Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Can Your Work Make You Good? - A Thought Experiment Exploring Moral Frameworks of Vocational Choice

People want to do work that matters.  Many of us feel either a lot of moral satisfaction or moral guilt (usually both) about the work we do (or don’t do).  Working in both environmental restoration and international development (both considered ‘moral’ felids) I have observed something interesting. My environmental colleges seem a little jealous of the development work I get to do and my development colleagues seem a little jealous of the environmental work I get to do. The opportunity cost of their choices pigeon holes their vocational morality and leaves them with a sense of guilt for work not pursued. [1]

So I think we need to cool our jets a bit…and ask a couple fundamental questions about an assumption we don’t evaluate:

Is morality tied to vocation?  And if so, how?

What is the moral framework in which we make vocational choices?

And is ‘moral value’ a self deceiving heuristic for other factors that drive vocational choice like job satisfaction or social status?

I talk to students all the time that want to do work that ‘matters.’  So they all want to work with the poor in sub-Saharan Africa, or stand up against corporate excess, or go into ministry, or become artists, or, recently, to get involved in disrupting and caring for those affected by sex slavery.  Getting a ‘normal’ office job or public works position or starting a business seems at best amoral or usually immoral.

Students are terrified of ‘selling out’ which, if you dig a little, usually means, ‘having a boring life.’  The University is not only failing to prepare most of them for vocation but the Liberal Arts Education isn’t preparing them to think about vocation. 

But I have found the assumption that our moral ‘score’[2] is tied to our vocation to be almost as dubious as tying our morality to our voting record.[3]  To explain, let’s do a thought experiment.

Thought Experiment:

Scenario 1: Consider three lawyers of equal skill and qualifications (L1, L2, and L3) who all apply comparable jobs 3 firms:

Fa = A law firm that specializes in adoption advocacy, logistics and streamlining the process, which effectively decreases the time children spend in ‘the system’

Fe = An environmental law firm that aggressively litigates against any government policy or commercial development that endangers natural resources[4]

Fc = A job in the contracting office of a major corporation to craft and enforce contracts that protect the corporation’s financial interests.

For the sake of the experiment, let’s say that all three firms produce positive social value[5][6] but that they do not provide equal social value.  Let’s say that the relationship of social value is Fa>Fe>Fc.[7]

Let’s say[8] that each of the offices offers all three of the applicants identical packages (with identical future possibilities for advancement and increases in salary and benefits) at $50k a year.  One applicant takes each job such that:  L1-->Fa, L2-->Fe, L3-->Fc.

Who made the most moral choice?

Scenario 2: Consider the exact same situation, but a different sequence.  All three applicants apply for the adoption job (Fa) with the intention to take it.  One is selected (L1).  The remaining two apply for the environmental position (Fe).  One is selected (L2).  The remaining lawyer (L3) applies for and gets the third job (Fc).  All compensation packages are identical.

The outcome is exactly the same. 

L1-->Fa, L2-->Fe, L3-->Fc.

Is the morality of the choices the same or different?

Scenario 3: Now consider a situation identical to the first one.   

All three applicants get offers from each firm and one applicant selects each firm…except the remuneration packages of the three jobs is different.   

Fa offers all three $20k, Fe offers all three $35k, and Fc offers all three $50k. 

The outcome is the same L1-->Fa, L2-->Fe, L3-->Fc, but the first two have left money on the table to take the jobs they selected.

Does this affect the morality of the choices?

Scenario 4:  Now consider the second scenario again, equal pay for the three positions, and all of the applicants apply for the adoption position first with the intention to take it.  One is selected (L1), the remaining two apply for the environmental position, one is selected (L2), and the remaining lawyer (L3) applies for and accepts a position at the corporate office.   

The difference in this scenario, the applicants are no longer identical.   

Despite identical lives with respect to privilege (class, ethnicity, gender, monetary assistance from parents and the state) [9] and genetics L1 had a much higher GPA and LSAT score than L2 and L2 performed better than L3.

The outcome is, again, identical,

L1-->Fa, L2-->Fe, L3-->Fc

but does the differential qualifications of the workers (especially if their ability is equal) change the moral value conferred on the three workers?

 Scenario 5: Let’s revisit Scenario 1 but say all three applicants accept jobs at the adoption firm (Fa).  

L1-->Fa, L2-->Fa, L3-->Fa

But F1 works longer hours and gets a Masters Degree that helps her do her job better and after 5 years has done more to advance the goals of the organization.

How does this affect the relative moral value each gets from their work?

