Hey Jude,

I am a freelancer who was recently offered a design job for a major corporate client. The money is good, and that’s something I need right now, but this particular multinational company has been blasted before for having child workers in Asia. Part of me wants to take the contract because I need to pay my bills, it’s an interesting project, and it would be great for my resume, but I’m haunted by the fact that they have been linked to unethical practices. What’s the right thing to do?

[female, 38, Toronto]

A great question. On one side you have money, opportunity, and advancement. On the other you have exploitation, suffering, and perhaps other forms of abuse. You’re right to think about the consequences of your actions, even if those consequences are distant and indirect.

I see two ways to tackle this question. The first is to ask yourself, “Exactly how bad do I need this money?” If it’s a matter of a roof over your head or food in your mouth, then things become a little more cut and dried, black and white. We do what we need to keep ourselves safe and fed. If we think of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Needs,” the physiological (food, water, warmth, rest) and safety (security) needs have to be met before we have the opportunity (luxury?) to address those beyond. For Maslow, those next-level needs would be belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization.

Decisions about good/bad, right/wrong, yes/no may be more difficult to make when they don’t concern our basic needs. They then enter into grey areas. If you have no money, then the answer to “do I more need money” is a resounding “yes.” If you have a decent standard of living, then the answer to “do I need more money” is less clear-cut. Sure, we all would LOVE more money, but the threshold of what we are willing to do in order to get it may change when desperation is taken out of the equation.

From your letter, it sounds as though you already have a somewhat successful career, and you are not in dire straits financially. You’re not desperate and your basic needs are probably being met, in which case, you can move on to thinking about higher-level needs (e.g., the needs of self-respect and self-esteem). In that vein, you might ask yourself, “What do I want my career choices to say about who I am as a person?” “Who AM I as a person, and what do I stand for?” “If I choose to work for this company, can I still respect myself and hold myself in high regard?” Picture yourself talking to someone you respect deeply. Picture yourself mentioning that you just did a design job for this one problematic client. How would you feel in that moment? Would it make you pull back a little, feel a little ashamed, feel a little embarrassed? If so, why? If not, why not? The answers to these questions can help you paint a more detailed picture of the ins and outs of your dilemma.

So that’s the first approach. Look at where you are financially, and ask yourself if you really do need more. It’s about how you see yourself and how you want to see yourself going forward. And it’s about looking inward. The second approach is about looking outward at the suffering you could potentially cause, and allowing that reflection to shape who you are inside.

When I originally read your question, I thought about an idea in Buddhism called the “Eightfold Path,” which is a set of eight practices that the Buddha sets out as the path to Nirvana. In other words, do these things, he said, and you’re more likely to achieve Enlightenment. The practices the Buddha lists are concerned with cultivating virtue, concentration, and insight—and as one lives well and behaves virtuously (by causing less suffering), one’s karma improves, therefore increasing one’s chances of release from the cycle of rebirth.

But the Eightfold Path isn’t about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” It is a list of virtuous practices that should be cultivated over time. For example, one precept in the Eightfold Path is “right concentration,” which references the practice of meditation. I have yet to hear of a living human being who can sit down to meditate and do it perfectly and consistently from that moment on. It takes a lifetime of practice, and so do the other seven precepts.

The fifth practice of the Path, though, is most relevant to your question: “right livelihood.” For Buddhists, this is generally translated as refraining from pursuing a profession that causes harm or suffering to sentient beings. Obvious professions to avoid, then, would be those that involve weapons, alcohol and drugs, poisons, and killing/hurting animals.

While Buddhist monks may not have to struggle with the “right livelihood” practice in any meaningful way (their profession/calling is entirely geared towards approaching Nirvana), lay Buddhists have the task of determining the degree to which their professions align with this practice. Should lay Buddhists be farmers if their animals are eventually slaughtered for meat? Should they mine metals that are eventually turned into guns? Should they build the barrels that alcohol ferments within? How direct does their relationship to the cause of suffering have to be in order to violate the “right livelihood” precept?

It is impossible to live an entirely harmless life. Our food, clothes, cars, appliances, and entertainment all have dark elements to them—some more, some less. We can strive to cause the least harm possible by being conscious of our choices and purchases; we can do better, but we cannot be perfect.

So the question isn’t black or white (what is “right” versus what is “wrong”); it’s about degrees. And as we ask ourselves what degree of suffering we are willing to be complicit in, or are willing to cause as we pursue our careers, we are creating moments in which we can move towards a path of “right livelihood” or move away from it. It is a process. And as with meditation, the more you practice, the easier that practice becomes.

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.