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A Book Buyer in the Middle

DILEMMA

I am a middle manager in a large retail book store with responsibility as a buyer. I feel caught in the middle. In general, I like my job very much, but I am faced with a conflict over a small percent of the books I need to deal with. These have questionable content, in my view. Though I am not trying to be a censor, I find some of these books go beyond good taste in their sexually explicit material, and I would rather not deal with them. Yet they sell well, and this is part of my job. My company, of course, is interested in the bottom line. What would you advise?

A West Coast book buyer

RESPONSE

What you are facing is a classic “dirty hands” problem: the tricky question of figuring out how much moral compromise one should tolerate in order to accomplish a larger (and hopefully ethically superior) goal. You have a couple of options. Each has its trade-offs. First, you can quit or threaten to do so, thereby making a strong statement about the objectionable materials. Given the profitability of the items, however, your employer will probably not stop selling the materials, and your ability to impact the organization and what it sells will be effectively lost. However, you will have “washed your hands” from the activity. Alternatively, you can stay in your current position to see if you can push things in a different direction. While your hands will be “dirty,” this seems to be a more likely means of effecting actual change. An important point to remember is that it is easy to focus on obvious “sin” industries, and ignore a host of other moral problems. Dirt-free hands in any profession are products of denial or tunnel vision.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
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Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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