Green, Gold, and Black?

Wall Street is famous for its green, gold, and black — corruption. Many of us fail to think beyond the stereotype of the greedy stockbroker, earning all the money s/he can so s/he can buy a bigger or better car and house. Yet, with the right mentality and a resolute goal of earning to give, working in finance or banking could indeed be the most ethical career — with a few key qualifications in mind.

Let’s begin by defining what a “most ethical” career choice means. There is a common notion that judging what is “most ethical” involves identifying the capability of who is able to help the most people. But, what is commonly not thought of, is the actual effectiveness of the work. In this essay, the argument relies most on the effectiveness of our world’s limited resources used to generate maximum impact for good. A career is “most ethical” if it is able to strategically do the most for the world, in consideration of context and other relationships.

Effectiveness usually comes after passion when we, as individuals, judge charity work. We won’t turn down our thumbs to someone who volunteers everyday, even if what they do has a small margin of benefit for the community and others. So why should the “most ethical career choice” be based on effectiveness? Enter the play pump.

The idea was to base a pump off of a merry-go-round. Children would spin it around as it would pump water from underground to the village. The idea was that it could provide water for up to 2,500 people (“Stop Trying to Save the World”, Hobbes). However, it was revealed that it was poorly designed — one quarter of installed play pumps needed repair in less than two years (Hobbes), and that it was ‘reliant on child labour” according to The Guardian. The bottom line is that passion wasn’t enough. Effectiveness needed to be on the same level as the big idea for true beneficial and charitable success.

So, why about the doctor profession? Everyday, they are helping others by performing diagnosis or surgery. While there is no doubt that they are effective, are they the most effective career out there? We like to measure a doctor’s worth by how many lives they save. However, when considering our resources that notion can be challenged. First of all, you can only extend a life, not save it. But more importantly, if that doctor wasn’t there, would the life still have been saved? Most likely yes. An average doctor can be easily replaced by the thousands who go through the same medical program in hopes of taking that one spot. Therefore, becoming a doctor may not be the most effective usage of time and ability if there is a surplus of this resource.

The same applies to charity work. If the worker wasn’t there to do the work, someone else would have been. You can argue the possibility that that specific worker may be more qualified but theoretically, there won’t be much of a difference. Also, the charity one works for may not be the most effective as well, as only the highest of the highest can work for the most prestigious and impactful organizations.

But why finance and banking? The idea lies behind the notion of “earning to give.” Of course, this is only the most ethical (and effective) career with strict qualifications. One is that the lucrative business does not corrupt you, and you actually give your earnings. Professor Will MacAskill, President and co-Founder of 80,000 Hours, states in his biography online that he gives half his income to charity. He mentions in his presentation at Princeton’s Effective Altruism class that he does this by automatically asking his employer to take the 50% out of his paycheck and directly towards the charities of his choice.

Now, there are many benefits. One, you cannot be replaced. While anyone else can take your job, the person probably won’t give half their earnings like you do. Therefore, it is effective in terms of resources. Second of all, you have the freedom to invest in charities you believe are the most effective. Charity workers don’t get to pick which organization they work for most of the time, but as a donor, you can. Therefore, you can maximize your money based on your values and principles.

With that in mind, it is very rare of someone to live off this philosophy of “earning to give.” Few of us will spare five dollars. But if one does follow this principle, abides by it, and strategically chooses the most impactful charities based on one’s values, then working in a lucrative business will be the most ethical career choice.

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