Moral calculus in the gig economy

What will you do the next time your client drops you into a real-world instance of the prisoner’s dilemma?

Our careers and daily work have moral implications, because everything we do has moral implications. Over time we get used to the explicit and implicit agreements that govern our work and we come to take them for granted. But the boundaries we set and the compromises we make become more obvious when they have to be renegotiated weekly, daily, or once in the morning and again the afternoon. In the gig economy – a catch-all designation for short-term piecework or contract work of bewildering variety – what you do and what you earn may change with each new client, and the moral implications and pitfalls along with them. At the same time, freelance work dispels any illusion of serving a greater purpose that employees of larger institutions may have. A freelancer is only in it for the money, along with everyone else he or she may work with – and that’s when things are going well. Mercenary work offers fewer salves for the conscience.

Take Sabbath observance, for example. At any given moment, it’s not Sunday somewhere in the world, and some client might be trying to contact you. What if your dinner on Tuesday depends on your work on Monday, which depends on your finding a paying client on Sunday? If you depend on your current gig and finding the next one, it’s easy for every car parked in a puddle to look like an ox in the mire.

In the gig economy, every hour comes at a price, so you can calculate the exact cost of pausing for family meals or church attendance, and the law of consecration takes on new urgency. If we’re serious about giving of our time and talents, we can’t object to giving away for free the work we’re accustomed to charging money for. People need help reading difficult records in old languages for their family history work. When do you charge for your expertise, especially when your marketable skill is something people too often take for granted? How much of your time and product can you afford to give away? The moral calculus may be similar for people working full time in other professions, but hustling for the next contract makes it a daily issue in the gig economy.

While some of the gig economy is local and personal – driving for Lyft or Uber, for example – online freelance work can be disconcertingly impersonal, with little indication of what your role might be in a worldwide chain of value creation.

Somebody has a document. They want something done to the document. You don’t know for certain if your client is the author, or the author’s client, or someone plagiarizing the author’s client’s client’s client. You don’t know if you’re playing a bit part for the defense or the prosecution, if you’re contributing to someone’s public-facing presentation or to developmental research or to fraud. All you know is that someone is willing to give you money to do something to a document. And so you do the thing. Can you demand more context before you agree? Can you trust the client to tell you the truth? Are there types of document or media you won’t touch for any amount of money?

While some gigs are arranged in complete anonymity, in other markets the ability to attract work is tied to the identity you project. You may not be a racist, sexist, nationalist, but the rates you can demand are bound up with your gender, race, native language, and nation of origin, and there’s no way you can escape from benefiting from (and suffering from) prejudice at some point. In the gig economy, starving oppressed people in misruled, impoverished nations are not an abstract concept. You might be competing directly with them for every project. Your daily bread is their daily hunger.

Every market is different, but over time you’re not just selling a skill, but also a reputation for integrity and honesty – moral values that are acquired at great expense but can be sold away cheaply. Even – or especially – in a world of disaggregated anonymous labor, morality is implicated in everything you do.

(As for the prisoner’s dilemma, the type of client who puts you in that situation has a way of cheapskating the reward for keeping quiet, and looking for solidarity among a mercenary workforce is a mistake. The only winning strategy is being first to snitch.)

29 comments for “Moral calculus in the gig economy

  1. There are infamous careers that people try to take advantage of. Artists being a great example. That said how people use others varies. I get that the doctor or accountant in a ward might not want to give free advice. Although it’s not clear to me why it’s bad for them to do so, but the mathematician or physicist asked to help some troubled kids with homework isn’t. Of course you’re more focused on these broader questions but “worth” often seems inherently judged in terms of how often people encounter paying for that particular task. We don’t see the pay of teachers because we don’t pay it directly, while the co-pay for a doctor we’re all familiar with.

    Where a lot of abuse happens is with interns. Some businesses won’t pay. Artists frequently get told that if they do it for free it’ll help their resume or portfolio or so on.

