My first-generation immigrant parents from Vietnam have played a pivotal role in my life’s direction. The moment they made me test into my local school district’s gifted program, I knew that their main goal for me was straightforward: Success through any means. So, when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in political science at a small liberal arts college, they were aghast.
When my parents talk to me about success, they’ve never given a thought about the ethics of finding a job. In my eyes, I will never have the privilege to entirely stop seeking work from unethical companies. My story is not unique, but it is one many have never experienced.
Students at the 5Cs should have more empathy for job applicants who might have to go against their personal moral values to fit into an unjust economic system, where actions can’t fully align with stringent views of collective responsibility.
Last February, an opinion article for TSL by Devon Baker PO ’22 painted a picture of this ethical dilemma, arguing their view that “students are willing … to be pipelined into these companies without enough consideration as to whether they as students are doing harm by choosing to work for particularly unethical companies.” I believe they, and many students at the 5Cs, assume too strongly an entry-level worker’s potential degree of harm and fail to understand that idealistic “ethical” jobs scarcely exist.
The question of consequence is an important one. The framing of consequences shifts as a person has a greater stake in their company, as they assume more responsibility, and their actions, therefore, have more impact. No student or freshly graduated worker can have a similar impact.
Furthermore, if a Pomona College student refuses to take a job as an intern for Goldman Sachs, that position would simply be filled by, let’s say, a Claremont McKenna College student, thereby negating any societal “net positive” that refusing to take a job at a destructive institution would create. Theoretically, real reform might happen if unethical jobs were completely boycotted, but given that high demand exists for big business, banking and all other corporate jobs cannot be ignored.
Of course, aside from consequential effects, people do have the agency to choose where to work. However, we shouldn’t frame the dilemmas people face when choosing employers as ones purely of morality. Economics doesn’t allow individual moral agency to fully exist, because practically every large organization in the United States either employs unethical practices or otherwise has some harmful effect in society.
Baker, for example, describes how students should “think of things in the context of what jobs for what companies align with your values.” Many students have goals to avoid exploitative for-profit companies by working for nonprofits. But even working in nonprofits could contribute to a nonprofit industrial complex that siphons power to the wealthy through tax-deductible donations that let the rich decide for themselves which causes deserve support.
Working in public sector jobs would also, in line with arguments about pure moral obligation, be supporting Indigenous genocide and the murder of children, since our government has never been perfectly ethical. In our world, no purely ethical jobs exist.
Obviously, there are limitations to an argument shifting the blame from individuals. Every job-searching student has a moral compass. Going into jobs completely antithetical to one’s values is not socially responsible, but that’s a situation that doesn’t apply to most students looking for entry-level jobs, including 5C students. There’s a difference between working for a company that is completely against one’s values versus working for a place that doesn’t entirely comport with one’s values.
When it comes to more realistic entry-level job choices, we can’t shame those trying to earn a living. A college degree on its own doesn’t guarantee prosperity, especially for lower-income students. If students find themselves in less than savory jobs, hopefully they will use the power and capital gained from those jobs to fight for just causes. Always blame institutions and legal systems for unjust harm, not young workers with limited options.
Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He is a stressed freshman looking to work in public policy.