Why do people continue to work for management consulting firms? 

I used to, so I don’t mean this as random sniping at other people’s life choices. I’ve been reflecting on how we reason about the risk of being involved in wrongdoing in our work. I started thinking about this after listening to Jonathan Parry‘s talk yesterday, which was about the moral permissibility of military recruiting in schools. It involved an argument about the moral risk of becoming a soldier (i.e., the risk that you will do something wrong when you are a soldier, and that this would be bad for you).

What I’m going to do is outline a parallel that occurred to me between how people justify becoming a soldier, and how they (we) justify becoming management consultants, in the face of a real risk that they will do morally dubious work.

There is considerable evidence of management consulting firms involving themselves in wrongdoing. Monitor worked to manage Muammar Gaddafi’s reputation (and–weirdly–did research for Saif Gaddafi’s PhD!); McKinsey has been extensively implicated in unsavoury work, with authoritarian regimes and corrupt officials, including, of course, facilitating corruption in South Africa; and Bain has recently been extensively criticised for its role in undermining the South African Revenue Service, in aid of a project of state looting.  

This raises a question: why do otherwise well-meaning people (like myself) go to work for them? Some are presumably ignorant of these wrongdoings when they apply, but anecdotal evidence suggests that these firms continue to hire bright young people in significant numbers following exposure of their wrongdoings. So why do people continue to apply to work at these firms in the face evidence of wrongdoing, including in their own countries?

My thought it that there is a line of justification that is similar to how people think about becoming a soldier, that involves a sort of shielding from moral blameworthiness by one’s distance from the actual knowing wrongdoing.

I got thinking about this after listening to a talk that involved a bit of just war theory. What I realised is that there is an interesting parallel between the argument I sketched above and a potential justification for being a soldier, based on an argument from “orthodox” just war theory. (I’m not attributing this argument to anybody; it wasn’t part of the talk I saw and I know nothing about just war theory.) It goes like this:

  1. There are unjust wars, and so there is a risk of participating in an unjust war if I become a soldier.
  2. The wrongs of unjust war rest with those who make the decisions to go to war, and make strategic decisions about the conflict.
  3. The structure of military command is such that (a) ordinary soldiers don’t know whether the conflicts they are in are just, and (b) often cannot come to know this.
  4. The duty of low-level soldiers is to fight in line with the norms and laws of conduct in war (discrimination, necessity, proportionality). So long as soldiers do this, they do no wrong even if they are in an unjust war
  5. Therefore it isn’t wrong to have fought in an unjust war as a low-level norm-abiding soldier
  6. Therefore, it is permissible to join the army although there is a risk of fighting in an unjust war

Now, don’t get stuck on whether you think that’s a sound argument at the moment–what I want to do with it is draw a parallel with consulting. I think the line of justification in that case goes like this. (Note that in the following I use “bad” to mean morally bad, not “failing against the standards of success used in consulting”.)

  1. There are (plainly) bad consulting projects, and so it is true that there is a risk of doing bad work as a consultant.
  2. Such work is driven by the decision-makers at the firms. There are a few bad eggs at the top (partners at the firm) who do the wrong and are responsible for it.
  3. The structure of consulting work means that lower-down members of consulting teams (a) don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong, (b) aren’t in a position to know it (so they aren’t culpably ignorant).
  4. So, as long as lower-down members of consulting firms don’t engage in any wrongdoing of their own in the course of their day-to-day work, they are morally blameless even when involved in bad work.
  5. Therefore, it isn’t wrong to have worked for a consulting team that did wrong (as a low-level consultant).
  6. Therefore, it is morally permissible to go to work for a consulting team, even though there is risk of being involved in morally wrong work.

There are obvious and important differences between war and management consulting. The first straightforwardly involves killing people, the latter does not. Premise (4) in the soldier argument involves arguing that when soldiers kill people it is not wrong, so long as they obey the norms and laws of war. No exceptionalism is proposed for any sort of wrongdoing in the case of consulting. And so on, in ways that I assume are obvious. My point is not to say that the two practices are the same, but to say that there’s a similarity between how people think about the downward flow of responsibility and blameworthiness when decision-makers at the top do something wrong.

Let’s review the argument for management consulting. (1) is just a fact. (2) is, I think, true–many consulting partners are well-meaning and ethical, and the high-profile bad work is driven by a small number of unscrupulous partners.

(3)(a) is true in my experience; consulting teams are hierarchical with information shared at the whim of the partners. It isn’t quite need-to-know only, but if a partner doesn’t tell you something you may never find out. I’m not sure if (3)(b) is true; it is possible for consultants to learn more than they are told about the nature of their work, but I accept that corrupt officials don’t walk around with “CORRUPT” on their foreheads, and that the very same organisational restructuring might support well-intended-but-misguided ends on the one hand, and ill-intended ends on the other. It seems plausible to me that low-level consultants don’t have the sort of high-level overview of projects to detect signs of bad effects, and don’t have access to the senior decision-makers whose ill-will drives the wrongdoing.

(4) is an important step; I am not convinced this conclusion follows from (1)-(3)(b). I don’t spend my time thinking about moral responsibility in large organisations, so if others have thoughts on this or suggestions of things to read, I’d like to hear them. My gut-feeling is that I can be morally tainted by my involvement in some wrongdoing, even if I act without knowing or being in a position to know. It also seems to be that I can be blameworthy precisely because I knew (1)–that there is a risk that I will be in this position and do bad things ignorantly. So here is an important moral question: is knowledge of moral risk (in the sense of a risk that I will do something bad, unknowingly) a reason to hold me morally culpable? It seems so to me, but I have no argument for that conclusion.

(5) is a restatement of (4) from the perspective of someone who already works there, and is reflecting on work they did in the past, while (6) shifts the perspective to that of a new applicant to a consulting firm. Again, I am not sure that (6) is true even if (5) is. Even if those who worked in lowly positions at McKinsey while they facilitated corruption at Eskom are blameless, it is not clear to me that people entering the firm in 2019 with knowledge of that affair can do so blamelessly because of the moral risk.

What do you think? Does engaging in something that is morally risky in this way make you culpable of any ensuing wrongdoing?