Monday, October 19, 2009

Moral Priorities at Work

Annoyed Librarian often writes about librarian job postings are so demanding and so low-paying that they seem insulting to the librarians who read them. When I was in library school, we called these "West Jeff Jobs" because the West Jefferson Public Library was especially notorious for offering them. AL rants about what such jobs do for morale in the profession:

So, sure, in one sense, many of your jobs do suck, but I reserve my Library Jobs that Suck category for very specific jobs. A Library Job that Sucks must be temporary, part-time, and require an MLS and library experience. These have always seemed to me the most shameful jobs, the ones where libraries were trying to exploit a bad job market to get better librarians than they morally deserve, where they demand professionals but don't provide professional situations. Jobs like these make all of us worse off, because it shows that there are libraries that don't take seriously any professional or personal commitment to librarians. The librarians become mere widgets to be exploited at will and disposed of easily. That's hardly the sort of job that brings glory to the profession.

There's no such thing as "morally deserve" in relation to wages. You deserve only what your employer has agreed to pay you for your labor. And that's unlikely to be anything other than what the market can support. If you think that the market can support more, then go and get a different job.

You should assume that your employer is only interested in exploiting you for corporate (or personal) profit. Your employer should assume that your only interest is in personal profit. Once you understand that your employer only wants to exploit you, and that you only want to exploit your employer, you'll be much happier because you won't be guided by illusionary moral motives.

Your employer may regard you as nothing but a widget but (1) he'll do that anyway, even if you think that it's unfair or socially irresponsible and (2) you're free to do likewise to your employer. An employer might exploit a labor glut, but you're also free to exploit a labor shortage.

I think that some librarians get far too emotionally invested in their work, and that's why complaints like this are common. They want to save the world, or at least some part of it. They see their work as a moral calling rather than as a way to make money. And I confess that I, too, used to be afflicted with this impaired thinking.

Now, the only reason I go to work is for my paycheck. I earn it fair and square by doing the work that I agreed to do for that paycheck, and no more. If other people benefit or social goods are attained, it is of no consequence so me; only that I get paid.

And I'm quite open about this. My employer doesn't mind because I do my job well.

If you don't think that an employer is paying you enough money, don't work there. You have no moral duty to care about society in general or any institution or profession in particular. You're free to act in your self-interest, and so is everyone else.

12 comments:

bob said...

I think if an employer is paying enough that an employee is satisfied their probably paying to much. There should always be something to strive for.

Larry B said...

I generally agree with what you postulate about pay in regards to there being no moral duty to any level of pay on the part of the employer.

You did say "If other people benefit or social goods are attained, it is of no consequence so me; only that I get paid.
"

Would you consider the converse (of sorts) to be true also i.e. If I get paid, it is of no consequence if people are harmed and society is ill served?

John said...

Larry B, I would answer no. There is a moral difference between doing harm to another and refraining from doing good to others.

Let's say two men walk by a panhandler. One ignores him and goes about his business. The other robs the panhandler's cup.

The first man may be a selfish, heartless bastard, but he has done the panhandler a wrong. The second one has.

Larry B said...

John,

Thanks for your answer to my question. Your post actually made me think of the ads on TV where they show "hidden camera" interviews for a tobacco executive position and I wondered if the complaining librarian in your post would be interested in taking a job maybe catalogueing fake documents for a tobacco company since they apparently would be willing to pay a lot to have people do their "dirty work".

Divers and Sundry said...

"You're free to act in your self-interest, and so is everyone else."

Some see serving others to be in their self-interest.

James R. Rummel said...

John is right. A job is a contract, an exchange. If you don't like it, leave and find another. No one has any obligation to provide you a job, and you don't have an obligation to stay as long as you haven't signed a contract.

"Would you consider the converse (of sorts) to be true also i.e. If I get paid, it is of no consequence if people are harmed and society is ill served?"

This is a straw man. Employers don't force workers to slave away at gunpoint. Where is the social harm of offering people a job, anyway? Simply leave and find other employment if it is so horrible.

Even if a single industry controls the economic health of an area, such as coal mines in West Virginia at the end of the 19th Century, there is nothing to keep people in this day and age from packing the car and moving away.