  2. This has to be one of the most bizarre posts I’ve ever read on this blog. Somehow freelance work is inherently immoral and not valuable while 9-5 work is inherently more valuable and moral? All because, hey, if you’re a freelancer you might be in a position where you have to take payments on Sunday. They also might miss out on opportunities to help people with family work. I can’t even begin to fathom just how immoral you think on-call doctors to be. They must be next to devil worshippers or something.

    Oh, and freelancers are in it just for the money? Uh, yeah, I guess in some fields freelancers make more money than the traditional 9-5ers but a good number of freelancers do what they do because the number of traditional jobs available is shrinking. They freelance at great risk without the perks and securities of a traditional job. What boggles my mind even more is that you say this as an academic. I must say that having achieved a PhD and attempted to find full-time work in the academy (only to find underpaying adjunct work and leaving academia for a different career), trying to rise in academia has to be one of the most soul-crushing and time-consuming endeavors upon which one can embark. It is by far one of the least family-friendly careers a person can find. You are stuck constantly teaching, preparing for classes, writing, and researching for years and with extremely little pay for years through the PhD program. Trying to land a full-time job could require regular relocation and years of underpaid gigs as an adjunct, post-doc, lecturer, and visiting professor/researcher, with no guarantee of ever getting a tenure-track position or tenure. But hey, I get Sundays off so I don’t risk breaking the Sabbath!

    And somehow, it is implied, that what you do as a German professor contributes value to society that freelance work does not? On what planet do you live? Tell me just how many people have been influenced or even bothered to read what you have published? How many of your students have been positively influenced by your classes or even remember who you are? Extremely few academics actually contribute much to society. Most are just trying to teach and publish whatever they can, no matter how arcane and unreadable, just to survive. I’m not here to knock your profession or what you do, but at least take a look at just how much your profession can be criticized before laying into to some other very broad profession such as freelancing as immoral, you Sabbath day-obsessed loon.

  3. PS, I just looked at your book Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change, 1450-1550 and it sounds like a real page-turner that is contributing tremendous value to society at large. This has to be the next Qur’an or something. It just shows how much of a non-mercenary you are like those money-grubbing, Sabbath-breaking, blood-sucking freelancers. Please. No one except an extremely small handful of experts in your field have read even a word of that book. And you have the gall to preach to us about contributing value to society. You certainly fit the academic stereotype: completely out of touch with the real world around you and how it functions.

  4. Wow, so much for charitable comments. Mr. Green, you touched a nerve whether you intended or not.

    If you participate in a free market economy, it seems to me everyone is in a mercenary position, i.e. a hired hand, a hired gun, a hired whatever. Economies have become too complex for easy moral judgements, assuming there was ever room for easy moral judgements and assuming the OP is a moral judgement.

    I certainly didn’t take the OP as a moral judgement, but rather a legitimate exploration of being LDS/Christian in the present consumer economy. Then again I don’t freelance, although I’ve done 1099 work from time to time.

    When I was in Information Technology, the work was 24/7, so working on Sundays and having troubles doing callings fortunately coincided with my period of inactivity in the LDS church.

    In other words, being an active LDS member means learning the plate-spinners art, while trying to follow LDS leadership counsel to focus on spinning the right plates (Elder Bednar). Life for us isn’t any more challenging than it was for the early LDS church, or the early Christian church, or the Christian Nephites and Lamanites, etc, etc, etc.

    The challenge is not survival. Humans haven’t been around this long without learning to survive. However, earlier humans survived by cooperating and learning interdependence.

    The challenge is remaining cooperative and interdependent, i.e. charitable, when the temptation to seek your own hidden agenda is so freaking powerful. Remember Cain and the secret of murder for gain he learned from a helpful, meddling stranger?

    We need unity, not division; cooperation, not competition; charity, not derision; hope, not confusion. To accomplish this we will have to stretch our minds, be self-aware and aware of others, and willing to pursue group goals over personal gains.

    Now that’s a moral judgement.

