Skip to content

Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: “Should You Switch to an Altruistic Career?” Written by Benjamin Lange

  • by

This essay was awarded second place in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics graduate category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Benjamin Lange



Important Decision: Imagine that you are about to finish your philosophy PhD and are faced with the following two choices: You can either accept a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university or you can take up a job that will enable you to positively impact the lives of other people who are very badly off. Suppose further that you would strongly prefer to become a philosopher. However, you are having second thoughts. It’s also clear to you that you could spend your time and energy in a more beneficial way by helping others. And you recognise that you have strong moral reason to do so.

With this in mind, and standing at this important juncture in your life and career you now ask yourself:

“Given that there is some moral leeway, am I justified in pursing a philosophical (minimally helpful) career even though I could also choose a (more helpful) altruistic career?”

How would you answer?

The above is one particular instance of the more general question of whether we are justified in prioritising our own plans and commitments over the demands of morality. Call this question the Big Question.

From a practical perspective, the Big Question is among most important questions that we can ask, since we spend around 80,000 hours in a career over our lifetime. This is not only a big chunk of our lives generally, but also time that we could use to have a positive impact on the world. At the same time, the question is so obvious that hardly anyone seriously considers it—we take it as a given that we have moral leeway to pursue projects that are important for us.

But does our intuition hold up to ethical scrutiny? Do we have sufficient reason not to replace our current career with a more altruistic one?

Sarah Buss has recently, and I believe convincingly, argued that all of the arguments in the literature that try to either close off the Big Question or offer a “Yes”-answer fail.[1] In fact, Buss believes that we are at an

Impasse: It’s impossible to justify the pursuit of our own (minimally helpful) projects.

In what follows I take on the Impasse. I outline a novel reply to the Big Question that can justify a moderate “Yes-answer” on value conservative grounds. I call this Career Conservatism.


2.1. What are Projects?
We all have interests, commitments, and plans that are very important to us. When such interests have “some central significance in [an] agent’s life”[2] they rise to the level of a

Project: a set of identity conferring, closely related, mutually reinforcing, somewhat general commitments and concerns [and desires].[3]

While our projects can range from one’s role as a parent to mastering an instrument, I will here be only concerned with the project of one’s professional career (henceforth career project).

2.2. What is Career Conservatism?
Now suppose, then, that the career project of helping the needy had greater value than the project of being a professional philosopher. Suppose further that there was some measure to judge the relative worth of these two values. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t follow that we have all things considered reason to promote the greater of the two values and switch to the career project of helping the needy.

There is a sense in which the value of our own projects goes beyond just the amount and type of value that resides in them. To motivate this idea, consider the following distinction by G. A. Cohen between

Particular Value: The value of an object based on the particular thing it is;


Personal Value: The value of an object based on the relationship one has with it.

The particular value of an object doesn’t refer to the intrinsic value that resides in that object. It is an additional value that a particular object has qua being a particular in and of itself. For example, we might value a beautiful piece of art such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting for its intrinsic value. But, according to Cohen, we should also value it as a particular extant entity that bears this intrinsic value.

Personal value is based on the personal relationship the valuer has with an object. Suppose that Bob has had a particular fountain pen for the past 15 years.[4] We can grant that the actual intrinsic value of the pen might be very small. Bob could also easily replace the pen with a more recent model, which, suppose, would
have a larger ink-cartridge or a better nib and so on. Yet it seems that because Bob has had this particular pen for most of his life, it bears personal value for him, which a better model would lack.

Cohen objects to approaches to valuing, such as those of monistic value theories, on which bearers of value “do not count as such, but matter only because of the value that they bear and are therefore, in a deep sense dispensable.”[5]

Appeal to both of these values can justify a “conservative bias” for preserving things that instantiate particular and personal value even if we could replace them with things that would bear more intrinsic value. This is because we would fail to recognize the particular and personal value of the things in question if adopted an approach that maximizes value viz. replaced A with B if B is better (more valuable) than A. Conservative value therefore
gives us reason to preserve that which exists.

