When your job requires immoral work

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Dear Father:

My friend works for a company whose methods she says are rather dishonest. She’s really not comfortable with the way they tell her to serve customers. She would like to quit, but she’s afraid for her own financial situation and for the verbal or emotional abuse she would likely receive from family members. (She’s also disabled.) As Catholics, what is our obligation to perform work that we have a moral objection to doing?
— Concerned Friend 

Dear Concerned Friend: The kind of problem you present here is an instance of what we call “problems of cooperation in evil.” Not that your friend is willingly cooperating in unjust practices, but rather that she finds her actions (in performing the otherwise legitimate exercise of her work) to be caught up in larger, work-related actions of her employers that are unjust. Her actions are like a cog in a wheel. She obviously does not intend the injustices being perpetrated at work. But she senses that her actions nonetheless contribute to them. 

Rightly, this raises a problem of conscience. Can it ever be licit to tolerate (without intending) that a consequence of my otherwise licit actions in the workplace have the consequence of facilitating someone else — my employer — in committing unjust actions? The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. The Church’s moral guidance here rests on the sometimes difficult-to-distinguish distinction between intending a moral evil and tolerating a moral evil; the former is never morally licit, while the latter at times can be morally licit. 

Wading through the complexities of the situation will require the prudent judgment of a well-trained moral guide who can apply the appropriate moral principles to the specifics of the situation. So your friend should consult with a Catholic priest whose judgment she trusts and who she knows has been well-trained in Catholic moral theology in a manner faithful to the Church’s magisterium. 

Nonetheless, I will offer here some more general guidelines by way of an example that can help to illustrate. Imagine that Bob is a mechanic at a garage. He begins to notice that the service orders are requiring him to remove and replace car parts that are still in good working condition. He begins to suspect his service manager might be taking advantage of unwary customers, writing up service orders for repairs their cars don’t need. When he confronts his manager, he is told in so many words to service the vehicles as he’s told and stop asking questions if he wants to keep his job. Bob is a single parent of two young boys, and the prospects for alternate employment are not good. Bob feels terrible that he is so closely and frequently caught up in schemes intended to cheat customers, but he really needs his job. 

From the standpoint of Catholic moral teaching, what guidance is there for Bob? Given the fact that he disagrees with the injustices being perpetrated by his employer, and given his difficult personal situation, we could likely judge that for the time being it is permissible for him to remain in the job. But he should not be complacent. Bob would do well to be actively seeking a new job so as to free himself from this entanglement. He might also consider discreetly chronicling the injustices being committed in order eventually to bring it to the attention of authorities or the media. He could also perhaps even find ways to alert potential customers to take their business elsewhere or to question work that has been done on their vehicles. 

In situations such as your friend’s, we should never simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well.” That could be tantamount to throwing in the towel and essentially buying into the unjust business practice (like a reluctant but ultimately willing getaway car driver in a bank robbery). Sometimes one’s involvement in an unjust practice can be so closely and tightly woven into the overall project that it becomes difficult to see how the employee could not also be intending the unjust outcome. That would be the case, for instance, if your friend were being required to lie to customers outright. 

If our involvement is such, and we have no other recourse (such as the protections of an employee-conscience clause), we should simply refuse the morally problematic actions and be ready to suffer the consequences, entrusting ourselves to God’s providence, preferring to suffer injustice, if necessary, rather than participate in it. 

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