Roofer from Clerks about working for a morally shady enterprise is wrong

Friday, March 05, 2010

Here's a scene from Clerks on whether to work for a morally shady enterprise or not, by bringing up the Empire from Star Wars and the construction of the second Death Star. It was mentioned on a thread on Reddit the other day by someone responding to a request for advice from someone considering working for a defense company, a person that loves to design but doesn't want to be involved in something that would be morally shady (i.e. designing something that in the end may simply be used as a device to kill people better than before). The commentary below contains spoilers for the video so be sure to watch it first if you don't want to find out what the video is about beforehand.



It's an interesting discussion, but the roofer is wrong in his absolutist stance on the issue. The other guy makes the case that because the second Death Star was blown up while under construction, that meant that the majority of the casualties were simple contractors who had nothing to do with the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. It's true that most of them were probably innocent, but it's also true that the ends justified the means for the Alliance in this case since a Death Star is capable of blowing up an entire planet by itself. However, it's not true as the roofer claims that a contractor with a sense of morality should have outright refused to work there, and here's why.

I just finished rereading Hitler's biography by John Toland, and the book is full of examples where one can see people who accomplished some pretty impressive feats against the Third Reich due to being part of the system, which could not have happened otherwise. Let's look at three.

Kurt Gerstein - An SS officer who revealed the existence of the extermination camps Belzec and Treblinka.

Georg Konrad - an SS judge, who worked within existing law at the time to expose the horrors of the extermination camps at the time. Since the camps were technically legal (after all, the government ordered it) he had to find roundabout ways to prosecute illegalities there which eventually led to their existence being exposed. Could this have happened without being a judge in the Third Reich? Certainly not.

Claus von Stauffenberg and the rest involved in the 20 July plot - suffice to say if you want to sneak an explosive briefcase into a room while Hitler is there you have to be a fairly high-ranking officer.

The reason the roofer in Clerks is wrong is a simple one: in each of these cases, the positions these people worked in could have and would have been filled by someone else in their place, likely someone less likely to rock the boat and expose the secrets behind where they worked. Kurt Gerstein certainly wasn't the only qualified officer from the Institute for Hygeine of the Waffen-SS, and someone else in his place might have gone to both extermination camps, scolded them on their inefficiency (he witnessed a mass execution using vehicle exhaust where the diesel engine took hours to start) and then gone home to his wife and kids for a lovely dinner and thought nothing more of it. Georg Konrad could have shrugged his shoulders and concluded that since the camps were legal there was nothing to be done, and Claus von Stauffenberg could have just kept out of the resistance movement altogether.

Germany under the Third Reich is admittedly a fairly extreme example, however. Luckily there is a flowchart you can follow that can give an idea of whether it would be a good idea to work in a place that one suspects might be corrupt, or even evil.


In short, if you suspect that a company is evil and you have a special skill that will help them be that much more evil, don't work there. That scene from Good Will Hunting is a good example of this:



However, if you suspect that a company is evil, you intend to expose them eventually and you don't have a special skill that will help them accomplish that, then if you don't work there then someone else will, and there is no guarantee that that person will have any moral problems with the evil the company does. So in that case you might actually be obligated to work there...but this also depends on the secrecy of the company. If their evil can be exposed from the outside then there is no sense working there, but if they are so secretive that only those on the inside know what's going on, then that may be the only choice.

And also don't forget that Kurt Gerstein committed suicide soon after writing his report, and depending on who you are you may not be able to handle working in a place you consider to be evil for the length of time necessary to discover what is going on. You may also end up being despised by your friends who don't agree with you working there, because one can't just go around telling everyone that the only reason you work there is to expose the company. That sort of secret would be found out fairly quickly if enough are privy to it.

Then there is also the chance of someone else exposing the company before you have had the chance to do so, and then looking like a collaborator when your intent since the beginning has been to reveal the truth at just the right moment. That's why it's probably a good idea to make some sort of secret record keeping track of your real thoughts, just in case you need it as proof later on.

Finally, be sure to check what sort of legal protection whistleblowers have where you live before working anywhere that might turn out to be engaged in immoral practices known only to those higher up in the company.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I disagree, because the lesser of two evils is still evil. Your argument strikes me as saying that a moral person could have been a guard at Auschwitz, because instead of gassing 100 people, you can gas only 99 and manage to save 1. But what if everyone is playing this logic game, and if everyone actually stuck to their morals, there'd be no one to take the post at all?

Maybe the Death Star couldn't have been built if the contractors followed their consciences. However, following your argument, any evil at all can take place, since the people doing it figure at least they're better than whoever would have replaced them.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

>Your argument strikes me as saying that a moral person could have been a guard at Auschwitz, because instead of gassing 100 people, you can gas only 99 and manage to save 1.

That's not really what the argument is though. Finding a way to blow the whistle on a place that otherwise would be top secret could end up saving all 100.

>But what if everyone is playing this logic game, and if everyone actually stuck to their morals, there'd be no one to take the post at all?

Ideally that might be the case, but we're talking about a situation where it's 100% certain that someone else is going to step in to do the same job. I think simply refusing could work when a movement is in its infancy (e.g. outright opposing the NSDAP when it was still going around looking for votes), but once they seized absolute power the tactics of the resistance had to change.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

>Your argument strikes me as saying that a moral person could have been a guard at Auschwitz, because instead of gassing 100 people, you can gas only 99 and manage to save 1.

That's not really what the argument is though. Finding a way to blow the whistle on a place that otherwise would be top secret could end up saving all 100.

>But what if everyone is playing this logic game, and if everyone actually stuck to their morals, there'd be no one to take the post at all?

Ideally that might be the case, but we're talking about a situation where it's 100% certain that someone else is going to step in to do the same job. I think simply refusing could work when a movement is in its infancy (e.g. outright opposing the NSDAP when it was still going around looking for votes), but once they seized absolute power the tactics of the resistance had to change.

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