  5. Speaking as moderator cut out the personal attacks or get banned. Plus you completely misunderstood his post which was about moral tensions and how to navigate them not that freelancers are immoral. (I assume Jonathan was the freelancer he was talking about)

  6. Clark, a lot of the medical professionals I’ve known have actually been pretty generous in that way, as have other professionals, but I know it can be a sore point.

    Brandon, that’s an interesting response. There are some basic assumptions you’re bringing to the conversation that you should probably re-evaluate.

    Since you asked, though, I’m glad you took a look at my first book. I think it’s a better than decent humanities monograph. I’m not sure I’d go as far as the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement did, but it’s fairly readable.

    As for teaching, well, yes, it’s a pretty noble calling. What else do you call people who work long hours for low pay and are expected to take a bullet for your children – including college students, as a German professor at Virginia State demonstrated. It’s hard to predict what students will get out of whatever they’re learning, but even obscure humanities subjects can change a few peoples’ lives. As for research, its value is, as you point out, a matter of debate. Then again, I never held a faculty position with a research component, so I don’t think I need to justify the books and articles I wrote all that much; it was just an added benefit of keeping me around. But you say you have your own teaching and research experience; what do you think now of the teaching you did and the things you published while you had the opportunity?

    As for doctors (and most other people), they know that next week they’ll still be a doctor, and next month, and next year. They can stake out boundaries between their professional and personal time and – more importantly – they can develop justifications for why those boundaries are correct and necessary. What about if you write ad copy on a freelance basis, though? You may not know precisely what you’ll be doing the next day, let alone the next month, or if you’ll be busy every day next week, or not busy enough to keep the bills paid. You may not know if you’ll be writing ad copy for a travel agency or an NGO or mascara or exercise equipment. The boundaries between personal and professional time have to be constantly renegotiated, and the justification for your boundaries is never completely stable. It makes the moral trade-offs and compromises involved in working more noticeable when the product and terms of your work are always shifting. At least that’s my argument. If you’ve put in a stretch working freelance, what was your experience?

  7. Jonathan, your response to Brandon, as near as I can tell, contains not a shred of defensiveness, sarcasm, or belittling. Well done, sir. That is a breath of fresh air indeed.

  8. As a sister freelancer, I’ve faced some of what you discuss. Not all, but some. In my case, it’s usually other church members who create the dilemmas: They don’t think I should charge for my work, because it’s church-related, so it’s priestcraft if I charge. Or so say the BYU professors who conveniently forget they, too, expect to be paid, generally from church funds. And they’re paid whether they do the work themselves, or whether they stiff me for my priestcraft. And then there were those who, learning that I had a short-term gig at the Church History Library, instantly assumed I would use my newfound access to spirit out copies of restricted material for them. And then there are ex- and anti-Mormons who are perfectly willing to pay in advance for materials I know would then figure in their attempts to hurt the faith of believers. But I have to pay rent every month and buy a pair of shoes once in a while (it’s been over three years since I last did so). Where I draw the line lets me sleep at night where morality is concerned, and yet keeps me awake at night worrying about whether or not I can afford to turn on the space heater during this week’s cold snap.

  9. Besides a “traditional” full-time, 9-5 office job as a translator, I occasionally have to work a second (freelance) job — in translation, again — to try to better provide for my family and to cover really basic necessities of life… Quite recently, I’ve been asked to provide live interpretation services for another (Protestant) church that was celebrating the 100th anniversary of their presence in Italy with a conference at a local university. At first I did not make any moral calculus; I did not see any moral dilemma and I immediately and gladly accepted the “gig” — and the much-needed money that came with it. Now that I’ve been asked to do another translation task for them, I’m beginning to feel a moral dilemma. Should I accept or not to do a freelance job for another church — helping them publish the proceedings of their conference?

    Then, after years of “drought”, my wife has been offered an evening, part-time, temporary job at a restaurant in the city where we live. At first we thought it was a miracle from heaven in these financially dire times for our family. Even if only for two weeks and only part-time, any amount helps. But, being a restaurant, Sundays off are not an option, apparently. Should she accept the job or reject it because she’ll have to work for two (or maybe more) Sunday evenings?