Does this change if L1 gets a promotion/raise to reflect her disproportionate effectiveness?


So what did our experiment produce?   I have a few outcomes:

Scenario 1:   

These jobs each need to be done.  Each worker is being equally compensated for equal time and energy.[10] Can the first job be more ‘meritorious’ because it has a greater social good?  

Does fair remuneration mitigate or invalidate a moral claim?

For example, Jesus makes what I think is a pretty reasonable suggestion (whether or not you think he was right about other stuff).  He argued if you receive public recognition for an act of kindness or generosity (things it generally considers moral goods) this recognition mitigates the merit of the act.  Now social recognition is pretty modest remuneration.  So what happens if you get paid for an act?  What does that do to a moral good? 

Money mitigates merit.  Deriving moral superiority from a job with equal remuneration seems suspect to me.  If there is merit to be had it goes to those who sacrifice to donate to your salary, especially if the donation is non-voluntary (e.g. taxes).  I love my public sector job, but it always seemed odd to derive moral satisfaction from work that I get to do what I do because others (including many who make less money than me) gave up part of their pay check. [11]

I have trouble distinguishing between these three jobs morally.

Scenario 2:   

If there are multiple people who are willing and qualified to do a job, doing it is a privilege.  Can a privilege be meritorious? If a job or project is highly competitive and well compensated and there are multiple well qualified individuals who are competing for it, winning the competition by a narrow margin does not confer moral value.[12]

And what if L3 would have actually done a better job in Fa than L1?  By underperforming in an important position L1 is actually taking social value off the table.  Accepting and continuing in that position is actually immoral.

Scenario 3

By leaving significant money on the table to do work that presumably provides more value L1 and, to a lesser extent, L2, have arguably made more morally admirable vocational choices. 

But it is not the work that makes their vocational choices moral, it is the generosity. 

L1 has essentially made a $30k annual donation to adoption advocacy, which is an act of generosity rather than a moral work.   

However, this generosity is mitigated by the intangible value of the job.  L1 receives job satisfaction and social status (the cocktail party effect) from her job.  So, let’s say that job satisfaction and social status have a street value of $20k,[13] selecting job Fa over Fc is only ‘moral’ to the tune of a $10k annual donation.   

But let’s say the social status and job satisfaction of Fc have an annual value of $40k (making the total financial and social compensation package $60k which is > Fa).  Now who has made the more ‘moral’ choice?  Our society doesn’t function without drafting and the enforcement of corporate contracts.  

You could argue that in shouldering social responsibility in a dull, thankless job (that no one will care about at a cocktail party and won’t get you any play on internet dating sites), L3 has made a more moral choice.

To push the experiment a little further, consider this question:

Wouldn’t L1 working for Fa be the moral equivalent of L3 working for Fc and making a $30k per year donation to Fa?   

And what if we account for the fact that L1 has more job satisfaction and social status than L3?

Scenario 4:  

Let me start the analysis of this scenario by introducing a baseball statistic: Value Above Replacement (VAR).

The VAR is a statistical measure of how much value a player adds above a ‘replacement level’ contributor (the kind of talent that the organization could go out and get from the ranks of current job seekers).[14]  If we are inclined to ask the question ‘how much of the value that we offer to the human experience’ can we ‘take credit for’ we might consider the possibility that it is our ‘value above replacement’.  How much better are we doing the job that the person who would replace us tomorrow. 

If my job contributes 10 units of value to society/the world/the universe, do I get credit for all 10 units if someone could come happily fill my chair before it cools and produce 8 units?  And what if I have a negative VAR?   

What if the replacement level worker could produce 8 units and I consistently produce 6?   Even though I am in a socially prestigious job that has high ‘moral value’ I am actually taking value off the table.  My work is the opposite of meritorious.[15][16]

Which leads me to Moral Sweat Equity, which is in play in this scenario, but is best illustrated in the next one.

 Scenario 5: 

The only real way to generate merit in remunerated work, besides leaving money on the table, is moral sweat equity.  It is over performing your salary.  Generating value above replacement.  But is this really distinguishable from ‘leaving money on the table?’   

If I over perform my remuneration, if I work hard to generate value above replacement, I am essentially making a donation of that work.  It is, again, an act of generosity[17] rather than meritorious work.

In the end, I can find only two things that make work disproportionately ‘morally meritorious’ that actually collapse to one:

  1. Leaving money on the table in order to work in a strategic position that provides large social value.  But this is essentially an act of generosity.  It is a financial donation to a cause.

