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ATPM 8.05
May 2002



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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Let’s Talk About Work Ethic

What is it? What does it mean?

It means different things to different people, which must be at the heart of the problem I want to discuss this month: workers who abuse Internet access.

To me, the formula is very simple: I’m paid for eight hours of work on a particular day, so I make sure that I perform eight hours of work that day. If there’s not enough to keep me busy that day, I make sure to put in the time somewhere else. That’s how we explain capitalism, I think: a company pays for my services and I deliver them. They owe me a paycheck and nothing else. Anything else I get is gravy. If I don’t like the arrangement where I work, I can go somewhere else. That’s the free market, as I understand it.

Here’s the thing that’s been bugging me lately: why do employees think they have the right to access company equipment for their own personal use? I understand that most of us do it, and many of us do it in appropriate ways. What I don’t understand is someone believing that he or she has a right to a physical object like this.

Rights are not things. Rights are relationships among people. I’m borrowing this concept from Iris Marion Young, who also theorizes that justice is not a thing but a relationship. I’m not so sure about her characterization of justice, but I strongly agree that we should not think of rights as something God-given. We have granted them to ourselves. Think back, to before the days when we paraphrased John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Even before anyone wrote down anything saying that slavery was wrong, there were always people who spoke out against it. There were always people who intuitively knew what Ought To Be.

Those are the sorts of people who understand that rights are conferred by human beings on all human beings. Rights are not “things” handed out like candy.

So that’s a long way around to say that the company you work for does not owe you Internet access. It certainly does not owe you Internet access on company time. You are paid to provide a service to that company, and unless the service you provide is that of hanging out in chat rooms and playing games online, when you do those things, you are cheating the company.

The company where I work has a technology policy that acknowledges that many of us require Internet access to perform our jobs. The policy allows for “incidental personal use.” It does not define “incidental,” so I will do so here, using Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary: incidental means “being likely to ensue as a chance or unlikely consequence.” My interpretation of that is that an incidental event does not affect the Big Picture; it does not slow me from completing my work.

I’m writing this at home and not on company time, so accessing Merriam-Webster online is okay!

More to the point, if handled judiciously, incidental personal use at work can increase my effectiveness. Most of us can only concentrate on a particular topic for about an hour and a half at a time. After that we’re just spinning our wheels. That’s why we take breaks.

So we ought to take a break from sitting at our desks and stand up and stretch. If we instead spend two minutes checking a game score or sending a personal e-mail, as long as it has the necessary diversion from work, that should be okay.

I don’t want to be all self-righteous about other people’s work habits. I’m just saying what works for me. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much time I’ve spent online, as long as I’ve done the job I was paid to do. I never want to leave work feeling like I’ve won and they’ve lost. I’m a stockholder; if I cheat the company, I’m cheating myself.

Besides, even if I’m not a stockholder, if I tried to take more than I give, I’d still be cheating. And that would be a Bad Thing.


Also in This Series

Reader Comments (11)

Albert Gedraitis · May 1, 2002 - 04:35 EST #1
You say: "I strongly agree that we should not think of rights as something God-given."

Who are you to say that? You don't know that to be true. How could you? It's an assertion. You made it up. Or, are repeating what someone else said, who made it up. Now, just maybe, you are following a theory, well worked out by someone who made it up. Only trouble is, the opposite could be theorized and some have done it well. Are you simply asserting that you think the weave of Theory X is better spun than the weave of Theory Y? Pray, give us the name of both theories and their authorities."

"We have granted them to ourselves."

This may be true of you and yours. But how can you universalize it? Skepticism like yours only says that you have granted what you conceive of as rights to yourself/selves; it in no way touches upon rights as such, whether they be totally mirages (including yours) or granted by God (which you don't know one way or another) or come somehow, from someone, from somewhere else.

"Think back, to before the days when we paraphrased John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Even before anyone wrote down anything saying that slavery was wrong, there were always people who spoke out against it." How do you know?

"There were always people who intuitively knew what Ought To Be." How do you know? Were you there? Was there someone there at all times who testified to that effect? How did you receive the testimony?

