Friday, November 07, 2008

Keeping to Your Principles in a World that Disagrees with You

Fearless commenter Pete takes exception to my comments in the previous post that nurses or doctors should do the job they're paid to do. Quoth Pete:
If something is wrong you shouldn't do it. Being `hired' implies you agreed to perform abortion services, you are trivializing this issue....
I completely agree, Pete, that if you believe something is wrong you shouldn’t do it. However, my point is that you should know what is required of a job and either perform the job you were hired to do, or quit. A job at an abortion clinic necessarily requires participating in the abortion procedure, and if you’re opposed to the procedure, you should not get a job there in the first place. Likewise if you don’t feel able to weigh the physical and mental health of a rape victim versus the potential life that could (against her desires) form inside her, or to make snap judgments about the life of a fetus versus the life of its mother, then it sounds to me like emergency room medicine may not be for you.

Similarly, a job as a pharmacist necessarily requires dispensing medications by prescription. If you are opposed to birth control medication, the morning-after pill, or even prescription vitamins, well, that is too bad for you. You do not get to make the decisions about what medications another autonomous human being takes. Those decisions are made by that person with the help of his or her doctor, not by you.

I have no sympathy for people who do not do the job they are paid to do. Why is that? Because I, too, have faced moral dilemmas in my line of work, and have resolved them simply by not accepting any job that involves morally questionable work.

The biggest employer of computational scientists in this country is the United States Government and its contractors. Most of us perform work for the Department of Energy or Department of Defense.

I am morally opposed to war and nuclear weaponry. Remaining consistent with my morals significantly limits my career opportunities. I had the opportunity to work at an NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) lab. I turned it down for a lower-paying job at an Office of Science lab. I'm happy with my decision; the 50% larger paycheck I was offered could not pay for the moral contortions or soul-selling I would have had to do.

Likewise, many of my colleagues at my Office of Science lab do contract work for the Department of Defense. They are flush with funding, while my funding situation is a little more unstable. But I would not trade my moral consistency for their monetary stability. I've never been asked to work on their projects, but if I were, the answer would be an unequivocal no, even if it put me out of work. Life is too short to sell myself out like that!

I understand, however, that others have different morals than I do. I can see why people might feel that keeping an active nuclear arsenal is an effective deterrent to nuclear war, but I happen to disagree. If I felt even more strongly about it, I might find a line of work that helped to reduce the necessity for nuclear and conventional weapons (for example, something that works to solve the problems of poverty and iniquity in the world).

I spend my days making a difference by enabling scientists to perform basic science and energy research using supercomputers, and I couldn't be happier. Had I tried to fit myself into the NNSA/DoD mold, I would be a lot richer monetarily, but much poorer inside my soul. I would encourage morally conflicted medical professionals to find a different path where their morals can't be compromised.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm going to stick my toe in just a bit: what if it's not clear if you can accept a job consistent with your morals? Students face this dilemma all of the time. What if you are a doctor or nurse doing clinical rotations as a student? Can you refuse to take part in a procedure you do not agree with?

As a theistic person who happens to be an academic, does working with methodologies that presupposes God does not exist compromise my morals?

Personally, I have opted out of a lot of industrial jobs because I did not want to be designing things for only people who could afford to buy the latest gadget and gizmos. However, acting consistent to your moral code can be difficult in a lot of situations. Furthermore, you have to have the privilege of being able to opt out.

Rebecca said...

Academic, you have a lot of very good points and interesting questions.

If you are a doctor or nurse doing clinical rotations, you can definitely opt out of a procedure at any time, but I do not think that you can opt out and expect to pass that part of the course.

It's one of those things where you can't expect to get the best outcome both ways. I read sometime in the recent past about a guy who went through Army basic training, realized he was about to get shipped off to Iraq, decided he was a Quaker pacifist, and then was upset because the Army wouldn't pay his way through school. Sorry, buddy, but you can't have it both ways.

I don't know what methodologies there are that presuppose the non-existence of a god, but ultimately, only you would know what does and does not compromise your morals.

As you mentioned, I do have the privilege of being able to opt out. I could probably find any number of other jobs outside of computational science, too, should the jobs in the field all be unworkable to me. There are definitely folks who don't have that choice. I don't think these doctors, nurses, and pharmacists I've heard about are really in that situation, though.