Morality and sex in the office
I just read an article by Liz Ryan ( you can follow the link at the foot of this note, if you like ) on touchy subject of sex in the workplace. Her theme, in the briefest of paraphrases, is that the organisation that can effectively harness the emotions, energy, pressures and frustrations that would otherwise drive people into the dark corners of the workplace, and use it to further the organisation’s own goals, is highly likely an extremely successful organisation. Of course, Ms Ryan uses this topic to illustrate her central theme, which is that it is only by treating employees has humans, and eschewing a rigid, management-by-the-rule-book style, that this energy will be channeled to the good of the organisation instead of to liaisons in the stairwell.
Then, of course, came the comments, from the bottom half of the Internet. One caught my attention. It was not apparently full of the venom and bile so often found when the world at large is invited to drop their tuppence-worth of wisdom into the melee. Larry, who is an HR manager, is amazed that, in all what Liz wrote, there was “so little morality”.
As I wrote, the comment was politely worded, no expletives, almost understated, but still, it gave me pause to think, “what sort of world-view leads a guy to drop a comment like that at the end of an article by someone who, even if I don’t always subscribe entirely to her line of thinking, is undoubtedly driven by a passion for putting the humanity of individuals in their workplace interactions first and foremost in everything she writes?”
Of course, to understand the question fully, I guess one needs to agree on what morality really is. This nugget of interaction between Liz and Larry seems to suggest two themes in the context of morality.
One is centred around the question of sex, gender, and the conservative/liberal divide that exists in Western society and its approach to sexuality. Larry’s comment seems to place him in the camp that’s informed by the attitude that sexuality and sexual behaviour should be governed by the mores and rules of conservative institutions, and moreover, that anyone who does not subscribe to those mores and rules is depraved.
The other theme revolves around the dichotomy between the idea that a moral person is one who obeys the rules, which are paramount and must be obeyed come-what-may, versus the idea that the rules are subordinate to the context of the individual circumstances, emotions, feelings and needs of humans, and that the rules can be wrong.
Personally, whether one considers whether sexual behavior should be subject to somebody’s rules, or more generally, whether rules, regulations or even laws should take precedence over the individual specific circumstances of the humans, the interactions between those whom the rules are meant to govern, I believe that the truth lies in the continuum between the poles.
Some things are absolute. Rape, molesting kids, these sexual behaviors are always wrong. Similarly, some rules are self-evidently valid. One simply does not choose to drive on the wrong side of the road on a whim, or shoot one’s colleague because he parked in your parking bay.
But it is also the case that rules can be and sometimes are wrong. For eighty years of my country’s history there was a law prohibiting a person with black skin from owning property in my neighbourhood. It is also the case that some behaviors are inappropriate only if one subscribes to a world view that is by no means universally held. Many people in my country believe it is inappropriate to speak in subdues tones in public, because that could lead to gossip, slander, and antisocial behaviour, while others believe it is rude and overbearing to be loud in public.
And this leads to the crux of why I found Larry’s comment disturbing. Because, it seems to me, that it is informed by a parochial life-view, that cannot recognize that morality is not simply a matter of following someone’s code, that seeks to impose a world view on everyone, that cannot recognise that there are world-views that differ from one’s own, and that as dear as my own world-view, and the mores and codes that stem from it, is to me, I cannot assume that it is absolutely right, that it should be universally applicable, or even that it may not be flawed. For Larry to conclude that what Liz wrote is immoral, whether because she implied that workplace rules dear to him could be fallible, or because it seems to imply that a morality governing sexual behaviour other than his was acceptable, is in fact, to me, a more profound immorality than the immorality he ascribed to Liz’s words.
Liz, if she is implying (which I don’t believe to be the case) that workplace sex can sometimes be ok, she is probably wrong, or misguided, bit she is not immoral.