Edit desk: At an ethical crossroads

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Musa Jamshed

Picture yourself overlooking a scene in which a runaway trolley is on course to hit five unsuspecting people. You’re too far to warn them, but suddenly you realize there’s a lever in arm’s reach that can divert the path of the train.

Palms perspiring, your eyes follow the adjacent path and settle on a single individual standing around — a new definitive potential victim.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the million dollar question is whether you’d pull the lever or not. In other words: Would you cause one death to save five?

It’s a clever little exercise entitled ‘The Trolley Dilemma’ that’s been around since the ’60s to prod our moral psyches.

In a 2010 study, 77.4 percent of individuals said they would make the active choice to save five. And based on my research, the general consensus seems to be that we should strive for the most utilitarian good — the complicated part is the psychology that comes with having to make the decision.

Now let’s make a simple change to the original prompt: You are the single bystander. Your death means the saving of five others. This is the true test of altruism.

Your life is now in someone else’s hands, and they have a 77.4 percent chance of siding with others.

*Gulps*

But enough of the life-or-death hypotheticals. Luckily for most of us, we don’t have to worry about playing God.

I’d like to focus on applying this framework to something that I hear a lot more people at Lehigh focusing on, especially as a senior.

Jobs.

Whether people are willing to admit it or not, finding a job is a lot more like the aforementioned trolley dilemma than we emphasize. If you’re an average person that’s caught in the crossfire 77.4 percent of the time, you’re even more likely to be left behind at the expense of others in the job market because of sheer volume.

Gone are the days when you can apply for a job with a good resume and expect to find success because of your accomplishments.

There are usually five others who applied for the same position with a similar, if not a more impressive, experience. Their hopes might remain alive as yours perish.

It’s all up to a small group of human resources personnel and hiring managers, sharing control of the lever.

Table that thought — it’s time to go back to the trolley dilemma for a second.

The same 2010 study that yielded the 77.4 percent calculated the same figure for a situation in which the lever caused a relative to die, instead of an anonymous bystander.

As expected, the closer the relative, the more likely the subject was to save them as opposed to the five randoms. For immediate relatives, only 34.3 percent of subjects said they would save the five.

Now think about what happens in the job market when someone with their hand on the lever is receiving masses of applications but is biased in favor of an individual. The general pool becomes almost irrelevant as connections dictate who manages to get their foot in the door.

Strikingly, a LinkedIn article from 2016 shows survey results yielding a whopping 85 percent of open jobs are filled via networking.

Forget the American dream, that statistic puts a glaring hole in the bare minimum of a meritocracy. Hard work is clobbered by connections.

Granted, not all networking is equal to nepotism and connections can be earned, but we must admit that networking is an absolute privilege.

Wealthy people are highly likely to inherit an intense network of family and friends, an almost sure predictor of future success. If you are someone who has a robust network, I challenge you to figure out how you’d live without it. Seriously, what would you do?

The way our job market operates is inherently classist because we allow it to be run by connections.

To speak from personal experience for a second, I want to emphasize just how disillusioning it has been for me to realize that the pre-professional culture of Lehigh students boils down to little more than circumstance.

It’s not the kind of claim I can find substantiated evidence for, but having shared classes and conversations with my peers, I entirely struggle to identify a strong correlation between a student’s skillset and their post-grad success.

Lehigh students, who are overwhelmingly advantaged, are huge beneficiaries of the way our job market operates in an inherently classist manner. I can imagine that it’s a hard pill to swallow, but we must admit that it’s the dominant factor in our success.

And it all comes down to the biased grasp of the lever.

We know that in anonymous situations, the Trolley Dilemma favors utilitarian, equitable outcomes. So why do we reduce our ability to contribute to a collective good by distorting it? It makes no sense to me.

Not only do we limit the likelihood that the most qualified people will be hired, but we also rob talented but underprivileged candidates of opportunities to raise up their communities.

As someone who has benefited from my connections many times in my life, you can put me on the record to say that connections should play no role in the hiring process.

I might suffer from it, but there are at least five other lives to be positively impacted and that’s enough for me.

Musa Jamshed, ’19, is a managing editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]

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2 Comments

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    As you become a Lehigh graduate you will probably have an advantage on many others, including other college graduates, one that is not based upon ability. You will see nepotism and connections create advantages for others, some of whom may actually be well qualified otherwise. You will also see people hired and advanced thru ability despite factors that often produce discrimination, in a negative sense, because others are discriminating in a positive sense.

    You write: “As someone who has benefited from my connections many times in my life, you can put me on the record to say that connections should play no role in the hiring process.” Connections are a way of obtaining information on solving the “problem” of filling a job slot. An applicants connection with a recruiter is an important factor in the job decision. You can hope for a relatively unbiased decision on who is best for the job.

    Life is unfair.

  2. Amy Charles '89 on

    It’s a start, Musa. The next things involve recognizing that you’ve had a long education in how to look and sound the part, and others haven’t, even though they might be quite as able as you. So that’s a factor to winnow, too. Then there’s the commitment to helping others acquire that particular type of polish, knowing that this is stopgap and that the goal is to get rid of such signifiers altogether. And then there is the refusal to take credit for having helped people with that sort of thing, because you’ll find that when you help people in that manner, they will try to show gratitude by doing you special favors and with loyalty. But you must demur and instead trust that they’ll pay it forward.

    Privilege is sticky.

    Another curious thing about privilege is how it clumps. You’ll be offered opportunities to work with many other highly privileged people simply because they’ll look at you and recognize one of their own. If you accept, one day you’ll look around and see that your work is about helping the privileged…even if it’s nominally about something else, and even if along the way you are managing to help some other people. Primarily, your work will be to help maintain a structure of privilege for those who are already privileged.

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