Adventures in Ethics and Science

Depending on your blog reading habits, you may already have heard the news that feels almost like cosmic justice that a law firm has rescinded an offer of employment from a third year law student whose online activities the firm found troubling. The linked posts will give you some flavor for those activities (as will this post), so I’m not going to go into the gory details here. However, I wanted to say a few words about this comment Amanda Marcotte made on Sheezlebub’s post on the matter:

While it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, I simply have to voice my unease with the politics of personal destruction, even when done for the right cause. Getting people fired is the right’s strategy. (I know.) Scalp-collecting bothers me to no end. Granted, we didn’t do anything to get him fired, but needless to say, I have to protest any and all attempts in the future to separate a person from his job because of his opinions in a non-work capacity.

(Bold emphasis added.)

You may recall that Amanda left her job with the Edwards campaign because Bill Donohue’s Catholic League decided to make Amanda’s personal views into a big issue for Edwards. (Arguably, Donohue did this by misrepresenting her views, which strikes me as an ethical violation of the bearing-false-witness variety, but I’m just giving you the background for Amanda’s comment.)

Anyway, the issue I want to examine is the separtion between work and non-work conduct and opinions, especially as they are manifested on the internet.

I don’t think an employer (or a prospective employer) has a prima facie claim to control what’s in your head or what you do when you’re not at work. The boss doesn’t own you, although the boss certainly can impose restrictions on what you do on the job. And, I think it would be really out of line for an employer to bug an employee’s house, tap his phones, and pay off his friends to spy on the employee.

I’m not sure that means that an employer has no interests in what an employee does on his own time.

There are some professions where, conceivably, a person’s non-job-related activities or opinions might run directly counter to her professional responsibilities. (Can you be a professor of geoscience and advocate publicly for Young Earth Creationism on your own time? Can you run a group advocating for peace and spend your weekends putting pipebombs on buses?) In those instances, I still don’t think I’d want an employer getting into the surveilance (or brain-probing) business to determine that employees have no thoughts or deeds disqualifying them from performing their jobs.

On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for employers to keep an eye on public signs of character that might be relevant to job performance. And the internet is public.

Talking in the public square is valuable to us not just because it lets us express ourselves, but because we do so in circumstances where we may influence someone else’s way of thinking. Blogging makes the public square the whole wired world. How you conduct yourself in the public square is the kind of thing people may connect to your character. To the extent that your boss has access to the public square and that your boss has an interest in your character, it would seem wise that you conduct yourself in the blogosphere as if people were watching. You can’t call for a do-over just because your online behavior didn’t influence someone else’s way of thinking in precisely the way you wanted it to.

There are ways to partake of the internet while preserving some measure of privacy. Blogging under a pseudonym (and being serious about keeping your online and real-life identities separate) is one approach. The HTML-savvy can deploy code that minimizes search engine indexing of their pages. And, there exists blogging software that lets you restrict who can actually read your posts.

Still, since there seem always to be technical ways to defeat privacy measures, if one is really determined to keep private thoughts and opinions private while getting them out of one’s head, bound notebooks and diaries might be the solution. But maybe you don’t want to leave them lying around at work.


  1. #1 William the Coroner
    May 5, 2007

    What I love about free speech is it helps identify the idiots. True, your employer does not own your time when off the clock. But if I knew a potential employee was associated with something like this, I’d think two or three times before hiring them. Behavior is the truth, and I don’t think I’d like to be associated with someone who’d be involved, however peripherally, with something like that–it speaks of really poor judgement.

  2. #2 Bill
    May 6, 2007

    WtC: revealed preferences, yes. Amanda is way off the mark — no one tried to get Scoliosis or whatever his name is fired, it’s just that sunlight really is an effective disinfectant.

  3. #3 Grady
    May 6, 2007

    The “science blogs” are overwhelmingly produced by leftist non practicing scientists.

    I would like to see this use of science as a FRONT for political and anti religious rants from actual SCIENCE.

  4. #4 S. Rivlin
    May 6, 2007


    Unfortunately, science and scientists are the main targets of attacks by the religious right, which has managed to penetrate every corner of our “secular” government. It makes much sense that non-practicing scientists would take the lead in fighting the ominous slide that this country is experiencing toward theocracy. There is a good chance that one who trusts the scientific method, rather than believing in miracles, is a leftist, non-practicing scientist. Most of the participants of intelligent design blogs are religious rightists who believe in creation and consider science the antithesis of their beliefs.

  5. #5 Alan Kellogg
    May 6, 2007

    I wouldn’t trust the man. He hasn’t a lick of sense, a deep contempt for a large portion of Humanity, and a pernicious contempt for people as a whole.

