It’s one of the oldest questions known to humankind. It’s pervaded every discipline, from philosophy and psychology to astrophysics and agriculture. It’s stumped people at confusing hurdles and encouraged dialogue between diverse groups.
How should I live?
That’s it. And it seems like such a little question really. But like some kind of optical illusion, the longer you stare at it, the larger it becomes.
I’ve struggled with ethical concerns all my life. I think everyone does. Should I do this? It seems right, but how do I know if it’s right? How can I plan for the consequences of my actions? Does it matter what the consequences are, if the goals were good? What is ‘good’ anyway?
I’m a really fun person to hang out with, you can probably tell.
My job throws up its own ethical dilemmas, and they’re both quite unusual and genuinely difficult to grapple with.
I used to work in advertising (more on that later). I hated it – not the job itself, or the people I worked with – but the fact that I was working in a vapid, vacuous industry with whose premises I didn’t agree. But I did it because I was supporting other people at the time, because I didn’t know what else I could do, and because it provided a secure monthly salary while I trained for other roles and worked towards having a different job.
Then I left. And, like I’ve written about before, I became a private investigator.
My reasons for doing this were twofold, if I’m honest:
- I wanted to protect children.
- I thought it sounded cool.
It’s a great job and I love it. And since starting it, I’ve done more and more work in the digital forensics field, because that’s where a lot of the child protection stuff lies.
I’ve become involved with projects where corporations, government agencies, law enforcement people and so on all get together to work on initiatives that will help children. I’ve worked with charities, with universities and schools, with independent researchers.
I love this job. I want to do even more of it. The fact that it can be risky – people who create and distribute indecent images of children online often have links to more organised criminal networks – doesn’t bother me.
I feel like I’m doing something I agree with; something I should be doing.
And that’s a wonderful feeling.
Except that it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
A couple of years ago, at an event whose purpose was to build technological solutions to protect children online, and to investigate perpetrators of this kind of crime, I met a guy.
Let’s call him Dave.
Dave might be a real guy, or perhaps he’s just symbolic of the industry as a whole. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Dave and I got along pretty well. We discussed how I was looking for a new place to live, he was funny and interesting to talk to, and we both cared a lot about child protection issues.
Dave – in fact, several Daves, because we’re not really talking about a single person here – said my experience and take on things sounded interesting, and invited me to do some work with his company.
So then I started having these meetings. About child protection.
“What’s Wrong with that?” you ask
Nothing, of course. It’s wonderful that different industries can work together.
But Dave’s company develops weapons, and Other Dave’s company sells them, and Dave 3’s company distributes them to countries who use child soldiers.
I started having these meetings in huge corporate offices, which would start with a really interesting discussion about how we could protect children, but would then veer off into land-seeking missiles. I started going to industry events that purported to be about forensics in general, but which had a heavy emphasis on weaponry.
I discovered after attending a talk by Jonathan Powell at LSE that I was really interested in counter terror. This only exacerbated my dilemma.
Now I find myself in this strange position.
I’ve left advertising because I disagreed with it. I work in digital forensics, with a specialism in child protection, because I like both of those things, and find them interesting.
But that involves working on collaborative projects with companies I do not support.
But we need their technological expertise, their resources and – yes – their money.
But the irony of using money made from selling weapons to child soldiers, in order to fund child protection initiatives, is not lost on me.
So what do I do?
Well, at the moment, I’m working on projects mainly on my own. When I do dip into industry ones, I try to make sure they’re either government/LE (which aren’t without their own ethical dilemmas at times), or academia, or corporations whose ethics policies don’t make me want to throw up.
It is hard though. I suspect that at some future point I’ll end up in another room with people who do things I really disagree with, and that we’ll have to work together on something. Perhaps even writing this post, on this blog in my tiny corner of the internet, will burn some of those bridges.
But it’s a really interesting question, and I’m a writer, and that means I want to write about it.
And it’s partly pertinent because this week has hammered home to me just how good it feels to stand by your principles.
A couple of days ago, a company I used to work for (Company A) was acquired by another company (Company B). Company B is basically the devil. By which I mean hideously unethical, fraught with really awful court cases, and just generally not someone you’d ever want your name associated with, if you’re a nice, ethical person who doesn’t agree with ruining other people’s lives for the sake of making an extra buck.
Life has not been plain sailing since I left Company A. It was a few years ago now, and those years have been hard. This year, not so much. But the first few – especially the first one and a half – were really, really difficult.
I found it much harder than I’d expected to build up a client base. The two clients I had managed to attain didn’t pay up – one for no good reason, the other went into administration.
I lost my pet snakes and all the possessions I had that were worth anything. I lost my house. I lost all my money.
At the worst point, I found myself sitting on a bare living room floor, with things in boxes around me, knowing I’d have to sell another one or two things in order to pay for the van that was going to move me back into my mother’s house, which she was moving out of. I was clutching my phone and considering calling the Samaritans, or doing something more drastic.
I didn’t do either of those things.
I picked myself up, dusted myself off (literally – packing is dusty work) and went busking. I got enough money to pay for the van. I watched my beloved snakes being put into pillowcases and taken to better homes, homes that had the money to care for them.
I watched my beloved piano being shifted out of the living room on a little trolley thing, by two men who loaded it into the back of a van and drove it away.
My landlord was kind and repaid my deposit in full.
Several years on, life is good. I’m in my own place again (well, renting, but renting something that has my name on the tenancy), making rent each month, and not having to worry too much about day to day survival.
Business is fairly good. It could be better, but it could be much, much worse. As I well know.
But when I got a phone call to tell me that Company A had sold, I wondered whether I’d made the right decision when I left. Whether the years of struggling – and that’s not an exaggeration – had been worth it. Whether I should have bought my share options before leaving the company, rather than using the money I’d set aside to funnel into my new business, which took ages to work out.
And then I found out that they’d sold to Company B.
I was shocked. Stunned. Disgusted. To say the least. Mildly horrified that I’d had any hand at all in making Company B’s life easier, even though I could never, ever have imagined that this would happen when I first started working for Company A.
But then, as I stood in my dusty living room, in a flat where the boiler doesn’t work, the bathroom still doesn’t have a proper floor, and the kitchen cupboards have literally fallen off the walls, I felt something I don’t think I’d ever felt before in my life.
I felt completely, totally, 100% happy with who I am as a person.
Because I realised the alternative. I realised that I could still be one of the people working for Company A – that I might have had to say the words “Hi, I’m Scar, and I work for Company B” (and frankly I’d rather shoot myself in the face).
Instead, standing there surrounded by food from the Basics range of the supermarket, books from charity shops and a bed from Freecycle, I felt truly at peace with who I am. And – perhaps weirdly – vindicated. Vindicated that I’d stood up for myself and left when I did, that I hadn’t bought my shares and so didn’t have the dilemma of not wanting to take Company B’s dirty money. And so, so happy that I can introduce myself, look people in the eye and stand behind who I say I am.
Because you can never really know the consequences of your actions. But you can try to make ethical decisions with the information that’s available to you, at this moment. Now.