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Saturday
Nov152014

RS121 - Benjamin Todd on 80,000 Hours

Release date: November 16, 2014

Benjamin ToddIf you want to choose a career that helps other people effectively, which should you pick? Medicine? Research? Non-profit? The answers may not be as straightforward as you think. This episode of Rationally Speaking features special guest Benjamin Todd, the co-founder and executive director of 80,000 Hours, an organization devoted to helping people choose career paths to do good better. Ben, Massimo and Julia debate the heuristics that should go into career choice, utilitarianism vs. virtue ethics, and what exactly we mean by "doing good."

Benjamin's pick:  The Open Philanthropy Project

Reader Comments (9)

Wouldn't we have to calculate the possible damage done by certain professions into the equation?

For example, let's say that I become an investment banker and will give X% of my earning to charity, but the bank invests in mining companies which do environmental damage in poor countries and tobacco companies and junk food companies and factories with horrid labor conditions and low salaries in Asia, etc. Now, that damage may well be worse in the long run than the money I give to charity, while in the case of the doctor or nurse or social worker, their work has no or very few apparent negative externalities.

November 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein

You have to take in consideration the possible damage done by you actually acting the profession. But, that would be only the difference between you doing it and the contrafactual baseline (often somebody else got the job and do exactly the same thing). So if you take a job in an investment bank doing some unethical investments, you have to consider if this would have happen if did not take the job. I think that in most cases you will not have the influence on such decisions, and if you have influence you will use it in a marginally positive direction.

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJørgen Ljønes

It all depends on how special your skills are. If there are very few people who are able to do the same unethical job, then your not taking the job makes it more costly and more difficult for the bank to find someone else to do it. It may be that no one can do the unethical job as well as you can in some cases. However, if there are many people able to do the job, then your taking it and using the money for ethical aims is the best option (from a consequential point of view).

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein

Unless I just don't understand the person-affecting principle, that seemed like a really misleading summary of it. I thought it was about how to count potential people, not future people.

For instance, suppose you have Bob, who exists right now, and Rob, who will exist 100 years from now. You can flip a switch only one of two ways: left will give +1 utils to Bob and right will give +2 utils to Rob. Both a total and person-affecting utilitarian would think the latter choice is best, since Rob will exist either way.

Then consider a case just where Bob exists. You can flip a switch in one of two ways. Left will add +100 utils to Bob's life. Right will create a new person, Rob, with a lifetime of +200 utils. A person-affecting utilitarian would want to turn the switch left, and a total utilitarian would want to turn the switch right.

Is that not right?

November 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterName

If you don't work for the unethical company, then someone unethical will, and if you do work for the unethical company, then the unethical person will have to find work elsewhere, perhaps at an ethical company. So the ethical people will work for unethical companies, and the unethical people will work for ethical companies. Yeah.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Bill Gates' philanthropy has been immense. Billions of dollars? But how many hundreds of billions of dollars have been stolen from honest people by criminals exploiting the abysmal security nightmare that is Windows? I second the comments above pointing out that a career designed to accumulate wealth for the purposes of philanthropy is likely to do far more damage than the good done by the money given to charity.

Massimo threw out the comment that Shakespeare saved no lives. I suggest that we have no way of knowing how many lives have been saved by the moral lessons of Shakespeare's tragedies steering people away from lives of violence. I think that Shakespeare has had a far greater impact for good than has Bill Gates, for all the latter's philanthropy. Not to mention the value of the pleasure the former's literature has given countless people, against the grief and frustration caused by the software of the latter.

If someone were to ask me for suggestions for a career that does good, I'd stick with the traditional ones: firefighter, public health, medical research, etc., rather than trying to make lots of money in order to give away some of it. As for poetry, well, if it's in you it's going to come out, but most poets still need a day job to put food on the table.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Schechter

Seems that consequentialism on a personal level only works as long as few people practice it. Like, you could argue that voting is a waste of your time that could be better spent on more impactful activities, but if everyone thought that way, there'd be no democracy. And you could run a red light at an empty intersection without hurting anyone, but you wouldn't want everyone to break traffic laws as they see fit. And if everyone reasoned that "If I don't take this unethical job, someone else will," then there won't be any difficulty hiring people for unethical jobs.
So consequentialism makes sense for setting rules that maximize utility, but it doesn't work if everyone practices it on a personal level.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

I'm not sure that the problem is with consequentialism per se.

If you could organize a boycott of unethical jobs, that would have the best consequences (I think), but that isn't going to happen.

Consequentialism (I think) calculates its results according to realistic, not ideal, criteria. Realistic criteria indicate that it's possible to create a society where most people don't run red lights (for fear of legal punishment, out of fear of an accident which will cause themselves or others harm, etc.).

Now you could say that the problem is that in our capitalist society certain unethical jobs are not only not punished, but very well rewarded in terms of money and social status. That says a lot about what our society values.

If investing in a company that pollutes was punished and socially ostracized in the same way as breaking and entering with violence is, then it would not be hard to keep people from taking that type of unethical job (investment banker in companies that pollute). However, that does not seem politically realistic to me.

So I'd say that consequentialism should start from political realities and calculate the best outcomes that can achieved within the limits of current reality and foreseeable changes. Of course you can argue about what are "foreseeable" changes.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenters. wallerstein

"Realistically" your one vote won't make any difference in a big election, so you're better off doing something else, but that's only because enough idealists vote.
And realistically, an ethical consequentialist who starts working for an unethical company will probably take a less ethical person's spot, but that's only because ethical idealists don't apply for that job. If they were all consequentialists, then there'd be a bunch of "ethical" people competing for the unethical job, and you'd wonder what makes them so ethical.
So, consequentialism of this sort is realistic as long as most ethical people are idealistic.

Also, if a lot of people are applying for an unethical job, perhaps you're the only one who thinks it's unethical. The mining companies will tell you that they create jobs in poor countries, make modern technology possible, and raise the standard of living.

November 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

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