Never do anything for money that you wouldn’t do for free.
It flies in the face of conventional wisdom, of course – which is, “never do for free what you could do for money”. Contrary to that, I’ve found it’s one of the priviledges of the talented to do both. What would Doctors Without Borders be without talented doctors who are able to sustain their efforts through economic activity? What we’re talking about with my rule is ethics.
Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship (someone with whom I’ve significant disagreement in some areas, but deeply admire for his social work), pointed out that in Germany, in the 1930s, the Heidelberg professors filled the minds of young Germans with anti-human revolutionary ideas. After the war, when called to account for this, they said ‘We’re only teachers – we’re not responsible for what people do with our ideas.’
The implication, of course, is: yes they are – a teacher is morally responsible for enabling others to act upon what he teaches. And being paid for it doesn’t mitigate this – it underscores it as an ethical issue as well. A designer is responsible for what people do with what he designs. Not responsible in an absolute way – it makes no sense to sue a tobacco company because you’re dying of cancer when you smoked Lucky Strikes all your life. That’s a fallacy of Western thinking – the idea that, because you’re morally responsible, you’re entirely responsible.
But you can’t go building a web site for a violent gang of criminals because it’s ‘just a job’. If you wouldn’t do it as a volunteer, you darned sure shouldn’t do it for money. The question is not who should receive blame or whether there should be punishment – it’s whether it’s right or wrong to go down that path in the first place.
I’ve built sites that people have subsequently defaced, obliterating much of their SEO value. Sure, they were enabled to control their own sites, because I built them. But I’m not entirely responsible for what they do or don’t do with them afterward. Even if they do nothing, and just let it sit there, it will decrease in value over time, because it lacks any user involvement (e.g. blogging). That’s on them. But I’d have no moral dilemma with building their site for free, so I’m willing to have built it for money as well. And in the end, if they lower its value over time, that’s a separate matter. I wouldn’t build a site for a bunch of Heidelberg professors – though one suspects they’re teaching entirely different ridiculous ideas today.
Anyway, the implication of this rule is another rule:
The job is always more than the mere mechanics.
The parts of your job that a monkey could do (e.g. a computer program could do it for you) are never the most important parts. Even if your work isn’t primarily the work of the mind, it’s the part that is the mind’s work that’s most important. That’s the key to work involving human beings. Physical labor is quite noble, but it’s because it’s the meaning of the work that matters, and the true workman, the genuine craftsman, the excellent tradesman, is the one who brings his intelligence to it, grasps its meaning, and contributes and is involved at a level that’s in accord with its goals. That work is tedious indeed which asks you to shut off your mind and just punch out more widgets. And that client or company that asks that is not only shooting themselves in the foot – they’re denigrating the meaning of work itself, and we’re back to the computer program.