Friday, May 24, 2013

The Philosophy of Work

Lately I've been thinking a lot more about the concept of "work." It's one of those human activities that most of us just do, without thinking very deeply about it. Let's see if we can plumb the depths of work...just a bit.

There are several related concepts that conspire to shape our beliefs about work. Perhaps the most obvious is our distinction between "work" and "leisure." At it's most basic level "leisure" is understood to be something pleasurable that takes place independent of work; with perhaps the unspoken connotation that work is not necessarily pleasurable. For most of us in the U.S.,  the standard work week is about 40 hours, or 8 hours a day (9-5), five days a week. Leisure activity usually takes place after 5 PM, M-F, weekends, holidays, vacations, and after retirement. We also distinguish between different kinds of work; most notably based on how dirty we get at work. Hence the longstanding disinction between "blue collar" and "white collar" work. Blue collar work (or work where your clothes get dirty) is usually compensated on an hourly basis, while "white collar" work is often paid via a set "salary." As a general rule, "white collar" workers tend to earn more than "blue collar workers, but not necessarily. There are two hidden assumptions here that most of us accept without much thought: 1.) the more hours you expend at work, the fewer hours you can expend on leisure; and, 2.) the less you earn at work, the less money you can afford to spend on products, services and leisure activity. Given the amount of time that we expend "at work," our "co-workers" tend to play an increasingly important role in our lives. Most of our closest "friends" work with us, and more often than not we "date" and/or "marry" people we meet at work.

Compensation in the U.S. is comprised of both wages and benefits. (Some employers also give out honorary prizes such "certificates of merit.") The total amount of compensation that workers receive, is invisibly shaped government policies; especially tax policies (which tax different kinds of work at different rates) retirement savings (Social Security), health care (Emploment-Based), and a mountain of regulations that control what can and cannot be done under the auspices of "work." Some kinds of work require a license or a "degree" from a governmentally "accredited" educational institution: high school, undergraduate, and graduate. We also distinguish work that produces products and work that provides services. Some kinds of work require previous experience. As a general rule, the more education and experience that is required for any work, the higher the level of compensation....but not necessarily. There is also the unspoken assumption that the "harder you work," and the "better you work" the more your employer will "reward you" in terms of promotion, higher wages, better benefits, and/or personal or public praise.

Now here's where the philosophy of work enters in! In the U.S., our personal identity (who we are) is based largely on what we do at work. When we meet someone, one of the first questions in  conversation is usually: "What do you do for a living?" What's interesting here is that although it's socially acceptable (even obligatory) to ask a stranger "what do you do," it is NOT acceptable to ask: "How much do you make?" Nor is it acceptable to volunteer that information. "Hi! my name is Ron White, I earn $100,000. a year? (I wish...) Yet, most of us unconsciously base our "self-worth" on what we do, who we work for, and how much we earn. Some work carries with it a positive connotation:"I am a doctor." Some negative: "I am an auditor for the IRS." Or. "I am a used car salesman." Some work carries a mixed connotation: "I am a professional musician."

In the U.S. one's "self worth" is seriously undermined by the admission: "I am currently 'out-of-work' or "unemployed." But why? I think there are three unspoken variables here. First, if you are "out of work" others unconsciously conclude that you are either: lazy, living on welfare, or uneducated. Second, if you are "out of work," you lack income and therefore can't afford buy the kinds of things that impress other Americans like a new car, big house, or an expensive vacation. And third, if you're "out of work" other Americans equate being "out-of-work" with being "on vacation," and therefore, out of sheer jealousy, they assume that that your days are spent in undeserved-leisure. "Gee, I wish I could stay at home all day and watch television too.! But I've gotta go to work!"

As a philosopher, I'm certainly well aware of these hidden dimensions of work, therefore, I try to look objectively at how I ought to spend the limited time I have left on this earth. (I'm 62 years old.) The basic question for me is how much time should I expend at work? As a tenured, salaried "professor" I have a lot more control over how much time and energy I spend at work. However, like other Americans I feel trapped by the cultural-assumption that I ought to work more, not less. As an older (experienced) teacher-scholar, there is the added fact that I'm currently "at the top of my game." Therefore,  since I'm finally a "good teacher" I ought to teach more; and/or, since I'm finally a "good scholar," I ought to write and publish more, participate in more scholarly meetings. On the other hand, I'd really like to spend more time, energy, and resources with my wife and kids, playing guitar, and sleeping out back by the pool. So how should I go about rationing the last few years (hopefully 20 years?) between work, family, and leisure? Although I still enjoy the "teaching" aspect of my work, the "culture of teaching" has changed to the point where I spend more time doing things unrelated to teaching, such as complying with unrelated mandates.  (My book orders for Spring 2013 are now past due.) I also spend more time complying with mandates associated with "assessment" of teaching and learning. Moreover, although I still enjoy the thrill of getting something published, I already have about 100 publications (of various kinds). Given that I am already at the top of my salary scale, there's no longer a "reward" for excellent teaching or scholarship. Thus, most of my motivation to excel at teaching and scholarship is internal rather than external.

So how have I been doing, recently, in reallocating my time, energy, and resources? Well, I'm working on (hopefully) my last journal article, but I also scheduled two scholarly presentations for next fall, and I agreed to be the program director for another national conference. I also have a book review due next week. Overall, I'd conclude that, for me at least, it's a lot easier to think about untangling my self-identity from "work" than it is to actually do it.                               

