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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.

Importantly, MacAskill’s post was followed by a further 80,000 hours blog post written by Robert Wiblin, which affirms that effective altruists are not against systemic change. For people who were concerned about effective altruists’ apparent enthusiasm for the financial sector, both pieces of writing are reassuring and welcome. Moreover, regarding the first post, my hat is off to anyone who, having publicly defended a stance, is willing to revise his views and acknowledge a change of mind (or heart)—particularly if the shift is a result of exposure to reasons and/or evidence.

That said, the reasons cited by MacAskill for the turnaround might cause surprise. Most of the reasons he mentions seem to suggest that scarcity of funds is not as big a problem for effective altruists as they previously thought it might be (e.g. “Effective Altruism organizations are generally reporting that they are more talent-constrained than money-constrained. (…) In general, important ideas seem to get funding.”). He also mentions that people who are open to pursuing a range of careers may have reason to choose a “more neglected option than earning to give,” and that, given that there are many more non-earning-to-give options that earning-to-give ones, it is unlikely that earning to give will be the best alternative for most people.

These are all good reasons to reconsider generally encouraging young people to go into the financial sector. What can be perceived as puzzling, however, is that MacAskill makes no mention of some of the most morally relevant reasons that have been offered for not opting for Wall Street.

In response to MacAskill’s article two years back, Brooke Allen pointed out that the process of making money often creates much harm, and Matt Phillips argued that having a high proportion of bankers can be dangerous for the economy. The 2008 financial crisis has painfully revealed the uglier side of Wall Street. In order to become a high-earner in the financial sector, one would most likely have to defend the interests of the rich, thereby contributing to inequality. One may be involved in many kinds of activities that harm the poor—for example, in financial speculation that can affect the price volatility of foodstuffs, thereby creating hunger. One may bet against a whole country or currency and create a financial crisis with lasting effects.

It seems to me that, if one works for Wall Street and donates a large amount of money to alleviate poverty or disease, one may fall into the illusion that one is doing overall more good than harm (when in fact this may not be so) because it is relatively easy to calculate how many lives one may be saving by donating to charity, but it is very hard to estimate the amount and extent of the harm one is producing (or the number of lives one is ruining) by working for the financial sector. Moreover, while one can feel wholly responsible for the good one does, the responsibility for the harm is shared, and thus feels less burdensome, less personal and direct. Yet Allen, who claims to have worked more than three decades on Wall Street, is certain that sometimes the harm done by earning money is well beyond the good that can be done by donating it:

Question: How much money would all the participants in the mortgage securitization industry have to give to charity to undo the harm they have caused?

Answer: More than they have ever made.

MacAskill cannot be accused of being unaware of these issues. Indeed, in his paper Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference, he mentions as an example the harm that can be done by speculating on wheat. Why, then, does he not cite harms as further reasons to choose more harmless careers? Presumably, because of his commitment to the idea of replaceability: If one does not take the Wall Street job, MacAskill argues, somebody else will. Given this fact, it is better that you (an altruistically minded person) do it than someone else. If the job is high-paying, you can donate a substantial part of what you earn (something which other candidates for the job would be unlikely to do). If the job is a very evil one (e.g., working for the Nazis), you can try to do it less well than someone else would, thereby creating less evil in the world than would otherwise be the case.

The most troublesome side of the replaceability argument is that it has no moral limit to what it can justify: from working as a drug dealer to dropping a nuclear bomb. As long as someone equally qualified as you are is willing to do the job, and you think of yourself as someone altruistically minded who will do less harm (or more good) than someone else, anything goes—no job is off limits.

MacAskill seems to think that the replaceability argument does not justify what he calls reprehensible careers (e.g., “working as a hit man, a concentration camp guard, a drug dealer or a child trafficker”). According to him, replaceability can only justify morally controversial careers, such as being a Wall Street broker. He gives two main consequential reasons to justify his claim (he also mentions non-consequential reasons, but here I will only focus on the consequential ones).

