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Doing Well by Doing Good: Careers that benefit others also benefit you

To what extent do self-interest and altruism conflict? In my latest Quartz article, I suggest that they conflict less than you might think.

Pursuing a career that makes the world a better place has a range of personal benefits. There’s a decent case to be made that aiming to do good is one of the best ways of having a career that is personally satisfying. In general, I think that a great research program for practical ethics is to find out what policies or personal activities are in the class of “win-wins”. That is: what actions or activities can we recommend that, if undertaken, make the actor personally better off and also result in a better outcome for others? (Activities that improve self-control, such as mindfulness meditation, might be in this category.). And what policies can we recommend that both make the home country better off, but also have great benefits for the citizens of other countries? (More relaxed immigration policies might be in this category).

Promoting these activities is morally important both because they have benefits for the world and because they have a good chance of successfully being taken up. I worry that recommendations in this category are often neglected by practical ethics simply because “acting morally” has such strong connotations of self-sacrifice. (It sounds kind of odd to talk of “the moral imperative to promoting mindfulness meditation”.) But it need not be so. What’s good for yourself and what’s good for the world are logically independent, and sometimes they overlap in unexpected ways. We should try to find those ways and champion them.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I suspect that one of the reasons we tend to focus on conflicts and trade-offs rather than win-wins is that the former create anxiety and cognitive dissonance, and we hope that by analysing them we can resolve our dilemmas and all will be clear. This is, of course, an illusion, and on the whole I agree that we would be far better off looking for the win-wins.

    That being said, obviously there ARE conflicts and trade-offh, and I do think there is (also) value in clarifying why they arise, and what could be done about them. I am a huge fan of mindfulness, but as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. One still, at some point, has to come to a decision as to what end to aim for. And as someone I was recently talking to put it very well, we need ethics to reconcile our different desires. Ultimately, ethics is for me a discourse about how to do this.

    Of course, mindfulness meditation can also help in this context. One can be more or less mindful when writing comments, and more or less mindful while reading them. The clearer we are about our motivations for doing both, the more likely we are to find those win-wins.

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