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Ethics of Whistle-Blowing

Whistle-blowing is surprisingly complex. It's basically about controlling the flow of information within and between individuals, organizations, and government. It's also about monitoring and enforcing laws and rules. The "ethics of whistle-blowing," therefore involves the values that underlie the act of whistle-blowing and how it affects the various stakeholders. Thus, a would-be whistle-blower must make a moral decision as to whether to blow that whistle, who to blow the whistle on, and who to blow the whistle to. Some whistle-blowers are motivated by moral concerns, others by other less altruistic motives such as retribution. Some allegations are true while others are false. Hence, some acts of whistle-blowing are "justified" others are not. Conversely, an organization must decide how to treat the whistle-blower, whether to act upon the information provided by whistle-blowers, and how much time, effort, and resources it is willing to expend encouraging or discouraging this form of internal surveillance. Finally, the government has erected a legal regulatory regime that affects the entire process. 

By definition, whistle-blowing targets harm, and therefore, it involves normative judgements involving legalitymorality, or both. Click here to see my discussion of harm. Thus one might "blow the whistle" on an individual, several individuals, or an entire organization (public or private) that violates laws (criminality) or violates moral rules (morality). In both cases there may be greater or lesser degrees of harm (the magnitude of the harm of "killing humans" is obviously greater than "jaywalking.") And of course, not all illegal acts are immoral acts and not all immoral acts are illegal acts. Violations of legality and/or morality imply the imposition of sanctions. We can argue over whether those sanctions ought to be imposed in order to enforce retributive justice or to deter future wrongdoing. Ilegality sometimes sanctions acts of "harmless immorality" such as the violation of "blue laws" that make it illegal to open stores on Sunday. Legal Philosophers call the legal (governmental) enforcement of harmless immorality "legal moralism."

Most illegality sanctions "harm to others," however some laws are "paternalistic" and therefore attempt to sanction "harm to self." Therefore, whistle-blowers can "blow the whistle" on greater and lesser degrees of harm that are subject to either legal and/or moral sanctions. If an act is illegal, then it is subject to legal sanctions such as fines, incarceration, death etc. If an act is merely immoral there would be only a moral sanction, which might involve being ostracised or being condemned to hell by religious authorities. Worldwide there are many religions that sanction different harmless immoralities such as: shaving beards, eating specific foods, wearing revealing clothing, dancing, using condoms, or buying liquor on Sunday. Some political regimes extensively enforce morality via legality (Saudi Arabia), therefore, moral violations become crimes sanctioned by the state. Now, let's get back to those basic moral questions.

What kinds of acts acts ought to be subject to whistle-blowing?    

...Given that organizations must expend time, energy, and resources monitoring and enforcing whistle-blowing, it makes good economic sense to limit whistle-blowing to major harms, which are usually sanctioned by legality. For example, it probably isn't worth it  for a Catholic organization to act on whistle-blowing for a member's use of condoms, getting a vasectomy, or missing mass on Sunday. The cost of investigating most harmless immoralities would exceed the benefits. Thus, most reasonable whisle-blowing policies focus on major legalities, or crimes.

...No organization wants to act on false claims, therefore, the credibility of the whistle-blower must be taken into account. Does the whistle-blower have access to the evidence presented? Is the whistle-blower merely disgruntled with the organization and seeking retribution? Does the whistle-blower have an "ax to grind?" Does the allegation make sense? Who is responsible for the alleged wrongdoing?

...If it seems unlikely that a crime has been committed, is it worth an organization's time, energy, and resources to investigate it?

Who should the whistle-blower blow the whistle on?

...Obviously, if possible whistle-blowers ought to blow the whistle ONLY on guilty parties not innocent parties. Some crimes involve one party, some are conspiracies that involve many cooperating parties.

...Sometimes conspiracies involve the top leaders of an organization, which makes internal investigation difficult.   

Who should the whistle-blower blow the whistle to?

...If it seems likely that a major crime has been committed the whistle-blower can elect to "blow the whistle" either inside the organization or outside the organization. If inside, it must be blown within the proper organizational channels, usually by starting from the bottom and working your way up. If the whistle-blower chooses to blow the whistle outside the organization it's usually to the appropriate governmental agency or the media.

...Some crimes MUST (by legality) be reported to the government, and therefore, attempts to conceal criminal activity from the government are subject to legal sanctions.   

To what degree ought an organization either encourage or discourage whistle-blowing?

...Organizations can provide either disincentives or incentives for whistle-blowing. Some organizations make it too easy to whistle-blow, others make it too difficult. Some organizations retaliate against whisle-blowers by imposing sanctions, which might include expulsion from the organization. Others offer financial incentives to encourage internal whistle-blowing (within the organization) in the form of financial rewards or guaranteeing anonymity for whistle-blowers. In recent years, the government has encouraged whistle-blowing by offering rewards for external whistle-blowing.

...There are unanticipated consequences associated with whistle-blowing. One of the least appreciated is the fact that when an organization encourages whistle-blowing, it eventually fosters a culture of distrust among its members. Therefore, members tend to be distrustful of other members and the organization as a whole and members become more secretive. Conversely, if an organization discourages whistle-blowing and relies more on trust, then a "culture of trust" is more likely to develop, but then the system tends to be more vulnerable to opportunism. 

Here's my general take on whistle-blowing. The basic problem is the illusion (or "Fatal Conceit") that organizations can, in fact, control whistle-blowing. First of all, the government requires that most organizations (especially business organizations) have some kind of grievance process in place. If that process over-incentivizes whistle-blowing, then the organization will have to expend more time, energy, and resources investigating frivilous and false claims. If a whistle-blower is not satisfied with the internal organizational investigation, the whistle-blower can always choose to blow outside of the organization. If the process discourages internal whistle-blowing, then whistle blowers will simply go outside of the organization. Therefore, I would argue that any organization that believes that it can control whistle-blowing is delusional. The best policy, therefore, is to comply with legality...and no more.