First, MacAskill thinks it unlikely that someone who is “morally sensitive” could bring herself to pursue a reprehensible career. I disagree. As Hannah Arendt argued in Eichmann in Jerusalem, evil is more often than not banal—people who think of themselves as good people can commit horrendous crimes. In fact, most individuals who cause harm to others think of themselves as “good guys.” I have little doubt that many drug dealers justify their careers exactly as MacAskill justifies a career in finance: “If I wasn’t doing this, someone else would be. Plus, I’m a good guy who is probably doing more good than others would.” Mexican cartels often give out dinners, toys, and money to people as gifts. They also provide protection to their villages, and they give work to people in need. Pablo Escobar, the most notorious drug lord in the history of Colombia, constructed houses, sports facilities, health centers, and schools, and probably thought of himself as a national hero. Yet the consequences of the drug dealing business can be devastating. In 2012, it was estimated that around 150 thousand people have been killed in the last few years in Mexico as a result of violence related to drug cartels. To the murders one should add dozens of thousands of kidnaps, extortion, corruption, economic costs (e.g., loss of tourism), damage to the social fabric, etc.

The second consequential reason MacAskill gives for why replaceability supposedly does not justify reprehensible careers is that pursuing such jobs would impair the effective altruist’s “ability to influence others to also pursue philanthropy as a vocation” and would risk “sullying” effective altruism. The implicit idea seems to be that it is important for effective altruists to dedicate themselves to careers that have good reputations in order to be an example for others. But, once again, this reason cannot seem to morally distinguish the career of a stockbroker or banker from that of a drug dealer. Bankers do not currently enjoy the reputation they once had. Many people are not exactly fond of the financial sector as a result of the crisis. Thus, effective altruists working for Wall Street (what MacAskill considers a morally controversial, but not reprehensible, career) may impair their ability to influence others and sully the idea of effective altruism. Conversely, in countries like Mexico and Colombia, drug dealers are often venerated for playing a role similar to that of the state (i.e., giving jobs, providing protection, demanding “taxes” from businesses, building public spaces, etc.). Surveys in Mexico suggest an alarming number of adolescents aspire to become drug dealers or hit men. The moral of the story here is that reputation does not necessarily correlate with morality.

Unless we establish a clear and independent moral criterion to distinguish morally controversial careers from reprehensible ones, it seems like the replaceability argument can justify any kind of job. In other words, by itself, the replaceability argument provides no limit to the kinds of harms one can do.

One can use almost any career to do good or evil. With some careers, however, one can have a greater impact than with others, and 80,000 hours does well in bringing to our attention the moral importance of deciding a career path. If you want to do the most good, and all things considered—the good you can do, the harm you may create, the possibility of being an example to others, the importance of bringing about systemic change, the options available, the shortcomings of the replaceability argument, etc.—maybe you should think twice about working for Wall Street.

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15 Comment on this post

  1. If working on Wall Street is known to be as bad as you are suggesting, shouldn´t we already be putting hordes of bankers and stockbrokers in jail and banning the evil business alltogether? You actually wrote that:

    “one may fall into the illusion that one is doing overall more good than harm (when in fact this may not be so) because it is relatively easy to calculate how many lives one may be saving by donating to charity, but it is very hard to estimate the amount and extent of the harm one is producing (or the number of lives one is ruining) by working for the financial sector.”

    That implicates you think that a person working in financial sector might well be causing harm comparable to at least tens and probably hundreds of deaths or ruined lives (counted using the numbers calculated by effective charities). On the whole, financial sector would be easily one of the biggest evils in the modern era if you are right.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rogue. I think it a risk. I tried to qualify the assertion saying that it *may* be the case. While it is not necessarily so, I think it is a possibility that someone in the financial sector might *contribute* to creating an immense amount of harm. One person is unlikely to be the sole person responsible, but he or she might be contributing to that.

      No, I wouldn’t want the business banned altogether, but I would want to see some practices better regulated (e.g. speculating with food).

