Which organisations should we refuse to work with? An ethical and moral dilemma


This case directly concerns myself and others who work or used to work in business and industry. I was a technical consultant working for a computer company involved with the selling of computers and storage systems. By themselves computers do nothing – they are morally neutral, they require people to turn them on and use them. It is how and why they are used that can change this – they can be used for good or evil. The question is, what should I do when I know that the system is being sold to a company whose ethics or purpose is completely opposite to that which I believe in?

When reflecting on this, I am reminded of a guest lecture that I had at college (circa 1969), given by Professor Heinz Wolff. His thesis was that for all the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, to him one of the biggest crimes was that engineers sat quietly at their desk with slide rules and log tables determining which methods were the best to kill and then burn people. He said that, as people, we could not divorce ourselves from how the fruits of our labour are used. We have a moral duty not to do harm or help cause harm by what we do.

I was initially thinking of the issue of abortion, although the principles apply to other matters. To me, there is not a problem when thinking about a specific company or organisation. Marie Stopes International’s prime focus is offering abortion services, so I would have no hesitation in refusing to work on that account. But what about presenting at a general session to healthcare providers to which they and similar may attend? Is it reasonable to say that as it is a general session at which objectionable organisations have been invited to, but are not the specific focus, then it is OK to present and attend?

This approach could be taken for the NHS as a whole. It does sterling work and should be applauded; yet it carries out abortions and IVF treatments. Does the good that it does outweigh the evil? In general, the systems that I am involved with would be used for general computing within the NHS administration rather than specific departmental use, which tends to be highly specialized. So is it a valid argument to say that, as it is for the common good, it is acceptable to work in this environment, even though evil acts could take place resulting from their use? A general booking system, which is used throughout the hospital, can be equally used for making bookings for cancer treatment, eye clinics and abortion services. Does one evil act nullify the whole system?

This scenario can be extended to other areas. I have been involved with some classified work in government departments. We see in the media that on occasions some government departments carry out unsavoury acts; yet they also do good in protecting the country. How should we react when asked to do work for them? Nuclear weapons and the simulation of nuclear weapons testing consumes vast apart of computer and storage power. Should one work in this arena as a Catholic; are nuclear weapons so inherently evil that working on them is a sin?

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. There are some black and white situations where the answer is obvious, but in the middle there are many shades of grey. When and where to draw the line is up to each one of us. We must use our conscience as our guide. As always, the place to find the answer is when on our knees asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.