Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What Happens to Those We Rightly Cancel?

UPDATE: I'd like to clarify what I am asking here. Many people say that this scenario described below is unrealistic, as Bob will be able to get a job somewhere, or because racists will rally to support Bob. That might be true, but it's not what I'm asking. What I am asking is this: According to a popular view, if Bob is exposed as a KKK member, no one ought to hire him. No one ought to do business with him. Imagine, then, that people perfectly follow these supposed moral norms. What then happens to Bob? Does he have to starve because no one may legitimately hire him or do business with him? If you respond by saying that we should pay Bob basic income, then that seems perverse, as it means that Bob's racism results in us all working for him. 

         People use to worry that one of the supposed evils of capitalism could be that ideologically motivated employers might refuse to hire people who had beliefs or ideas they disliked. Employers might refuse to hire, say, an anarchist, and then the poor anarchist would have no recourse but to starve. 

         Of course, when genuine socialist states appeared, we saw this kind of worry realized en masse. At least in capitalism, people benefit from competition. If lots of people ostracize you for your verboten ideas, the wage you can demand becomes lower, which makes hiring you a good deal (because hiring you becomes more profitable), which in turn induces the less ideological or greedier capitalists to want to hire you. But when the Central Committee of the Communist Party owns everything and wants to ensure political uniformity, you must fall in line or not eat. 

         Oddly, though, today it is more common to hear people complaining about the opposite issue. If a university employee tweets something racist, sexist, colonialist, or whatnot in his spare time—or something that someone might take mistakenly take to be that even when it isn’t—students will often demand the person be fired. So-and-so is racist and thus should be ostracized and fired. 

        I can see the appeal of this position, even if it is often enforced in bad or excessive ways or against innocent targets. We wouldn’t want to hire some QAnon crackpot in our department. I don’t befriend KKK members. 

         Nevertheless, if you find this line of thinking appealing, I have to ask you, how far should it go? Suppose Bob works as a cashier at QwikCo Gas and has been exposed as a KKK member. Many people think it would not merely be permissible, but obligatory for Qwikco to fire him. They also think that when Bob applies to nearby FastGas for similar job, FastGas not only may but should turn him down (assuming they know about Bob’s KKK involvement). 

         Suppose Bob remains unrepentant. If you think, then, that no one should hire him, we then must ask, how should Bob eat? How can he get money to pay his mortgage? Indeed, given that you think employers should disassociate with him, you might for similar reasons hold that businesses should refuse to sell him food and clothing, issue him loans, or whatnot. 

         But now we’ve effectively given him a death sentence through market ostracism. No matter, one might think. Maybe his friends can feed and house him instead. However, if we should not do business with Bob because of his horrible beliefs, then it is unclear why his friends should continue to continue to befriend him, or offer him any such charity. Not only would feeding and housing him seem to excuse his rottenness, but that money could have been used for more deserving recipients of charity. Further, if Bob started his own business, the reasons that count in favor of refusing to hire him as an employee also count against becoming his client.


         Perhaps to avoid such problems, you might say that Bob should lose his job, and no one should hire him either. But, perhaps, you concede that he should still be able to buy food and clothing from most stores; he should not be expelled from all of market life. For money, perhaps, you say that in a just society, everyone should receive some basic, sustaining income if they cannot get a job. 

         But notice how perverse this is, in its own way. Everyone is obligated not to hire Bob, on this line of reasoning, which means we are obligated not to hire him in a mutually beneficial arrangement in which he contributes to the social surplus. But then, to keep Bob from starving, we are obligated to redirect some of that social surplus his way, all while he is effectively forbidden to work. So, now, to avoid wrongly associating with Bob, but also avoid sentencing him to death, we refuse to let him work for us but we all end up working for him. 

         So, what should we do with Bob? I admit, I don’t really know. Once you claim that QwikCo should fire him and others should refuse to hire him, it’s hard to avoid this result. This result seems unacceptable. But I see the appeal of saying that QwikCo should fire him.