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The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy

Sociologist Lisa Dodson investigates the growing grassroots movement against unethical standards within the workplace.

The following is an excerpt from The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy, by Lisa Dodson (Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Dodson).  Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Roots of Disobedience

On the surface, the people I met who practiced economic disobedience would seem quite diverse. They included middle-aged, white Bea, managing that big-box store in rural New England and thinking that after years of hard work, you should be able to buy a prom dress for your daughter. They included Ned, white and in his thirties, the chain grocery store manager who thought working families should have enough to eat. And also Ray, in his fifties and the son of immigrants, a community-center director for a small city, who doesn’t ask for a “pedigree” before signing people up for desperately needed services.  They included Aida, a Latina in her thirties, the director of a child care center, who misplaced paperwork so that children wouldn’t lose child care and parents wouldn’t lose jobs. And they included urban teacher Lenora, in her twenties and African American, who broke school rules all the time to help out a student in her class.

These and dozens of other disobedient people identified themselves as all over the nation’s social map. They were younger and older; from the West, Midwest, and East; they were Latino, black, and white; religious and not; and ranged from barely middle-income to quite wealthy.   And they did not—for the most part—use words like “resistance” or “civil disobedience.” Yet they took action based on a belief in their responsibility for what was happening to people around them.

The most common explanation given for breaking institutional rules was an identification with the plight of others. As Dr. Leticia put it, “There was something... that haunted me... maybe reminded me of me.” It was particularly common for women to talk about putting themselves in other mothers’ shoes and reflect on what it would be like to have to leave their children all alone. But this was also said by numerous men who described their feelings of protectiveness and concern for children.   What would it be like to be unable to keep their children safe or fed? Employers, doctors, job supervisors, executives, teachers, small business owners, and others—over and above their work identity—reflected that as a parent, you know that you put your children before anything, before regulations or laws. Protecting children from harm trumps everything else.

Intriguingly, this idea was also shared by childless people who expressed a sense of responsibility for children’s vulnerability that reached beyond genetic ties. They included childless Cora, who allowed children into the workplace, tried to get them homework help, and wrote up fantasy work schedules each week—all against the rules of the large franchise she ran—to help mothers take care of their kids. Hospital VP Linda treated people working for her like fictive kin and, from that angle, treated breaking rules as morally obligatory, worth risking her job to do.

These moral choices reflect the idea that concern about the well-being of other people is hardwired into humanity. Steven Pinker, an evolutionary neurobiologist, describes “moral instincts” as shared human senses that include an aversion to harming others and also a universal belief in basic fairness. Deborah Stone, a political science ethicist, examines how altruism is an essential, if invisible, part of daily life found in families, in community life, and at work.

Sarah Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist focusing on maternal care, argues that the survival of offspring in human evolution required “extra” parents—she calls them “alloparents”—who provided protection, care, and resources not only to blood-kin young but to others too, who were treated as kin. And the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins examines how “othermothers” are critical to family survival where families are struggling, particularly in African American, ethnic minority, and low-income families that do not have the income that middle-income families rely on.

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