Culture

What If Selling Out Is The Right Thing To Do?

Should you become a Wall Street broker to save the planet? Some philosophers say yes.

Effective Altruism

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Honesty time: we’ve all thought about selling out at some stage or another. Regardless of your work or industry, chances are there’s another job that would get you a bit more cheddar, but you’d have to do work that feels a bit gross.

You might be a teacher that believes in public education, thinking of putting an application in for the job opening at that ritzy private school up the road so you can crawl a little closer to paying your mortgage. Maybe you’re busting your ass at a non-profit financial advisory, knowing your skills would be worth twice as much at a bank.

The point is, we all know the temptation to sell out, and most of us think that people who choose do it are, to use a technical philosophical term, a bit skeezy. After all, selling out means putting your own personal needs and interests about your values and commitments. It means trading conscience for cash.

The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that nobody should want to possess the world if it means becoming someone else. That’s exactly what our general image of a sellout is. Someone who leaves behind the things that matter to them in exchange for the finer things in life.

You’re Replaceable, But Your Money Isn’t

But if you listen to another group of philosophers, the arguments against selling out get a little murkier. In 2013, William MacAskill, now an Assistant Professor at Oxford University, argued that if you really want to do good in the world, you’re better off working in Wall Street than at a charity. And he has a few reasons why.

First up, the obvious: raise your hand if you work in the charity sector for the money. Reader: there are zero hands raised right now. People who work for non-profits have a lot of good reasons for doing so, but personal wealth isn’t one of them.

Problem is, the charities they work for rely on wealthy people giving them money in order to succeed. If you can nail a high-flying corporate job netting you $200k a year, you’ve got a whole lot of money to give to causes who deserve it – and that money might be more valuable to the charity than your labour. Especially when you think about MacAskill’s second argument, which he calls the ‘replaceability argument’.

It goes a little something like this: imagine you, ethical, generous human that you are, decide to work for a charity. You apply and get the job, and go forth helping the world. All the failed applicants — presumably also ethical, generous humans — could have done that same work.

Effective Altruists reckon professionals should be giving a minimum of 10% of their salary to charity each year.

Now, let’s say you, ethical, generous human that you are, decide to work for an investment bank. You nail the interview and get the job. There’s a good chance you’re going to donate more of your money to charity than would the next applicant. So, if generosity clusters more around people working in the charitable sector, then generous people will have less dispensable income to be generous with, and less charity work can be done.

This argument relies on an imbalance of generous, good people working in the charity sector and less generous people earning staggeringly enormous incomes. The idea behind the benevolent fat-cat is that we’ve oversaturated the charity sector with good-hearted people doing good-hearted work, and forgotten to send some of them to earn the good cheddar that all charities require.

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re sitting on a sweet income, it’s important you know that Effective Altruism — the practice of giving away your money to the sectors most in need — isn’t your shortcut to guilt-free, peaceful sleep. It would be easy to read this stuff and think you can find the best paying job available and it’s fine, so long as you throw a bit more cash to charity than the next person would. That’s not it.

Effective Altruists reckon professionals should be giving a minimum of 10% of their salary to charity each year. In Australia, our average giving looks more like 1%, so we’ve got some work to do.

The Most Good You Can Do

Philosophically speaking, Effective Altruism finds its home within consequentialist philosophy – a broad umbrella of views that measure the moral worth of an action by the outcomes it achieves. Basically, if an action does more good than harm, it’s good, and vice versa. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best intentions in the world: if you fuck up, you’ve done something bad. Think about all the people who claim they didn’t mean to offend someone when they made a racist joke. Consequentialists aren’t interested in the appeal to intentions; they’re interested in what really happened.

Effective altruists take this a step further. They make the point that whilst it seems good to do more good than harm, that’s not the full picture. To see the full picture, we need to consider whether you’ve done the most amount of good you could have.

‘Doing good’ is a low bar when it comes to morality.

Say you’re walking down the street. It’s lunchtime, and you’re headed to the big sandwich shop (everyone has a big sandwich shop somewhere nearby. They make ridiculously big sandwiches. If you don’t know where yours is, ask someone). You’ve got cash because apparently it’s the mid-nineties, and there’s someone asking for money on the street. You’ve got a ten and a five, and the big sandwich costs eleven dollars, so you, strategist that you are, buy your sandwich and hand over your remain four dollars in change.

