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Searching for virtue, character and conscience in the workplace

Posted: June 6, 2012 - 12:01am

A few weeks ago when JP Morgan announced a $2 billion loss, Mitt Romney calmly remarked that this is how America works. “By the way” the GOP presidential candidate reminded us, “there was someone who made a gain.” And so it follows that the Board of Trustees of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation wants to pick up some gains from the thousands who fell into the losers’ column during the country’s home foreclosure crisis.

Like the majority of investors, our Permanent Fund took a hit after the collapse of the housing market in 2008. So it can be argued that the Fund’s directors are just seeking to recover what it lost. Besides, making profitable investments defines the work they’re supposed to do. They were hired for their financial management expertise, not to advocate for social change.

On the other hand, it seems the Fund would be feeding off the financial suffering of other Americans. And for those who believe that’s wrong, it becomes a moral issue as opposed to an analytical business decision.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described this quandary as questions of “how to be” versus “what to do”. Taking a cue from a college student debate about careers in the financial sector, he suggested that many people have lost the ability to distinguish virtue and character from accomplishment and success. If Brooks is right, then we should question whether, as a society, we place too much emphasis on the work side of our lives.

Consider the debate this past winter between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over health care coverage for birth control. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contended the ruling would force employees of Catholic organizations to violate their moral conscience. The only avenue they’d have to conscientiously object would be to risk losing their jobs.

Perhaps no one understands the moral dilemma between duty and life better than the soldiers we send into combat. Can they kill when ordered by their superiors or when confronted by ultimate conflict between life and death? If their religious beliefs forbid killing in any situation, they don’t have to be discharged. They can still serve in the military under the status of conscientious objector.

The case of Daniel Ellsberg is one that bridges war and work in the absence of religion and a soldier’s call to conscience. As a rifle platoon leader in the US Marines during the 1950s, Ellsberg wasn’t a conscientious objector. And throughout the 1960s he supported the war in Vietnam while working for the Assistant Secretary of Defense, as a State Department advisor in Saigon, and in the private sector as a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Then in 1969, Ellsberg wrote, his “moral perceptions and feelings began to shift with something of the effect of a Zen koan.” For two years he would agonize over the implications of morally opposing a war while towing the company line at RAND. In 1971 he solved his dilemma when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to 18 American newspapers. And although others in the government and at RAND agreed with him, they stood on the sidelines to protect their careers.

Of course, the decisions made by Permanent Fund investors don’t compare to the quandary Ellsberg faced. But can we be a moral society if we so casually accept, as Romney implies, the right to benefit financially from the losses of others? Are we selling our soul by choosing “what to do” over “how to be” for the sake our jobs, paychecks and our beloved Permanent Fund?

Certainly, society as we know it can’t function by making room for conscientious objectors in the everyday workplace. But doesn’t accepting the opposing extreme risk numbing our moral senses entirely?

Without a doubt, Ellsberg’s story is about a conflict none of us are likely to experience. But how he navigated to his decision is a worthy study for us all. He saw an America far more complex than the one Romney spoke to. And along with Brooks’ call to virtue and character, it might help us approach the ethical unison between work and life that we need to deal with the great moral challenges of our time.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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