Tuesday, December 6, 2022

#341 / As Long As Thou Canst


The Quakers have a little story about George Fox and William Penn. As might be expected, the story tends to show Quakers in a positive light. The Quaker story to which I am referring came to mind as I read a column by Kwame Anthony Appiah. He writes "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine. More about that Quaker story at the end of this blog posting.
In the September 7, 2022, edition of The New York Times Magazine, "The Ethicist" pondered the following question: "Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?" That's a picture of William Penn at the top of this blog posting. The image associated with that discussion about the ethical propriety of representing "Climate Villains" was the following:

I am going to provide you with the entire text of "The Ethicist's" response to a question posed by a student about to graduate from law school who is identified as "Name Withheld." If the picture is properly reflecting the person who posed the question, it looks like the student identifies as a female. This is, in fact, consistent with current statistics, since over 50% of current law students do identify as female. Here is the column:

[Name Withheld]:
I come from a working-class family. I have worked very hard in school and graduated college with little debt, so when I was given the opportunity to attend an elite law school, I took it — along with a $150,000 price tag. Some people may scorn me for such a decision, but this was my dream school, and I saw it as a ticket to an echelon of society and opportunity that was otherwise entirely barred to me.
While I entered law school hoping to work in the public interest, I now face the reality of paying back my loans. I took an internship at a big law firm where I am paid very well, and I’ve been invited to work for them once I graduate. The salary would be enough for me to pay off my loans, help my family and establish a basic standard of living for myself — plus maybe own a house or even save for retirement, which would be impossible for me on a public-interest or government salary.
But the firm’s work entails defending large corporations that I’m ethically opposed to, including many polluters and companies that I feel are making the apocalyptic climate situation even worse. Even if I only stay at the firm for a short time to pay off my loans, I would be helping in these efforts for some time.
Basically, I feel torn between two value systems. The first is the value system of my parents, which prizes hard work and self-sufficiency. My parents are very proud of me for working in a high-level job that allows me to support myself. The second is my own personal moral code — the little idealist within me who wants me to drop the corporate angle in order to help as many people as I can, even if it results in a difficult life for me.
I know it is selfish to take this corporate job. But is it unforgivable? Will defending polluters, even for a short time in a junior position, be a permanent black mark on my life?
[The Ethicist]
Congratulations on your achievements thus far — and on asking hard questions about how to use the skills and the qualifications you’re acquiring. Decisions like the one you face are complicated. You will have been taught in law school that everyone accused of a serious crime is entitled to legal counsel. The situation is different when it comes to civil cases and to corporate defendants. (The details here vary with the types of cases and with jurisdictions.) But corporations are generally required to represent themselves with properly licensed lawyers, in both civil and criminal proceedings. And the principle remains that representing a malefactor isn’t, ipso facto, an act of malefaction.
Even if what your clients are doing is legal, you may still feel uncomfortable supplying guidance and representation, because the activities shouldn’t be legal. We ought to have laws and regulations that treat the climate crisis with full seriousness, and we don’t. Refusing to take the corporate-law job does disconnect you from the wrongs these clients do but wouldn’t deprive them of legal assistance. After all, the firm isn’t going to stop serving them if you decline to join it. But you don’t suggest that your career choice will make a difference to what these clients do. You simply don’t want to be involved in helping them to do it. That’s why you speak specifically of a “black mark” on your life.
I’m not sure that this form of moral accounting makes much sense, though. Again, for an adversarial legal system to function justly, there have to be lawyers who are willing to serve clients they disapprove of. If that’s a demerit, it has to appear on somebody’s moral scorecard. But surely it can’t be both good that somebody does it and a demerit for the person who has done it. (You can regret having to do something as part of your job, even if that something isn’t itself wrong.) And, on the bright side, not all of your clients are likely to be evildoers; your company will also be doing some pro bono work for people you may actively enjoy working for.
Some analysts, notably those associated with the effective-altruism movement, might even suggest that the high-paying track could be the morally best one for you to take. In the earning-to-give approach — explored in the philosopher Peter Singer’s book “The Most Good You Can Do” — people with the requisite skills may set out to earn lots of money and give a great deal of it to humanitarian causes, helping the world more than they would have had they devoted themselves directly to doing good. You might, in this scenario, pay off those loans, help your family and then, as a richly remunerated partner, give a big chunk of your earnings to saving lives in the developing world or supporting causes that will advance climate security and justice. You’ll have passed up the low-paying job at the public-interest center, but your generous donations will fund three such positions. If your aim were simply to help as many people as you can, you might conclude, after a careful assessment, that going for the big paycheck was the right thing to do.
Still, one party who matters here is you. Selfishness isn’t a matter of taking your interests and those of your loved ones into account; it’s a matter of giving those interests more weight than they deserve. Getting money to escape debt and help your family is a perfectly reasonable aim, consistent with being an ethically admirable person. But so is taking satisfaction in your work. If much of your time is spent in the service of corporate nogoodniks, you may well end up being unhappy. That’s not a choice you can be obliged to make. On the other hand, if you do become a partner in a firm like the one at which you’re interning, you may be able to change the balance of cases that the firm accepts. Or you could plan on switching jobs later to better align your livelihood with your values, defending the environment rather than those who ill use it. It’s altogether possible that your having worked at the high-paying law firm will give you valuable insight into how corporate polluters operate.
The calculus here involves all these conflicting considerations. Whichever way you go, I suspect, you will be able to do good. Your letter suggests that the “little idealist” within you won’t be taking early retirement; staying on the course you’re now on doesn’t mean that you’ll forget about the causes that matter.
The Quaker story is as follows:
When William Penn was convinced of the principles of Friends, and became a frequent attendant at their meetings, he did not immediately relinquish his gay apparel; it is even said that he wore a sword, as was then customary among men of rank and fashion. Being one day in company with George Fox, he asked his advice concerning it, saying that he might, perhaps, appear singular among Friends, but his sword had once been the means of saving his life without injuring his antagonist, and moreover, that Christ had said, ‘He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’ George Fox answered, ‘I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.’ Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword, and George said to him, ‘William, where is thy sword?’ ‘Oh!’ said he, ‘I have taken thy advice; I wore it as long as I could.’