  2. awfully intellectually dishonest not to reference any of the essays by MacAskill or others discussing and debating exactly the questions that the author raises as if she’s the first person to think of them. is she unaware that this has been discussed extensively, or is she trying to pretend that discussion didn’t happen so she can lazily avoid answering the points that were raised during it? I’m guessing the latter, because this is a thoroughly lazy post from start to finish. Its whole case is based on an empirical question (how much harmed does a well-intentioned young altruist do by taking a banking job?) which she doesn’t even try to find any statistical answers for.

    more importantly, she misses the point by a mile: the question is not whether bankers do evil but whether a good person, going into banking, is likely to make the industry more evil. Posing the question correctly would have made it obvious that the effect could easily be in the opposite direction.

    1. Her argument was exactly that posing it as you said would mean one should also be a hit man.

      I am not completely sure your comment refers to the same post I just read, as it contains several references to blog post and papers. Moreover, it was a blog post; one has no obligation of making an extensive literature review before posting. Furthermore, if it were an academic paper and one had the obligation of conducting a literature review, then there would be no obligation of doing a literature review of blog posts and discussions – in fact it would have been an odd thing to do.

      Holding the post to such weirdly high standards, ignoring all her references and calling the author of various names was undeniably unwarranted.

    2. It would be great if you could share the references you think I should have included so that everyone (myself included) can benefit from them. Thanks.

  3. I agree with most of your reasoning, but I am not completely convinced working for Wall Street does harm and none of the posts you linked to provide evidence it does. It does not make sense to blame the financial system for the crisis entirely, and then say it took no part whatsoever in doubling the US GDP every ten years since 1940. Even if it were 0.02% responsible for the economical growth and 100% responsible for the crisis, it would still be a net benefit.

    I think the main problem is another one and focusing the issue on “what kind of people do X versus how much good one can do by doing X” points to the problem. If a certain activity is evil and done by evil people who end up thinking of themselves as good, then deciding to engage in such activity means you are either already evil or about to become it. Someone might decide to become a hitman for a drug cartel while donating his money to AMF, making sure to kill his victims much less painfully than otherwise, and maybe even letting someone of them go. After ten years of killing people for a drug lord, being surrounded by criminals, psychopaths, cocaine, heroin and whatnot, can we reasonably expect that our effective altruist hitman would be continuing with his AMFs donations and humane killings? I doubt this. But maybe he does because he feels extremely guilty every day, but the same might not be true for less obliviously harmful professions.

    Another problem with replaceability is that it can never be a universal or even a common moral principle. A significant percentage of good people engaging in harmful professions would be likely very harmful. (For one, because the hitman you stole the job from wouldn’t and shouldn’t be taking your place at GiveWell). Therefore, even if it is true that a few altruists going into WallStreet is desirable, this practice shouldn’t be as publicly endorsed as it, in fact, was. Sadly, it’s probably one of the most popular concepts of EA.

    1. Thanks, Joao. All good points. No, it doesn’t make sense to blame the financial system alone for the crisis. And it is quite likely that one can work for the financial sector without doing a lot of harm (e.g. working for an ethical bank, refusing to engage in certain practices, etc.). I was merely making the case that it is possible for someone who wants to earn the most amount of money, and so wants to work for big institutions in a high job post, to do more harm than good without realising it.

      I also agree that it would probably be a good thing to have a few EA on Wall Street, but generally encouraging young people to choose that route over others does not seem ideal.

  4. I am rather surprised to see you claim that financial speculation in food causes hunger, given that hunger has decreased markedly world-wide over recent centuries and given that economists since Adam Smith have argued the opposite. Is there any evidence that could change your mind on this point?

    1. Absolutely. If you share some references, I’d be grateful. I recommend, just as an example, “Food speculation: ‘People die from hunger while banks make a killing on food'” by John Vidal on The Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog (Jan 23, 2011).

      I do realise that not everyone agrees with this claim. But I thought it was fair to take it as an example since MacAskill does accept it as an example in his article. If you think there is any practice in the financial sector that creates harm, then we could switch examples for that other harmful practice that earns money.