     2. Moral sweat equity.  Providing value above replacement by improving skills and performance and essentially over-performing your salary.[18]  But this basically boils down to ‘leaving money on the table’ since you are generating non-remunerated value.  You are accepting less money than you are worth – so you are making a donation to a cause.  And this moral value is mitigated when the contribution is recognized with remuneration (e.g. a promotion). 

    So, I tend to think that the moral stratification of work actually makes a sort of hurtful and even dangerous class system.

Of course I’m thrilled to see some of our students to live on a shoe string while caring for orphans in Africa.  But I am also proud of our students who take the underwhelming work available in this economy to provide that shoe string.


A few overall outcomes:

1. Quantifying merit is absurd.  Not only are there too many free parameters and unintended consequences to accurately assess moral outcomes…but  the tangled web of self serving motivations involved in our actions makes evaluating the merit of our action impossible.  Moral striving is important, but moral comparison is not as easy as it seems, and is socially dangerous, creating an ‘other’ who isn’t really that ‘other.’[19]

     2. We need to be honest about the selfishness involved in ‘moral prestige.’  Taking jobs in fields considered morally admirable provides job satisfaction and social status.  It seems students I talk to are confused about wanting to add value to the human experience and having a job that makes them feel like (and seem like) they matter.

    3. Morally stratifying the workforce is false and dangerous.  It undervalues important jobs that quietly add value to the human experience.  It generates annoying pride in those who have the privilege of working in socially esteemed jobs and unnecessary guilt and dissatisfaction in the majority that don’t.  It confuses young people and positions most of them to self assess as sell outs in their mid 30’s.
    4.     Among the jobs that are considered ‘moral goods’ most are publically funded.  Considering a vocation a moral good creates a sense of entitlement, particularly in the arts and the sciences.[20]

    5.     Work becomes a moral placebo.  If we think our work is morally meritorious it can reduce our motivation to things that actually are…like generosity.[21]

My work does not confer moral merit on me for several reasons:
     1.     I am well compensated.

     2.     I am publically funded, so that my work happens because of the non-optihnal donations of others.  If anyone receives moral merit for my work, it is the tax payers.

     3.     I have high job satisfaction, which is worth more than the money I leave on the table

So is it a problem that my job is not morally righteous?

No.  Because while work does not make me good, work is good.  The Christian Scriptures teach that we were made to work and that vocation is part of human flourishing.  A moral stratification of work undermines the basic idea that all work that isn’t immoral is good and ennobling and valuable and part of adult satisfaction.

Here’s the thing.  I think the accumulation of moral merit is an unstable life style.  At the center of my moral theory is that we all self deceive in order to overrate our moral value.   

We employ flawed heuristics (the poor[22] and the environment = good – corporations and military[23] = bad) to come to unreflective conclusions about our actions.  We have trouble with the actual moral calculus of a complicated world so as Kannaman says, we ‘replace a hard question with an easy one.’  We replace the question ‘why do I work’ with ‘can my work provide me with emotions that I associate with moral actions.’

But the alternative offered by Jesus is that personal merit is not only ‘uncalcualtable’ and generally overrated…but it is a poor parameter to optimize our performance on. 

And once we clear the air on the 'what' of work, we can turn our attention to the 'how' of work, which is the more interesting and important question for long term flourishing. 

This post was written while listening to The Head and the Heart Pandora Station

[1] We have all sorts of implicit narratives about moral, immoral and amoral work, that are unreflective and, frankly, harmful to long term satisfaction in most jobs.  I have a hundred examples of this but here are a couple:
1.      In television and film, a person’s job is short hand for their character.  If someone is a preschool teacher, we are expected to believe they are good and kind (and should be elevated over the hot stock broker as a romantic interest). 
2.      Over a very short period of time, I saw two fields where the male romantic interest was a landscaper, which is short hand for ‘masculine works with his hands’, ‘artistic and soft – likes flowers’, and ‘entrapenurial and successful.’  An engineer can be all these things, or an accountant.  But it doesn’t fit our shallow categories of ‘moral work.’
3.      In the Lizzy Bennett Diaries, and excellent recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice as a series of contemporary vlogs…one of the characters undergoes an awkward moral evolution which he signals by dropping out of med school and moving to an unfamiliar city with no skills or plan but with a vague ambition to ‘help people’.  I loved this series, but the way they treated that character was not only unfair, but illogical.  And while we are at it, Big Lee (just a great great name by the way) as a picture of a man whose choices are motivated by coming to terms with privilege is an excellent example of how the important discussion of privilege gets confused in the step between “recognizing that I am the product of privilege” and “what should I do about that?”  But I have a post brewing about that.
4. For Christians the decision to go into ministry is usually celebrated as a ‘moral good’ while becoming a dentist or an engineer is tolerated politely (as long as you tithe and volunteer).  This creates a status hierarchy in a movement that supposedly abolished the excesses of clerical privilege and veneration.  But the exact same dynamic is at work in the secular academy…where tenured professors who get to ‘fight the man’ for fun and profit have the same kind of status and veneration, leaving their students feeling like ‘normal jobs for the man’ are a sellout, in almost precisely the same way.
[2] Now, those of you who know my Christian tendencies and my commitment* to the doctrine of depravity - the belief that most of the things we derive moral pride from are illicit self deceptions and that any moral distinction between humans is ‘noise’ in the cosmic evaluation of moral worth - will be able to anticipate that I think deriving moral satisfaction from work and developing a moral stratification of types of work is dubious at best and dangerous at worst.  I don’t think trying to accumulate moral merit is a great way to organize your life.  But I feel like this is how many religious and non-religious people approach their vocational decisions (even if they would never use these terms) so I thought I’d try to think it through.

