Morality of Career Choices

(via Prayag Joshi) The article below was printed in the Hindu. Prayag is brother of my close childhood friend, Samya. A brilliant student, chartered accountant, worked for various CA firms that included an international auditing firm. He went to work for an international NGO, then at a school near Pune and now works with tribals in Madhya Pradesh. He argues, that we should apply the red face test to our work and do it before than we make a lot of money.

The article …. I started questioning the morality of many of my actions only in my mid-thirties, which I think was quite late in life. I found myself confronting among others the question of whether what I did to earn a living was morally right. I knew that it was not right to rob people to eke a living, but I had never thought beyond.

I soon gave up my consulting career because I was disillusioned with its ethics. I was lobbying for changes in Indian regulations to enable foeign businesses to get a foothold in India. Thus I was facilitating the closure of several Indian businesses like my friendly next-door provision store. In exchange for fee hikes or lucrative consulting work, our firm gave companies a clean chit in their audit reports knowing that all was not well with their financials. We referred our clients routinely to other consultants for doing dirty work but were not counselling them to follow straighter (painful) paths.

Naiive Thinking

I then worked for a big International NGO that lobbied for the cause of the environment, thinking rather naiively that I was firmly on the ethical path. But I soon found myself jetting around, sipping coke and wiping greasy hands on paper napkins at off site meetings, putting the lid on past legal violations by the organisation and drawing a fat salary financed by donations from the common man who felt he was contributing his hard earned money for the environment! I did not last there for more than a few months.

Recently, I attended a session for parents organised as a part of the career-conselling programme at my daughter’s school. The consellor waxed eloquent, among other matters, about the great salaries that NGOs paid nowadays (for implementing poverty alleviation and other social programmes). I found that morally questionable advice.

I am currently debating with my brother-in-law whether it is right to work for a company that undertakes research projects for the military establishment if one believes in ahimsa . He is finding it difficult to appreciate that there could be moral issues there.

I decided to write this piece because I am pained to see within and around me unwillingness to consider the morality of our actions beyond a comfortable superficial level, especially when it involves sources of our livelihood.

I believe it is especially important to examine our work related decisions with a fine ethical toothcomb because we spend more than half our waking lives in such activity. Such work becomes a way of life for many of us. It is therefore important that we are convinced about its morality.

Many of us advise our children nowadays to follow their heart while making career choices. We tell them there is opportunity in every field. But do we teach them to merge their passions with work that is socially beneficial, relevant, and important?

Stretching it a bit too far ?

How deep should we delve, if we must, while confronting our vocations with the tests of morality? Should one apply the test to the work done by the individual, or broaden its scope to the work of his or her organisation, or further stretch it to the areas of application of the work by the customers of the organisation or even beyond?

For example should a kitchen knife maker stop making knives because he knows that a few of them would be used in domestic violence? Would it be morally right to buy the shares of automobile companies if one supports the cause of the environment or to argue that my brother-in-law should resign his job at the firm that undertakes research projects on materials to be used in military applications if he truly believes in ahimsa ? Or is that stretching the moral argument a bit too far?

How early in life should one think about the morality of one’s career choice — while embarking on one’s career, or mid career, or after one has made enough money? Is it right to give up a cushy job or close down a running business on moral grounds when family or employees depend on them? What should get precedence — morality of the work that one is doing or one’s responsibilities towards one’s dependents?

I am inclined to put the morality of my work over my passions and responsibilities in the decision matrix. I think it is important to look beyond one’s desk as further as possible to ensure that one’s work does not have an undesirable social or environmental impact, even if that means sacrificing one’s passion or financial stability. It is also necessary to continuously apply ethical tests to one’s practices, however noble the cause. As Gandhiji said, the means to the end are as important as the end itself. I am guilty of having applied moral tests to my work when I had made my money. But I do not believe that is the way to go.

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