    The dumb goes without saying.

    When you have a forum on the Internet that is publically accessible, sooner or later the public will access it. When they do you’d better be ready to back up what you’ve said there. And to gain enemies.

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    May 6, 2007

    Alan, do you mean Anthony Ciolli?

    Or “The Man”?

    (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t trust either!)

  7. #7 greensmile
    May 6, 2007

    While an employee or prospective employee should only be judged on the basis of their effectiveness in doing their job, it seems fair that the people writing the check, ie the employer, has a good deal of lattitude in deciding what impacts the job. Things as unrelated to basic job skills as appearance and notoriety for personal activities would still seem fair to factor in to the judgement if the job in question entailed meeting the public or representing the company.

    why do you think I blog under a pseudonym?

    The would be lawyer not only sought a job where he would meet the public, his activities with AutoAdmit would put significant doubts about his ethics in the mind of a law firm and, for all our nasty lawyer jokes, ethical judgement is a key professional quality of a lawyer.

  8. #8 JP Stormcrow
    May 7, 2007

    Will just say that subject of this post was timely for me, as I considered whether to comment or not on your Union post at waagnfnp. (and what I would actually say in that comment.)

  9. #9 Alan Kellogg
    May 7, 2007


    To clarify, Tony. Though a healthy skepticism regarding “The Man” is a good idea too.

  10. #10 Lab Lemming
    May 7, 2007

    This may not seem relevant at first, but I recommend reading Kevin Vranes’ A Sand Creek Almanac. While genocide has little to do with lax forum moderation, the real issue at the heart of both topics is the impotance some people place on pretending to care. One of the many things that disgust me about political correctness is the expectation that people should lie about their personal opinions in smarmy public confessionals of fake remorse. I’m not sure who benefits from making meatheads go through the motions of having a conscience.

    (p.s. is conscience the opposite of science?)

  11. #11 Frumious B
    May 8, 2007

    Nobody attempted to separate Ciolli from his job. His employer looked at his associations and decided not to hire him. No third parties harassed him or pressed for his offer to be rescinded. His situation is quite the opposite of Amanda Marcotte’s. Her employer asked her (I think asked her. She may have volunteered.) for a clarification and apology, and she gave one, and it was accepted. Ciolli could have learned from her.

  12. #12 Skeptical Student
    May 9, 2007

    I think this explains why some of the “science” bloggers can’t find jobs.

    Of course, if they were really doing science, and not blogging, that would help.

  13. #13 Tomteboda
    May 11, 2007

    I believe that blogging is much like any other public speech. What you say is something for which you have to be prepared to be held accountable.

    Had Mr. Ciolli been taped speaking at a public forum, nobody would consider exceptional a potential employer looking askance. AutoAdmit, the website with which he was apparently affiliated, has a wide variety of “quality” in the topics and posts. It suffers, if anything, from poor management and oversight, not from any endemic ill-will to particular ethnic, religious, or gender groups. This appears to have been an intended action, however, that there be a “free and uninhibited” exchange. The sad truth is that when you remove consequences and ensure anonymity, many people say awful things. One could, however, consider Mr. Ciolli’s participation a defense of free speech. It does not appear Mr. Ciolli himself made incendiary comments. The charge is that given the chance to repress those statements, he did not.

    Here in the United States of America, we have employment laws that draw upon the free will of association. Unless a contract states otherwise, an employer or an employee can choose at will to terminate the relationship at any time (given specific contractual time frames). Although an offer of employment had been made, no contract had been drawn. This phase of employment is largely negotiary, and so an offer can be rescinded with cause largely free of liability.

    Character is a large part of employment. An employer has to be confidant that their employee can be trusted to do their job correctly and to not interfere with operations of the business. In the case illustrated, Mr. Ciolli was found to participate in activities and statements that undermined his credibility as a lawyer. From what I’ve read, they also created a situation where female coworkers could potentially come under an atmosphere of intimidation or harassment. It appears that Mr. Ciolli did not adequately address these potential problems when given the opportunity to do so. Thus, the firm faced a threat to its well-being both in terms of client service and employer responsibility if they went forth with hiring Mr. Ciolli.

    It may well be that the grounds were not particularly substantial. In that case, the resounding blog attention may well harm Mr. Ciolli. I’m unsure, however, with whom liability would rest: certainly, the law firm did not invite the attention. Did Mr. Ciolli make the knowledge public? If so, then any further harm to his character rest on his own actions (apparently again).

    I think that the one of the biggest lessons here may be for Mr. Ciolli and others like him (perhaps myself, as a blogger as well) to consider carefully how we present and explain our extra-professional public activities.

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