Is Working On Wall Street Actually The Most Ethical Career Choice?

Giving away a lot of money might be the best way to do good. And to get money, you’re going to need a high-paying job.

It stands to reason that the way to do good is to go out and do good. But what if the way to do really good—better than just "good"—is to do something, well, less good, first?

Like working on Wall Street, say. You might dislike it, your colleagues may get on your nerves, and you may have to wake up at 4 a.m. to call flippin’ Asia. But at least you’ll earn beaucoup bucks, and do something useful with it. A career at a charity might be more satisfying emotionally—but will working there do better for the world? Probably not. You’ll have less money, limiting your room for maneuver, and you won’t be contributing anything another person couldn’t do just as well.

That, at least, is the message of a group called 80,000 hours that’s asking people to consider how they can use their time "to most help others." What it suggests is most helpful might be different than what you think it is (though, of course, not everyone needs to work at an investment bank).

Here’s William MacAskill, 80,000 Hours’ founder, writing in Quartz:

Annual salaries in banking or investment start at $80,000 and grow to over $500,000 if you do well. A lifetime salary of over $10 million is typical. Careers in nonprofits start at about $40,000, and don’t typically exceed $100,000, even for executive directors. Over a lifetime, a typical salary is only about $2.5 million. By entering finance and donating 50% of your lifetime earnings, you could pay for two nonprofit workers in your place—while still living on double what you would have if you’d chosen that route.

The important thing is giving 50% of your money away, MacAskill says. Don’t assume that you can help a charity as much by going to work there.

In general, the charitable sector is people-rich but money-poor. Adding another person to the labor pool just isn’t as valuable as providing more money so that more workers can be hired. You might feel less directly involved because you haven’t dedicated every hour of your day to charity, but you’ll have made a much bigger difference.

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  • The world is already on such an unsustainable path that by the time you'll make all that money, there won't be a world 'donate' it to.

    Fact is, humanity's environmental footprint is pushing us over the edge. Does Wall Street care? We are all Wall Street. And we all care, sure – but who is actually driving this train, and willing to hit the brakes or change course?

    We're all tied to the system, and so we all need it, we all fuel it. So it keeps going. The numbers on Wall Street must keep going UP.

    What do we need to do ? Put a cost on the use and destruction of nature. Put a cost on exploiting workers. Make it prohibitively expensive to destroy nature or exploit people – and up the returns on doing what's right.

    So you're part right. It IS about money. We must appeal to greed. But it's not about playing the system, then leaving it. It's about changing the system.


  • Aanchal Sodhani

    Ih rubbish! this is like saying work in a tobacco company - you can always set up a cancer hospital later!

  • Lee

    You can't be serious. Wall Street enshrined the ethos that "Greed is Good." Investment bankers are notoriously selfish and corrupt. But they are supposed to give half their money away? Sorry Mr. Schiller, but I lost faith in the tooth fairy years ago.

  • Ryan Steinbach

    Assuming what this post argues is valid (which I think Olly in another comment does a good job of questioning), it still leaves out a HUGELY important aspect of our lives - our own happiness. Even if slaving away in the financial sector can lead to the 'most good', is it really worth 30 years of misery? The first and best thing we can do for the world is take care of ourselves. This includes financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

  • ktshanti

    Very cute assertion...assume that raping & pillaging the real-world "Main Street" economy while having an emotionally-balanced job on Wall Street is OK, given you donate 50% of lifetime earnings to charity -- while the real charity percent is not even close to that.

    And insult all those in the non-profit sector, saying it takes no thinking or feeling.

    Btw, don't be fooled that most philanthropy is not given in self-interest, as Teresa Odendahl, clearly revealed, a while back.

  • Olly Lawder

    There are so many things shockingly unpleasant about this it's hard to know where to start. 

    Here's a few...1) The idea of perpetuating a flawed financial system that gambles on the price of food, escalates wealth to the 1% and appears unable to internalise the impact of green house gasses fo 80,000 hours - so that someone can THEN give to charity to try and sort out the world's problems.
    2) The idea that "anyone" can do the charity jobs. Could you be a nurse? Could you really handle being a social worker? Do you have the balls to dig up landmines?
    3) The often overlooked 'brain-drain' that the financial sector puts on an economy, stealing so many bright people from potential valuable work and chaining them to microsoft excel in the endless effort to make the rich richer. 

  • hereatpsu

    I am sorry, I have to call the bs on this to "Shiller". If "Wall St" , (and the financial sector) which shockingly now accounts for over 40% of GDP, would actually do real stuff instead of just ripping the society off in the first place - then tons of "charity organizations" that work to save people would not be needed.

    Any kind of financial sector activity related to health insurance, natural resource ripoff (oops management) etc are blatantly detrimental and do not contribute much to true development. Most externalities are conveniently dumped on the new entrants in the field, while the old players refashion themselves. 

    Olly has good points there, thank you.