for farming--a
    belief which Gerald's chemical engineering training has only
    reinforced? If not, as the case puts it, his family may lose
    its farm.

    Unfortunately, there is no real solution for the person who
    needs a job but has moral objections to the job he's able to
    get. If Gerald is sufficiently dismayed by the pesticide
    industry, it will obviously be impossible for him to work in
    it. So he has to think out his options. There is no reason
    stated in the case why he couldn't get a job at McDonald's in
    order to tide the family over the crisis caused by his father's
    illness. Maybe the money isn't good enough, but the point is
    that there doesn't seem to be any absolute reason why Gerald
    has to work as a chemical engineer, rather than something else
    altogether, in order to pay the medical bills until the crisis
    is over.

    Gerald's position is a bit strange. His fondness for his
    father has led him to adopt his father's dedication to the
    cause of anti-pesticides. He intends to follow his father into
    farming, and has apparently studied engineering specifically to
    learn enough to prove his point against pesticides: "to fight
    fire with fire," as his father puts it. He seems to have no
    other interest in chemical engineering, and does not intend to
    practice the profession but use his knowledge as a propaganda
    tool. Given all this, it is difficult to understand how he
    could even consider taking the job in question.


    His friends make three arguments. Allen says that if Gerald
    doesn't take the job, someone else will, which is obviously
    true; but evidently Gerald's immediate problem is not how to
    stop the pesticide industry from making pesticides, but only to
    avoid helping them do it. (When it is time to stop the
    industry, he will join an environmental group, become active in
    farm politics, etc). From a strictly utilitarian point of view,
    however, there is something to be said for Allen's advice. For
    given that the pesticides will be made anyway, and given that
    eventually Gerald intends to challenge the industry, it might
    be the case that his position as critic would be strengthened
    if he first works in the industry and gets to know it 'from the
    inside.' So in view of his long-term goals, Gerald might
    consider swallowing his distaste and taking the job. Bob
    suggests that Gerald might be able to subvert the company from
    within, by 'slowing things down a little,' and Don raises the
    possibility of introducing reforms. Assuming that these are
    legitimate options, and that their success can't be entirely
    ruled out, Gerald would have to balance the (no doubt high)
    unlikeliness of either strategy succeeding, against the
    certainty that he will be helping the industry do something he
    opposes, namely, produce pesticides.

    However both Bob's and Don's suggestions are dishonest, and
    would involve deceiving the employer Pro-Growth. So there is a
    question whether Gerald can follow this advice. In addition Bob
    is advising Gerald to do a poor job at Pro-Growth, which will
    not help Gerald's future employment, if he should seek any, as
    an engineer. Don at least is advocating that Gerald act openly,
    through internal reforms; but Bob is advising Gerald to accept
    the job even though Gerald not only knows he does not share the
    goals and objectives of Pro-Growth, but actually has the
    deliberate intention to subvert these goals. Few companies
    would hire a person with such an intention, claiming the right
    to hire only employees who are dedicated to the company's
    success as the company defines it. While it is true that Gerald
    could take the position that his opinions, even regarding his
    company's products and policies, are his own business, so long
    as he performs his job diligently, Bob's advice is that he not
    perform his job diligently, but the reverse. Were Gerald to
    accept the job with the intention to subvert Pro-Growth's
    goals, he could be accused of a kind of employee fraud. (There
    might be an analogy with a person who took a job in order to
    spy out trade secrets and reveal them to a competitor).


    Therefore, it is important for Gerald to consider his
    situation before he puts his qualms aside and goes for the
    interview. Should he anticipate that the interviewer will not
    ask him about his opinions, and should he then volunteer what
    they are? Or if he is asked, how will he reply? He might say
    that his opinions are not the company's business, and see what
    happens. Or he might say that he does have reservations about
    pesticides, but that he intends to perform the work required to
    the best of his ability nonetheless (if this is true). If
    Gerald were truly honest, he'd explain his opinions, since he
    wouldn't want the company to hire him under false assumptions.
    On the other hand, Gerald may well be fearful that any
    indication of a reservation on his part would kill his chances
    for job. He needs the money, and to this point he's apparently
    willing to put his objections to pesticides aside, in the
    interests of family finances. In that case, he might as well
    put aside honesty also and lie to the interviewer. At a
    pesticide company, you make pesticides. If you're willing to
    work at a pesticide company even though you don't like to make
    pesticides, you're contradicting yourself if you're not
    prepared to tell them you want to make pesticides: he who wills
    the end, wills the means. If Gerald gets the job he'll probably
    have to lie sooner or later, (suppose they find out about his
    farm background and ask him to pitch the product to farmers?)
    unless he thinks he can successfully stay in the closet all his
    life. So why not get used to it?


    To what extent should there be a match between one's ethics
    and one's job selection? This general question can't be
    answered other than in terms of cliche. You shouldn't accept
    jobs which grate on your conscience. Some people don't have
    consciences, and will take any job, including executioner. They
    are lucky. Other people have to work things out as best they
    can, including being willing to compromise sometimes if
    necessary, but hopefully not too much. Many people have jobs
    they don't like, or even detest, but they manage to perform at
    standards nonetheless. The employer is interested in the
    employee's job performance; the employee must consider his/her
    duty to him/her own conscience. It's not easy to find a job
    these days which might not worry our conscience at some point.
    Dow Chemical used to make napalm; Westinghouse ran a polluting
    nuclear bomb factory; electric companies cause acid rain;
    AT&T admitted discriminating against women; Upjohn makes a
    medication that, according to 60 Minutes and the British
    government, turns people into murderers; even Kellogg's has
    been accused of anti-trust violations and of putting too many
    raisins in the Raisin Bran! Must one seek a morally pure
    company? If not, it's a question of how bad you take the
    company to be. No doubt some people have no problems with
    pesticides but would never work for a company which tolerates
    sexual harassment in the workplace. In that sense, ethics is
    the art of knowing what you want to fight and where you are
    willing to compromise.