We are, inevitably, enmeshed in activities that make us ask the question, "Should I do this?" Another way to pose the question, as in the Quaker story, is "Can I continue doing this?" The "Ethicist" provides a scaffold of rationalizations for "Name Withheld," and I think it might have been good for the "Ethicist" to have thought about that dialogue between Fox and Penn. The Quaker response to the question, however phrased, is that one should take advice from one's own conscience - and actively pay attention to it. The Quakers, traditionally, practice both nonviolence and "simplicity." George Fox, the first Quaker, told William Penn that he should not be guided by any imposed ruling, from without, but that Penn should conform his conduct to what the inner voice of his conscience informed him he should do. "Wear your sword," Fox said, "as long as thou canst."
As it turned out, once Penn did consult that inner guide, he could no longer wear his sword. Perhaps "Name Withheld" will have a similar epiphany, as she begins to practice law in the service of "Climate Villains." 
But what about the rest of us?
As we watch the consequences of our greenhouse gas emissions begin to ravish the planet, and to undermine the foundations upon which our human civilization is built, we ought to be asking some questions of ourselves, and our inner conscience. How long can we go on burning fossil fuels, knowing what they are doing?
As long as we can? Good ethical guidance! 
But maybe we ought to be listening to that inner voice of conscience a little more attentively!
One-third of Pakistan flooded (September 2022).

Wildfires, around the globe (2022).

Droughts. Here. There. Everywhere (2022).

Image Credits: 
(1) - https://www.europewatchdog.info/en/council-of-europe/united-europe/william-penn/
(2) - https://www.nytimes.com/column/the-ethicist 
(3) - https://www.businessleague.in/pakistan-flood-over-1-3-of-pakistan-underwater-amid-its-worst-floods-in-history/ 
(4) - https://www.kob.com/news/business-money/california-faces-weather-threats-from-fires-to-floods/
(5) - https://www.marca.com/en/lifestyle/us-news/2022/08/16/62fbdfaae2704e4c118b458c.html 

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