  10. I think one aspect of the OP is not to tell individuals facing dilemmas what to do, but to acknowledge the dilemma. As with all difficult choices, you and your family decide what is right for y’all, and perhaps consult the Lord. No easy answer exists for every situation, which, in my opinion, is why personal revelation exists.

  11. My questions were not so much intended to beg for answers, but rather to reinforce the notion that moral dilemmas or calculi are very real and involve some down-to-earth daily issues. I also realize that those examples are surely not on the same level of the LDS youth who is a prospective NBA/MLB/NFL athlete and needs to choose between serving a full-time mission or accept a millionaire contract and forfeit his mission. For some members, I know this is not a moral dillemma at all, while for others it is an almost Abrahamic test.

  12. I’m essentially in the gig economy–I own a small business where I’m the only employee. It’s great because I get to pick and choose what jobs I take. Of course, getting it off the ground was difficult, and earlier on I took a couple of jobs I shouldn’t have because I was desperate for the money.

    Plenty of people in my ward work for large employers and have plenty of moral dilemmas. There’s a beer factory down the road that employs Mormons and that processes barley sold by Mormon farmers. Even worse, there’s a local MLM (although of course they claim that that’s a slander and they’re not actually an MLM) that employs a ton of Mormons in non-MLM positions. I doubt most the people working for the MLM think about the moral ethics of their job as long as they don’t have to work on Sundays.

  13. I’m fortunate to work a salaried position, but in my previous job I was on call 24/7 and working on Sunday was a common occurrence. My eventual reconciliation was that I tried to avoid making work for myself on Sunday (i.e. “If I do this tonight, my week gets easier but it’s not critical”) versus required responses (“The system is down!”) or gigantic projects (“If I don’t work on Sunday to complete this issue that got assigned on Friday afternoon, there will be grief all around and sharing my testimony of the Sabbath won’t help.”)

    It was definitely a motivator driving me to my current position.

  14. Of course, you completely missed the main point of my critique. You claim that freelance work is inherently immoral because 1) it might make people break the Sabbath (paranoid fear of Sabbath-breaking is really a sign of an unstable mind prone to delusion and extremism) and 2) because “boundaries between personal and professional time have to be constantly renegotiated.” That was most certainly my experience and the experience of innumerable other academics for years trying to get full-time positions and tenure, constantly writing, teaching, and researching, and always feeling like I was behind on projects and had to sacrifice time for family. So I fail to see your point. On those grounds, couldn’t you call what you do just as inherently immoral as what freelancers do? Aren’t there freelancers who negotiate those boundaries very well? Aren’t there myriad academics who have no idea what they’ll be doing from one year to the next and who don’t negotiate boundaries well?

    You also missed how my main point wasn’t actually to disrespect what you do, but simply to show that it could very well be disrespected in the same way that you disrespect all freelancers. It is fine if you want to be a German teacher at a university. But don’t tell me that this is inherently more valuable and/or noble than what freelancers at large do. You made the choice to be a German teacher because that was an option available to you and you took it. Fine. Well, guess what? Many people freelance because that is an option available to them and they take it. There is nothing inherently immoral about freelancing. A freelancer could very well be contributing tremendous value to society, and then they could be enabling neo-Nazism. Aren’t there academics who enable evil? Of course. Does this mean that I should knock the profession of academia as inherently immoral? No. Your post is a joke and an embarrassment.

  15. Ardis there was a great freelancer thread on twitter the other day. Sadly I can’t seem to find it. More or less someone bemoaning that so many won’t pay (even when told they would be paid). So they took blurry photos of the art and put red Xs on it. She sent it with a note that they could have the originals when they paid.

    Obviously that won’t work in most church settings but I think there’s something to that.

  16. Think about the apocryphal story of the General Authority who, for fun, asked for a cup of coffee while flying on an airline to some assignment. According to legend, the stewardess recognized him as one of those “Mormon Apostles” and then got him a ginger ale instead. This mythical GA then turned to his traveling companion and said something along the lines of “We’re so far up in the Church that we practically can’t break the commandments so I wonder how much credit we get for living them.” I see a corollary there for those (including me) not in the gig economy.

