I am working through a tutorial for a business intelligence program. Obviously, once you have big data, you want to use it. It’s impressive how easy this tool makes it to identify and display slices of information. When the data is about, say, access to PPE in urban medical centers versus rural practices, we probably think it’s good to have a view into bottlenecks, underserved areas, etc., especially if we have the will to improve matters once the problems are identified.
But if the same data slicing and dicing is done to records about your buying patterns, including your prescriptions, or your political donations, or your personal friendships and associations – with you identified within a hair’s breadth, laughable promises about anonymizing notwithstanding – then big-data capturing and analysis become malign.
My work is only glancingly related to the business intelligence tool I’m learning; I need only a basic understanding of how we use it in our product. But everything I work on has the same double-edged moral aspect. I wonder: can I always justify my work life by saying “The thing I work on is morally neutral, like a kitchen knife. You can use it to prepare a meal for hungry people, or you can use it to kill someone. It’s not the knife manufacturer’s responsibility to control how its product is used.”
I made one ethical decision when I was young: I wouldn’t work for defense contractors, even though, believe me, I want to be defended against people who wish me, you, and this nation harm. But I still decided not to work directly on shrapnel guns, cluster bombs – bombs of any sort – chemical weapons, anything developed with the sole purpose to destroy. The money in defense was better, but I decided to pass it up.
I guess that’s the one glimmer of virtue in my choice of work. Otherwise, I can’t disentangle myself morally from the economy; no one can, not even professed religious who depend on donations. Donations from whom? How was that money made? Truly, we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.
I confess that I am entangled in sin, not just the sin of the evil world around me, but my own. I think about my work life – fruitlessly. Without a doubt, I benefit from the development of the weapons I decided not to touch. My decision largely means that I depend on other people’s willingness to do what I wouldn’t do. In the meantime, I’ve worked in many industries on products that could be used for good or ill, and washed my hands of moral concerns.
March 15, 2020 COVID-19 Infections and Deaths