Career planning, part 3

What is your moral state if you have a regular job? Meaning, you’re not clergy, you don’t work for a social justice organization, you’re not in a helping profession. You keep the lights on, maybe, or the supermarket supplied with food, or you write software — and there isn’t some brilliant social-justice purpose to your software. Much of what you do is morally neutral. You write code for automating things, which could be, say, drug discovery for curing cancer, or drug discovery for germ warfare, you aren’t in control of how your product is used. Are you missing something morally? Is God angry at you?

We’re not supposed to believe that ordinary life is less virtuous than professional religious life, but I spend my time thinking about code errors, the Product Life Cycle Process, corporate branding, repositories, workflows, etc., etc., not social justice, the doctrine of the Trinity, family dynamics as acted out in church communities, proclamation of the Gospel, etc. Why wouldn’t I regard my work as less worthy?

My first employer in high tech made early automation products that enabled an Apple 2 to monitor the condition of a piece of equipment. When the condition exceeded a range of permissible values, the Apple 2 could send an output signal to make something happen. Example: You put a temperature sensor on a furnace. In a software program on the Apple 2, you entered the highest and lowest temperatures at which you wanted this furnace to operate. When the values returned by the sensor exceeded the upper limit, the Apple 2 sent a signal that turned the furnace off so it wouldn’t overheat. When the temperature value dropped below the allowable range, the Apple 2 sent another signal to turn the furnace back on.

Because our products were most often used in laboratories, I fooled myself into thinking that they were only used for beneficial purposes. I had no way to prove this, but I had to believe that my work was contributing to something that was virtuous. I’d been a teacher before I switched careers, and I had had plenty of illusions about the inherent virtue of teaching. God, I was full of myself.

Well, we added a new product, a counter-timer board. Yes, you used to have to buy a circuit board, open up your computer chassis, insert the counter-timer board into the motherboard, and close up the chassis before you had a computer (a desktop computer, that is) capable of performing multiple counts at a high speed, with accuracy.

At just about that time, my employer hired a new marketing guy who was smart as a whip. At his first presentation, he told us that he’d found a potentially lucrative market for the counter-timer board.

He said, “The Army’s got a shrapnel gun that can fill a stadium in a matter of seconds. It fires in microsecond bursts, and the Army needs a way to test if it’s firing evenly. If we can get in there, this could be a great opportunity.” (He really was a very smart guy. He came in, took a tour of the company for just a few months, and got himself back out of there. Most of the rest of us were gotten out of there by a massive layoff not long after.)

I just went looking for shrapnel gun or shrapnel weapon and didn’t find anything obvious, but that moment, in that meeting, is still emblazoned on my memory after all these years. I am sure that’s what he said.

The shock of that day has stayed with me. I finally realized there is no way to control how a technical product is used except in the most extraordinary cases. For example, the United States and the USSR, and ultimately many more countries, have cooperated to control the use of nuclear weapons.

But with run-of-the-mill technical innovations, there’s no way to tell how a commercial product will be used. I make my living working on products the application of which I can’t control. Am I complicit when they are used to perpetrate horrors?

Is God angry at me for the work I do?

No matter how overtly virtuous your work may be, if you have a retirement fund or other savings, your money very likely is invested in products that can be used for good or ill. You can’t control their application.

Are you complicit? Is God angry at you?

August 30, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

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