Using privilege

Privilege gets a bad name these days, but understanding that you’ve been blessed and deciding how to use that abundance is an important ethical consideration. It sure makes more sense than how I usually see people in the 80th percentile of privilege whining about those in the 95th. But I digress.

This Twitter thread by a former engineer at Twitter is a thought-provoking read on the topic. He refused to build a feature that he thought was deeply unethical. He was in a privileged position as a software engineer and he knew it. In the worst case scenario, he’d have been fired, but with his experience he’d easily find another job right away.

From Twitter’s perspective it wasn’t so simple. Finding a senior engineer, hiring, onboarding and getting that person to do such a dubious task is no trivial matter. Having a whole team leave a company is a huge loss, even for a bigger tech company wanting to push a feature out the door.

It’s unfortunate that fewer people in the tech world use their privilege to refuse to do unethical work. The justification I usually hear is that “if not me, they’ll find somebody else to do it” with the implication that they might as well get handsomely paid for it. Every tech conference I’ve been to has a lot of performative ethics such as pronouns in your bio, repeating the Latest Thing™, yet I’ve never heard of a conference refusing to allow people from Facebook (especially after Cambridge Analytica) present.

I’m not saying this is an option for everyone. There’s a lot of grey area, and real-life ethics are far more complex than one-liners allow. Still, it’s worth considering whether you’re in the position to take a stand and refuse to do less ethical work.