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The Ethicist
January 18, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Should I Take a Job Promoting Cigarettes?

I'm competing for a job that would involve doing work for a tobacco company, and I'm very uncomfortable with this. I've graduated from college, and my parents are supporting me until I get a job. If I stand on principle here, it will be at their expense. Should I take the job if it's offered?

Here's another way to put it: Should I take a job persuading people to use a toxic product? If the job involves promoting cigarettes, you must reject it. Cigarette smoking causes more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. You may not honorably work to increase this gruesome tally.

Every task in a society is at least indirectly connected to dubious activities. I used to write for Late Night With David Letterman, a program on NBC, a network then owned by General Electric, which is a major manufacturer of weapons. When I wrote a bit for a performing monkey, was that the same as making nuclear weapons? I'd say not. Some connections are more direct than others.

And although there are gray areas, a job that involves marketing cigarettes isn't one. You do have obligations to your parents, but meeting those duties does not require abandoning moral choice.

UPDATE: The company ultimately gave the job to someone else.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, January 18, 2010)