Based on the simple principle of doing more good than harm, it seems like you’ve done something good here. But, there were better options available. You could have handed over all fifteen dollars and eaten the uninspiring food you brought from home. Or you could have grabbed some cheap food from the local supermarket and given the rest away. The point is, ‘doing good’ is a low bar when it comes to morality, and it’s one that has justified a lot of paltry donations to charities, in foreign aid and in social investment by big businesses.

Here’s where Effective Altruists flip the script. Taking their views seriously suggests that whenever you don’t choose the most good option without really good reasons, you’ve failed to act as morality requires. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back and think about the good we did; we should focus on all the things we didn’t do, but could have.

One of the most controversial applications of this is the claim that not all charities are created equal. Whilst there are a lot of noble causes out there, some, according to this approach to ethics, do more good than others.

Can You Solve Ethical Issues with a Spreadsheet?

Let’s say you’ve quit your job in the charity and you’re now killing it working in government relations for a major bank. You’ve just gotten a fat bonus as a result of your fierce campaigning against giving more powers to the regulator, and you want to do good with that bonus. You decide to give it to charity. But which charity?

You love animals, so you decide to give it to the zoo to help support a breeding program for an endangered native bird. That’s great! Kudos! Except that if you’d donated that money elsewhere – say, Effective Altruism’s favourite charity, the Against Malaria Fund — the money that went toward a breeding program could have saved hundreds of lives by purchasing mosquito nets for people in malaria-ridden places. That wonderful donation actually represents a failure to save a bunch of lives.

Now, a bunch of you reading this are going to fire up now: who am I to say that human lives matter more than the continued existence of a whole species of bird? And that speaks to one of the unspoken issues within effective altruism — and to an extent, consequentialist philosophy in general. Basically, it requires us to be able to compare and prioritise wildly different things.

We need to be able to say, with some level of confidence, that human lives matter more than animals, or that saving a life matters more than giving an already terminally ill person a wonderful experience before they go. How do you compare the value of – say – a donation to combat climate change by saving the rainforests against a charity that works to help elderly people suffer less from loneliness? Can we really say one cause is more worthy than the other?

Down With the System

Perhaps the largest criticism of the effective altruist movement — at least in the form that asks you to be a banker rather than work for a charity — is that it misses the root causes of the problems it tries to solve.

Let’s say you decide not to apply for a job that provides financial advice and advocacy for people under the poverty line and instead you go to work as a stockbroker. Yes, you’ve got more money to give to the charity, but your labour is now actively propping up the same system — capitalism — that is causing the problems your donation is trying to solve. It becomes a perverse moral whack-a-mole, because we’re all trying to solve the most obvious and immediate problems without ever addresses the root causes.

In fairness, this is a problem MacAskill has become aware of. He concedes that sometimes, more good is done by someone become an activist working for systemic change than by making as much money as they can. However, it’s probably not unreasonable to say that not all jobs in the charity sector are actively trying to dismantle systemic injustices. There may be some people for to whom MacAskill’s arguments apply, and who have some hard thinking to do.

The Moralising of Everything

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates once likened philosophers to gadflies — little nuisances who sting big, lazy cattle, waking them up and getting them moving. In this regard, MacAskill and the Effective Altruists have done a bang-up job, making a challenging case against a lot of ingrained habits within the charitable giving sector. It also forces us to come to terms with how much we give (or don’t), who we give to, and why.

We’re all trying to solve the most obvious and immediate problems without ever addresses the root causes.

However, it’s also worth pointing out that at times it does feel a bit exhausting. If you’re reading this thinking, “fuck, can’t I just give some money to a good cause without doing a philosophy lesson?”, I feel you. Effective Altruists have done some incredible things: collected huge amounts of money for worthy causes, triggered a discussion about impact in the charity sector and some have donated kidneys to total strangers in a commitment to their beliefs.

But in the process, they can fall into the trap of reducing the value of everything to it’s usefulness to others. Our time — the most precious resource we have — can feel like it doesn’t belong to us anymore. Instead, it belongs to the people we could be serving. There can be a kind of beauty in that. But also, the question remains: do we have to overthink everything?


Matt Beard is a philosopher, ethicist, and fellow at The Ethics Centre.

Overthinking It is a regular column about philosophy and pop culture, created by Junkee and The Ethics Centre.

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