      1. The oldest argument is Adam Smiths, in book IV, chapter 5 of The Wealth of Nations, see paragraph 40 onwards.

        If you do not find the arguments in there convincing, can you please tell me what evidence you would find convincing? Eg evidence of increasing numbers of people being fed? Academic studies of relative price volatility of foods with functional forward markets versus one’s without?
        My apologies for this approach but in my experience people who talk about the evils of forward markets tend to be rapid goal-post movers when confronted with disconfirming evidence.

  5. Richard Yetter Chappell

    Hitmen engage in what non-consequentialists might see as inherently immoral actions — gross rights violations, direct and deliberate harms, etc. It’s far less clear that bankers and stock traders violate any rights, at least those who act within the bounds of the law (financial criminals are, of course, another matter). Maybe they sometimes indirectly cause harm, but so long as it isn’t a rights violation then it seems considerations of replaceability / counterfactual impact can reasonably come into play here.

    So, that’s my proposal: Morally reprehensible careers involve inherently immoral actions, such as gross rights violations. Morally “controversial” careers, to which replaceability considerations may apply, are at most contextually morally questionable, i.e. due to contingent, indirect effects, which might be better attributed to the system as a whole than to any particular individual taking part in the system.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, that could be an independent criterion to distinguish reprehensible careers from morally controversial ones. While it might work in most cases, however, I suspect that there will be some grey areas where that criterion might not work as well. If it is true that speculating with food may contribute to bringing about hunger, then that would be an example of a legal activity that nevertheless one can argue violates people’s rights, albeit indirectly (and if you think people have a right to adequate food).

      I’m not sure how morally relevant it is that a single person cannot be blamed fully for a rights violation. Imagine a group of ten hitmen who, in order not to get caught, poison their victim with an individual dose that would not kill the victim by itself, but that in conjunction with the other 9 doses, kills him. It still seems to me that the job of those ten hitmen is reprehensible.

      Something that seems morally relevant is whether the bad effect is forseeable or not. When people speculate against food, can they forsee the bad consequences that are coming?

  6. 1. Philanthropy is an important tool to make a difference in the world. All this talk about working in the banking sector or extreme hypothetical harmful examples of jobs that can fund philanthropy is just a distraction from discussing the importance of career-funded philanthropy (or earning-to-give, as most call it). There are countless benign careers for those who want to fund philanthropy.
    2. MacAskill and others have addressed every argument against working in banking at one time or another. I don’t think it’s necessarily, or practical, for every article to address every argument.
    3. E2G may cause more good than harm: Only the most caring people are attracted to effective altruism. They would be much more adverse to doing harm than others and would factor this in when selecting a job. Most of the arguments against earning-to-give centre around the prospective altruist not considering many factors when doing the cost-benefit analysis of their altruistic careers. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that they would enter a career hastily without considering all the pros and cons.
    4. 100% agree with MacAskill that there is a major advantage of more caring people entering questionable fields because they would do less harm than the typical person who enters that field would and will also influence their company/field for the better. How could anyone even question that? For this reason alone, I think more caring people should “go where others altruists won’t.” For instance, more good-hearted people working their way up the corporate ladder can only be good for CSR.
    5. Utilitarians have a much higher level of caring than non-utilitarians. I find non-utilitarians only care about themselves and require rules in order to feel like they are living ethical lives. “As long as I stay within these rules, I am a good person.” a non-utilitarian will think. They are thinking about #1, not about anyone else. Utilitarians, on the other hand, care so much about others that they are willing to do whatever it takes to help others even if it means having to put on the bad guy’s hat once in a while. MacAskill has to condemn morally reprehensible careers for PR reasons, but I don’t – To the truly caring, nothing can be off limits.
    6. Mexican cartels doing charity isn’t applicable to this debate because they do that to win public support which is good for business. Obviously, they didn’t enter the drug field to do charity. It may be an example, however, of people pretending to be altruists, but it’s certainly not an example actual ones.
    7. Philanthropists in morally “reprehensible” careers having poor ability to influence others: This is true. However, keep in mind, if the EA did a proper analysis and being in that job does have a clear net benefit (by donations, or harm aversion), the problem is not with the EA but in the minds of everyone else who don’t think on as deep a level. You hit it on the head with “reputation does not necessarily correlate with morality,” but keep in mind that also means that someone in a villainized job may actually be, in reality, performing the most good.
    8. Moral criterion for jobs: We already have safeguards to impede people that may take this replaceability thing to the extreme. They’re our laws and social norms. Let’s say someone does think that joining the mafia is the best way he can benefit the world. He likely still won’t do it because it’s illegal and he could be imprisoned. Also, it is socially unacceptable to be involved in that, so if the illegality doesn’t deter him, likely the social condemnation would. Those are two powerful safeguards, in addition, of course, to the individual’s own conscience, desires and upbringing.

