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Question 113: Is it morally wrong to increase efficiency at the cost of jobs?

I work in a field called “engineering economy” that studies mutually exclusive alternatives for achieving a result, such as providing a service. The measures are in terms of dollars; the tools are a careful analysis of costs and benefits, and evaluation by an economic model showing cash flow over time.

The analysis frequently concerns mechanizing a labor-intensive process. Usually, the benefits result from reducing the number of employees needed to produce goods or provide a service. The payback period, in which all the costs will be recovered by the reduction in payroll, generally is only a few years, and the cost after that may be cut by half or more. Jobs eliminated in this way often are low-paying positions—telephone operators, data entry clerks, cashiers.

Mechanization has been a very important factor in the economic development of every prosperous nation. Can you imagine having all our telephone calls handled manually? But in certain segments of our own economy and in the less affluent parts of the world, job creation or retention might be more important than economic efficiency. Considering the value of the work to the workers and their need for income, it seems to me there must be some point at which replacing workers with machines becomes immoral. How do I recognize that point if I reach it in my work? When, if ever, must I give up my job?


The questioner’s work is good in itself; harm to displaced workers is a foreseen but unintended side effect. So, this question calls for judgment with regard to accepting the bad side effect and for norms of justice and mercy to shape that judgment and the questioner’s action based on it. Though those norms are the same in both affluent and poor nations, their concrete demands depend on all the relevant facts, and so differ in different situations. Employers who use new technology to increase efficiency have a limited duty to give displaced workers other jobs, retrain them, or help them obtain other employment; displaced workers also often deserve public assistance. The questioner need not give up his or her line of work, but should take appropriate action to encourage employers and governments to fulfill their responsibilities toward displaced workers. In a particular case, nevertheless, fairness or mercy toward workers threatened with egregious injustice could require that the questioner quit a job in protest.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You are right to be concerned. Management decisions adversely affecting many employees all too often are made solely with a view to maximizing profits. But work is a good that fulfills persons while capital and profit on investment are only instrumentally good (see LCL, 756, 763). So, the effects of your work in engineering economy upon displaced workers surely deserve consideration.

Before addressing your question, I shall deal briefly with two related matters.

First, some enterprises are radically flawed. They provide an immoral product or service, such as pornography or abortion, or else their essential policies are gravely unjust—for example, by deliberately violating just and applicable laws, exploiting workers, defrauding customers or suppliers, or unreasonably damaging the environment. I assume you are alert to such moral flaws and would refuse to serve any enterprise in which you found them present, unless doing so helped reverse the unjust policy.

Second, trying to provide a product or service “more efficiently” sometimes really means compromising its quality. That compromise is likely to be unfair to consumers, particularly if most of the savings are taken as profit rather than passed on. However, since you say nothing about this matter, I assume in what follows that your work does not reduce quality.

Turning to your question, I think you do have some responsibility for the adverse effects of what you do on workers. But I think your responsibility is more complex than merely identifying a point at which your work would be immoral and quitting your job if you reach that point.

Obtaining desired, morally acceptable results with less work certainly eliminates drudgery and frees people for leisure and/or other, more productive work. Moreover, the new process always opens up some new jobs requiring greater skill and offering more rewards, financial and other. Plainly, then, there is nothing inherently wrong either in constantly trying to provide a useful, morally acceptable product or service more efficiently, or in what you do, namely, finding more efficient means to desired, morally acceptable results.319 Any harm to workers who are displaced is a side effect, which you need not intend. Indeed, though the managers who employ you plainly do intend to cut their payrolls, they are hardly likely to intend that displaced workers remain unemployed. Thus, the moral question concerns accepting unemployment as a side effect.

Displaced workers do not always suffer unemployment or other harm; they may even be benefited by finding other, better ways to use their abilities. But in many cases, workers do suffer unemployment and consequent harm, and the question is whether those who determine policy can fairly accept this side effect and you can fairly participate in bringing it about.

