Trying to choose an ethical career path? Maybe it’s not the one you think

Volunteer Journalist Ben

It’s tough being a young person without a career plan, particularly if you want more from your life’s work than just financial reward. Since I graduated in October I have been trying to find permanent employment, holding out for a role in the third sector which I hope I will find meaning in. I have, in other words, been following the conventional perspective that those with an ethical career in mind should get a job within a charity, NGO, political party, or some other ethical/non-profit organization. Like the many others in the same position, I have had little reason to question this approach, and have made my life choices accordingly. However, the idea that a traditional ‘ethical career’ is the best or only way of putting one’s working life to good use, may be deeply mistaken.

A standard banking job commands a salary several times higher than a senior position at most NGOs. Why does this matter? Because an ethically-minded banker who donates all they earn above, say, the average wage of an NGO worker, could do a whole lot of ethical good – potentially many times the effects of working for an NGO oneself. You could fund the provision of clean drinking water for many hundreds of people, or pay for the NGO to employ several workers, as hard working and committed as you would have been, in your place.

Part of the reason for this is that the third sector is badly lacking in funds, but not potential employees. Even if you are not working for a given ethical NGO, the hard truth is that such an organization will almost certainly have no difficulty in finding another person of comparable ability and moral fibre to do the job instead. And what’s more, the same ‘replaceability’ argument applies to your hypothetical job in finance. Taking on a role with an investment bank might feel wrong, given the havoc wrought by market speculators and complex financial instruments on the economy in recent years. But this objection loses much of its power when one considers that if you weren’t in a job, another banker, and probably a much less ethical one, would fill the space anyway.

So should the ethically-minded ‘sell out’ and become professional philanthropists – as long, of course, as they really do donate all their excess wealth to ethical NGOs? The charge most commonly directed towards philanthropy is that it doesn’t address the underlying systemic causes of inequality, such as free-market capitalism. Yet this depends on how the funds are invested. Money can be just as useful to political campaigns as it is to traditional charitable causes. Friedrich Engels was no fan of industrialism, but made his living and the vital funds needed for his political activities through his ownership of a factory. Money is even more important in politics these days, to buy media access, fund campaigns, organise events and so on, just to be competitive.

In principle there is no reason why personal donations cannot be targeted towards political injustice – even if they are obtained, unavoidably, through those very same unjust systems. This is not to suggest that to live an ethical life you need to earn a lot of money. Even putting aside questions about how such philanthropy might affect the solidarity and identities of progressive social movements, a great variety of skills and resources are needed in the colossal task of making the world a better place, and some of us are profoundly better suited to certain roles than others. The particular needs of the third sector are an important practical consideration for those that want to live ethically, but so too, of course, are individual characteristics.

The take-home message for young people looking to change the world for the better, then, is to keep an open mind about what works. The issue of high-salaried philanthropy needs to be considered, rather than simply dismissed because it seems unpalatable. But discussing the issue should also remind us of the wider point, that there is no rule book on how to produce results. With much of the world’s population suffering needlessly and social injustice rife, new approaches to ethical living ought to be judged on their merits rather than the conventions and social norms of today, which may turn out to be fleeting. Through all the pressure and uncertainty about career choices, young people must resist the temptation to simply take the lead from the previous generation of activists – the world needs your fresh ideas.

*All views expressed in this article are the author’s. IARS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any views expressed in these articles and will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses or damages arising from its display or use.

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  1. A brave take on such a controversial issue. I think it bears repeating that this argument doesn’t question the virtue of those who do pursue ‘ethical careers’ (who are virtuous regardless of the absolute or relative amount of good they actually do). Similarly, this isn’t an excuse for people in high earning careers, who are motivated by the high earning and not the ethical impact who happen to donate a portion of their income (and so might produce enormous amounts of good with little effort). Some-one who happened to produce lots of good, but who was motivated by wealth/prestige, wouldn’t be more a good person, than the person working towards the good, but perhaps making less impact.

    • Absolutely, intentions are what matter in judging a person’s moral character. There are few things more objectionable (not to mention damaging to the image of charitable giving) than high-earner, motivated by greed, who feels good about himself because he gives away what are to him just a few crumbs off his table.

      On the other hand, a banker who gave like Toby Ord, who donates everything he earns over 20k would be a very different matter. It’s not how much you give, or how much you earn which is indicative in these cases, but rather how much you keep to yourself. Ethically-minded people shouldn’t be discouraged from high earning careers for fear of guilt-by-association, when it would be so easy to distinguish the Toby Ords from the greedy rest.

      • Toby Ord is not a banker, he is a philosopher at Oxford.

  2. I have never considered this stance before, but I must say, you have really persuaded me. I always felt reluctant about working for an NGO, having seen how much some people working for them get paid (which I find rather hypocritical and unethical e.g. the relatively high wage and handsome remuneration package of a part-time supervisor for The Samaritans and street “chuggers”, who earn far more than a living wage, but don’t bring anything near what they unethically take from NGO’s dwindling budgets and work through commissioned third-parties with only their best commercial interests at heart) and considering how, as for some NGO’s like Oxfam, 99p in every £1 donated to them goes on their administration costs alone. However, I can see how this way of working and donating all excesses may even, for these reasons alone, be deemed more ethical than working directly for an NGO. Like you said, it means more people could be employed by them, but also maybe, if enough was donated via excess earned wealth, that they would then need less people working for them, i.e. the street “chuggers” and other donation collectors, thus saving them even more money.

