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Question 129: May an employee obediently carry on a pointless and wasteful dispute?

I work for a large contractor. Most of our contracts are with the federal government. The projects we participate in always involve other primary contractors—neither of us is the other’s subcontractor. Coordination problems often come up, and my job is to deal with them. I am the first woman this company has hired for this job, and I am determined to succeed.

Generally, all the primary contractors are paid on a cost-plus basis, which results in a great deal of waste.336 That bothers me, and I feel somewhat guilty whenever I am directly involved.

Here is a current example. We and another contractor have been arguing about whether we owe them one-half of an outside consultant’s fee. Our superintendent at a job site agreed to their getting the consultant’s opinion on a problem affecting both of us, but nothing was said about the fee, and they simply assumed we would reimburse them for half. The amount at issue is $987.50, and the time spent investigating what happened and carrying on the dispute already has cost each side more than that. Either of us could charge off the disputed amount along with all the other reimbursable costs. But because the government is paying for carrying on the dispute, neither cares to give in. I will meet next Monday with my counterpart to deal with a number of issues. The $987.50 item is on the agenda, and, once more, the accounting department has instructed me not to concede it. But if we did, we would make our usual profit on the item, and it would cost us nothing but the profit we are making on the cost of carrying on the dispute and wasting the taxpayers’ money. So, plainly, we ought to concede the item.

But what am I to do? If I concede it despite instructions, the head of accounting will be irritated. Nothing will come of it this time. I have been doing a good job resolving many real problems, and the company is cautious about disciplining female employees. But every meeting’s agenda includes one or two items that ought to be conceded, and if I regularly violate instructions, eventually I will be fired. If I am, that will have no effect on the waste. It obviously is a pervasive part of doing business when payment is on a cost-plus basis, and my replacement almost certainly would accept the waste without a qualm.


This question concerns cooperation in waste. If carrying out the managers’ unreasonable instructions requires intrinsically evil actions, the questioner must not carry them out and, if necessary, must give up her job. If the managers continue to give irrational instructions and the questioner can carry them out without doing anything intrinsically evil, in my opinion she can rightly accept the waste as a side effect, though the managers wrongly accept it. She materially cooperates in actions that are objectively wrong, but this cooperation seems justified.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You do not say whether you can carry out the instructions without doing anything wrong in itself, such as lying. If you cannot, you must not do as instructed, regardless of the consequences, even if they include giving up your job. What follows presupposes that you need not do anything wrong in itself, and your only concern is the irrationality of some of your instructions.

Like any waste, the waste that concerns you is morally evil for several reasons. Anything wasted should have been put to other, better use. The costs are unfairly imposed on some person or group, and some person or group is deprived of the benefits of a right use of what is wasted. Moreover, and most important, since all the means we sometimes waste are provided by God for good uses, wasting them always is irreverent toward God.

Wastefully carrying on pointless disputes of the sort you describe is so obviously irrational that I wonder whether the people directing your work have reasons they do not share with you for pressing the issues. If you have not tried to communicate with the managers about their seemingly irrational instructions, you should. Without challenging their authority or contesting their instructions about particular matters, you could tell them you assume they have reasons you have not understood for pressing issues when doing so seems wasteful, and point out that you could do a better job for them if you better understood their intentions. You also might tell them you have been troubled by having to dispute items whose payment by the company would be reimbursed by the government and would earn the usual profit.

Since you have done a good job resolving many problems, the managers probably will not react negatively. Instead, they may either explain the reasons for your instructions or stop having you carry on pointless disputes. But you may already have approached the managers and either not received an explanation or had it verified that, sometimes, at least, the instructions really are irrational but will not be changed. Must you give up your job? I do not think so.

Acting as your company’s advocate, you need only intend to make the strongest honest case possible for its position and to try to resolve the problems to its advantage. If pressing certain issues is wasteful, you need not intend the waste, since it is a side effect of what you do. Those who give you unreasonable instructions do wrong, at least objectively, in accepting that side effect. But you have a good reason to accept it—you must do as you are told to keep your job and contribute to the good that comes from resolving real problems.

Of course, insofar as you carry out the unreasonable instructions, your work contributes to the managers’ objectively wrongful action, and such involvement in others’ wrongdoing can be wrong. It can lead one to share the wrongdoers’ bad intentions, lead others into sin, be unfair to those injured by the wrong, and/or impair one’s witness to relevant moral truth. But you are hardly likely to share the managers’ unreasonable intentions, and playing your role in the wasteful system—a well-established, sinful social structure—is not likely to lead others to sin. Since the common good suffers from the waste, it is unfair to the taxpayers; but since you do other needed work and giving up your job would not reduce the waste, you do not contribute to that unfairness. Then too, continuing in your job and excelling in it will permit you to bear witness as credibly as possible within the company to the truth that is being ignored—that waste should be eliminated—while quitting would hardly affect the existing corporate culture.

At the same time, your firsthand experience of the waste, your insight into its unfairness to taxpayers, and your articulateness put you in a good position to bring this matter to public attention, and public awareness of the evil might generate demands for corrective measures. As a citizen, you ought to promote the common good. Try, then, to find effective ways of publicizing the waste and calling for its elimination. Of course, this responsibility should be carried out in harmony with your other responsibilities, so that among possible courses of action you must conscientiously judge which is or are appropriate for you to pursue.

336. Cost-plus basis: a method of determining the amount contractors will be paid for goods and/or services; the contractor is reimbursed its costs plus a specified rate of profit.