    Like most people, you seem to have a fear towards utilitarianism because it’s implications scare you. It amazes and saddens me the outrageous fictitious arguments that people conjure up to refute utilitarianism in order to prevent themselves from feeling inferior, because they know they’re not strong enough to live up to the implications of this worldview. People just want to have easy lives and maximize their happiness, and it scares the hell out of them that perhaps they should be sacrificing for others (including doing work they don’t want to do), so they’ll grab onto any excuse to reject utilitarianism. There won’t be masses of effective altruists enlisting in ISIS or Mexican cartels. Let’s be real here. Hardly anyone even earns to give in harmless jobs.

    What I most want to address, however, is your thesis that replaceability can be taken too far, resulting in harm to others. This is a negative framing of something positive. If someone truly serious about improving the world did enter what appeared to be an extremely unethical job, it would only be because he did a thorough analysis and concluded that the good he could do would be even more extreme. That’s why I disagree with your conern that living the replaceabilty argument can result in enormous harm. If done sincerely (ie. not simply using it as an excuse to do something bad), it necessarily means that the EA is doing even MORE good than the bad thing they appear to be doing on the surface. MacAskill gives an excellent example of dropping a bomb, killing a number of innocents, to end a war early, thereby protecting many times more innocents from being killed. By “capping” the replacebility argument, you are placing artificial constraints on people’s ability to help others.

    I can’t stress enough that this only applies to a real do-gooder who has performed an extensive cost-benefit analysis, and not in any other situation. Artificial constraints are thus even more dangerous than performing the “immoral” job. A good example is undercover work. In order to take down a crime syndicate, win any war, or even expose something bad (ie. factory farming), it is necessary for the “good guys” to have to do some very dirty work. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone abided by artificial constraints on their altruism and there was out-of-control crime, ruthless governments because bad guys won all the wars, cruelty staying hidden and perpetuating, etc. I think everyone else would agree, but I admit that the implication that it is I that should be doing the dirty work, playing the villain, is more than a little scarey!!

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      Thank you for this comment, Austen.
      “Utilitarians have a much higher level of caring than non-utilitarians”.
      This is so clearly self-evident, that it is indeed surprising that anyone should hold a different view.

      “MacAskill has to condemn morally reprehensible careers for PR reasons, but I don’t – To the truly caring, nothing can be off limits.”
      Thank you so much for this thought : as a professional hitman I can’t but agree. I’m so happy that I am completely in conformity with utilitarian principles. Some others just refuse to understand that by removing certain individuals from the world I am making it a better place.

      I have indeed done a thorough analysis and concluded that the good I am doing is, as you say, doing much more good than the bad thing I appear to be doing on the surface.

      (Yes, I did at one time think of becoming a banker, but unfortunately there is much more collateral damage in banking than in assassination.)

  7. Your response displays an absolute lack of understand of the points of mine that you addressed. In fact, you appear to have taken my points to mean the opposite!

    It is only utilitarianism’s detractors that reach into the fantasy realm with all this hitman/Nazi bullshit. They don’t even try to refute utilitarianism in reality because they know they have no case.

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