In this guest post series, I’ll write about ethical career choice. Within law school, students often face a dilemma about which field to go into. On one hand, one could go into an ‘ethical’ field, such as a district attorney or public defense job — and, for the readers of this blog, I guess that health law and academia are also salient options. On the other hand, one could go into corporate law, where there are more jobs, better pay, and less bureaucracy, but little direct positive impact. For many people, this can seem like a dilemma between doing what’s best for yourself, and what’s best for the world.
I’m going to argue that this dilemma is ill-posed. I’m going to argue that earning to give — that is, deliberately taking a high-paying career (such as within corporate law) in order to donate a substantial proportion to the very best causes — is often a better way of doing good than working in a job that directly does good. Because of the venue, in subsequent posts I’ll have the opportunity to explore some of the philosophical issues in more depth than I’ve been able to in some of my other writings.
I’ll give two considerations in favour of earning to give. I’m not arguing that these considerations are decisive for every person. But there are strong considerations that often aren’t fully appreciated or properly understood, and they should be thought about hard.
The first consideration is that “making a difference” requires doing something that wouldn’t have happened anyway. To see this, suppose you come across a woman who’s had a heart attack. Luckily, someone trained in CPR is keeping her alive until the ambulance arrives. But you also know CPR. Should you push this other person out of the way and take over? The answer is obviously “no.” You wouldn’t be a hero; you wouldn’t have made a difference.
Similarly with legal jobs the directly do good. The competition for these jobs is fierce, and if someone else takes the job instead of you, he or she likely won’t be much worse at it than you would have been. So the difference you make by taking the job is only the difference between the good you would do, and the good that the other person would have done.
Of course, the competition for corporate law jobs is even fiercer, but if someone else gets the corporate job instead of you, he or she would not likely donate as much to charity. The average donation from an American household is less than 5% of income—a proportion that decreases the richer the household. So if you are determined to give a large share of your earnings to charity, the difference you make by taking that job is much greater.
The second consideration is that charities vary tremendously in the amount of good they do with the money they receive. For example, it costs about $40,000 to train and provide a guide dog for one person, but it costs less than $25 to cure one person of sight-destroying trachoma. For the cost of improving the life of one person with blindness, you can cure 1,000 people of it.
This matters because if you decide to in a job that directly does good, you’re rather limited. You can only change jobs so many times, and it’s unlikely that you can work for only the very best causes. In contrast, if you earn to give, you can donate anywhere, preferably to the most cost-effective charities, and change your donations as often as you like. Because different causes vary in their cost-effectiveness by such a great amount, this is hugely important to determining how much good you can do in your job.