Somehow your dogmatic assertion is at once Deontological (ethical theory centrally based on the concept of duty - ought to be) and Epistemological (knowledge theory, in your case based on "intuition"). The greatest Deontologist of Western thought was Immanuel Kant (around the time of George Washington); he based his ethics on the rubric "let the maxim of your [proposed] action" be universalized; if it couldn't be universalized without producing contradictory results that would undermine your own action based on it, by the annihilatory action of others, then there's no duty to do what you propose, rather a duty to do otherwise. Whatever this is, it is not intuition.

Since you ultimately take refuge in an undefined Intuition alone, I think you should get as good as you got.

May you suffer total recall and permanent insomnia, your, Albert
Charles H. Cole · May 1, 2002 - 15:30 EST #2
I am continually amazed by people who feel it necessary to complicate their lives. Take Albert Gedraitis for example. He needs to realize he has the right to simplify his life, but chooses to complicate it with "hogwash."

I'm sure he owns a hot air balloon.

I, on the other hand, agree with Ellyn's remarks, and will probably lead a simpler life.

Albert is the perfect example of what happened when Eve bit the apple. The only difference is, he actually thinks he's capable of intelligence.

"Ignorance is bliss."
Teresa · May 2, 2002 - 20:55 EST #3
Right on, Ellyn! I feel the same way about 'company-supplied' cell phone usage. If someone else wasn't paying the bill, I'd bet we'd see a lot less gabbing going on!
Ellyn Ritterskamp (ATPM Staff) · May 9, 2002 - 00:16 EST #4
Wow! I return from a week and a half out of the country to discover a lively conversation, started by little ole me. Just what we were hoping for out of this thing!

I thought I might clarify a few points raised by one respondent this way:

When I sign my name to a piece and call it a column, and carefully say within it that I am stating my own opinion, I'm not certain that I'm required to document every step of the reasoning that got me there. I said that a particular arrangement of beliefs works for me, and that is true.

I did not say that anyone else will hold that same belief or combination of beliefs, or that anyone else should. This is the arrangement that clicks for me, just as some other arrangement clicks for someone else.

Wouldn't life be boring if we all agreed on everything?

As for Kant, I must admit that the couple hundred pages of him that I read in school were very tough going. One clear idea that came through for me, though, was the categorical imperative, which says that if I want everyone else to behave in a particular way in a particular situation, then I must adhere to that same behavior in that same situation. No exceptions for selfish people. Since my original point was that I want everyone to put in their fair share of work, then it follows that I require myself to do the same.

I agree that my arguments were not of the strictly logical variety, and were definitely on the idealistic and intuitive side. But that's how I think these days, so there you have it.

The study of philosophy made sense to me this way: you've got your metaphysics, which is how the universe or the world works. You've got your epistemology, which is the stuff about how we learn and think. And you've got your ethics.

I realize that this three-part arrangement doesn't include everything but, in some sense, it seems to encompass much of the field. My point now is that we can spend all day figuring out the nature of reality, or trying to decipher how we acquire knowledge of that reality, but in the end it matters not one bit if we don't then use those ideas to decide how we should treat one another. So ethics is the most important of the three, to me.

I like to believe that if we try to be fair, eventually the world will become fairer. That's it. That's all of it. I don't have any basis for that belief, but then I don't have to. I've made that leap.

You are free to leap along or not, as you like. Thanks for listening.
John Haumann · May 27, 2002 - 19:32 EST #5
I wonder if the author appreciates the distinction between a "right" and a "privilege"? This could have been a credible column. Using the right words can make all the difference between a cogent argument and mindless drivel. Rights can neither be granted or assigned -- that is their nature. The mere assertion of a privilege as a right does not make it so, no matter how popular or desirable it may seem.

No one has the "right" of personal access to company equipment, although the privilege may be granted or withheld.
Ellyn Ritterskamp (ATPM Staff) · May 27, 2002 - 23:55 EST #6
Oh, that is an excellent point, John, about rights and privileges. If I'd thought to spell that out more clearly the first time, we'd have had a much better piece to begin with.

I appreciate your semantic distinction, although the "mindless drivel" part made me wince a bit :)

Soon enough we can move on from this topic, though, because the June issue will be published soon!

