Sunday Links #4: Earning to Give

Welcome to the fourth edition of Sunday Links!

In this edition, I’m going to focus on the exploration of “earning to give”. You know how some people talk about “doing well by doing good”? Well “earning to give” is basically “doing good by doing well” – you look specifically for a high paying job in order to earn a lot of money, and then use your large disposable income to donate to charity.

For instance, one might think to join a non-profit and do important work and earn a salary of $30K. Or, one might instead choose to become a banker or stock trader, earn $100K+, keep the same salary of $30K, and and donate the $70K+ and hire two or more charity workers to serve in their place. Chances are good that those two charity workers who displace you will do more good combined than you will have done if you worked in their place, and that you displaced someone who would have joined finance but not donated their money.

As Jeff Kaufman considers summarizing it, the idea is to “[g]ive money to the most effective charities, and maximize your impact by earning more and spending less.”” A basic introduction of this idea can be found in the 80000 Hours topic and corresponding FAQ. Brian Tomasik also has a pretty thorough summary of the idea in “Why Activists Should Consider Making Lots of Money”.

This idea has taken to popular press over the years, with an article on Practical Ethics, Quartz, BBC, and recently The Washington Post and Daily Mail.

The Washington Post article in particular prompted people to write in some criticism, including a column from David Brooks. Brooks argues that (1) you risk losing your motivation and (2) you risk not living a sufficiently “full” life. Alexander Berger responds, pointing out that burnout is a risk, but the motivations of those people earning to give are definitely there and that they are living “full” lives.

A objection in the National Review that suggests “earning to give” favors individual action and ignores the good that can come from public action. This is responded to by 80,000 Hours, which says it’s a political point being read that doesn’t actually exist.

Ben Kuhn looks at more objections that surfaced in the comments sections of various articles, and he finds that people object to (1) some “earning to give” careers (like banking) doing bad by promoting negative capitalist systems, (2) that where “earning to give” people are giving (mostly the Against Malaria Foundation ignores focusing on “root causes” in favor of addressing symptoms, and (3) general objections to utilitarianism. Kuhn addresses those arguments in that article.

Jeff Kaufman also looks at objections to banking as a career and proposes we talk about other careers instead, like computer programming, teacher, or social worker. Julia Wise writes about how she could still “earn to give” on a $38K salary.

But is “Earning to Give” Actually a Good Idea?

So all this is great, and I’m glad there’s a big conversation now on effectiveness and considering career choice as an ethical question. However, while the level of criticism I’ve seen in the popular press isn’t great, there definitely are objections to “earning to give” that matter.

First, I think the issue of burnout is considered by those who think about “earning to give”, but never directly addressed. How many people pursuing “earning to give” end up burning out? And what happens then? Can one really choose any high-earning career and do well at it, or does one also need some sort of direct passion for the job?

Second, can’t there be more beneficial careers than “earning to give”? Generally, I agree with 80,000 Hours’s response and Jeff Kaufman’s consideration that “earning to give” is a baseline, not the best option. It’s a useful and powerful point of comparison to ask “Is what I’m doing better than just earning a higher salary and donating it?”.

Frequently, however, I think this baseline can be beaten. While there’s a “make more money to donate” side of things, there’s also a “make the donated money work better” side, working in the organizations themselves to increase the impact of each donation by increasing the impact of the organizations themselves. As Jeff Kaufman records in “Talent or Money”, some organizations like Giving What We Can probably would benefit more from additional talent than additional money. In “Earning to Give vs. Altruistic Career Choice Revisited”, Jonah Sinick discusses that consideration among a few others.

Overall, the career you choose is an incredibly important choice to consider not just from a personal perspective, but from an ethical perspective. But it’s also a very individual choice and the good one can do with their career and the satisfaction they can get out of it depend immensely on one’s individual talents and desires. Therefore, a would-be career do-gooder should instead try to find individualized advice (such as that offered by 80000 Hours) and consider a wider variety of careers.

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Also cross-posted on the Effective Altruist Blog.