The crucial question concerning the good people is their relation to the people who did the dirty work.
"I did your dirty work." You've likely heard the phrase; maybe you’ve uttered it. But author and journalist Eyal Press argues “dirty work” is more than just an individual phenomenon.
In his new book, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America, Press writes there are entire areas of life we've delegated to "dirty workers"—functions we've decided are necessary, but that we want to keep hidden, apart from us.
Take the people—generally underpaid, often undocumented—working on the kill floors in slaughterhouses. If you're a meat-eater, their work is essential. But holding the shrink-wrapped final product of their work, you likely don't think too much about how it was produced.
That, Press argues, is by design—slaughterhouses are kept out of the public eye; too much transparency would threaten our status as “good people.” And that's really the question of dirty work: what is its relationship to the "good people" who rely upon it?
In all societies, we have to think about what 'good people' are willing to countenance to have done in their name.
Or, to take an example discussed in detail in this episode of New Thinking, consider our collective response to people with mental illness. We've decided—tacitly—to turn prisons and jails into the largest mental health institutions in the country. We also then underfund treatment and make it subservient to the perceived security needs of these institutions.
This makes the people trying to offer that treatment "dirty workers": not because their work isn't noble, but because we've put them in a situation—again, largely hidden from view—where it's impossible to practice ethical care.
That's the other defining feature of dirty work: it causes harm, not only to the people it's practiced on, but—morally—to the people doing the work, acting in our name.