David Meme · May 30, 2002 - 11:36 EST #7
This writer seems to have taken far too many assumptions for granted. For instance I don't agree that through mindless subservience to capitalism things will get better. Actually real equality will be the result of struggle, people asserting their belief in rights that they consider universal and unalienable. For instance it was once thought that the entire British economy would collapse without child labour, huge debates occurred in the country and the House of Commons but eventually after a long and difficult fight against the so called needs‚ of capitalism we now outlaw child labour as morally unacceptable. (I'll leave aside the shocking and immoral use of third world child labour by certain US Multinationals for the moment). This change only took place because people believed that they as human beings had certain universalisable rights that transcended the claims of economics and capitalism. John Locke thought that unless a people worked the land they could have no title to property. So in America unless the land was homesteaded‚ American Indians could have no claim to it under English/American law ˆ even though this very conception of legal property was ethnocentric and alien to the American Indians. Does this make it right? Just because the law states it, it is does not automatically make something true or just. There is a clear distinction between the law and morality and sometimes they can and do get out of sync. So just because a company gives you a contract they can try to enforce under law does not make it right. Even if they were to win the case! For instance slavery in America was legal‚ under the law and slavery contracts were enforceable under US law.

So what is the point, well I believe that companies exploit workers and resources. That is what they do under capitalism, and indeed they are very good at it. But that doesn't mean it is necessarily right. We are human beings and we were not born to slave in an office, or a factory or a field for the profit of Corporations. We have the potential to do many things, and consequently I believe that first and foremost we should be the rulers of capitalism, rather than it being the ruler of us. Capitalism is a powerful force for production and it should enable us to live our lives in a more fulfilling way. Raw uncontrolled capitalism does not and never has existed, it is a creation of the state and exists only because of the state, for instance through the court enforcement of law, the police, road systems etc.

And indeed, saying that you have a choice whether to work at a company or not is also simplistic and naive. So you have a choice whether to work or starve? What kind of choice is that? You have no such choice, you have to work under capitalism and every legal means will be used by the companies to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of you whilst you are there.

If you give companies the legal right to our every thought and action in work time and the moral right to enforce this where will it end? We surely don't want to live in a panoptican, or in 1984, our every move watched by telescreens.

Our only response is to fight for space, protected from corporations. I am not anti-work, rather I believe that you have to see the relationship of work in capitalistic society for what it is. A lot of people around the world are exploited by corporations in shocking and inhumane ways every day. Simply asking them to get on to the job when they, unlike the no doubt privileged writer, have to work 60 or more hour weeks in shocking conditions in order that the writer can wear his Nike trainers is insulting. I suggest he consider his thought pieces more carefully before mindlessly reproducing pro-capitalism drivel like this.
Ellyn Ritterskamp (ATPM Staff) · June 1, 2002 - 02:37 EST #8
"...unlike the no doubt privileged writer, have to work 60 or more hour weeks in shocking conditions in order that the writer can wear his Nike trainers is insulting. I suggest he consider his thought pieces more carefully before mindlessly reproducing pro-capitalism drivel like this."

I really hoped we were done with this merry-go-round :)

For the record, I'm not a he (not that it matters), and I don't purchase anything made by Nike.
David Meme · June 10, 2002 - 05:36 EST #9
I'm glad that the writer sees it as a merry go round. Living as she does in one of the most privileged societies in the world allows her to take such a relaxed attitude.

I happen to believe we have a political and moral responsibility to others who are less able to protect themselves from the ravages of capitalism.

And whether or not you buy Nike is not the point, it is the system you are explicitly supporting that spawns Nike and countless other immoral multinationals that only see dollar signs, instead of children working in horrific conditions (e.g. Pakistan children sewing trainers together).
Dave Meme · June 19, 2002 - 17:49 EST #10

I have set up a discussion site that is explicitly political and hopefully interesting enough for people to deliberate about these kinds of issues at:


Jimmy Hathorn · September 3, 2002 - 20:00 EST #11
Hey, Ellyn.

I like are a good columnist with good thoughts and, like Jesus, stimulate a lot of diverse conversation. And, like Jesus, you have to learn to relegate a lot of the interpretations of what you say to the proper receptacle.

Jimmy H.

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