Monday, January 5, 2009

On the Ethics of Foot Dragging

I received a comment recently on the essay "Just Livelihood" from a reader (through World Watch magazine so I won't post the name here in case the author did not expect this to be available in electronic format):

"I am writing to object to a strategy recommended by Erik Assadourian under the banner "The Living Earth Ethical Principles" (pgs 30-31 of World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009).

Where is the ethics in Mr. Assadourian's recommendation to employees of "foot dragging, an effective tactic to imperceptibly slow down down, whether by moving just a bit more slowly, filing papers incorrectly, or entering data with a small error (just a few examples). If done right, managers won't detect it's intentional (or you!)"

If Mr. Assadourian and by association his employer the World Watch Institute advocate for subterfuge and deception, let it not be under the banner of "Ethical Principles."

I am truly dismayed by the lack of personal integrity and ethics put forth by this staff member of World Watch."

And so I respond:
In his book, Rules for Radicals, community organizer Saul Alinsky updated Machiavelli’s statement “The ends justify the means,” with a question “Does this particular end justify this particular means?” Of course, the ethics of any action depends not only on the action itself but the intention behind the action (i.e. the end one pursues).

With footdragging (slowing down one’s work), if the end in mind is to get back at a boss you don’t like or because you don’t enjoy your job anymore, as happens today with millions of Americans (according to the book, I Quit But I forgot To Tell You) then the action of footdragging is unambiguously unethical. But if the end in mind is to slow down the destruction of the planet, the poisoning of communities with toxic chemicals, or the reduction of profit of a corporation that benefits from the above (ethical ends), then footdragging in this case would be an ethical means.

I admit this description of ethics is not as black and white as most people would like but neither is the real world. So let me reiterate what I said in the essay: footdragging is not the first or best option. Of course one should try to change the behavior of the company (directly through discussion or if impossible through “whistleblowing”), or if that doesn’t work, find a new job. But if those are not options, then should one do her job as effectively as possible when that means more efficiently sickening the planet or killing innocent people (even if that’s just an unintended consequence of the business)? Or should one redefine one’s job to: doing it more de-lib-er-ate-ly, more me-thod-i-cal-ly, (ok, more slow-ly), hoping in a small way to save lives and slow down the system while others build new responsible businesses that eventually replace their unsustainable competitors? Particularly in oppressive economic climates, where job opportunities are limited and overt dissent could lead to imprisonment or worse, quiet footdragging may be the only means of resistance available (as anthropologist James Scott notes in his book Weapons of the Weak). To dismiss this tactic out of hand is unrealistic at best, unethical at worst.

No comments: