It’s Just Business

One of the underlying meta-narratives in the torture report last week is the story of two Mormons who may or may not have just been doing their job. John C’s post teased at this just a bit, but the commenters took it further. (You should read his post before reading this one, BTW, as I’m leaving out almost all of the details around what happened.) 

One commenter asked “What about LDS people who work in the weapons industry making killing machines?” Are they to be judged by the same standard?

Is it fair to expect an LDS moral code to help us make decisions about how we make our living?

To me, the answer is an obvious “yes,” and our moral code should make it very hard for Mormons to be comfortable in a lot of the industries in which we excel. John’s post dealt with professionals who used their talents to defend torture, but we could just as easily be talking about any job that makes the world worse, hurts or takes advantage of people, grinds the faces of the poor, etc. Are there Mormons in those jobs? Why do they choose those careers, and why should we as a community be OK with that choice?

I don’t mean this to be a blanket condemnation. We have the potential to do good in just about any field. The world needs righteous lawyers, bankers, advertisers, soldiers, legislators, and everything else.

I work in PR and advertising, which I consider to be two of the most destructive industries in our culture. Too much of it is about making people unsatisfied with their status quo, getting them to chase after happiness by spending money on things they don’t need, presenting them with visions of a lifestyle that can never be theirs (and probably doesn’t exist anyway).

My agency is an ethical bunch, so we don’t do that work. We focus on storytelling around education, science, and technology, building communities, and supporting the growth of small businesses. And we are by no means the only values-driven agency–there’s a whole sub-industry of us.

The same is true in finance. Ethical investing is a thing. RJH just wrote about it last week, and it goes beyond religion–it’s one of the driving principles of several of the biggest Silicon Valley venture capitalists as well.

If you talk to those VCs, or to recruiters, they’ll tell you that building a business around values and ethics is massively important. Customers care about it, and so does talent. The best and brightest are increasingly choosing to work at companies that give them a sense of mission, a purpose beyond profitability, and a feeling that they’re contributing something meaningful to the world.

 I would hope that our LDS culture instills that same value system in us. So fine, we tend to be an ambitious people, we’re deferential to authority, and there’s a whiff of prosperity gospel to how we sometimes approach our career tracks. But Mormons continue to be sought after by companies and industries that value integrity and honesty. It speaks well of us.

Returning to the comment above about faithful LDS members in the weapons industry, I don’t know how I would resolve that in my mind. I’d love to hear from commenters in professions (like mine) where there are ethical gray areas. And I’m sure there are “Oppenheimer quandries” in lots of industries–situations in which “ethics” and “greater good” are hard or impossible to figure out.

That’s an extreme example, and here’s another one:  There are also “Alyssa Peterson quandries” in lots of industries–situations in which faithful LDS members have to choose between right and wrong in the workplace, and deal with the consequences. Perhaps we can learn from Daniel, who managed to thrive within two different alien political systems, even while he carved out a space for himself and his friends where they could act according to their own morals (you know, aside from the occasional execution order).

To put a finer point on it, the choices we make in our workplaces, including our choice of profession, are a huge part of who we are. Filing those choices in a different folder from the choices we make as Mormons, parents, friends, bishops, or believers doesn’t make sense.

To crib and paraphrase a sentiment from RJH’s post:

“We need to make money but we also need to do so in a way that minimises, as best this fallen world can allow, the blood and horror to which our labors might contribute. We can and should lead the way here.”

Would love to hear-read your thoughts on the ethical dilemmas we confront in the workplace. And fair warning: We had a lively conversation around torture last week on John’s thread, and would prefer not to rehash it here.


  1. When I was a … uh, child, let’s pretend I was a child … living in Reno in the early 1970s, and a young woman living in Las Vegas in the late 1970s, it was Church practice that you could not hold certain jobs nor even pay tithing if you were as a bartender or on the casino floor as a croupier or dealer or related jobs. However, you could be a bishop or stake president or teach youth Sunday School classes (I choose those callings advisedly, because they fit this situation) if you worked upstairs in the same building for the same company, but in the executive suites in the legal, accounting, or property management departments.

    I don’t/didn’t understand the reasoning for the difference in treatment, and have no idea at all what the rules are now, but I offer it as somehow relevant to this discussion.

    I’ve been fortunate in the four wildly different careers I’ve had never to have been faced with serious question of whether or not the work was worth doing or the business was ethical. Fire department — law office — library science — history. There’s nothing inherently unethical about any of them, so ethics came down to whether or not my employers and I were fair to each other. For the most part, though, I drifted into that work without plan or preparation. I could as easily have drifted into an unethical industry, I suppose, and I feel for people who, without intending it, have been caught up in such work. It isn’t easy to change careers. I couldn’t have done it if I had had dependents.

  2. That is so fascinating, Ardis, about the seemingly blatant inconsistency in those policies you observed!

  3. Yeah, very strange. What about the casino security guys who break the legs of card counters? I’m assuming they were ward clerks on Sundays, yes?

  4. I heard the rumor years ago that the policy Ardis mentions was so the church had leadership in the area; if everyone associated with the gambling industry was off limits, they wouldn’t be able to staff the wards and stakes. Pragmatism.

    And, I just changed my pseudonym to “anon,” since I’m mentioning real people here: I was told last year (I certainly didn’t ask!) that a relative of my husband didn’t have a temple recommend because—and only because—he deals cards at the casino. If that’s true, and knowing the family, it well could be, the policy has lasted in some form or another at least through 2013.

  5. I have worked in sales for years and am in college admissions now – which is sales, even if educators don’t want to admit it. There are obvious, stereotypical issues in sales with what you ask in this post – particularly in commission-only jobs where selling steadily is the only way to protect and nourish family. Even in arenas like college admissions, some institutions are funded primarily through tuition – and the same pressures often apply there, especially in small colleges that lack a substantial endowment.

    I decided long ago that I simply would not misrepresent anything or pressure anyone into buying what I was selling – and that has kept me from most of the issues of the industry, often by keeping me from companies that employ such tactics.

    On one occasion, I had to resign from a job (not sales) in order to avoid following a highly unethical order. That caused the hardest economic period of our lives, but I am glad I did it.

    Otoh, I have worked in stores where I have sold cigarettes, alcohol, lottery tickets, etc. I see some lines as quite clear and others as much more ambiguous – but, as far as the Church itself is concerned, I like the concept of teaching correct principles and people governing themselves. I much prefer fewer explicit, official rules than more.

  6. Anon, maybe that was the case years ago, but I doubt it. I live in the Reno area, and there is no shortage of leadership outside the casino industry – which employs a very small percentage of the workforce, and an even lower percentage of the professional workforce.

  7. I had a mission companion that came from a family that farmed tobacco in Virginia. Great missionary, strong testimony, didn’t understand why I thought his family business was a strange choice.

    There is (or used to be last time I was there in the late 90″s) a large grain terminal on I15 just north of Idaho Falls that says Budweiser on the side of it. The locals are growing malt barley in abundance apparently.

    There isn’t a single person in Las Vegas that doesn’t derive their living from the gaming industry, no matter where they work or what part of town they live in.

    I agree with Ray, let people govern themselves, otherwise we will spend more time than needed on beams and motes, splitting hairs until we find that any job could be one that “makes the world worse, hurts or takes advantage of people, grinds the faces of the poor, etc.”, depending on the viewpoint of the person sitting in judgement.

  8. I recall a certain LDS actor getting grief for appearing in a beer commercial. Meanwhile, the local (mainly LDS) farmers don’t seem to get any grief whatsoever for selling barley to the local major beer plant.

    I think attorneys often have more difficulty than other professions. You’re supposed to represent your client to the best of your ability, but sometimes that means you’re advocating for scumbags. Plenty of attorneys around these parts are in stake presidencies, including some who I know represent scumbags in family law cases. Definitely a struggle, and unfortunately it’s not always black and white. I’m a sole practitioner who’s been doing quite a bit of family, and I’m trying to transition away from it right now, partly because of the contention involved in most family law cases, and partly because sometimes my work is a darker grey than I’d prefer.

  9. Talon–it’s actually just south of Idaho Falls.

  10. Great questions, Kyle. I assume nearly every industry can present some ethical difficulties at one time or another, and nearly every business, if you run the trail down far enough, profits in some way from something unethical.
    One branch in Belgium had a small family with three girls. The father had converted and was in the Bishopric, the mother hadn’t. He’d sold his profitable wine shop, which he felt was right, and struggled to find enough work to match it. When I was there, he was running a small mail-order/delivery frozen food business. I don’t know that I could have made a similar decision, given the family and financial pressure, but it reminds me of… well, ears to hear, I’m paraphrasing.

    A man realizes his job is unethical, but his Satanic employer says, I own you and you have nowhere else to go. The missionaries show up, and say, accept the gospel, and God will take care of you, because money is not the main thing in this world. Nibley talks about this repeatedly.

    I don’t know that I could make that kind of choice.

  11. Easy for Nibley to say, says I. And I say this as a fan of Nibley.

  12. I’m a grunt in graphic design, web development, and marketing. So far, I’ve only had to work for companies with neutral to positive inpacts, thankfully. I have refused to work for grey area companies like MLM-type nutritional supplements, etc. But I don’t forget that if it came down to creating dubious material in order to feed my kids, saying no might be a luxury I can’t afford.

    There are, however lines I hope I would not cross even to accomplish that. One thing life has taught me, however, is to never condemn someone for a decision I’ve never had to make. Until you’re faced with it, you can’t really know what you might do.

    I am frequently astounded, however, at the lack of ethical practices (especially regarding intellectual property) among “higher ups” in marketing, even Mormon ones. I don’t exactly get in trouble, but my reputation often suffers for asking questions regarding legality and ethics. Ridicule seems to be the only answer for concern over unethical but legal situations. In part because of that, I’ll probably always be a grunt.

  13. Thanks Anon2, my memory fails me, it’s been a while since I’ve made the trip. My favorite part of that stretch of I15 is driving through the ancient lava flows.

  14. Yeah, there’s a few fun patches in an otherwise dreary landscape. Some nice geological formations along the way. I prefer driving it in the spring, when everything’s still green.

  15. MikeInWeHo says:

    Is there an ethical way to work in the torture industry, though? I would liken it more to drug dealing than comparing it to beer manufacturing and blackjack dealing.

  16. There are only a small handful of noble occupations. Thumbing your nose at one vs. the other misses the point unless you’re a farmer or a carpenter (or a bit of both).

    In an ideal world we should all do our share doctoring, nursing, farming, carpentering, cooking, teaching, and if need be soldiering and policing. Ultra Specialization has brought many great comforts and tremendous advancement, but I do wonder if it’s also the reason for so many social problems.

    Of course, broken families, depressed seemingly meaningless lives without faith as seems the trend, is the price we pay for the miraculous inventions we enjoy. I’m not sure I’d trade the agrarian lifestyle for antibiotics, polio vaccines and the like, but I find it hard not think we can ever have the altruism our clean handed NGO employee friends assume they have without someone else making money selling porn, weapons, fast food, cars, and over priced medecine that might do as much harm as good to actually fund their seemingly altruistic pursuits. The blood and sins of this generation pervade us all.

  17. “In an ideal world we should all do our share doctoring, nursing, farming, carpentering, cooking, teaching, and if need be soldiering and policing.”

    I really disagree with this. I think the “idealism” of the agrarian society or a society where everyone takes a turn at everything is a myth. I don’t think it would help with any of our social problems. You’d just have more people getting stuck doing things they don’t like and aren’t good at, which would decrease their own quality of life. And we’d all suffer from inept practitioners in every field because there would be no experts. Just as an example, If I get cancer, I don’t want see someone who’s occasionally a doctor but sometimes a farmer. I want someone who spends all his/her time studying cancer. I think specialization is what advances us toward Zion by allowing us to develop our own special gifts that benefit each other. Granted, some people may not use their talents for good, but taking away everyone’s opportunity to use their talents wouldn’t benefit anyone. JMO

  18. Hook 'em Horns says:

    Anyone who has a 401k (or similar retirement plan) is investing in, and therefore unwittingly supporting, an industry that is probably not consistent with LDS beliefs. I’m there are investments in defense manufacturing companies, alcohol producers, showbiz companies that make questionable materials, manufacturers who own and operate inhumane sweatshops, etc…..

    Once you chase that rabbit down the hole, it’s hard to stop.

  19. Hook em Horns, where do you think the line should be drawn then?

  20. Hook 'em Horns says:

    That’s the question of the day!

    Will I be held accountable for my investments? If that’s the thing that condemns me, I’ve lived a pretty good life.

  21. The recent publicity surrounding Tim Ballard and Operation Underground provide an interesting perspective here. While I don’t know the specifics, it seems that Tim’s team consists of several LDS members who have been trained as special forces/CIA officers, who have decided to use their skills to fight human trafficking. I can only imagine what some of these members have done during their careers, and the question for the final judgement: did their good deeds counteract the horror inflicted? God only knows.

  22. TIAA-Cref and other 401K Groups offer socially responsible investment packages which mitigate some of these problems. I’m told (I’m not an expert) that although they are still good options, they don’t equal the traditional options. During my last visit with my financial planner, he said that if more people supported socially responsible options, the more robust they would become. A cohort of academics has been moving in this way, but it is still just an “alternative”. (Disclaimer, this is not investment advice.)

  23. Yep that's me says:

    When I was a teenager a counselor in the Stake Presidency was a VP at Enron and left the company because he was asked to do illegal/unethical stuff there and refused to do what his superiors requested. A little while later there was the whole Enron scandal, his example always reminded me of what it means to have genuine integrity. He had to leave his job, uproot his family and figure some stuff out career wise, but he landed on his feet and moved on with his life with his integrity and freedom intact.

  24. MikeInWeHo,
    I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “the torture industry,” though. I think there are industries that produce things that can be used for torture, but it would be oversimplification to equate the end use of some products with the industry itself. That isn’t to say that some specific individuals aren’t wholly dedicated to products or services that have little, if any, other use than for interrogation, but I think the number of such people is likely so small that referring to it as an “industry” is sort of weird. Maybe I’m wrong.

  25. In 1992, I was a temple worker while employed by a casino. Granted, I was working the main bank, but the instructions I received at the time were “As long as you’re honest in your dealings and giving a fair days work for your pay, you’re fine.” We had LDS blackjack dealers, and one of the slot machine techs was in a bishopric.

    On my mission, I knew several DoD contractor types, including one who watched guided missiles hitting Iraq – he jumped up and down shouting “My program worked! My program worked!” Others I knew worked on early drones, along the lines of gliders rather than helicopters. Their reasoning seemed to be that there was nothing dishonorable in designing tools that troops could use to protect themselves, thus increasing their chances of returning home to family after defending the Constitution from all enemies. I had dinner one evening with a temple sealer who had test piloted the Enola Gay, and I got to be rather close to a Bishopric member who had been a Manhattan Project physicist. Both were humble men, and both felt they had defended liberty and country to the best of their abilities. A former home teaching companion of mine is now in the military, learning Arabic and interrogation techniques. He’s a great guy, and he’s doing this country a great service.

  26. Fair enough, Scott. I agree there is no such thing as a torture industry, at least in the U.S. My point was this: Certain activities are so outside-the-pale that that participating in them is indefensible, period. Of course, there won’t be universal agreement as to what those are but torture would come close. Hence the need for Dick Cheney, et. al. to deny that what we did was torture. Even countries that routinely torture prisoners deny it. So maybe the better question is this: What constitutes torture?

  27. I had a boss years ago who was high up in the made-for-television movie industry. He was one of the final approvers of the budgets for the movies.

    He told me that one day he was looking at the proposed budget for a particular movie and realized consciously something he had known subconsciously for a long time: There was money added to each cost category to pay for the drugs and sex that was assumed as part of production. He said he sat there as it washed over him what he was approving – then he turned in his resignation and walked away from the industry completely.

    He wasn’t LDS – or even Christian. He simply was a good man, trying to live a moral life.

    That, I think, is the key: Consciously considering one’s actions and their effects and acting according to the dictates of one’s own conscience. Yes, there are things that I think are so bad that there should be universal refusal to do or profit from them – but those things are miniscule in quantity compared to the other choices we face and, too often, ignore. Those myriad things can be complicated, messy and very difficult – so, if I am to err in judgment, I try to err on the side of understanding and love rather than reflexive condemnation. Others’ shoes and all that.

  28. I have gotten into interesting discussions about what is LEGAL vs. What is ethical. Sometimes they are not the same. Case in point: until recently, I have been a student of midwifery, and as an advanced student, I was still NOT allowed to legally supervise a birth without my training midwife present. Should be straightforward. Birth is not always. What if I arrived first, the baby was coming fast, and the midwife on her way got in an accident? I had been to many births by then, plenty of training. Should I leave the mom to deal by herself or go in her house and help deal with the birth?

  29. This question is loaded with all kinds of ethical issues. For example, why is it wrong for the card dealer and not for the owner of a casino. If one of the Marriotts were to call COB, I’m sure someone would be available to take their call (probably at a very high level). If the poor dealer were to call COB, he would be referred to his bishop. And up until recently, the Marriotts were involved in the pornography business. And they are still involved in selling alcohol. And they pay their maids so poorly that a NGO is trying to get Marriott customers to tip more.

    Besides the issue of the ethics of our employer, there is also our personal behavior inside the company. How far should we go to further our Christian goals? For example, is it okay to bypass company procedures to get excess stuff (materials, supplies, food, etc.) to the poor? How far should we take this. I work for a water agency. We cater to large, rich water districts. For political reasons, our leaders feel we have to do that to survive. How far should I personnally go to assist those in smaller districts and in isolated areas with their water needs. Particularly, if they are not on my agency’s priority or funding list. Should we cut corners to help the poor?

  30. Many things considered not ethical or moral in regular realms become acceptable for medical purposes (nudity, examinations, drugs, semen samples…) Physicians in my family seem to have developed a devil-may-care (some might even say warped) sense of the human body – nothing seems sacred when day after day is filled with bare flesh and probing. Ethics get sticky – especially around terminal patients – there are some gut-wrenching moral dilemmas in the medical world I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

  31. I think completely speculative posts about real people (“Tim’s team consists of several LDS members who have been trained as special forces/CIA officers, who have decided to use their skills to fight human trafficking. I can only imagine what some of these members have done during their careers, and the question for the final judgement: did their good deeds counteract the horror inflicted? God only knows.”) cross a line. As admitted, that’s “imagining” what “God only knows”. As for the Marriotts, they were in my previous stake and it seems that they hardly hold any leadership positions anymore, but instead own a lot of stock.

  32. John Mansfield says:

    My engineer’s mite these days goes to nuclear weapon platforms. That work used to be in service of the existing Ohio-class, and I feel comfortable with their existence and my nation’s use of them and their predecessors, though others may feel otherwise. Now we are working on the next generation, the first of which are projected to be commissioned in 2031 and continue sailing for 50 years, long after I’m dead. The unknown character of that future nation that we are bequeathing this destructive power is a different moral problem than the previous one that I felt satisfied with. Mostly, the job is simply a good setting to do the technical work that I am capable of, but it is also an act of faith that my successor Americans will not be more terrible people.

    To a point made previously by Ronan (RJH), a dozen years ago I did a job for Starbucks, and he’s right. Analyzing coffee roasting processes felt impious in a way that the efforts I’ve spent to understand vessels capable of launching death on millions never has.

  33. Then as the crowning savagery of the war, we Americans wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilian population with the atom bomb in Japan, few if any of the ordinary civilians being any more responsible for the war than were we, and perhaps most of them no more aiding Japan in the war than we were aiding America. Military men are now saying that the atom bomb was a mistake. It was more than that: it was a world tragedy. Thus we have lost all that we gained during the years from Grotius (1625) to 1912. And the worst of this atomic bomb tragedy is not that not only did the people of the United States not rise up in protest against this savagery, not only did it not shock us to read of this wholesale destruction of men, women, and children, and cripples, but that it actually drew from the nation at large a general approval of this fiendish butchery.
    [ . . . ]

    Thus we in America are now deliberately searching out and developing the most savage, murderous means of exterminating peoples that Satan can plant in our minds. We do it not only shamelessly, but with a boast. God will not forgive us for this.

    J Reuben Clark, April 1946 General Conference

  34. This has been an interesting thread to read and consider. The question of ethics and LDS beliefs does seem to collide in very odd ways.

    I have worked for years in Film and Television. I live on the Wasatch Front so I’ve had experience working for Church AV from time to time. Allow me to share a couple of observations.

    Church AV requires a small army of people to work on Sundays producing “Music and the Spoken Word”. I’ve heard it said that the Church has more people working on Sunday than WalMart. Of course Music and the Spoken word is a great program…but it seems that it could be taped on a weekday and people allowed to have their Sundays off if it were that important.

    My second experience is typical of any time I’ve worked for LDS Productions (Church produced or otherwise). Actually it’s two experiences tied together. In the first scenario, there is a lot of pressure to lower your rates or even work for free with LDS Producers (it is common to have people say that it’s helping further the Lord’s work). They are always trying to get something for nothing. The second aspect to this is the implied opportunity to have a ‘spiritual experience’ by doing the work. In fact I worked one film with the now ‘infamous’ Richard Dutcher where he mocked the fact that getting people to be extras in a scene he was filming was easy because they all wanted to come work just to have the experience. He was right…later that night on the news they interviewed some of the extras on set and they gushed about what a testimony confirming experience they’d had portraying pioneers in the ice cold and how they felt connected to their ancestors. Dutcher didn’t even have to provide costumes as the nearly 100 extras brought their own clothes and worked all day for free.

    This trickles over into all kinds of business’ in Utah that are run by all kinds of Church leaders. There is a very low willingness to pay for work like art, advertising, video production, etc…

  35. Sometimes I wonder about the ethics of people making money off the gospel itself: LDS artists, musicians, filmmakers, bookstores, etc. On one hand I’m glad they’re there, because otherwise I wouldn’t have their art, music, whatever. But I always feel a little twang of discomfort when I get a Deseret Book catalog in the mail encouraging me to buy ALL THE THINGS.

  36. Members desire to be good, but their loyalty to and faith in their authority figures/institutions gets in the way.

    Mormonism teaches a brand of ethics that I think would be called “institutional ethics” or nationalism. (Philosophy is not my strong point, I majored in engineering.) We were trained to build up the Kingdom of God i.e. the Church. We’ve often been told the church is perfect, but the members are not. We should trust the church, and not the arm of flesh. Obedience to law (the church once again) is liberty. We sustain our leaders by never questioning their authority. No one says, “no” to a calling.

    Take Ardis’ moral conundrum. Why is it okay to do the professional work of a gambling institution in private offices, but not work at the gambling tables? If gambling is inherently bad, then enabling this industry is not a righteous act.

    By applying institutional ethics you get Anon’s solution. What policy “builds up the church”? Members at the gambling tables affects the church’s reputation negatively, while professionals up in an office do not. According to Anon, the church needs professionals in its ranks for “leadership” more than it needs its non professional members performing jobs that have “the appearance of evil”. (Appearances are very important, every member is supposed to be a missionary and set a good example.)

  37. This post leads me to reflect on issues I’ve not considered carefully in so long I’d come to believe I’d resolved them all positively. I worked at a gas station and once found myself selling cigarettes to my adult nephew. Previously, I worked at an agricultural plant that treated animals in a way my teenage self knew was brutal, and later I worked at a restaurant whose menus proudly proclaimed “No MSG” even though there was a giant bucket of the stuff in the storage room. It seems my hands are not as clean as I thought. How did I miss all that?
    I’m pleased that my professional career is less fraught, but perhaps that’s only because I choose to see it that way. What will condemn me? The work I do or the way I choose to see the work I do? Could Jesus have been the Christ if he was raised by a politician, or apprenticed as a soldier or merchant?

  38. Jenny, and how about the Deseret Books of Paul H. Dunn?

  39. Some of these comments remind me of the ‘banality of evil’, when one is in the killing business at a 9-5 desk job. It also reminds me of Nietsche’s quote “beware when fighting monsters that in the process, you do not become a monster yourself.”

  40. I know I’m late to the conversation, but I do want to comment on this statement: “the question for the final judgement: did their good deeds counteract the horror inflicted? God only knows.”

    That’s not actually the question. The questions are: “Did they sin?” and “Did they repent.” We don’t — can’t — make up for our sins. Only Jesus can do that.

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