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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Doing Their Jobs

Why being a mercenary consultant or lawyer is indefensible.

We know by now, or at least I hope to God we know, that “just doing my job” is not an excuse for aiding institutions that commit atrocities. What we know from the Holocaust (and the Milgram experiment) is that ordinary people are capable of doing horrendous things when it is their “job” to do those things. And so a central lesson should be: The fact that it was your role to do something, or you were instructed to do it, does not eliminate your responsibility. If you chose the role in the first place, and could leave the job, then to say “I had no choice” is false. You just chose wrong.

So “just doing my job” seems like pitiful logic when used as a defense by a member of a death squad or a concentration camp guard. We can see clearly how, if everyone thought this way, nobody would step up and stop a preventable atrocity if preventing it would involve violating the Rules. Yet this kind of excuse-making is still used by many people who aren’t concentration camp guards.

Take lawyers, consultants, and CEOs. Each inhabits a role in which they are supposed to follow a particular code. The code for lawyers is: do what is in the best interest of your client, so long as you do not violate the canons of legal ethics. The code for consultants is similar: help your client achieve the desired outcome, so long as you do not violate the canons of consultant ethics (there are fewer of these). The code for CEOs is: maximize shareholder value.

If a person uses this code alone to determine whether or not they should do something on the job, they can easily enable and worsen atrocities, or commit crimes. The CEO maximizes shareholder value even if that means “getting as many people addicted to your drug as possible (and then selling them anti-addiction drugs)” The lawyer serves the best interest of their client even if that means representing said drug company, burying anyone who tries to sue for damages in a mountain of discovery paperwork and making sure they’ll never get their day in court. And if you’re a consultant, it means: being happy to help a dictator optimize their repression strategy, or a right-wing president improve the efficiency of his deportation regime.

Take, for instance, the elite global consulting firm McKinsey and Company. A while back, we published an excellent exposé of the company in Current Affairs by an ex-McKinseyite. The writer, who wanted to stay anonymous, explained the firm’s basic framework for thinking about their role. They believe that they “do execution, not policy.” That means that someone else makes the decisions about what ought to be done, and it’s McKinsey’s job to help them do it better, whatever it is. The author of our McKinsey article shows what this has meant in practice, which is that McKinsey has worked for the most horrendous clients imaginable: They have helped the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia track its dissidents and helped Purdue Pharma sell more opioids. These may seem like self-evidently evil pursuits to choose to get involved in. But if your philosophy is “we do execution, not policy,” there’s nothing actually wrong with them. Thinking about the “big picture” of whether the underlying policy helps or hurts humanity is not your department.

It is not surprising, then, to find out that McKinsey chose to help Donald Trump improve the efficiency of his deportation regime, even though Clinton voters significantly outnumbered Trump voters in the firm. Even if you are personally opposed to Trump’s policies, it is perfectly acceptable to help Trump in “client-centered” ethics. What might be surprising, though, is just how far McKinsey went in furthering Trump’s goals. The firm was so pathologically committed to improving efficiency that it managed to horrify and discomfort Trump administration ICE officials. Read the report on how the firm advocated “measures the agency’s staff sometimes viewed as too harsh on immigrants”:

The money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with made some career ICE workers uncomfortable. They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees McKinsey’s team also looked for ways to accelerate the deportation process, provoking worries among some ICE staff members that the recommendations risked short-circuiting due-process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States. The consultants, three people who worked on the project said, seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations — actions whose success could be measured in numbers — with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings… The firm’s work showed “quantifiable benefits,” ICE officials stated in an October 2017 contracting document, “including increased total removals and reductions in time to remove a detainee.” … McKinsey’s recommendations for spending cuts went too far for some career ICE employees, and a number of the proposals were never carried out... In a statement, an ICE spokesman, Bryan D. Cox, said McKinsey’s work “yielded measurable improvements in mission outcomes, including a notable decrease in the time to remove aliens with a final order of removal.”

I’ll confess to you, my first thought upon reading this was: “My God, they’ll be producing ‘measurable improvements in mission outcomes’ for the fucking gas chambers.” Indeed, our anonymous former McKinsey consultant pointed out in their article that the company’s philosophy (which sees “ethics” as a matter of how you treat your client, not how your client treats anybody else) would not have prevented them from advising Bayer on how to optimize its production of Zyklon B.

How could McKinsey actually be worse than the Trump administration? Because it saw its job as “optimization.” ICE officers do not necessarily see themselves the same way. A few of them still seem to bring some of their humanity to the job and don’t want to do things that would, say, starve the people in detention. McKinsey believes that whether or not immigrants are made miserable is not its department. Its job is to take a desired outcome and figure out how to get it.

You see here a lot of the problems with capitalistic logic generally. If your mandate is to maximize shareholder value, your shareholders might get a lot of value, but you might do it by trying to get Coca-Cola to replace water for as many people as possible around the world. The economic roles that people inhabit in our existing institutions produce sheer absurdities: companies trying to create demands that they can then satisfy, or trying to bury evidence that they’re destroying the future habitability of large parts of the planet, even though everyone in principle wants a livable planet. Nobody within institutions can question this madness, because their role is fixed. If you build an institution where the CEO’s job is to maximize profits, a person who points out that profits are doing colossal harm will be performing their job poorly. This is why it is unlikely that “good CEOs” can fix the problems of capitalism. We need different kinds of institutions entirely, ones that are governed by different interests and serve the collective good rather than the selective good.

Here is an interesting snippet from the New York Times article on McKinsey:

The firm’s global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, assured [concerned McKinsey staff] in a 2018 email that the firm had never focused on developing, advising or implementing immigration policies… But the new documents and interviews reveal that the firm was deeply involved in crafting policies fundamental to the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

The Times implies Sneader was lying. Certainly, what he said was false. But I suspect he might actually have believed it, possibly even still believes it. He probably has some twisted conception where because the desired outcome (“optimizing deportation”) was fixed at the request of the client, McKinsey could tell itself that what it was doing was not “actually” advising the administration on what policies to have. (I’m not saying you should kill Khashoggi, I’m just saying that if you did, this is the optimal saw to use.)

This is a useful way of telling yourself that you’re not a bad person, even if (1) the institution you are performing work for is doing bad things and (2) your work is having the direct effect of causing the institution to do more of those things. Now, even some McKinsey people were disturbed by the firm’s work with ICE, though they and other top American consulting firms still do work for the murderous Saudi government. But this self-justification is still endemic, not just here but across the corporate and legal worlds: It is not me doing this, I am inhabiting the role of serving the client. So it’s okay if you’re a corporate lawyer, and you chose to be a corporate lawyer, and you represent Exxon, or you represent Harvey Weinstein, or you help a company bust a union. Yes, you freely acknowledge that your function is to further enable acts that cause harm. But you have constructed a story about a job-person who exists separately from yourself, and that makes it okay.

Sometimes I think one of the worst and most dangerous ideas ever put on paper was this one, from Adam Smith in 1776:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

It appears pretty innocuous, as well as true. The baker doesn’t produce my baguettes because he likes me. He produces my baguettes because I have the money to purchase baguettes from him. But this simple sentiment was easily transformed into: It is acceptable not to think about “benevolence,” because if each person plays their part and inhabits their role, pursuing their interest, the public good will be served. And that can easily be taken to extremes, where greed is good and/or it’s fine to spend your career writing press releases for a company that boils the planet as it’s filled with bullshit euphemisms about the company’s commitment to sustainability. You just do your job, and let someone else handle the “policy.”

In the 21st century, we must make every single person confront their choices and their roles. If you work in advertising or P.R. or consulting or the law, and you believe that serving the client ends the inquiry into whether what you do is right, you are mistaken. It’s not just P.R. types though. Lots of people do this. Plenty of scientists think that all they do is the science, and other people decide whether it will be turned into terrifying autonomous death robots. Or cops: “I don’t make the law, I just enforce it.” I am sorry, bud, but you help to make the law by enforcing it, because law exists to the extent of its enforcement.

One reason many people cling to excuses like “My job is to serve the client’s interests” is that you feel very rudderless when the existing rules melt away and you have to decide things for yourself. If the code of professional ethics in my field doesn’t determine what is right or wrong for me to do, then what does? My gut? If the Constitution doesn’t tell me, a judge, whether it is morally acceptable for me to implement the death penalty, then what does?

Well, you won’t get a satisfying resolution anytime soon. It’s the difficult question at the heart of all moral philosophy: Where do values come from? But we certainly can’t defer to “whatever rules happen to exist within an institution at any given time,” because ultimately someone has to make the rules, and if we’re not exercising independent judgment, the judgment will be made for us, probably by worse people. If we don’t apply our own personal standards, we will be like the ones who failed their tests of character under bad historical regimes, the ones who thought “just doing their job” was a permissible stance to take.

So: Don’t work at McKinsey. If you do work at McKinsey, quit. And if the ultimate effect of your work on the world is negative, and you’re privileged enough for it to be a choice (as most consultants and corporate lawyers are), then stop doing it. It is not easy to forge an independent moral path that doesn’t simply defer to authority. But it is the only respectable choice.

More In: Moral Harangue

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