The Ethicist: Can I Use My Dad’s Connections to Get an Internship?

February 25, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Can I Use My Dad’s Connections to Get an Internship?

I’m a college student, and like many college students, I am looking to do an internship. My dad’s previous job was at a company that offers internships in my area of interest. He suggested that I consider interning there and use his connection to my advantage.

I think that internships should be earned based on merit, and that nepotism is unethical. I am not sure, however, if avoiding nepotism as an applicant would do anything to put a stop to the practice. I worry that only employers have the power to stop nepotism, and that by avoiding it, I would just hand the internship to other children of employees or former employees who are less concerned about the ethics of nepotism.

Also, if I intern (and possibly get a full-time job) with a company that practices nepotism, I might one day be able to change the hiring policy from the inside. What do you recommend? Name Withheld

My response: I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

The world of work is full of unfairness. Nepotism — from the Latin for nephew — occurs when we give a resource to a relative while overlooking people who are more deserving. One of my favorite historical titles is cardinal nipote, Italian for cardinal nephew, which would be awarded when a pope appointed a kinsman to the College of Cardinals. That old papal practice is what gave us the word. (The last time a papal relative was appointed cardinal was in 1879, when Leo XIII appointed Giuseppe Pecci, his brother.)

But nepotism isn’t the most important source of unjustified inequality. Those who already have the advantage of better educations, better connections and better financial resources often parlay these advantages into securing more valuable opportunities and more remunerative careers. Internships are one device for doing this. They’re often unpaid or low-paid, so that only those with substantial family resources can afford to do them. And access to them is often by way of connections. So, internships require both social capital and financial capital. (Charles Murray has famously pronounced them “affirmative action for the advantaged.”) Given all this, you might think that internships should be given to applicants with the best qualifications, but these qualifications are easier for the rich and well connected to acquire, which is why such people often have more cultural capital, too.

So, there’s a real problem here. The question is what your role should be in finding a solution. If the system is as you describe it, you’re unlikely to get this internship unless you agree to the pulling of the paternal strings. Should you forswear a system you rightly think unfair at the cost of not getting an internship? There are at least two worries about that.

One is that it won’t make any difference. Nobody will notice that one application came without a thumb on the scale. A second is that the policy of depriving yourself of opportunities in an unfair system makes it likelier that the opportunities will be distributed among people who don’t even have the virtue of being aware of the problem. Generally speaking, social problems of this sort aren’t best solved by heroic individual sacrifice. They’re solved by bringing attention to the issues — as you just have — and joining others in campaigning for change. I prefer your other option: Take the internship, work hard and well, get a job and rise to the level where you can reform the company’s hiring practices. It’s a fine thing when the virtuous prosper.

I was in a half-empty subway car in Manhattan, headed downtown one evening, returning from a “Yes to Love, No to Hate” rally not long after the far-right gathering in Charlottesville, Va.

The door opened, and a young couple came in, attracting attention by the force of their entry and his agitated, ugly commentary about her. They sat across from me as he forcibly instructed her, shoving her, to move over. He tore open the corner of a box of cookies, stuffed several in his mouth and threw the box under the bench. She had bruise marks on her arms. He had a tattoo that said “Loyalty” in script over one eyebrow and other markings. The seat next to the door was vacated by a person moving to avoid them. He shoved her over to the open seat. She moved down the car to another seat; he followed. She moved again to the flip seat by the far door; he crushed in beside her. I reached my stop and got out. I looked for a police officer or transit person on the platform, found none and went home sickened by what I saw and by my inaction — my failure to protect (rescue?) this young woman.

Yes, I feared violence toward myself. But also, in this time of increased racial sensitivity, I feared the added arrogance of “white privilege” had I chosen to intervene. I am a white, white-haired 75-year-old woman (though still healthy and strong); the couple were most likely in their early 20s and “of color.” There were many ethnicities and colors in that car, all avoiding eye contact, and at least one other woman, herself “of color,” aware of this situation (she was the person who changed her seat to avoid the couple).

My appraisal: He was high and violent, and she was being abused in public in front of my eyes and those of everyone else in the car. What should I have done? Name Withheld

My response: Your focus on race and showing off the event you’d just attended distract from the issues I suggest are more relevant—that you likely have little experience in a situation you describe as violent and a matter for police.

Why did you look for police? Because they train for years to handle situations like you described. You weren’t looking for a non-white police officer or a female police officer. You were looking for a trained police officer.

In a situation as you described—at least borderline violent, likely criminal—effective action comes from experience and training, not skin color. As I’ve written in my stock answers, your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.

The New York Times response:

One issue your letter raises is what philosophers sometimes call “group agency.” No individual in the car, let alone you, the white-haired septuagenarian, was obliged to confront a violent, possibly high young man; but you can still have the thought, surveying your fellow passengers, that “we” should have done something.

Might there have been an effective way to mobilize the disapproval of others in the subway car and perhaps trigger a sense of collective responsibility? The psychology of intervention in cases like these is quite complex, and many studies have been done on so-called bystander apathy. Generally, when people are in a crowd, they don’t intervene when they see someone misbehaving. Part of the explanation is no doubt the reasonable thought that you have no special responsibility here. It’s also true that people are less inclined to intervene when, as here, the victim is perceived to be in a relationship with the perpetrator. People feel it’s not their business. And because the perpetrator here may have been high and seemed violent, there would indeed have been risks in intervening.

Still, interventions in these circumstances might contribute to reducing spousal abuse, especially if we could establish a norm that people don’t allow this to happen in public places like the subway. To get one concern out of the way: I don’t think the fact that you were white and he wasn’t changes much. No “white privilege” was implicated in your desire to help this young woman of color. If you said something to him and he reacted violently, he might have used the word “white” in cursing you; but had he actually attacked you, the odds that someone would have defended you would, I suspect, have reflected your gender and age, not your race.

What were your options? You could have tried addressing the woman and asking her whether she would like help. If the man were to turn on you at that point, someone would probably have come to your aid; it’s hard to rationalize doing nothing when a morally justified stranger is being menaced. But you might have worried that if she said “yes,” he would have taken it out on her later.

Another tack would have been to address the most vigorous-looking people in the carriage, saying something like, “Come on, we can’t let him do that to her.” Again, though, this is likely to have been helpful only if she had been going to get away from him as a result. Your account suggests that she wasn’t fleeing him: Remaining in the same car, she was perhaps trying to create temporary distance from him, until he cooled down. In that case, they’ll be seeing more of each other, and he could well have exacted a penalty from her if he felt publicly humiliated.

Assuming your appraisal was widely shared, then, I can see why so many of you might have felt powerless. So, let’s return to your instinct to call for law enforcement. It’s worth remembering that there’s a conductor (as well as an operator) on every M.T.A. subway train; you could have stepped out of the car and walked up the platform waving to catch his or her attention and then communicated what you saw. You can’t be reproached for your inaction, but you’re right to wonder whether more could have been done.

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