    I have the luxury of not having to monetize my time. Being at church has literally zero impact on my paycheck. Contrarily, my SIL who works in the gig economy has to fight the gut urge every Sunday to work instead of attend Church. I choose to believe that God has far greater regard for her genuine sacrifice than for my willingness to be “inconvenienced” for three hours.

  17. Brandon J, you seem ignorant of the fact that Jonathan is himself a gig worker. Everything in the post is personal to him. He has to make these choices, and he is in no way disrespectful of others who face them.

    You, on the other hand … ugh.

  18. Thanks for the examples and comments. Ardis, I think you understand what I’m trying to get at. Food and heat are fantastic – but there are some some things that aren’t worth any amount of money. I agree with Anonforthis that every line of work comes with moral implications – the difference being that you only have to decide once or a few times if working for an MLM or beer brewer is something you can live with; in the gig economy, you may face choices like that twice a day, and you may not even realize at first you’re writing ad copy for someone you would prefer not to.

    NV, that sounds like an extremely apocryphal story.

    Brandon, I’m glad you’re skeptical of the idea that freelance work is inherently immoral. I’m not sure why you attribute that idea to me, but…good? And critiques of academic labor certainly are interesting. I didn’t actually bring up academia in my post, but there’s lots of interesting writing about it, and we’ve even had a few posts about it here over the years.

    But, sure, let’s go ahead compare freelancing and academic work. Both are huge and incredibly varied sectors of the economy, so anything is going to be an overgeneralization. But I think it would be fair to say that there are generally some differences between the two.
    1. Both academic and freelance work have moral implications and pitfalls, but it’s often different implications and different pitfalls.
    2. For freelancers whose work and client base changes frequently, opportunities to confront the moral implications of their work arise much more often than it does for academics, whose working conditions may change at a much slower pace.
    3. Academic work and education in general offers a surplus of moral narratives about itself: you’re seeking for truth, teaching the next generation, changing society, and rising in rank. These narratives can make academic work very rewarding, but they are also subject to abuse (“Teaching is a calling, so why do you need a raise?”).
    4. Freelance work in general offers few or no moral narratives about itself. There is little place for institutional loyalty, and one’s commitment to a client is purely transactional.
    5. Faculty have commitments both to their institution and to their discipline. What they teach is affected not just by their employer, but by their peers in their field.
    6. Depending on the type of work – go back, re-read that proviso: depending on the type of work – it’s possible for client wishes to outweigh a freelancer’s professional standards. One is generally creating a work for hire, after all, often anonymously. If you think a word in Basque should be translated as “opera performance,” but your client tells you it needs to be translated as “old-time hoedown” to fit the intended use, the client wins. Even if you don’t, once you’re paid and the client has your work (with their name on it), the client can change it however they want.

    How does that sound? I’m sure there are exceptions to all of these points, but how do they work as generalizations?

  19. Ardis’s comment that reminded me of something I have been pondering on and off for some years. And that is the position of those who are freelance and whose area of work or expertise is something the church can easily gobble up, and the expectation of members that these people will provide their expertise gratis, on demand. I can see how Ardis specialising in church history falls into this category. The groups I had in mind were musicians and professional genealogists. Myself I am an enthusiastic amateur musician, so I just enjoy the chance to play. (Even I, on the basis of being able to play the hymns on the piano, have been approached by member parents in the past wondering if I would teach their little darling – something for which I am not remotely qualified as I have pointed out when refusing. I’d do more harm than good I’m quite sure!) I often wonder what pressures professional musicians might feel. In fact I can’t even begin to think how one could actually be a professional organist – where most employment will be in the church sector, and necessarily include Sunday worship services, and a member of the church expected just to step up and play without remuneration at the very same time that one might have gainful employment playing for a congregation of a different denomination. But does this really mean church members shouldn’t aspire to be a professional organist? I don’t think so.

