Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: How Should Career Choice Ethics Address Ignorance-Related Harms?

This article received an honourable mention in the graduate category of the 2022 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

Written by Open University student Lise du Buisson

Introduction

Choosing a career is a decision which governs most of our lives and, in large part, determines our impact on the world around us. Although being fortunate enough to freely choose a career is becoming increasingly common, surprisingly little philosophical work has been done on career choice ethics (MacAskill 2014). This essay is concerned with the question of how an altruistically-minded individual should go about choosing a career, a space currently dominated by theories oriented towards achieving the most good. Identifying an overlooked aspect of the altruistic career choice problem, I draw from non-ideal theory and the harm reduction paradigm in feminist practical ethics[1] to propose an alternative account of altruistic career choice ethics informed by where one is likely to do the least harm.

Specifically, I focus on harms relating to ignorance. How does ignorance cause harm? Consider this example. In the 1980s in the US, after successful campaigning by (mostly) white feminists, many states instituted mandatory arrest policies for domestic abuse house calls. Studies subsequently found that these blanket policies reduced the violence perpetrated against white women, but increased the amount of violence against women of colour, thereby protecting white women at the cost of (almost three times as many) women of colour (Jacobs 2017, Gruber 2020, Sherman 1992). Occupying a privileged position can thus cause harm.

Drawing from standpoint theory (Haraway 1988), I call this ignorance-related harm “standpoint harm”: the harm an individual (with degrees of privilege) causes another (with fewer degrees of privilege) due to the structural ignorance they carry[2],[3]. Qualifying and addressing standpoint harm in career choice ethics is the work of this essay.

 Most Good vs. Least Harm

In the practical ethics space focused on choosing altruistic careers, the Effective Altruism (EA)[4] career choice consultancy 80,000 Hours[5] proposes a popular answer in the utilitarian tradition, suggesting people should pursue options allowing them to do the most good. Here, ‘good’ is understood in terms of quality-adjusted life-years across the population targeted by the career, and empirical research is used to determine the amount of ‘good’ created by different careers. The movement thus advises fortunate altruists (mostly students and new graduates) towards attaining high-impact careers where they will be optimally positioned to do the most ‘good’ by impacting a large number of people, both directly and indirectly, through careers in government, politics, law, or policy.

However, 80,000 Hours does not consider the possible standpoint harm an altruist, however well-meaning, could cause over the course of a high-impact career[6]. Assuming a privileged altruist in a career affording them power over one other person will cause that person a non-zero amount of standpoint harm, we can rightfully conclude that the same altruist in a high-impact career will cause an amount of standpoint harm scaled to the number of people their decisions impact. Considering that those privileged and connected enough to choose their careers are also in large part those who carry the most structural ignorance, fortunate altruists in high-impact careers stand to cause a particularly large amount of standpoint harm.

I now propose a reframing of career choice ethics: that an altruist choosing their career should instead do so informed by where they will do the least (standpoint) harm.

A New Framework for Career Choice Ethics

Is an altruist S not likely to do much more ‘good’ than standpoint harm by default, due to their altruistic desires? Let us consider whether an altruistic orientation may not be, on its own, insufficient.

Indeed, even an informed fortunate altruist acting on evidence-based grounds can be skewed by standpoint ignorance, and instead inflict great harm at scale. Standpoint harm is difficult to avoid through empirical research alone, as the production of institutional knowledge is itself a reflection of the ideals, values and types of ignorance of the society it takes place in (Haraway 1988, Proctor & Schiebinger 2008), and in many ways act to sustain that society by amplifying dominant views, individuals, and research, and silencing those who are often better situated to understand the ethics and real-life effects of power because of their positionality.

Focusing on standpoint harm reduction requires S to place themselves relative to others and other social groups, and to consider what their positionality means for S’s potential blindspots. Standpoint harm reduction thus centres learning as an ethical horizon, requiring S to expend effort on reducing ignorance in themselves. It also inevitably leads to a better understanding of structural inequalities, allowing individuals such as S to work towards systematically challenging structural issues within their sphere of influence.

Assuming that the severity of S’s chosen action(s) to minimise standpoint harm should be proportional to the amount of standpoint harm they stand to cause, I propose the following two working predictors S can use to estimate the magnitude of their potential standpoint harm:

  1. S’s absolute degrees of privilege[7];
  2. the number of people impacted through a proposed career.

S’s degrees of privilege impact the scope of their potential structural ignorance, thereby largely determining the severity of their potential standpoint harm. The number of people S is likely to impact through their career multiplies S’s potential standpoint harm.

It is then possible to think of the potential size of S’s likely standpoint harm as:

total standpoint harm =

(severity of standpoint harm) ´ (number of people impacted by S’s career)

Although more refined calculations are beyond the scope of this essay, my aim here is to start applying reasoning about the likely scope of standpoint harm in aid of career decision-making. I now propose two cases considering the actions available to S as an altruistically minded professional trying to minimise standpoint harm.

Case 1: large potential standpoint harm

S is a privileged (wealthy, white, connected, British) altruistic individual who has been offered the position of Health Minister in the UK government. Evaluating the offer, S reflects that their degrees of privilege combined with the position’s reach means that S could inflict a vast amount of unforeseen harm. Committed to minimising standpoint harm, they consider the following:

  1. Passing up the opportunity.

If S knows refusing the offer means someone else (well-meaning, able to do the job equally well) with a better understanding of power differentials (i.e., less structural ignorance) would take it in their stead[8], S would reduce their future standpoint harm by passing up the opportunity.