Throughout his paper, Cohen focuses primarily on the existence of material objects such as his own pencil eraser or institutions what kind of things attract particular and personal value. Yet it does seem that our projects are a particularly fitting candidate. If this is right, then we might entertain the hypothesis of

Career Conservatism: we are justified to keep pursuing our own career projects, because they instantiate value qua being the particular projects they are for us, and because they bear a special relationship to us as our projects. If we replaced our career projects, we would devalue them by failing to appreciate the additional value they instantiate.

In the most basic sense, we can say that we value our projects when we see them as valuable or worthwhile. But how can we value our projects in a particular or personal way?

As regards particular value: we think of ourselves as a particular person with our own particular interests, plans and commitments. Indeed, it seems that it is only possible for us to make sense of ourselves as particulars individuals, because we have the ability to value ourselves (including our projects) as particulars in the way Cohen envisages.

Drawing attention to the shared history that most of us have with them helps us to recognise their personal value. As in the example of Bob’s fountain pen, our projects grow on us as it were. In Important Decision, you might point to the backstory of how you came to be an aspiring philosopher. It’s unlikely that
you just spontaneously decided yesterday to make “doing philosophy” your project. Rather: it’s more likely that your project evolved gradually over the years to the level of importance that you now take it to have because you invested time in it.

But we also invest emotions in our projects. Valuing them in a personal and particular way makes us emotionally vulnerable: “[…] it is to be made susceptible to, depending on one’s circumstances that are never fully under one’s control, to a whole gamut of emotions from elation to despair.”[6]

Assuming, then, that our projects instantiate conservative value, let me turn to the question of their magnitude. I can’t offer a satisfactory answer to this question here, partly, because I don’t have a full answer to it, but also, because questions about the computation of value are far-reaching and riddled with problems. But I think a few things indicate that it is not trivially small.

I believe it’s natural to think that the personal value of our projects increases as our projects themselves evolve over time. The more we invest in our pursuits, and the longer they remain our pursuits, the more valuable they become for us. A fountain pen that one has had for several decades has more personal value than a pen that one just bought in a shop.

Things are more complicated in cases of particular value since Cohen is somewhat unclear on what particular value is supposed to be. However, he does suggest that the particular value is related to the intrinsic value of an object, which then of course shifts the question to how valuable our projects are.

This becomes particularly problematic when one does not yet have existing projects in any strong sense. “Doing philosophy” is less of a manifest project for the undergraduate student who has just begun her degree than it is for the senior philosophy professor whose career spans several decades. So, in cases of incipient,
potential projects it seems difficult to gauge the magnitude of their particular and especially personal value. Notice, however, that regardless of how long the thing of value has existed, there is always some conservative value lost if we replaced the thing in question: “Even if the picture was painted only five minutes ago, there’s a reason not to destroy it in order to use its pigment to produce a better one.”[7]

Samuel Scheffler captures something reminiscent of the Cohenian argument that I’m developing here.[8] On the relation between valuing our projects and our recognition of reasons for action that originate from our valuing them, he writes:

“If I value my projects non-instrumentally, then I will see them as providing me with reasons for action in a way that the projects of other people do not, and in a way that other activities now open to me do not.”[9]

Against the backdrop of Cohen’s distinction, we can now explain the special normative status of our projects to which Scheffler here alludes as an appeal to the particular and personal value that our projects instantiate for us. Notice that the claim here is therefore a metaphysical one: the conservative value of our projects
gives rise to an objective reason to continue pursuing them.

2.3. Should We Never Change?

One might object that if we are justified in retaining a bias in favour of our current projects, then we seem to make personal moral progress impossible.

But it doesn’t follow from the fact that because our current projects instantiate additional value over other pursuits which could even be more valuable that we cannot change them, nor that it undesirable to do so. As Cohen notices, if anything,

“we have reason to change slowly because we have reason to be what we are and to carry on with what we have: we cannot simply erase our background [our current career projects] and replace it by something better [projects that might be more valuable].”[10]

It’s certainly possible that we can bring other projects into existence without destroying the old. So career conservatism still gives us leeway to develop a more altruistic character by changing our projects gradually.