People who are unemployed due to mechanization or other causes sometimes are more or less responsible for the hardship they and their families experience. That is so if they imprudently failed to save or even went needlessly into debt, improvidently counting on greater employment security than they could reasonably expect. Occasionally, too, workers make unreasonable demands that provoke management into finding technological ways of displacing them. People also have a lifelong obligation to educate themselves so that their talents will provide good service to others. Unemployed people who cannot do available work because they have neglected to develop their capacities share responsibility for their situation. But granting all that, even many people who have done their best to husband their resources and develop themselves are badly injured when technological advances eliminate their jobs.

Whether or not the workers who are about to suffer such injury were treated fairly in the past, the relevant question is: How will they be treated when an innovation leads to their displacement? An employer has some responsibility to reassign or retrain them, or to try to help them find other jobs. But this responsibility is limited, because the company also has responsibilities to its other employees, customers, suppliers, and investors, and can fairly care for displaced workers only insofar as that is compatible with a reasonable allocation of resources for employee benefits.320 Moreover, when displaced workers need more help than businesses and private agencies can provide, public authorities have considerable responsibility in this matter.

At the same time, it seems to me, you have some responsibility to urge higher management and/or public officials to mitigate the hardships of displaced workers and to give them suggestions for doing that. Of course, many other people besides you share that responsibility, and your duty, especially with regard to the company or companies for which you do your work, may be limited by reasonable concern not to risk your livelihood unduly, especially if you are responsible for supporting a family and/or other dependents. Still, you do have a special set of gifts and opportunities, which very likely make it possible for you to bring to others’ attention and clarify any injustice being done to displaced workers, propose ways of overcoming it, and perhaps even organize pressure of one sort or another to bring about appropriate action by those capable of it.

Suppose, though, you do what you can, but management and public authorities do not meet their responsibilities. Must you give up your line of work? No, since that will do nothing to mitigate the injustice to those who suffer it, and continuing to do your work presumably will bring about real economic benefits for your employers’ or clients’ customers, suppliers, owners, and many of their employees. Moreover, you very likely have adequate reasons, such as your own need for a job, to do your work and accept the bad side effects on displaced workers of others’ failure to treat them justly. Still, you could have an obligation to terminate your relationship with a particular employer or client who planned to treat displaced employees with egregious injustice, and, being in a position to quit in protest without neglecting your other responsibilities, you judged that quitting might prevent or significantly mitigate the injustice.

The better your work, the more in demand your services will be; and the more in demand your services, the more likely people you work for are to listen patiently to your concerns about fairness to displaced workers. Strive therefore for eminence in your field, not for the sake of mere prestige or financial rewards, but for greater power to promote justice.

The norms of fairness and mercy I have outlined are applicable equally in affluent nations and less wealthy parts of the world. Where wages are lower, however, savings from mechanizing labor-intensive processes will be relatively less, and the hardships imposed on displaced workers very likely will be greater. Under such conditions, both employers and governments probably should be more cautious about pressing for or permitting changes to increase efficiency, and more energetic in striving to soften their harmful effects on displaced workers. If these responsibilities go unmet, the suffering of poorer and more vulnerable displaced workers probably will require you to do and risk more to help the victims of injustice.

For you to raise this question manifests your concern for those adversely affected by your work. It takes courage to think about anything that might require one to limit opportunities for practicing one’s profession or even to give up one’s career. Those who habitually act with such compassion and courage can hope one day to be welcomed by our Lord into his heavenly kingdom (see Mt 25.34).

319. Technological advances in many ways benefit workers, though some workers lose ground in some respects; see Scott Ralls, Integrating Technology with Workers in the New American Workplace (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the American Workplace, 1994).

320. However, by promoting continual learning by employees, businesses often can adapt to changing market forces and new technologies, and thus avoid displacing workers without incurring unreasonable costs; see David Stern, “Institutions and Incentives for Developing Work-Related Knowledge and Skill,” in Technology and the Future of Work, ed. Paul S. Adler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 168–80.