Every week or so, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic sends out a “thought provoking” question as part of his Up For Debate series. This weeks struck a particular chord.
Two friends, Petra and Rodrigo, are having an argument.
Petra thinks the world is best if people stay in their lane and do their job as best they can, narrowly construed. CEOs should try to maximize profits within the law. Emergency-room doctors should do their best to save the life of every patient. Lawyers should represent every client to the utmost of their ability. Scholars should publish their findings as accurately as possible. And parking-meter attendants should write citations without regard for who is getting them.
Rodrigo thinks the world is best if everyone is not only doing their job, but taking a broader view in an attempt to improve society. CEOs should feel a social responsibility to donate some corporate profits to good causes. Emergency-room doctors should triage in a way that treats shooting victims before shooting perpetrators. Lawyers should try less hard when their clients are morally odious. Scholars should withhold findings that cut against social justice. And parking-meter attendants should give a break to,say, the shift worker who always refills her meter but is regularly five minutes late because at her job, she must clock in and out on the hour.
Which approach do you agree with? Or if, like most of us, you have no universally consistent answer, how do you want people to decide whether to apply Petra’s approach or Rodrigo’s approach?
The way the question is framed, it’s grounded in false equivalences that create a binary choice in order to question whether there is a principled answer that covers the various examples, or whether we just pick and choose according to what we prefer in each individual instance. The duty of professionals, for example, differs from the duty of those in occupations. At the same time, the question raises other questions, such as the responsibilities imposed by employers versus the responsibilities we place on ourselves by having taken an oath to perform our function for a higher purpose.
As should come as no surprise, Conor caught me with his example of ‘Lawyers should try less hard when their clients are morally odious,” which is easily answered as “of course not.” Our duty is to zealously represent our clients as a critical component of the system, without which our system ceases to function. But secondarily, we’re not priests. We aren’t arbiters of universal morality. And it’s this issue of “morality” that seems to truly belie the examples.
A physician treats patients, not because they are morally deserving of treatment but because they are in need of treatment.
Emergency-room doctors should triage in a way that treats shooting victims before shooting perpetrators.
If the shooter is more seriously injured, then his treatment comes before that of his victim, not because he matters more, but because the concept of triage requires it. A curious corollary to the question might be if two patients in similar need appear, one white and one black, and the white person arrives at the ER first, should the doc treat the black person first in reparation of historic discrimination? That would seem overtly racist, and yet some med schools are teaching their young docs that they have a duty to compensate for past racism by current racism.
CEOs should feel a social responsibility to donate some corporate profits to good causes.
Many companies are making donations to good causes, assuming you agree that their causes are good. But is this due to CEOs feeling a social responsibility or for public relations, a good marketing ploy? Of course, the money donated isn’t the CEOs. On the surface, it’s a corporate decision to spend money that belongs to the owners of the enterprise. Below the surface, it’s consumers’ money, as the enterprise increases prices to cover its social generosity without hurting profits. While the CEO might well favor the trend as it conforms with his sense of social justice, it’s not as if the CEO is digging into his own pocket for the donations.
Scholars should withhold findings that cut against social justice.
Some (like me) might say this has become common practice over the past decade, and it would be more accurately characterized as lying for the cause. And if so, then they aren’t scholars, whose duty is to search for, and reveal, the truth. Then again, what is “social justice” that it is worthy of lying, whether to commission or omission, is one of those mysteries that only the pathologically insipid can answer.
And parking-meter attendants should give a break to,say, the shift worker who always refills her meter but is regularly five minutes late because at her job, she must clock in and out on the hour.
The parking-meter attendant is a job, the authority of which derives from the position of employment. If the employer says “no discretion, issue tickets,” then that’s the job. If the employer says “issue tickets when you deem it appropriate,” then Lovely Rita gets to cut breaks as she sees fit. But maybe it’s not to the shift worker, but to Rita’s undeserving friends. That’s the problem with discretion, not to mention morality and social justice. Each of us decides its parameters for ourselves, making them sweet words of little meaning.
Conor goes on to argue that the job of a university president should not be to opine about hot and controversial news, but to assure that the environment on campus is open to debate without physical harm from the unduly passionate. The demand that institutions such as universities not only have “opinions,” but must express them when their charges cry for validation, has become commonplace. Can it “stand for” Black Lives Matters, but then be silent about Hamas’ terrorism? Does the issue bear upon the fundamental role of a university or is it a gratuitous opinion to do little more than “virtue signal” to the maddening crowd?
At some point over the past decade, the slogan de rigueur became “silence is complicity,: meaning that a university, corporation or organization that failed to take a stand as demanded by the social justice warriors was taking a stand against social justice. Since I will zealously defend clients no matter how morally odious, my position is clear.