    But I don’t think church members are alone in trying to drain every drop of blood from freelance workers. It’s a frequent complaint amongst the instrumental teachers I know that parents seem to expect them to invest in their students far beyond what they are actually paid to do.

    At any rate, I find it heartening that my stake leaders emphasise that our priorities are first our families, second our means of employment (which provides for our families), and third our church responsibilities.

  20. Ardis, even if Jonathan has engaged in freelance work, he has no right to bash all freelance work (which is incredibly vast) as inherently immoral. Just like I have no right to bash academia as inherently immoral. To do so would be incredibly shortsighted. And to say that it is immoral because it may cause you to break the Sabbath is just silly and highly worthy of the ridicule that I have given his thoughts. This sort of post coming from someone as highly accomplished as he is is even more disappointing. You would think that someone who had published two well-researched books through a university press would come up with ideas that were more profound than this.

    Jonathan, I’ve clearly gotten under your skin (which was my goal), seeing as how most of the content of your two replies is devoted to addressing my comments. At this point it appears to be mostly damage control and red herrings from you, with a dollop of denial too (yes, your post and comments strongly imply that all freelance work is inherently immoral). I critique/ridicule the main points of your post and you reply not by defending your main points, but by seizing on side points of my critique and going off on tangents. You’re clearly irked by my comments but can’t put up a proper defense. Furthermore, you persist in generalizations about freelance work to try to make your moot case that all freelance work is immoral. Pfff, is all I have to say in reply. Why continue playing a game where time is already up and I have already scored a victory?

  21. Sigh.

    Brandon, the superior rightness of your rightness is incontrovertible. You are correct beyond compare. I am left devastated by the insight of your savage analysis. Clearly my intellect has failed and I am left exposed as an impostor. I will spend the day in anxious paralysis trying to reconstruct a worldview from the rubble.

  22. Brandon J, you clearly have not gotten under Jonathan’s skin as evidenced by his extremely charitable and unemotional responses he’s made to your clueless comments in this thread. I’ve tried to honestly understand what you’re getting at but I fail, you seem to be completely misreading everything Jonathan has said while doing it with a large and illogical chip on your shoulder.

  23. Jonathan doesn’t say ANYTHING like what you’re misreading into his post and comments, Brandon J. Give it a rest. Nobody wants to hear from you again.

  24. I might as well confess this here, as it’ll get lost in the flak I hope. I only go to church for the sacrament, unless I have a specific calling during the 3 hour block. I personally don’t see the point in the block itself. Keeping the sabbath/shabat/Sunday is a personal behavior anyway; “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”

  25. The sad thing is I really was hoping Brandon would have engaged in real discussion. Someone who spent time in academia before starting a new career sounds like he could have been interesting to talk to. Unfortunately I was never sure if he wanted to talk, or was just looking for a reaction, or for something else, or if he was even who he said he was. The Internet is a horrible place sometimes.

    Jerry, of course the Sabbath isn’t just personal behavior. It’s our opportunity for communal worship, and often our only time for community building. I like my 3-hour block. When a lesson isn’t connecting, it’s also a great opportunity for contemplation and meditation. Try your quorum meeting some time; they’re probably nice people.

  26. I can appreciate what you’re layin’ down, Jonathan. I do attend my quorum meetings, especially now that I’ve been called as an instructor, lol. Heaven help our quorum. :)

  27. On a related note, how many of the obligations we take on as LDS are more social than salvational? Or will we argue that social and salvational are connected? Again, related to the OP, are the moral/ethical dilemmas we face trying to be in the world yet not of the world really different for one kind of worker than another? In other words, just as in life, some laborers are more fortunate in job circumstances than others, and it makes more sense to me that participants in the gig economy do not necessarily face special circumstances that modify behavioral expectations related to the gospel any more or less than other kinds of labor.

  28. My adult child is in the gig economy, has yet to be paid for her work, is a childcare provider to pay the bills. I once read an article about how black communities in the U.S. used a hustlin’ micro-economy to survive. Guess white people get their turn.

    I’m probably talkin’ to myself now; meh, I’m used to it.

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