On the moral limits of the labour market: Navigating ethical issues around occupational choice

Image by Michael Coghlan used under a Creative Commons licence

Thank you to Pete Robertson for this article looking at the problematic nature of one of the fundamental ideas in career guidance; the labour market.

Pete Robertson

Many years ago, I worked as a career adviser in a pupil referral unit (a centre for young people excluded from school). I occasionally had a young person tell me they wanted to be a drug dealer.  They were always immature for their age. Sometimes I think they wanted to shock me, but sometimes they seemed to mean it, and were perhaps a little in awe of the glamour of older teenagers involved in the distribution of drugs. They were ripe for recruitment into gangs.  My immediate response was to try to engage them in a conversation about what it might really be like (not easy given my limited knowledge of gang culture) and compare it to some alternatives. This raises a wider question. What should career advisers do when confronted with occupational choices that are, for want of a better word, wrong?

Recently this question was brought into sharp focus because Birkbeck College of London University’s Career Service has stopped supporting graduate recruitment by fossil fuel companies .  This action is at least in part a response to student activism.  It represents environmental ethics being applied to labour markets in general, and a direct questioning of the role of career services in supporting industries that harm the planet. 

Where are the moral limits?

This is a specific instance of a much wider issue of how morality intersects with the buying and selling, a topic addressed by Michael Sandel’s book What money can’t buy: the moral limits of the market. Sandel includes some examples from the American labour market. These include agencies employing low paid people to stand in queues so that wealthy people can get tickets or get preferential access to legal or democratic hearings. In his description of insurance markets, he explains how employers have taken out life insurance on their employees, and profited from their deaths, often receiving better and faster pay-outs than the deceased’s family. 

As career advisers we are particularly interested in choice of occupation of course, and moral issues arise not just in relation to the environment. Other industries that may be excluded by careers services include gambling and pornography. 

The latter offers a particularly complex example. There is a spectrum of activities in the sex industry from fully legal to fully illegal/appalling, with many points in between these two extremes.  It is an area where there is a complex and competing intersection of views which variously privilege protecting women from exploitation, religious morality, libertarian politics, crime prevention, public health, local residents rights, and a less powerful lobby representing worker’s rights: The English Collective of Prostitutes.

Sex work is not unique in the biological engagement of the worker, if we stretch the definition of ‘work’ somewhat. Historically a ‘wet nurse’ was an important occupation. Today, people might be paid for participation in medical trials.  The payment of surrogate mothers also resembles work. Legislation about these activities varies between nations of course, and medical ethics is complex.   

There is also religious work.  A claim to moral authority is central to religious institutions, and religious career choices represent a ‘calling’ with an explicit moral dimension.  Paradoxically some such institutions have positions counter to mainstream society’s view of the rights of women at work, banning the ordination of women. These are views are held so strongly that that they are granted a special status beyond the remit of equality legislation. 

And then there is the business of war. The sales and manufacture of weapons and armaments has attracted intense moral criticism, as an industry willing to profit from killing and maiming.  Similar critiques are directed at the military themselves.  But these views depend on context – they ebb and flow with political tides. British arms supply to Yemen attracted harsh criticism in the press until they lost interest in the conflict, whilst supplying arms to Ukraine has been widely applauded. Similarly attitudes to the military may be condescending in peacetime, and then rapidly rehabilitated if they are engaged in a conflict with widespread public support, a phenomenon best illustrated by Kipling’s poem Tommy

Moral questions within the workplace

Even where an industry and its products are benign, the way in which workers are treated, can of course be morally questionable. This can happen in work happening outside of employment and health and safety law.  In the UK this may be restricted to specific industries (such as agricultural picking). In some nations outside of Europe unregulated work represents a substantial proportion of the labour market, presenting career services with a real challenge as to what extent they should engage with or advise on these activities. 

Even where work is ostensibly within the law, there may be issues of bullying, employee surveillance, denial of rights by classifying people as self-employed, or daily uncertainty about access to work.  These issues have arisen in the UK agriculture, distribution, taxi, and social care sectors for example. 

So what?

The point of this article is not to argue for specific rights or wrongs in work. Rather it is to point out the rich complexity in the morality of the labour market.  Some illegal activities can be understood as labour that is sold in a market. Some conventional work operates in an illegal economy, avoiding tax and breaching safety or environmental regulations.  Other activities that are very much respectable and mainstream involve elements that could be viewed as raising serious moral and ethical concerns. Moreover, the moral lens with which we view occupations is not fixed, but changes over time.

Career development practitioners, particularly those in training, need to think about this so they are not taken by surprise when an issue of the ethics of work arises in their practice.  They need to work out their own views so they can be aware of what predispositions they bring to a career conversation.  They need to think about to what extent they can park their personal ethics while prioritising their service users’ moral compass. They also need to be aware that the rich and privileged are better placed to position themselves on the moral high ground of the labour market, because they can afford to make trade-offs between income and virtue signalling, and they may have the influence to brand their chosen activity as ‘good’. 

There is nuance in the morality of the labour market.  Whilst there are potential question marks over many industries, we cannot withdraw from engaging with all of them. And yet accepting that perspectives on an industry or occupation may change over time is not an excuse for a kind of moral relativism that justifies promoting any kind of work. The lesson from the Birkbeck Career Service example is that there may be a right time to take a stand on a specific line of work. There is also a lesson that careers work can interact with a wider political education.  Careers services could actively engage with students, draw on their political passions to get them interested in career issues, and enable them to make choices about which industries and occupations the service should engage with – choices that have real implications for students lives. 

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