Dirty Work and Moral Inequality

Eyal Press’s 2012 book, Beautiful Souls, contained a fair amount of behavioral ethics material of the type that we emphasize here at Ethics Unwrapped. His new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, doesn’t emphasize behavioral ethics, but is very thought-provoking.

Inequality of income and wealth in America is staggering. It is morally and economically unsustainable. (Reich, 2020) Our economic and political structures create not only income and wealth inequality, but also moral inequality. Many forms of work cause moral injury (also called “moral harm”), which occurs especially where someone takes part in actions that are inconsistent with their moral beliefs. We have written a couple of blog posts about moral injury recently—one pointing out that medical personnel on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight are often having to make painful moral choices because they do not have enough ICU beds, ventilators, or other drugs or equipment for all the patients who need them. These are terrible choices and Press quotes an ER doctor who said “None of us will ever be the same again.”

Our other post related to the moral injury felt by Irish Republican Army members who killed countrymen in what they later learned may have been a largely pointless cause because they’d been misled by their leaders. 

Press says that “dirty work,” which often causes moral injury, has these features:

First, it is work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence. Second, it entails doing something that “good people”—the respectable members of society—see as dirty and morally compromised. Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued and stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values and beliefs. Last and most important, it is contingent on a tacit mandate from the “good people,” who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don’t explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it.

Press points out that the same people who are relegated to the poorest-paying jobs, often in the poorest regions of the country, also often suffer the greatest threat of moral injury. They therefore suffer moral inequality as well as economic inequality.  He examines in great detail three primary professions:

  • Corrections officers and others tasked with running psychiatric wards in our jails and prisons. 
  • Soldiers sitting in Nevada or Texas with the job of carrying out drone warfare–killing human beings on the other side of the world with the push of a button. 
  • Workers in huge poultry and meat-packing plants, killing chickens, pigs, and cows at a terrific pace and under horrific conditions. 

Press’s interviews with these workers are sobering. 

  • Mental health counselor Harriet Krzykowski explains the extreme emotional stress she felt after she failed to blow the whistle after guards murdered a troublesome mental patient. 
  • Chris Aaron, an imagery analyst who worked for the army as well as military contractors, told of his debilitating depression and suicidal thoughts that came from calling in drone strikes on targets in Afghanistan where his decisions often caused the deaths of innocent civilians. 
  • Timothy Pachirat told of being warned by coworkers in the meat packing plant not to get assigned as a “knocker” (the person who kills cows by shooting them in the head with a bolt gun). “That s**t will f*** you up,” the co-worker warned. Preferable were jobs with names like “belly ripper,” “liver hanger,” and “head chiseler.”

Press’s book is inspired by a 1962 article by prominent sociologist Everett Hughes, and his primary message is that the rest of us are complicit in this system. We do not want those who are mentally ill, often violently so, wandering the streets. We prefer that our wars be fought with fewer casualties on our side. We want to buy and eat cheap chicken, pork and beef. 

However, we also do not want to do ourselves what is necessary to make it possible to enjoy these preferences, nor do we even wish to be reminded of the cost others pay on our behalves.  We lack what Press and Hughes call “the will to know.” Indeed, we are exercising what can also be called “deliberate ignorance,” a topic that we also blogged about recently

Press sums it up:

[E]conomic inequality mirrors and reinforces something else: moral inequality. Just as the rich and the poor have come to inhabit starkly different worlds, an equally stark gap separates the people who perform the most thankless, ethically troubling jobs in America and those who are exempt from these activities. Like so much else in a society that has grown more and more unequal, the burden of dirtying one’s hands—and the benefit of having a clean conscience—are increasingly functions of privilege: of the capacity to distance oneself from the isolated places where dirty work is performed while leaving the sordid details to others.

Dirty Work is a troubling book; we recommend it.  

 

Sources:

Terri Gerstein, “Other People’s Rotten Jobs Are Bad for Them. And for You,” New York Times, Sept. 6, 2021.

Ralph Hertwig & Christoph Engel, eds., Deliberate Ignorance: Choosing Not to Know (2016).

Everett Hughes, “Good People and Dirty Work,” Social Problems 10(1): 3-11 (1962).

Eyal Press, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America (2021).

Eyal Press, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times (2012). 

Robert B. Reich, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It (2020).

Thomas Roulet, “What Good Is Wall Street?: Institutional Contradiction and the Diffusion of the Stigma over the Finance Industry,” Journal of Business Ethics 130(2): 389-402 (2015).

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