*’Commitment to depravity’ is a funny phrase.  It is not that I am committed to being deprave, but that empirically I find any anthropology that sees humans as fundamentally free moral choosers to be naive biologically and metaphysically.  
[3] Pulling that lever costs most of us NOTHING.  How can it confer merit?  Now, I’m a fiscal liberal-ish.  I think our society would be more just if the wealth distribution was a little more…distributed.  I support higher marginal tax rates on the higher brackets and the Capitol Gains Tax is extremely complicated…but also seems absurdly low.  But it is strange to me when people derive moral satisfaction from voting to raise taxes, as if it could be meritorious to decide what to do with someone else’s money.  It can be just or wise…but good?  The only political choices on this topic that seem like they could be meritorious would be someone like Buffet voting and advocating for raising the marginal tax rates or a potential beneficiary of what those tax increases would pay for voting against them (which describes many many Republicans). 
[4] A problem has already arisen.  In both of these ‘moral’ firms the morality involved is not without dissent.  It is easy to argue that ‘streamlineing adoption’ undermines the rights of natural parents who have made mistakes and gotten crushed by power structures to fight for their kids and environmental litigation often seems to be unnecessarily costly and, even, trivial.  But moral ambiguity is a totally separate problem.  For now, let’s pretend that the outcomes of these firms are, on balance, moral goods.
[5] There are vocations that major on moral evil.  For example, being a pimp or economic rent seeker have clear negative moral implications.  They incur a moral debit.  But selecting between vocations which each provide value is the more difficult, practical and interesting question.  So, basically, I am arguing that none of these jobs is a career path to become the Barkdsdale’s Lawyer.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYj7q_by_2E

