Jason Trigg is a socially motivated 27-year-old MIT graduate. After college, his peers worked for Teach for America or became doctors. He worked for a hedge fund. Today, he works in programming for a Chinese banking company and donates 50 percent of his earnings to the charities he believes to be most effective.
For several years now, I and my non-profit, 80,000 Hours, have argued that more altruists should be like Jason, and consider deliberately pursuing a high-earning career so that they can donate a significant chunk of their earnings to charity. I call this path “earning to give.” While it’s not the right path for everyone, I think it’s one that most people should at least consider.
There are several arguments for earning to give rather than working for a charity directly. You can often earn enough to pay for several charity workers, thereby doing several times as much good as you could have done by becoming one yourself. You can use your funds to assist only the most effective organizations, whereas as an employee your options are limited. Money is flexible and easier to move to new or better causes than it is to change jobs yourself. Often, private-sector training is of higher-quality than that in the public sector — so even if you want to ultimately work for nonprofits, earning to give lets you build your skills first.
Some critics have pointed out that we need to factor in the harm that the highest-paying industries cause. We also need nuance. Some areas of finance, for example, are socially valuable — arbitrage helps make prices more accurate, improving capital allocation — even if some are socially harmful. And even inside a harmful organization, someone could still do good by using insider knowledge to alter harmful practices or even by becoming a whistleblower.
Others have worried about the corrupting nature of for-profit institutions. If you are surrounded by the money-driven, won’t you lose your values and end up donating very little? This is a problem you can mitigate: If you pursue earning to give but find your altruistic motivation waning, there’s always the option of leaving for an actual charitable organization — at worst, you’ve built up good work experience. And involvement in the effective altruism community helps: If you have friends pursuing a similar path and you’ve publicly stated your intentions, you’ll have strong pressure to live up to your aims.
A third criticism is that earning to give involves a loss of integrity. In an op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks argued “If you go to Wall Street mostly to make money for charity, you may turn yourself into a machine for the redistribution of wealth. You may turn yourself into a fiscal policy. But a human life is not just a means to produce outcomes, it is an end in itself.” He goes on to argue that in choosing a career, we should ask “How can I become a good person?” and not merely “How can I be a person who does good things?” The true purpose of your career, he claims, is to develop your character.
This is an objection that I have little sympathy for. Consider, for example, a dedicated socialist who chooses to work for a capitalist firm in order to fund the research and promotion of socialist ideas. Doesn’t this choice sound absurdly alienating, or morally perverse?
In fact, this scenario describes Friedrich Engels, who worked for his uncle’s capitalist firm — a job which he hated — in order to fund Marx’s living and printing costs while he worked on “Das Kapital.” You may think that communism was badly misguided, but you can’t claim that Engels lacked integrity. And the fact that he had the strength of will to work for a firm he found morally repellent is admirable, not contemptible.
In just the same way, we shouldn’t decry those earning to give. In the eyes of these people, there’s a catastrophe happening every day: 20,000 children dying from poverty, even though it costs just $3,500 to save one. In that context, asking “Will I be a better person if pursue this career?” rather than “Will I do the most good?” seems like moral narcissism.
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