Deontological and Teleological Ethics at Work (and School)
Lucy Kellaway is one of my favorite columnists at the Financial Times, and her column yesterday, on Monday (If I outsource this column, would you really care?), was concerned with the recent headline-making case of a Verizon employee who personally outsourced his work to China (for a small portion of his salary) so that he could spend his day at work goofing off. (Cf. US employee ‘outsourced job to China’)
I agreed with this much of her column:
Like this programmer, most of us are employed to do specific tasks. If they are done well we should be rewarded. If not, we should be reprimanded. We are responsible for our work whether or not we do it ourselves; either way the incentive to perform is the same. The only risk in outsourcing our jobs at a fraction of our salary is that our employer gets wind of it and decides to cut out the middleman. Otherwise the arrangement has a lot going for it and has a fine pedigree. Getting someone else to do your work is the basis of capitalism. It is the oil that makes organisations run smoothly. The more senior and the better paid you are, the less you end up doing yourself: it is called delegation. You could say it is different in my case because there is deception involved. As it is my picture on top of this column, you are being led to believe that these are my words. Yet that seems a sentimental concern: surely it is enough that I vaguely agree with the arguments expressed and that the words are entertaining enough to make you want to read on.
But I think she misses the logic of her own argument when she writes this:
There is only one field in which outsourcing is not fine. It is never OK for students to buy essays on the internet and pass them off as their own. But that is because learning is about the process rather than the outcome: if you mess with the process, it counts as cheating.
If the principle at issue is the idea that the process counts (a kind of deontological work ethic), then the process of work counts, and the fellow who outsourced his job is defying that principle. If, however, the process does not count, but only the outcome counts (i.e., conseqeuentialism), then the personal outsourcer is justified — but so is the outsourcing student.
I have commented elsewhere (though I can’t recall where) how the contemporary university is driving its students toward being administrators of their school work, and what is being measured is not scholarship but one’s ability to juggle multiple tasks, including the task of outsourcing one’s homework and essay writing.
I know that this sounds horrendous, and it defeats the whole idea of a liberal education, but, like it or not, that is the direction in which upper division “education” is heading. Moreover, if we are going to be consistent, we ought to allow that this is legitimate in the case of school if it is also legitimate for work, and vice versa.
Kellaway goes on to praise a website called TaskRabbit that allows ordinary folks to outsource any errand for a price:
you can outsource anything in your personal life you can’t be bothered to do – from walking the dog to reading Bulgakov for your book group – as well as most things in your working life. Combing through the lists of tasks that have been recently offloaded on to others, I found a journalist who had paid someone about $50 to rewrite an article in seven different ways so they could sell it to seven different magazines.
Now, it seems to me that if process matters in anything it matters in walking your dog or reading a book with your book group — there is simply no point in having a dog if you don’t spend time with it, and no point in joining a book group if you don’t read the books — unless you have a real appetite for living a lie.
And while Kellaway objected to students outsourcing their essays, she had no problems with doctoral candidates outsourcing their research:
One postdoctoral student is paying someone to comb websites for specialised posts and is paying a measly $20 per application letter.
I certainly understand the difference outsourcing the dreary parts of research and outsourcing the actual writing of one’s dissertation, but I have also come to understand that process counts in research too. People learn things from disciplined participation even in tedious research, and ultimately the people who really love the topic they are researching will want to do the tedious research, because they want to immerse themselves in the subject.
But it’s not really about love, is it? It’s about professionalism, performance, and getting things done. It’s about the bottom line and therefore it’s about consequences. So if it’s not about love (and the natural deontology that follows from love), but rather about consequences, why should we get squeamish about students who, like workers, can deliver the right consequences irrespective of process?