The Morally Troubling ‘Dirty Work’ We Pay Others to Do in Our Place



Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

By Eyal Press

“Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America,” a disturbing and necessary new book by Eyal Press, describes with great empathy the lives of workers who do jobs that they themselves find morally horrifying. Press acquaints us intimately with the trauma suffered by a participant in a drone strike who watches a child slowly reassemble his father’s exploded remains into human shape; by a worker in a slaughterhouse who is nuzzled affectionately by pigs only to have to kill them moments later; and by a psychologist who is supposed to provide therapy to psychiatric patients in one of the correctional facilities where America often confines the severely mentally ill, but instead witnesses daily brutality including a homicide so gruesome it will be seared in any reader’s memory.

But the book isn’t entirely about those workers. It’s about us. Press’s thesis is that our society confers on these workers an “unconscious mandate” to do jobs that are morally objectionable and at the same time wants those jobs to remain invisible. He takes the term “dirty work” from the American sociologist Everett Hughes, who taught for a semester in Frankfurt in 1948, socializing with the kind of cosmopolitan liberal intellectuals he felt he might find anywhere. When he asked one about Germany’s war guilt and the Holocaust, the man responded by saying German citizens hadn’t known what was going on, they’d had to join the party, they were under tremendous pressure. He added that the Holocaust “was no way to solve the Jewish problem. But there was a problem and it had to be settled some way.” To Hughes, such comments revealed the “unconscious mandate” for unethical actions, the “dirty work” that could be delegated and disavowed.

Of course, there are questions about the moral culpability of the workers Press describes, about how they can continue to do the jobs they do. He is fascinated by Hannah Arendt’s thesis from “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963) about the banality of evil, the horrors committed thoughtlessly by those “just following orders.” Her view was supported by the results of Stanley Milgram’s “shock experiments,” published during the same period, in which subjects were instructed to deliver dangerous electrical shocks to a person (in fact an actor screaming on a tape recorder) in an adjacent room. At least in the version of the results Milgram publicized widely, most subjects complied. The New York Times framed a 1963 report on the experiments by asking, “What sort of people, slavishly doing what they are told, would send millions of fellow humans into gas chambers or commit other such atrocities?” The answer was that conditions could quite easily be created in which people acted with blind obedience. Milgram himself frequently compared his subjects to Eichmann.

Press gently pushes back against this reductive account of human behavior. In his previous book, “Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times,” he recounted the stories of ordinary people who refused to follow immoral orders, regardless of the consequences. He was explicitly disputing the popular view, derived from Arendt and Milgram, that there are circumstances under which people become incapable of moral choice. In both books he ushers us into a world of moral nuance and psychological complexity that behavioral science rarely captures.