banking

If you want to do the most good, maybe you shouldn’t work for Wall Street

Suppose you are an altruistically minded person who is adamant about doing the most good you possibly can. If you are lucky enough to have a wide range of options, what career should you choose?

Two years ago, William MacAskill, President of 80,000 hours, a non-profit organisation focused on “enabling people to make a bigger difference with their career,” suggested you steer clear of charity work and aim for Wall Street. He called this approach earning to give. A couple of days ago, MacAskill has published a blog post where he admits that heavily pushing for the idea of earning to give was “a marketing strategy,” and that, although 80,000 hours did believe that “at least a large proportion of people” should become high-earners in order to donate more money, placing so much emphasis on this idea may have been mistaken. The 80,000 hours page on earning to give now reads: “This page was last updated in 2012 and no-longer fully reflects our views.” MacAskill’s current point of view is that only a “small proportion” of people should strive to earn to give. Continue reading

Banking as an ethical career

The High Pay Commission today published a report denigrating the salaries of executives in the city.  This isn’t unusual: it’s common to see the high pay of bankers and other city workers is reviled in the media.  But there’s a flip side to bankers’ earnings, which often gets neglected.   Wealth, of course, can be spent on champagne and yachts and private jets.  But it can also be spent on helping people.  In fact, there are reasons for thinking that, if you spend your money wisely, you can do much more good by taking a lucrative career such as banking than by pursuing a conventional ‘ethical’ career such as charity work.

 

First, as a banker, you could earn well over £6million.  By donating 50% of those earnings, you could pay for several charity workers.  So you’d do several times as much good than if you were a charity worker yourself.

Second, if you decide not to be a charity worker, someone else will take your place, and so the benefit you provide would have happened anyway.  In contrast, if you take a lucrative career and donate your earnings, your donations provide a benefit which would not have happened anyway.

Third, as a philanthropic banker, you can put your money anywhere.  So you can fund only the very best causes.  In contrast, as a charity worker, you are much more limited in your choice of where to work.  Some causes are thousands of times more cost-effective than others, so this can be a big deal.

 

Between these three arguments, it seems pretty compelling that one can do far more to help others by taking a lucrative career and donating a substantial proportion of the proceeds, than by pursuing a more conventional ethical career.

 

Over 40 people, including many here at Oxford, have been convinced by these arguments and have formed a community called 80,000 Hours.   Members of this community support each other in their pursuit of a high-impact ethical career, trying to use the 80,000 hours of their working life to help other people as much as they can.  Members pursue careers in what we call ‘professional philanthropy’, careers in which they’ll have a big influence, and careers in which they can research highly important but neglected areas.  Each member of 80,000 hours can expect to save over 10 000 lives in the course of their career.

 

We have a finite time on earth, but, if we’re willing to think hard about how to best use the hours of our working life, we have a tremendous ability to do good in the world.

 

For more information, my research is discussed today in a BBC news article (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-15820786) and I was today was interviewed for the Today program (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_four/20111122, 10 minutes from the end).

For more info on the organization, you can check out 80,000 Hours at: www.80000hours.org

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