I’m sure you’ve seen the memes referencing Kim Davis and contrasting her with other, often fictional people who did their jobs despite some disagreement or impediment. Although I myself wrote about the need to frame her conduct in terms of professional behavior, I dislike praising thoughtless workplace obedience too. There are times when I very much want people to not do their job, because their job is unethical and harmful, unlike Davis, who is choosing harm and discrimination by refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
The doctors and nurses and number crunchers who participated in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment were doing their jobs when they intentionally withheld effective syphilis treatment from an all black community. They were just following orders when they lied to their patients and when they allowed future generations to become infected prior to birth. Dr. Oliver Wanger ran the experiment and made choices that led to tremendous harm, and the people working under him doing their jobs helped. A whistleblower – someone refusing to just do their job – revealed the ethical issues and was instrumental in stopping the study.
Social workers and nuns who participated in the Baby Scoop global infant kidnapping epidemic were doing their jobs. They were doing them when they pressured young, poor, unmarried, disabled, women to give their children away. They were following orders when they lied to new mothers and told them their babies had died in delivery, only to give or sell those babies to more “deserving” parents. The Baby Scoop spanned the globe, from the United States to Ireland to Australia, and the exact number of displaced children (now adults) isn’t even known.
At the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi soldiers tried to argue they had no moral responsibility for their crimes, because they were just following orders. They were following orders when they rounded people up into camps and they were doing their jobs when they assisted Hitler in the murder of twelve million people, including six million Jews. The court was not persuaded, and sentenced them harshly.
I don’t want Kim Davis or really anyone to do a job that conflicts with their morals. I want us to listen to our consciences. I want people to question the potential harm in doing their job or following orders, and then I want them to leave that job if they can’t agree with what that job requires. I’m sure there have been ordinary people just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs who have caused irreparable harm in the world.
Before same-sex marriage became the law of the land, there were county clerks questioning their jobs and the discrimination against same-sex couples built in. They were issuing same-sex marriage licenses in defiance of their jobs. I want our discourse to be capable of applauding those clerks for not just doing their jobs, while also condemning the discrimination and bigotry Davis perpetrated. Do I want someone out there to competently perform Kim Davis’ non-harmful job? Yes. Do I want everyone everywhere to follow orders just because they were given? Absolutely not.