If my argument is sound, then we can offer a moderate “Yes”-reply to the Big Question. We are justified in continuing to pursue our current projects because we thereby respond to their particular and personal value. This reply is only “moderate” in the sense that it can, at best, establish that we change our projects slowly. Moreover, this response presupposes that an individual already has important commitments and pursuits that have risen to the status of a project. In any case, it seems that we have found some new promising grounds to resist the Impasse.


[1] See Buss (2006) for an extensive discussion of potential answers to the Big Question. I take her discussion here as a starting point.

[2] Kagan (1989), p. 241.

[3] See Williams “Persons, Character, and Morality.”

[4] Cohen (2011), pp. 221-222.

[5] Ibid., p. 212.

[6] Scheffler, p. 254

[7] Cohen (2011), pp. 213.

[8] See Scheffler (2004).

[9] Scheffler (2004), pp. 254-55.

[10] Cohen, p. 223.

Buss, Sarah. (2006). Needs (Someone Else’s), Projects (My Own), and Reasons. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 103, No. 8.

Cohen, G. A. (2012). Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value. In Finding Oneself in the Other, ed. Otsuka,  Kazuhiro. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kagan Shelly, (1989) The Limits of Morality. Oxford: Claren don Press.

Scheffler, Samuel, (1982). The Rejection of Consequentialism New York: Oxford University Press.

———————. (2004). “Projects, Relationships, and Reasons,” in Reason and Value: Themes from the Moral Philosophy of Joseph Raz, pp. 247-69.

Williams, BAO. (1981). Persons, Character, and Morality. In Moral Luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Share on

4 Comment on this post

  1. As stated, this “moderate ‘Yes'” presupposes “that an individual already has important commitments and pursuits that have risen to the status of a project.”

    Any actor faced with Important Decision surely implicitly has two parrallel entities which rise to “the status of a project”. These projects are
    a) be/become a philosopher
    b) be/become a positive moral agent

    In my opinion, this treatment fails to define how/why a) leads to particular value and/or personal value while b) does not. I.e. why is a) considered a project while b) is not?

    Without this distinction then the argument for career consevatism applies equally to both projects, and thereby returns us to “impasse”.

  2. This essay wrongly generalises from the very specific initial example, without taking account of the huge differences between those doing a PhD in philosophy, and the general population. As with an earlier prize-winner, the detachment from reality makes me wonder whether this is intended as parody. (That’s also because of the fountain-pen example: how many people still use a fountain-pen?).

    Only a fraction of the global population have any choice of ‘career’. Most employed persons must accept what work they can find, and employment is not even formal, let alone a career choice. Here’s a dose of reality from the FAO:

    Labour force participation rates are usually highest in the poorest countries. More people are employed out of necessity than by choice, as only a fraction of the working-age population can afford not to work. In these countries, low unemployment figures in conjunction with high labour participation rates result in large swathes engaged in vulnerable employment and many in working poverty. This holds for many economies in sub-Saharan Africa, where female participation rates feature among the highest in the world.
    Poverty is the principal driver of the high rate of child labour in agriculture. Around 60 percent of all child labourers – 129 million girls and boys – work in agriculture. More than two-thirds of them are unpaid family members. The agricultural sector has the highest incidence of both unpaid child labour and early entry into the workforce, which often occurs between the ages of five and seven.

    Children work in the fields because they have no choice, not because they see the work as “career projects [which] instantiate value … because they bear a special relationship to us as our projects.” Even in developed countries, most people do the work that they can get, with the education that they have. At most they can maybe get a similar job that pays slightly better, or has slightly better conditions. A very large section of the workforce in western countries is permanently trapped in low-grade jobs, and they form an underclass. Part of that underclass, often immigrants, works long-term in abysmal, unsafe, and very unhealthy conditions.

    The language used by Benjamin Lange, ‘personal projects’ and so on, can only apply to an elite who have the luxury of career choices in the first place. He should have been honest enough to state that at the outset.

    1. Why does this matter? Sure, it’s sad not everyone is able to choose their career, but that does not suddenly make this question is less important. Even if only a small elite group decides whether they can follow an altruistic career, this small group is still able to have a big impact. Just look at Doctors Without Borders. Western people are often able to make this choice and this piece questions whether we should feel guilty for not taking the more altruistic option.

Comments are closed.