On Doing Well to Do Good

Dylan Matthews has an interesting report about a group of young American and British professionals with progressive social values and high-paying jobs in finance and tech. The subjects of the piece are unusual because they are giving away between a quarter and a half of their incomes each year, typically to health and anti-poverty charities operating in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, inspired by the philosopher Peter Singer, they say they have chosen handsomely paid jobs, like high-frequency trading, because they aspire to give away as much money as they can. 

I'm a fan of some of the organizations, like GiveDirectly and GiveWell, that are loosely part of this movement toward ethical, high-impact giving, with few or no requirements for the individual recipients of aid. Yet I worry about an ethical stance in which any career choice is socially responsible, as long as one pledges to give generously to charity. The fact is, the number of people who choose to make millions in order to give money away is infinitesimal; the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal's justification for richly rewarded work in fields, like finance, that can be defined by bad social values, such as lobbying for lower corporate tax ratestaking advantage of low-income consumers right here in the United States, and bad labor practices. That's not to say progressives should never work on Wall Street or for Big Food/Pharma/Tech; indeed, we need social justice-committed people within those fields to argue and work for ethical change. But the ethical behavior must go beyond individual philanthropy itself and toward efforts to make corporations better American and global citizens.

4 thoughts on “On Doing Well to Do Good

  1. Neil the Ethical Werewolf

    I like the idea of focusing on political change, and I’ve been discussing that with some of the Giving What We Can people. It fits rather nicely within their overall framework. It’s just that instead of giving to charity, you give to political causes — for example, lobbying for more generous global public health aid out of the US Treasury, or donating to legislators who’ve been on the right side of the issues and trying to influence them further. This might be the best thing to do with your high-frequency trading salary, in the end, and people at GWWC have been very interested in looking into that.

    One big problem is that it’s hard to quantify the effects as well as you can quantify them with more straightforward charities, so the “how many dollars do I have to spend to save a year of healthy life?” calculations are much harder to do. Since many of these groups are trying to make cost-effectiveness calculations, this ends up being a big issue.

  2. Dana

    Awesome comment, Neil. I know some people in the GiveWell world are also looking at political levers for change, and running into the same challenges in measurement and quantification.

  3. Julia Wise

    >the ability to donate generously is usually cited as a guilty liberal’s justification

    From my experience with the people in the article, they’re a pretty different breed. I think you see different behavior in people who decide in college or early in their careers that they want to take the earn-to-give route than in those who are already in high-earning careers and already spending like lawyers and bankers. It’s much harder to cut back than it is to keep your spending low in the first place.

    There’s not much evidence yet, since this idea is only a few years old and not many people have tried it, but I think we’ll see most of these folks staying true to their values and continuing to give significant amounts and not just a token.

    One argument for earning-to-give is that an altruistic person taking a finance job isn’t creating a new financier position; they’re just taking one that would have been taken by someone else otherwise. And the kind of person who takes such a job at least partly for altruistic reasons is someone who might make more ethical decisions in other matters as well. So I’d rather have these folks be the bankers than people who are just in it for the vacation home and the nice cars.

  4. Adam

    Thanks for this. I have some of the same concerns, and I think Julia’s last comment helps highlight one component of the argument I’m not sure about. Julia says that it’s better that an altruistic person is taking banker jobs, provided that new positions aren’t created, since they’d be more likely to make ethical decisions. It seems like this same reasoning could be used to advocate for a career at Exxon, or Patriot Coal, or Tyson Foods, or whatever other awful company one can think of. But one of the root causes, perhaps *the* root cause, of a lot of the suffering in our world is a mentality that that puts profits above all else, and it seems to me that working for organizations that operate with this mentality is importantly contributing to the disproportionate influence that perspective has on the current conditions of the world.

    Furthermore, why should we be confident that a lone altruist will help to positively change the culture at a company, rather than the culture of the company changing the altruist? It sure seems plausible to me that as one moves up the company’s hierarchy there will be more and more pressure to conform to various social conventions. Since the effective altruism movement is ultimately guided by an approach that values data and understands that people aren’t always perfectly rational, some caution is in order about declaring that “doing well to do good” is a successful approach after only a couple years.

    None of this is to say that I think it’s a bad thing for people in finance or other industries to donate large amounts of money to combat extreme poverty. In fact, it’s very likely to be a far, far better thing than I’ll ever be able to do. But I do think it would be a mistake to present doing well to do good as the centerpiece of the effective altruism movement before more data is in about how it works in the long term. Ultimately, effective altruism is about thinking carefully about how to maximize one’s donations, and an understanding that we all have an ethical obligation to make minor sacrifices that will make huge differences in other people’s lives. The value of these ideas is independent from the belief that the best way to maximize good is to work for ethically dubious industries.


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