Once upon a time, I was at a presentation being made by patent attorneys. Now I know you’re all getting jealous that you weren’t there, but let me tell you that some things at this meeting weren’t quite right. I’m not talking about how it looked like they’d been dressed up by their moms using the clothes that the salvation army threw away in the 80’s. I’m talking about the real substance of the talk.
That’s right, using my superhuman powers of concentration, I was actually able to listen to patent lawyers speak. What they said (cutting out ten thousand words or so) was this: they had just won a really exciting case where they defended a major pharmaceutical’s patent, thereby successfully keeping the drug from going generic. Afterwards, the part of the audience which had the stamina not to slip into a coma, politely clapped, while I sat confused thinking “you did what?” Let me get this straight. You worked 80 hours a week for the last year so some group of uber-rich golf amateurs could make another billion dollars by keeping medicine out of the hands of poor people? This is something praiseworthy? I felt like a missionary watching cannibals cheer the eating of a human heart.
I can hear the cries in the lawyers’ defense already, and while I recognize there are some (almost) legitimate arguments you could make, I’m just going to address one, since it comes up so often. It’s the classic: “come on dude, he’s just doing his job.”
This has to be the all time, most popular defense for anyone who gets paid to screw someone else. “Sorry your kid us going to have to eat out of the trash, blame the bank for evicting you, I’m just doing my job,” or consider this classic use of the defense from Schindler’s list. A camp worker has just given the commandant some good engineering advice. His reply?
Commandant (Ralph Feines): “Shoot her.”
Worker: “Herr Commandant, I’m only trying to do my job!”
Goth: “Ja, and I’m doing mine.”
Think that’s too extreme? How about this, the very lawyers giving that talk would know our legal system doesn’t recognize any type of duress as a defense to a crime, except threats of grave bodily harm. So if I tell you to kidnap the Easter bunny or I’m flushing your wallet down the toilet, that’s no excuse for you to kidnap the Easter Bunny. What? To legalistic? How about this, if my friend paid me 10 bucks to slap you in the face with a mackerel, and I did it, would you be mad? Sure you would, because deep down inside we all realize that that ultimately we are responsible for what we do, even when being paid.
Now I’m not going to sit here and say what jobs are and are not moral, or pretend that if I had starving kids I wouldn’t join the mafia to feed then. Hell, I’ve done my fair share of shady work without any excuse whatsoever. Still, if you do something that leaves you feeling dirty like a Burger King bathroom, you should consider a new career. Or, if you’re like a patent attorney and haven’t even thought about the impact of what you do, take a minute and do it. No one wants to be like a patent attorney.