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How To Choose An Ethical Career (With Help From Oxford Philosophers)

Our writer lets 80,000 Hours, a student-run organization at Oxford University that guides people toward ethical jobs, plot his future career path. Could it work for you?

If you need help choosing a career, there are aptitude tests, counselors and shelves full of best-sellers to help. But if your primary goal is moral achievement—as opposed to personal fulfillment—you might be better off asking a philosopher. That’s what I did.

80,000 Hours is a small, student-run organization with a not-so-small goal: to change the world by guiding young people into maximally ethical careers. Co-founder and philosophy Ph.D. student William MacAskill emphasizes that this doesn’t mean simply seeking out jobs with maximally ethical organizations. "That’s a common mistake," he says.

According to the organization’s view of ethics-as-impact, a do-gooder job only "does good" insofar as you are better at it than the person who would have filled the job otherwise. "This is the replaceability factor," says MacAskill. "The difference between you and the person who would have been in your shoes." If you’re fully replaceable, you are, quite literally, not making a difference.

So how do you make a difference? To find out, I cast my mind back to senior year of college, and ran through an abbreviated version of the group’s one-on-one career advice program.

In an Oxford version of the Socratic method, the process started with MacAskill’s colleague and classmate Niel Bowerman probing my own philosophical views. What was my vision of the world? Did I care about animals? "Not really." ("At this stage, I would normally present a bunch of arguments for why you might want to care about animals, but we’ll just skip that.") Did I have intuitions about valuing people in the future versus the present? How risk averse am I? It felt less like a career advice session than an ethics seminar. "This is all sounding good and coherent," Bowerman said at one point.

After a more conventional run-through of my own job skills ("comparative advantages" in Bowerman’s words), we turned to the careers themselves. "We usually think about five broad categories," Bowerman said: Research, Innovation, Improving, Campaigning and Influencing and, most controversially, Earning to Give. This last idea is to take a career that is at best ethically dubious (trading oil futures, say), but highly replaceable as well as highly remunerated, and then pledging to giving a large share of the spoils to the most cash-strapped and effective charities.

Bowerman scratched "Innovation," due to my risk aversion, and "Earning to Give," because of my obvious horror at the idea of working in finance. The final result was a neat set of recommendations: I could pursue a master’s degree, either in philosophy or "more usefully" in economics, with an eye towards researching ethical topics like "global prioritization," or working at a grant-making foundation. Or I could go into journalism.

In other words, one of the three paths I could follow was that of 80,000 Hours’ founders, and one was the path that I have, in fact, taken. This seemed a bit too convenient, but it was gratifying to be told that journalism could be an ethical career (contra Janet Malcolm’s famous dictum that it is "morally indefensible.") Then again, Bowerman was quite clear that it was only moral "if you’re able to do stories that are important and wouldn’t have been written otherwise."

And if it doesn’t pan out, I could always do something else.

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    The balance between ethical, or unethical career choices, is something that me and colleague were discussing today. He mentioned that there is a fine line between profiting from someone else's suffering, and helping them. Companies that provide marriage counseling are a fine example, in order for them to survive, a certain quantity of marriages must struggle. This is not to say that the companies have caused it, but rather to note that they need marital discord in order to strive. At the end of the day, replaceability is an excellent, but flawed method. If I replace a teacher with 30 years experience, with one that has 1 year, it does not inherently inflate the value of the new teacher. I can however, see the alternate being true.