[6] If you just can’t see any job in ‘a major corporation’ providing a social good…what if I arbitrarily replaced ‘corporation’ with ‘coalition of small, locally owned, sustainable businesses.’    
[7] This has already gotten complicated because this hierarchy reflects my values and the interaction of values and morality is the Gordonian knot at the center of ethical theory (in this analogy, Jesus is Alexander…but I digress) that I am not even touching.  But, again, that is why we do experiments, to see if we can learn anything from simplified assumptions that might help us understand the sensitive parameters in complex systems.
[8] In a scenario that is absurd in the current economy…but it’s a though experiment.  So let’s philosophize like its 1999.
[9] Incidentally, by normalizing for privilege and gender we have removed many of the interesting ethical questions…but experiments need to control for confounding variables.
[10] Another simplifying assumption we are making is that the three jobs are equally stressful and taxing.  If all of the jobs pay the same but one requires more hours and more sleepless nights, then they don’t actually have the same cost/benefit ratio.  But if they all have the same pay but one has the more costs…that is actually an analog to Scenario 3.  Incurring personal costs (monetary and not) reduces the net value of the compensation.  So you could say that a $50k job at Fa that has $30k of personal costs in stress and relationship trauma and sleepless nights is equivalent to the $20k package offered in Scenario 3.  I realize some people will object to putting a dollar figure on social and personal costs, but we do it all the time.  It is actually surprisingly easy to do.  I paid $20k more for my house because it was next to a green belt.  I paid $100k more for my house because it reduced my commute by 15 minutes a day.  I have friends who have taken less salary to work for better bosses and others who have accepted long commutes (the #1 factor associated with job dissatisfaction) for more pay.  We put dollar values on personal and social costs all the time.
[11] This holds for the church too.  I get tired of church workers calling themselves ‘private sector’.  The tithe makes church economics a very different sort of thing.  The American ecclesiological landscape is ‘competitive’ in a way the public sector is not, but it also does not provide services at value.  The tithe is mandatory and subsidizing.  And church workers get to do what they get to do because of the generosity of others.  If there is merit there, it is at least a much more complicated moral calculus than we give it credit for.
[12] I see this in ecosystem restoration work all the time.  If a certain river restoration or dam removal is funded contractors and public agencies begin to circle like vultures, each hoping that we can be the one who gets to do the work.  If you narrowly outcompete competitors (particularly if you outcompete more qualified competitors who would have done a better job) is it meritorious?
[13] This is not as absurd as it sounds.  In The Social Animal, David Brooks surveys a literature that tries to associate a range of social behaviors with the ‘equivalent increase in salary’ that would comparably improve well being.  It is a non-linear scale, but there are PIs who think it is measurable.  But even if it isn’t measurable, it is still analogous.
[14] This is something we talk about in Fantasy Football as well.  The question is not ‘how many points will a quarter back put up vs a running back,’ if I am considering a choice between two players in different position.  The question is how many more points will a QB put up than the best QB on wavers (VAR) in a given week compared to the RB under consideration compared to the best RB on waivers (because in any given week, the best QB on waivers will out perform the best RB on waivers by almost 10 points).  Ignoring this nuance of the statistic leads to overvaluing quarterbacks and the devastating outcome of consistently losing a fake sport.
[15] And, now, let’s bring privilege back into the mix.  What if L1 out performs L3 not because of effort[15] but because of privilege. 
[16] This is part of the education debate in Wisconsin.  It turns out there are dramatic increases in test scores in the first three years of a teacher’s career, but there are dramatic diminishing returns after that even as teacher’s salary’s grow.  So that means that a teacher’s VAR decreases over time.
[17] Which spins off into a totally different ethical question: Does the magnitude of generosity matter morally or the effects?  If two people give $10k to two organizations that fight Aids in sub-Saharan Africa but one organization is much more effective than the other, do the two donations have the same merit?  What if two people donate $10k to the same organization but they use one gift effectively and the other carelessly?  Or in the terms of our thought experiment, is there a moral difference between L1 leaving $10k on the table to join Fa and L2 leaving $10k on the table to join Fb if the services provided by L1>L2?
[18] This plays on both sides of the current political debate.  The attempt to paint public servants (which is even embedded in the language of ‘public service’) as morally worthy of higher remuneration (e.g. we should pay our teachers better because they care for our children) conflates morality and economics.  But paying public sector employees poorly means that ‘replacement value’ (the body you could find to fill a chair tomorrow) is low.  Depending on teachers to make a moral choice to ‘leave money on the table’ for the children rather than take a better paying job is an unstable public policy.  By under paying public sector employees we reduce the replacement level and depend on a moral subsidy as individuals provide ‘value above replacement.’
[19] Which, is, essentially, the doctrine of depravity, whether you like the name or not.
[20] I have a post brewing about this, but here is the basic gist.  Pure science (like a lot of stuff I get paid to do) and the arts do not have enough market to sustain them.  So they are publically subsidized.  I think that is a good idea.  But public funding is still a limited resource that we have to compete for.  My degrees (and even my past results) do  not entitle me to do science.  Science is a privilege I earn.  And so is publically funded art.
[21] There is an analog here in voting.  A recent study demonstrated that political conservatives tend to be more financially generous (even after removing ‘church giving’) than political liberals (who, on the whole, are more prosperous).  I think part of that is that political liberals (which describes me poorly but better than the alternative) see their vote as an act of generosity even though it costs them very little and feel less moral oughtness to personally intervene.  Politics is a GENEROSITY PLACEBO!  This is also why I am nervous about moral programs that seek to ‘raise awareness’ where inducing guilt in others is seen as an alternative to positive moral action…but I have a post brewing about that topic. 
[22] Kanaman cites a really interesting study in Thinking Fast and Slow which demonstrates that people can be enticed to select opposite politicial proposals depending on which one is framed as ‘pro-poor.’
[23] Much of the international development work I do is funded by the military.  Multiple branches of the military have funded me for pure water capacity building based on the hypothesis that building good computational water modeling capacity in places with projected water shortage will help the negotiation process and avoid costly future conflicts over this resource.  What most people don’t understand about the armed forces mission is that they make investments that they think will help governments avoid violence.