Thursday, August 11, 2011

Op Ed for beginners

I recently came across a discussion online about the merits of protecting employees' rights to refuse to perform certain tasks because of their religious beliefs.  It was surprised to see how quickly and summarily the benefits of conscientious objection were dismissed.  So I wrote a response.  This is it.

It seems to me that the relative benefits of allowing conscientious objection in the workplace form something of a continuum, based on the inconvenience to a) the employer and b) the consumer.

Of course, this issue usually comes up in the context of deeply held beliefs on sensitive subjects, which makes rational analysis difficult, so I’ll pick an innocuous (if lame) example.


If my job is putting green marbles into yellow cups, and that’s all I am supposed to do, and I conscientiously object to putting green marbles into yellow cups, then by definition I am not doing my job, and I should resign.

But what if my job includes 500 different tasks, and only one of them—putting green marbles into yellow cups—is objectionable to me?  And what if I am really good at the other 499 tasks?  And what if my employer has other employees who are perfectly willing to put green marbles into yellow cups—enough employees to put all the green marbles into yellow cups?  Then it may very well make sense, from a policy perspective, to keep me around.  Of course, the more tasks I find objectionable, the less effective I am as an employee; and some tasks are absolute requirements for a job.  But if I only object to a few non-essential tasks, I may still be “doing my job,” and my employer may want to keep me around. 

(And, from a policy perspective, I would imagine that most employers want principled employees—that they don't want automatons who will do what they’re told and have no scruples of their own.  Many employers want employees who have active consciences—because of religious or non-religious beliefs—and who act in accordance with their consciences.  For example, an employer may want employees who don't steal, not just because it's office policy, but because they (the employees) believe it's wrong

But if an employer hires people who have consciences and seek to obey them, there is a significant chance that their consciences will not coincide completely with the employer’s—that is, some of those conscientious people may oppose things that the employer doesn't personally find objectionable.  However, because the employer wants conscientious employees, and because these employees are otherwise competent, the employer is willing to indulge their conscientious objections, if it does not unduly inconvenience the employer.

The benefits of a) having conscientious employees and b) having more employees to choose from (as opposed to being limited to only hiring those whose conscience mirrors the employer’s own) may well outweigh the costs of accommodating the employees’ consciences.)


To return to the admittedly lame marble example:  Say one of my assigned tasks is putting green marbles into yellow cups.  And say that, while I am perfectly willing to do the other tasks associated with my job, I simply will not put green marbles in yellow cups.  I believe it is wrong.

One day, a customer comes along, and that customer wants me to put a green marble in a yellow cup.  I, of course, refuse.  Now, if there is no other way for the customer to get a green marble in a yellow cup, and if the government has ruled that customers have a right to a green marble in a yellow cup, then my conscience is preventing me from doing my job, and I should resign. 

If, however, the business next door provides green marbles in yellow cups, or if one of my co-workers is willing to provide the customer with a green marble in a yellow cup, then my refusal to provide a green marble in a yellow cup does not unduly inconvenience the customer.  I can thus refuse to provide the green marble in the yellow cup and still be doing my job. 

(This distinction has come up in America—the difference between the right to a service and the right to demand that a particular person perform that service.  And it makes a certain amount of sense, too, since forcing someone to perform a morally objectionable task is very intrusive, and should be avoided if possible.  In this case, such an intrusive result is likely not necessary if the end result—providing the service to the customer—can be accomplished with minimal inconvenience.)

Of course, whether the conscientious objection should be protected by the government is a different issue.  I was merely trying to establish that conscientious objection in the workplace is not an inherently bad thing.  (Though presumably the government could, for reasons similar to those attributed to the employer above, determine that the benefit of having conscientious citizens outweighed the costs of their objections, and that government might choose to encourage conscientiousness by protecting the conscientious objectors.)

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