A more than insignificant number of our peers now at Duke will go on to become bad people that do bad things. People who, whether indirectly or by calling the shots, will be responsible for countless instances of unnecessary suffering.
On its face, this seems absurd. We know that our fellow classmates aren’t all sociopaths. So how do Duke students, who were admitted in part because of their “outstanding character,” transform to become so cynical in their view of ordinary people, so callous in their pursuit for wealth, so...evil?
Look around you, the transformation is already starting. Over the past couple of weeks, the world’s largest and most maleficent companies have been recruiting students to work in their cherished halls, take lavish trips across the world (even if they end up within miles of Chinese concentration camps) and most importantly earn a shit ton of money, fast. Your classmates, best friends, and the people you only wave hello but don’t speak to—in an effort to quell their insecurities or prove that their economics degree was worth something—are hushing their consciences to sell their labor and effectively launder their morality to corporations who have no moral compass.
We know that more than a third of Duke graduates will go directly into jobs in the tech, finance, and management consulting industries. When you include the American healthcare industry built upon turning illness into profit, that number jumps to more than half.
These decisions don’t all stem from free-will choices. Duke has intimate relationships with these companies, some of their CEOs sit on our board of trustees and can influence university policy. Duke promotes their ability to recruit on campus via career fairs and info sessions. Like every other private research institution, Duke spends its money strategically to hone the skills necessary to enter these annals of power. From a business perspective this makes sense: Duke promotes the schools, majors and opportunities which will yield high-earning alumni that will hopefully donate enough money to get a name on a building and keep the operation afloat (and maybe earn their kids admission).
While our society’s determinants of job prospects are larger than individual, it makes my stomach churn when I hear the people I love—the people I know have strong hearts and brilliant minds— writing off selling out as funny, only to never meaningfully come to terms with their decision.
Implicit in the joke is a recognition that something isn’t sitting right.
What we choose to do with our short time on this planet has impacts beyond our bank accounts. If you choose to work for a big investment bank, you’ll likely spend your time crunching numbers for the companies responsible for the 2008 financial crisis which plunged 100 million people (real humans, not numbers) into poverty, or figuring out ways to maximize the returns from hundreds of billions of dollars in fossil-fuel investments. Joining the ranks of Duke’s prestiged management consultant alumni network will likely see you work for a company that “helped the maker of OxyContin fan the flames of the opioid epidemic” which kills 47,000 people a year. If you like computers, you could find yourself building the algorithms that inform autonomous-flying-killing-machines (that’s bad, by the way). Entering the healthcare route isn’t much better. You’ll probably be working for an insurance company whose material goals are to make a handful of executives hundreds of millions of dollars a year while during the same time period 45,000 people will die because they’re uninsured.
I’ll admit that even in the worst examples, not all employees of the company knowingly commit these acts. But it is the case that workers within large corporations, especially those at entry-level positions don’t control the direction of the projects they work on, let alone the projects they’ll never know about.
Signing a contract to sell your time and productive capacities to a company is a tacit endorsement of their actions, especially when (by virtue of their position as the entity paying your wages) your life is largely dependent on their existence and success as a company. The members of the mafia who don’t do the killing, who might be relegated to something as banal as accounting, are still members of the mafia.
Some will defend their decision by arguing their participation in this moral quandary is necessary. All this argument accomplishes is obfuscating what is descriptively true and what is normatively correct. Just because it requires wrongdoing to be “successful”, doesn’t mean that should be the case. If the world only provides opportunities for self-actualization at the expense of sorrow, then let’s use our intellect to change it.
It might seem daunting, knowing that so many of the livelihoods presented to us as the most viable have deadly strings attached. Perception alone cannot explain this fear. The nature of the world-system that is (and we should call it what it is) global capitalism is daunting. Wealth within it is mutually exclusive, and the methods by which it was collected and continues to be protected are violent.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
We are not, however, totally at the whim of these systems. It is because the system is so large and its interconnections span the globe that small differences in decision-making by people who hold immense amounts of power have impacts that reverberate to affect millions of people. Duke will teach us how to hold immense amounts of power, it’s up to us how we use it. The decision to legitimize a company’s actions by signing up to do their bidding may mean the difference between life and death.
There are good people, including from schools like Duke, doing good work in the world. There are teachers dedicating their lives to bettering their students’ lives. There are civil-rights and immigration lawyers who spend time they don’t even have trying to defend the most vulnerable against the most powerful institutions in the world. The work to make the world a better place is there; what’s missing is the imagination and resilience to take it on.
It is unfortunate that the best-paying jobs in the world require willful ignorance of those who live in anguish, but they do. The distinction is clear: we have the opportunity to either enrich ourselves and the few around us or we can fight to work so that every human, by virtue of their humanity, has the opportunity to live a happy, full, and productive life. Which side are you on?
Christian Sheerer is a Trinity sophomore. His column "Shadows of Tomorrow" typically runs on alternate Thursdays.