Just Doing My Job

A room, white-walled and sterile.  A man, sitting at a control panel.  Behind him, a researcher, older, wearing a white lab coat and watching the proceedings.

The man reads a question aloud to the room.  A light flickers on his control panel.  “No,” says the man.  “I’m sorry, that’s incorrect.”  He hesitates, then pushes a button.  A scream comes from the next room.

The man reads another question.  Another light flickers–another incorrect answer.  “That’s incorrect,” says the man, and–almost cringing–pushes the button.  The scream from the next room is louder this time, and banging can be heard against the wall.

“Is he okay?” asks the man, standing up.  “We should go check on him.”

“Please continue,” says the researcher calmly.

“He said he had a heart condition.  These shocks could hurt him.”

Implacably, the researcher intones, “The experiment requires that you continue.”

With a sigh, the man sits back down.  He reads out another question.  There is no sound from the next room.  No light flickers on his panel.  Upon receiving no answer, he administers another electric shock, and starts to read the next question.


What I just described is part of The Milgram Experiment.  It is not, as the participant is lead to believe, a test of memory.  It is a psychological test–and it is the man administering the “shocks,” not the man in the next room, who is being tested.  Will he continue to administer the “shocks” (which he believes are real) just because he is told to?  What about when the man in the other room (an actor, who is not being shocked at all) stops screaming?  Will they continue to increase the voltage as they are instructed?

It is a question of “following orders.”  What happens when your boss, your superior, or your leader tells you to do something that you believe is wrong?

The extreme example of this is Nazi Germany, of course.  What if you’re a German soldier who is ordered to round up Jews for the concentration camps?  The Nuremberg Trials’ defendants all claimed that they were just “doing their jobs,” after all.

But let’s get more controversial.  Recent news has picked up the story of medical professional Catherina Lorena Cenzon-DeCarlo.  The story goes, she was a nurse at Mount Sinai Medical Center.  She was also a practicing Catholic who supports the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance: she believes that an unneccessary abortion is taking a life.  Allegedly, her supervisors would not allow her to bow out of assisting a doctor perform an abortion, nor would they allow her to ask another nurse to cover the case for her.

When Revelife featured a blog post on the subject, many commenters said things like, “She should either do her job or quit.”  “She signed up for this sort of thing.”  “Faith shouldn’t have anything to do with doing your duties.”  Alternative examples were put forward: “What if there was a Muslim firefighter who refused to rescue someone because they were a Christian?”  “What if there was a Jehovah’s Witness nurse who refused to give me a blood transfusion?”

However, if the principle we’ve drawn from the Milgram Experiment and Nuremberg remains sound, is it right to ask an employee to preform an action he/she perceives to be immoral?  Especially if the employee considers the action to be life-taking?


Someone who believes as Catholics believe regarding elective abortions essentially believes that they are taking a life.  Unlike the Muslim-fireman-refusing-to-rescue-a-Christian example (which seems more bigotry than anything else), or the Jehovah’s-Witness-refusing-to-give-blood-transfusions example (the imposition of one’s own convictions on a patient), what you have here is someone trying to maintain their own convictions on themselves–to not participate in the (as they see it) needless taking of a life in a profession dedicated to saving life.

Even the military–a profession whose purpose is martial–has noncombatant roles for conscientious objectors.  It does not seem a stretch to me to extend the same courtesy to the medical professions.

Mere employment should never outrank ethical conviction.  At the end of the day, every human is responsible only for their own actions/inactions.  “My employer told me to do it” is no justification for doing something that you yourself believe to be unethical.

And by extension: there are some saying, “Well, don’t become a nurse or doctor, then.”  Nonsense.  It is wrong to bar entire professions to people who have an ethical objection to one controversial non-integral task that profession can perform.  There’s a difference between saying “If you have Christian convictions about stripping then don’t become a stripper” and “If you have Christian convictions about abortion than don’t become a doctor.”  Stripping is an integral part of being a stripper; one particular elective procedure is not an integral part of being a doctor or nurse.  There are lawyers who never work at criminal trials; there are teachers who never teach math; there are doctors who have never performed abortions.  So it is nonsense to close an entire subset of professions to people of a particular ethical conviction when that conviction is not about something integral to those professions.




In the Milgram Experiment, at some point every volunteer participant paused and questioned the experiment (whereupon the researcher ordered them to continue).  But 61 to 66 percent of all participants followed orders–despite their personal misgivings, they continued to administer the (alleged) increasing electric shocks even after the man in the other room stopped screaming.  In the original experiment, out of 40 participants, while 14 at some point refused to administer further electric shocks, only one participant refused before the 300-volt level.  Out of all the times this experiment has been conducted, never has a participant left the room to check the health of the “victim” without first asking permission.

We as humans have a disturbing tendency to simply “follow orders” without questioning them.  And sometimes, when someone does question or resist what he or she is ordered to do, the rest of us react negatively.  That isn’t right.  We should fight to see everyone’s ethical convictions, even those convictions that we ourselves don’t share, preserved in the workplace.

Mere employment should never outrank ethical conviction.


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