Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Wages of Guilt

What happens when you take an otherwise intelligent student and brainwash him into thinking that he ought to feel guilty for his successes, for his company’s successes and for his nation’s successes?

You get someone who can do the job but who is otherwise morally debilitated. To the point where he writes in to the New York Times Ethicist column, whining about his good fortune.

Take a gander at this letter:

I am a filmmaker and recently graduated from a university. I was shocked when, by a stroke of good luck, hard work and fortunate timing, I managed to get myself booked onto a huge advertising job. The work was extremely fulfilling, fast-paced and well paid.

Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the company I was working for, a giant tech company, was using me to sell a product that is made by employees who make very low wages and work very long hours. Not only did I feel bad for my role in pushing products onto consumers, but worse, I felt very guilty knowing that the extremely high figure I was being paid for a week’s work might be two years’ worth of work for the people who made the things I was selling. At the same time, this job fell from the sky at a time of extreme financial need, and I really enjoyed it.

My question is: How can I navigate this situation in the future? I enjoy the fast pace of advertising and the creative opportunities it brings, but I am acutely aware that I am becoming part of the inequality machine every time I accept work like this.

Got it: success, good work, good compensation make him part of the “inequality machine.” If you think that these young people are going to be able to compete against their peers in Asia or even Europe in economic competition, you should think more clearly.

Ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah answers appropriately, with a brief lesson from history:

Big corporations, like every collective human endeavor, have good effects and bad ones, and sometimes it can be hard to be sure which predominates. On a global level, extreme poverty has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1990, as countries like China and India entered the world economy. Could your tech company have played a role in that? Is it really just a wart on the face of history? Still, if you remain convinced that Giant Tech is evil, you might spare yourself some anxiety and step aside for someone who will do the work with a less- burdened heart. If this company wants you, there are bound to be plenty of other bidders for your services.

Basically, this young person has been taught to feel guilty about success. He might have overcome it on his current job, but eventually it will beat him down. This does not bode well for his or our future.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Basically, this young person has been taught to feel guilty about success. He might have overcome it on his current job, but eventually it will beat him down. This does not bode well for his or our future.

I don't understand why the "race to the bottom" of international competition is what life is about.

I'm sure someone will work harder when they are positive they're on the right path in life, but there is endless evidence that society is categorically NOT on the right path, and everything good can be taken away by forces we can't see.

There are many sorts of questions about what success is.

The engineering company I work for is in a transition period, moving from a group of engineers who raised their families together and were happy to have enough money for that, and now growing beyond a certain size, we had a quick growth phase with a new financial manager who optimized all our income streams and profits and stock values soared, and then expenses caught up to a plateaued revenue without knowing where to go for the next "fix" of easy new income. And corporate culture is taking over with regulations and procedures and engineers are required to take the jobs that produce the greatest returns, rather than the projects they are most interested in.

So what is success? Is it more having mastery over your own destiny or more earning the greatest money and status? My answer is the more you start depending on a high salary to support your lifestyle, the less choices you'll have if you decide there's something wrong.

I used to wonder how dictatorships work, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and one idea is that its basically a top-down reward system, so once you start with wealth, like from one-time oil sales, you have the power to decide what work is important for your country. So Iraqi architects might be proud to build his 47th palace and enjoy that job, but question if that palace is really important, or is it just a vanity project of someone with too much wealth and power?

And we can accept all societies contain something of this top-down power, and if you find your gravy train, you can be happy, but you can also consider something is wrong, and not make yourself dependent upon a single benefactor or social class that has money to burn.

Perhaps we could say humility rather than guilt, and it would make more sense?

I might consider this young man is more afraid of being corrupted by wealth than really feeling guilty. He's divided, between wanting to embrace what he loves, and knowing not everyone else is so lucky.

And psychology of neuroticism says much of what we do isn't about what we think it is, rather we're just playing out older forgotten dramas on whatever worldly canvases that slightly fit, until we see what we need to see.

So I'll agree the "narrative of white man's burden or white guilt" or whatever variation is a distraction, but not necessarily useless for being inaccurate. It's just a reason to pay attention to the bigger picture to better see where you can fit.

AesopFan said...

I can't give this young man an answer to his personal problem, but, in the present commercial world, advertising does sell products, and if the products don't sell, the under-paid and over-worked *producers won't have a job at all.

(*are they really, or does he just assume that is the case?)

JPL17 said...

Great example of liberal success neurosis, Stuart. The only thing that shocked me about the story was the Ethicist's answer: i.e., he actually defended capitalism for having the effect of lifting huge numbers of people out of poverty, without gratuitously bashing it for being driven by non-altruistic motives. This is unusual for a leftist media outlet, since the Left's default position is to laud every road that's paved with good (or at least "approved") intentions, while ignoring the hell to which it leads.

How the Ethicist's response made it past the NY Times censors, I'll never know. Maybe they had the day off.