    • “for some NGO’s like Oxfam, 99p in every £1 donated to them goes on their administration costs alone”
      Source? According to Oxfam’s own website, 10p is spent on necessary costs, 7p re-invested and 83p spent on development and campaigning.

      One wonders at the claim that ‘chuggers’ don’t bring in more money to the NGO than their wages cost… seems that the NGOs ought not to pay them to raise money for them if they, in fact, lose them money. I can’t say I’m too scandalised by high NGO wages (such as they are) in general: if a productive charity needs to pay a lot of money to hire good workers in a free market, then that’s unfortunately what they have to do (c.f. the public sector in general).

    • Just out of interest, the charity with the highest adminstrative costs in the world only pays 77p in £1. (Singer, The Life You Can Save, 2009, p91)

  3. However, just another thought, what might the income tax implications be for earning so much money, yet now, thanks to the Tory “government”, not being to donate to charity untaxed? Would it still be cost effective, given a 45% income tax and no relief on whatever is surplus to the living wage to donate to charity?

    • Short answer yes. The income tax change would make almost no difference to the effectiveness of donations. Being taxed more would simply mean I have slightly less to donate. On a £150,000 salary one can still donate around £126,000 per year (around £8million over a lifetime) and keep a median wage (after tax) for yourself. See:

  4. Really good article. Having just graduated (last August) myself, and having struggled to find jobs thus far (in the world of NGOs and the media), I’m seriously starting to see the merits of this position.

    As a part of Britain’s pagan community, I’m very much aware that we’re not short on keen people who want to do things, but we are very short on money. I think the same issue is reflected across the board – there are plenty of people who want to do good in the world, but simply no cash to pay for them. I think this betrays a major fault in our economy somewhere; wealth is clearly distributed in the wrong places, and the activities that hold and generate value must not actually relate to “real” worth in the lives of ordinary people.

    There are a number of reasons why this might be the case, and I’ll mull this issue over myself (I do want to return to academia eventually, and it is this sort of issue that I would like to explore at PhD level). In the mean time, perhaps I’ll shift the jobs I apply for towards more highly-waged directions.

    • So true about the (lack of) distribution of wealth to worthy causes. One clue as to where it has all gone is to be found in this letter I saw today, detailing the wealth of the top 0.003% of UK income earners (Warning: outrageous statistics are contained in this article):!/mr_nugent/status/200527054972784640/photo/1

  5. I agree with normative argument and the basic utilitarian logic. But I think that many people would struggle in practice. For two reasons: 1) social institutions, such as employment, ideologically shape people’s consciousness 2) Many people who want to work in NGOs do not have the correct dispositions for being successful bankers or businessmen or the social and cultural capital to land such a job in the first place. This second issue wasn’t a problem for Engels as he inherited the business and perhaps he was not a particularity great capitalist either. Therefore for many people I don’t think they would be able to get or if they did hold down a successful bankers job and those that did would in many cases (but clearly not all) start questioning the values that lead them to give away so much of their money – like the dude in the Edukators.

  6. Love the article. My problem with this: One has to take on (or at least perform) certain norms and values to work at a bank. What if the organizational culture interferes with one’s ethical tendencies? Isn’t it likely that the system will change the worker?

  7. My problem with this article is that it takes a fairly black and white view of the workplace, separating it into ‘ethical’ work in an NGO or ‘un-ethical’ but highly paid jobs in finance. What about the huge gap in between the two? Jobs in law, accountancy, hard sciences, engineering, medicine etc etc may all have hugely ethical outcomes AND allow the individual to donate masses of wealth. If your ambition is to make money to give away to NGOs then there are a whole hoist of ways you can do that without having to enter the financial sector. Secondly, as a previous commenter mentioned, someone so ethical would be highly unlikely be hired in the financial sector. Such institutions have strong corporate cultures and expect their staff to be motivated by profit alone….they’ll know if you’re a phony!

    Finally, I agree there is nothing wrong with paying well for good people in NGOs……but on the whole most NGOs don’t! The people who get paid ‘well’ and I mean on 30k and above (yes yes, this can still be considered a large wage but not when compared with the salaried of banks etc) are senior managers and fundraisers, who, unsurprisingly, are worth their weight in gold.

  8. Great article! Seems like a v effective way to do good in the world. One of the most important things would just be that the money went to the most cost-effective causes there are.

    If you like this article then you’ll love 80000 hours, a sister organisation of giving what we can :

  9. I know that this is quite a bit late in coming, but could you please direct me to some other online resources related to finding an “ethical career”? Certainly donating is a nice idea, but I’m finding it hard pinpointing jobs that are in and of themselves relatively ethical, outside of the third sector. Thanks!


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