There are also laws on the books to keep employees from causing harm. Commit a crime, even if you are just following orders, and you go to jail anyway.

The only way that Larry B's statement makes any sense is if I got a job as a minion for a supervillian, and the supervillain manages to take over the world and enslave humanity because I was on his team. To that I can only say....

Where do I submit my resume? If all the Big Bad needs is a dumb schmoe like me to conquer all of humanity, I had better get on the winning side before someone else takes my place!

Jeff the Baptist said...

Yes, you have no right to a job or wages. On the other hand I can't help but look down on prospective employers who want the moon but will only pay for green cheese.

If you want someone with job experience and a Master's degree, you ought to be willing to pay for it. If you don't then you ought to be questioning the actual quality of the personnel you're hiring.

John said...

That's probably why the West Jefferson Public Library always had vacancies. Only the most desperate job seekers would apply there.

You don't get a good applicant pool by doing that.

jockeystreet said...

John, I feel like you're going from "is" to "ought" a little quickly.

You describe how it is. You then go on to say that since that's how it is, people ought not to expect it to be some other way. Then you go on to say that this is how it ought to be.

I see no reason to believe that because employers and employees often exploit each other, because the norm in business is the selfish pursuit of individual advantage, that we therefore ought to behave that way.

I don't know that I would go so far as to say that a person "morally deserves" this or that wage. But I would say that our moral responsibilities to each other don't end at the work place door. While there may be no "moral duty to care about society in general," I think that there is a moral duty (perhaps not enforced, perhaps hard to "prove") to care for people, to treat each other decently. Using each other purely as a means to an end may be where the "is" is, but I can't say that that's the "ought." It's not he ought in our family relations, in our community relationships, I see no reason why the work place should be different.

My own experience, in the last couple of jobs I've had, is pretty far outside of what you describe. I haven't felt like a means to an end, or a resource to be exploited. And I've worked hard to create an environment for the people who work below me where it is clear that they are not merely resources or means. I don't do this just because happy people work harder, but because I think that there are more important things than efficiency. There are boundaries... we're not a family, the ties can be cut quickly and mercilessly when certain lines are crossed. But people treat each other with the respect and decency that they owe each other.

Larry B said...

James,

Sorry about my converse statement, it wasn't meant to be related to John's post as an argument against it, rather a tangential curiosity as I was considering whether something like the converse I stated might provide a theoretical supporting argument for participating in an activity generally considered to be criminal or at least in a gray area if it paid enough money such as a high priced call girl or being a tobacco exec who is fully aware of the dangers of his product.

I recall from logic class that the truth value of the converse isn't guaranteed by the original proposition, I was just curious to know John's thought on that converse.

James R. Rummel said...

"...I was considering whether something like the converse I stated might provide a theoretical supporting argument for participating in an activity generally considered to be criminal or at least in a gray area if it paid enough money such as a high priced call girl or being a tobacco exec who is fully aware of the dangers of his product."

And, as I said before, I see this as an attempt to construct a straw man.

Unless I'm completely off base here, the entire point of John's original post is that wages are free from moral consideration, obligation, or taint. It seems clear to me that he wrote the post to refute Annoyed Libertarian's claim that employers should be motivated by moral imperatives.

So what do you do? You try to shoehorn morals back into the discussion! And you try to paint wages as wicked through postulating jobs which hurt others. ("Does that mean it's okay to do something morally repugnant if you get paid?")

Another thing I object to is your assumption that everyone shares your own code of morality. Many people, for example, view laws against prostitution as a gross violation of basic human freedoms. (I'm not one of them, but there are those who disagree with me.) Your condemnation of "tobacco executives" ignores the potential benefits tobacco can have for people suffering from various neurological disorders.

http://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/SUA03/medical_tobacco.php

You aren't stating a converse to John's position, just trying to find ways to justify the premise he refutes.

John said...

Jockeystreet, what you write makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps the best solution is that of the Prisoner's Dilemma: if an employer treats you with respect, respect it. If an employer doesn't then don't. Do unto others as they do unto you.