  • Posted 14 years and 2 months ago

    This is a useful case because it focuses on a deep,
    recurring nexus of moral problems. These concern the clash
    between personal ideals or life-plans and the realities of the
    social and business world. In its most general form the problem
    appears as a near-omnipresent threat of moral prostitution. Any
    work which is done at least partly for money is morally
    suspect, because in those respects it does not advance one's
    moral ideals, and in some cases it could significantly
    compromise one's ideals.

    It is important to emphasise the general problem of the
    clash of personal ideals versus social realities, because it is
    easy to think that it is only the overt moral conflict cases
    which are morally problematic, such as that presented in the
    current case. However, there could be any number of jobs which
    were consistent with Gerald Wahr's general moral convictions,
    and which yet are also morally problematic. For example, any
    benign but unchallenging long-term job of no social importance
    could lead Gerald's friends to accuse him with some justice of
    having led a morally wasted, pointless life. The sins of
    complacency may rival those of 'selling out'.

    How then can we overcome this central moral problem of the
    working world? A useful clue is to be found in the slogan 'If
    you're not working on the solution, then you're part of the
    problem'. Intuitively, morality requires us to be actively
    engaged in bringing about solutions to the moral problems of
    our jobs, whatever the jobs and problems may be. Even in
    difficult, overtly problematic cases, it may be possible to
    preserve one's moral integrity by appropriate remedial planning
    and action. What follows are some reasons and strategies which
    could preserve the integrity of someone like Gerald in the
    pesticide business, if he were to enter it.

    First, prior to his first interview, Gerald needs to get a
    good overview of the many aspects of organic versus non-organic
    farming. He needs to clearly define for himself the actual and
    ideal contributions of each to the world of agriculture, both
    present and as projected into the indefinite future. Questions
    such as exactly what factors make organic farming good, and
    chemically-assisted farming morally unacceptable, have to be
    asked, and any exceptions or unclarities in the questions or
    responses need to be carefully noted by him. He should then use
    the results to outline a plan for how he himself, working (at
    least initially) inside the pesticide industry, could do as
    much to accentuate the benefits and to minimize the potential
    harms of pesticide use as possible. If the plan intuitively
    offers enough of these kinds of 'moral profit' overall, he can
    go to the interview and accept the job with a clear conscience.
    Otherwise, he should turn it down.

    It is useful to compare this strategy with those suggested
    by two of Gerald's friends. Both Allen ("the work's going to be
    done anyway..") and Bob (better Gerald than a pesticide 'nut')
    offer utilitarian solutions. These ignore the pressing personal
    dimensions of moral commitment which are addressed here. They
    also totally ignore everything specific about the issue of
    pesticides versus 'natural' farming. Gerald needs to know that
    his efforts are morally worthwhile in this specific case, and
    that he is on the right side -- as part of the solution rather
    than the problem in this area of agriculture. Here are some
    specifics he could use in his plan.

    First, exactly what are pesticides? The stereotype of a
    pesticide is of a chemical which kills pests. But more
    generally in agriculture they are chemical or biochemical
    factors which promote resistance or immunity -- to diseases,
    parasites, or to other factors which would prevent optimal
    growth of a desired crop or species. Understood in this wider
    context, the agricultural pesticide business is one in which
    profitable solutions to problems of harmful growth are

    Given this wider understanding of what a pesticide business
    is or should be doing, Gerald can look for morally worthy
    things to do with some confidence. For example, he doubtless
    knows that recombinant DNA ('gene splicing') techniques have
    shown great promise in producing strains of wheat (and other
    crops) which are naturally pest-resistant. In these cases, the
    immunity-promoting factors are actually part of the genetic
    constitution of the crop. Gerald could work within his
    pesticide company to ensure that it makes strategic alliances
    with appropriate bio-technology firms, so that it can share in
    the patents and profits to be made from selling
    disease-resistant crops (whose use will widely benefit farmers
    and the public they serve).

    Even if Gerald's pesticide company is narrow-minded and
    reluctant to change, he could prove to them that it was
    definitely in their own interest to make such alliances and
    adopt such broader views. The bad image of pesticide companies
    as merely selling harmful chemicals, whatever the damage to the
    land, is after all a powerful reason not to buy pesticides from
    companies having such attitudes.

    If a company wants to maintain or enlarge their list of
    customers, they must be willing to provide whatever will
    satisfy the real long-term needs of those customers. Most
    likely this will involve a broad range of customized solutions
    in each case, involving more disease-resistant animals and
    crops, more long-term environmental management of land (for
    example, selling customers more fertilizer and other 'support'
    items rather than just disease-prevention items), with
    'straight' chemical pesticides being supplied only when nothing
    else will work. Gerald can become part of the solution to
    pesticide problems by actively working within his company for
    such longer-term self-interested thinking on the part of his

    To finish, note again that the 'threat of moral
    prostitution' mentioned at the beginning has no general
    solution; we must carefully analyse each specific case,
    including the apparently easy ones as well as more questionable
    cases, to see whether or not a commitment to a role in the
    business world is morally acceptable. Personal integrity
    demands no less.

Cite this page: "What Job You Can Accept" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Saturday, October 24, 2020 <>