  1. Taking a position that optimises for knowledge instead of status.

Should S wish to remain in a career space they value, they might consider sacrificing the status of a high-ranking position to optimise for standpoint harm-reduction. For example, becoming the new health minister’s secretary would afford S the opportunity to do valuable work while also minimising standpoint harm and gaining standpoint knowledge. This could help S to minimise harm in higher-impact opportunities later.

  1. Taking the high-impact opportunity, and organising for standpoint harm reduction.

If the other contenders for the position are individuals with either a larger potential standpoint harm than S, or similar potential standpoint harm than S but fewer (or no) altruistic intentions, S should take the position. In this context, accepting the offer is minimising standpoint harm. However, as S accesses a high-impact position, they should still try to minimise their standpoint harm as much as possible. To this end, S could:

  1. organise a handover onto a person better positioned for minimising standpoint harm at a later point;
  2. use their power and connections to empower those with better understanding of likely and actual harms;
  3. politically organise for the inclusion and representation of people with fewer degrees of privilege[9];
  4. do as much as possible to reduce their structural ignorance.
Case 2: equivalent potential harms

Let us now consider an alternative situation in which S is considering a different career. After some reflection, S concludes that their perceived standpoint harm (h) is similar in scope to the harm (s) they themselves would sustain in acting to minimise h. Harms s may include passing up on needed income, reducing one’s status, refusing connections, or renouncing opportunities for self-actualisation. Where h and s seem equivalent, S must choose who, of themselves or another, should incur harm (whether h or s).

That h exists is no fault of S or those potentially impacted by S, but is rather a symptom of structural injustice. Likewise the situation in which S is left to decide for both themselves and others. How should S decide? A popular argument concerning responsibility for structural injustice proposes that those contributing to structural injustice have a collective responsibility to transform unjust structural processes (Young 2010). However, while both the standpoint harm h and the harm s incurred by S can be read as structural, a collective political response will require years, whereas S must decide in the very near future (Krishnan 2020). Moreover, it is S who needs to make this career decision, not a larger collective (ibid.). Young (2010)’s proposal thus cannot help S in making their choice.

Drawing from Krishnan (2020), I instead argue that those affected by standpoint harm caused by S in a high-impact career will have themselves, over their lifetime, incurred unfair disadvantages due to their positionality. In contrast, as a fortunate altruist, S will have, over their lifetime, derived unearned advantages due to their positionality – advantages accrued at the expense of people with fewer degrees of privilege. In cases where h=s, it should therefore be S, being the more privileged agent, who sustains the harm.

Conclusion

My proposal to adopt a standpoint harm reduction approach to career choice highlights thus-far neglected aspects of an individual’s impact on others through their professional life. First, I offer the term “standpoint harm” to fill a gap at the intersection of standpoint epistemology and accounts of harm, which can be leveraged beyond career choice ethics to reason in any domain where standpoint ignorance causes harm. Second, I  present an important ethical alternative to the largely unchallenged paradigm of career choice ethics which recommends aiming to do the most ‘good’ while remaining silent on harm. Instead, my proposed framework focuses on reducing standpoint harm, and provides fortunate altruists with an alternative map by which they can orient themselves. While my estimations and cases only provide an initial engagement with key parameters, there is much to gain from refining these arguments.

Indeed, in adopting such a framework, career choice ethics as a whole not only stands to improve individual decision-making, but could enable individuals to identify, and take responsibility for, structural injustices within their limited sphere of influence. While the essay argues for a paradigm shift towards harm reduction as an alternative to most-good optimisation, practical applications will necessarily involve various recombinations of these two approaches, as context requires. Altogether, by applying a critical feminist approach to reveal important gaps in classical ethical accounts of career choice, this essay poses an ethically valuable challenge to a classical philosophy which reasons by assuming average subjects.

In the end, reducing harm may be the non-ideal path to the ideal good.

Endnotes

[1] Feminist harm reduction models have been applied to a range of issues, including HIV management, substance abuse, domestic violence, sex work, eating disorders, and abortion (Cusick 2006, O’Hare 2007, Ashton & Seymour 2010, Thusi 2018, Striegel-Moore & Steiner-Adair 1998, Bianchi et al. 2020, Dea 2016). Such models centre the real needs of communities over abstract notions of ‘good’ (Ashton & Seymour 2010).

[2] Intersectional feminist theory provides a robust account of interlocking systems of oppression bearing harms downwards, with social groups furthest from dominant societal positions worse off (Crenshaw 1989, Collins 1990). Importantly, a subject’s position within these systems of oppression structurally conditions their knowledge and ignorance (Haraway 1988).

[3] Ignorance is not symmetrical in its costs. As society structurally protects people with more degrees of privilege, the ignorance carried by less powerful groups about the powerful carries fewer degrees of potential harm.

[4] Effective Altruism is a movement using evidence to determine how to best benefit others. See MacAskill (2015) and https://www.effectivealtruism.org/.

[5] https://80000hours.org/.

[6] 80,000 Hours outlines six ‘accidental harms’ (Wiblin & Lempel 2018), but standpoint harm is not considered.

[7] Degrees of privilege relative to those directly impacted do not account for the fact that it is often hard to predict who will be impacted indirectly through a career. Absolute degrees of privilege are thus the chosen heuristic here. Reasoning about privilege is challenging, however, and further specification is required.

[8] It is often difficult to know exactly whom one is competing against for a post. However, considering even a hypothetical cohort of competitors is a useful exercise to attune to potential standpoint harm.

[9] A good example is Derrick Bell who, throughout his career, protested against the exclusion of African-American and Asian-American women from tenured positions in university law schools (Bell 1994).

Bibliography

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