I recently read “The Great Google Revolt” in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicles the conflict between Google and some of its employees over company practices that some of their employees deem unethical. I found the article interesting because I taught computer ethics for many years and I’ve always wanted to do meaningful work. I’ve also written about ethics and tech previously in “Are Google and Facebook Evil?” “Irrational Protests Against Google,” and “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.”
Working for Tech Companies
The tech giants—Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft—undoubtedly do things that aren’t in the public interest. Think about how Facebook allows the blatant dissemination of falsehoods in political material, a policy that subverts the integrity of the electoral process and undermines social stability. Moreover, much time is wasted on Facebook, YouTube contains a lot of junk, and staring at your Apple phone all day has its downsides. This list could go on.
Of course, not always serving the common good isn’t a unique feature of tech companies; other corporations do sinister things too. Oil companies fund climate change denial, thereby increasing the chance of a future environmental catastrophe that threatens our survival; tobacco companies systematically suppressed evidence of the lethality of their products for decades, leading to millions of deaths. This list could go on too.
So it’s hard to single out tech companies for criticism—especially as a transhumanist. If science and technology properly applied will help save us, and if rich tech companies support artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and longevity research, then we need big tech. If the American government won’t fund such research, then big tech companies are the only ones who might step up.
I do believe that tech companies have civic responsibilities, but taking such responsibilities seriously depends largely on creating a new economy, since the drive for profit, as opposed to increasing societal good, is a large part of the problem. We need an economic system that doesn’t emphasize profit, weaponize disinformation, encourage despoiling the natural environment and climate, and create vast wealth inequality.
But if you have a job at a tech company and you have moral qualms about how they use their technology, then your choices include:
- ignore your moral reservations and use the money (power) your job provides to help yourself and others, influence the political system, support worthy causes, etc. (Thus using a (partly) corrupt system’s money against them and their unjust practices.)
- change the company from within if that’s feasible;
- find a company whose values more align with your own;
- move to a less corrupt country than the USA (because otherwise, your taxes will support some things that don’t align with your values no matter who you work for);
- become a slacker if you have enough money and avoid working altogether;
- live “off the grid” so as to be even less complicit in societal corruption. (More about off the grid living can be found here.)
No doubt my readers can imagine other options.
What Work Should We Do and Why?
No matter what you choose remember that we live in a world where money is power. Money can then be used either for either good (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) or ill (Charles Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch.) So leaving your job will decrease your ability to do good unless, for example, you can make more money doing something else. The way the system is set up, you just have to have something to be able to give something.
While I am sympathetic to opting out of the system, it is nearly impossible to avoid the global social-economic-political system altogether. No matter what you do or where you go you are enmeshed within it. In addition, if we push our concerns about causing harm to their logical limit, simply living and consuming resources may be morally problematic. Living itself may entail a kind of existential guilt. Afterall what we necessarily consume—food, clothing, shelter—is unavailable to others if we consume them.
I suppose the philosophical problem is, to put it simply, how to do good in an imperfect and sometimes bad world. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any way to live in an imperfect world that isn’t (somewhat) complicit in evil. What then should we do? Here is how I answered the question in a previous essay, “Should You Do What You Love?”
So what practical counsel do we give people, in our current time and place, regarding work? Unfortunately, my advice is dull and unremarkable, like so much of the available work. For now, the best recommendation is: do the least objectionable, most satisfying work available given your options. That we can’t say more reveals the gap between the real and the ideal, which is itself symptomatic of a flawed society. Perhaps working to change the world so that people can engage in satisfying work is the most meaningful work of all.
Assuming you find work that isn’t too objectionable and somewhat satisfying, what is the point of doing that work? Here’s what I wrote in “Fulfilling Work.”
In the end, we are small creatures in a big universe. We can’t change the whole world but we can influence it through our interaction with those closest to us, finding joy in the process. We may not change the world by administering to the sick as doctors or nurses or psychologists, or by installing someone’s dishwasher, cleaning their teeth or keeping their internet running. We may not even change it by caring lovingly for our children. But the recipients of such labors may find our work significant indeed. For they received medical care, had someone to talk to, got their teeth cleaned, found an old friend on the internet, didn’t have to do the dishes, or grew up to be the kind of functioning adult this world so desperately needs because of that loving parental care. These may be small things, but if they are not important, nothing is.
Perhaps then it is the sum total of our labors that make us large. Our labors are not always exciting, but they are necessary to bring about a better future. All those mothers who cared for children and fathers who worked to support them, all those plumbers and doctors and nurses and teachers and firefighters doing their little part in the cosmic dance. All of them recognizing what Victor Frankl taught, that productive work is a constitutive element of a meaningful life.
Addendum – Previous articles about high-tech and work
Summary of “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist”
Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose: What We Really Want From Our Work
6 thoughts on “Is It Moral to Work for a Tech Giant?”
This is a really nice reminder that our little efforts, however cosmically minuscule, do have an impact. Thank you for your post. You’ve inspired me to find something unobjectionable and satisfying today.
If corporations are more powerful than governments,
public resources tend to decay and the masses get nickel-and-dimed into submission.
If governments are more powerful than corporations, the elite work in government, innovation withers and we tread water while Malthus fiddles.
In either case, it appears that feudalism is the default condition of anonymous human collectives. The elite see consistent progress, and are only vulnerable to black swan events (after which there is a chance for a generation or two of increased egalitarianism).
“Only” 16 years till 65. Will retirement matter? Will my savings be reasonably safe from ruin? What lies over the horizon … FDR or Mussolini?
The promise of a frozen head after 2036.
thanks Len. Hadn’t heard from you in a while and missed your comments. JGM
I’m an 18-year-old who’s struggling to make a college major (thus future career) choice because of all those moral questions coming when thinking about high-paying jobs in big tech companies. I’ve been searching a while for an article that can at the same time provide information about the field and guidance to answer my own ethical questions. This article completely nails it. Thank you Dr. John!
Autumn thanks much for your kind words. and good luck. JGM