How to Choose a Career That Can Make a Positive Impact
Effective altruism is a philosophy that is based on using reason and evidence in order to do the most good. The philosopher Peter Singer makes the case for effective altruism in his books The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015).
Effective altruists believe that you can help others the most effectively, by not only figuring out which charities to donate to, but also based on your career choice. This can be done either by choosing a career which makes a big positive impact, or by choosing a high-paying job, so that you can donate more to an effective charity.
Jobs with a positive impact
80,000 Hours is a UK-based organisation that helps people find careers with a positive social impact. It is based on the estimate that the average person will spend 80,000 hours of their life working, which is a lot of time to make a difference in the world. Plus, work that helps others is key to job satisfaction. The organisation highlights that some careers can have more of an impact than others.
They estimate that doctors in the UK will save about four lives per year, which is not insignificant, but is perhaps much less than general public might assume. In a developing country, on the other hand, you can make more of a difference, since the level of ill health in the population is greater, and there are fewer doctors.
You could consider jobs that involve advocacy – the promotion of solutions to pressing problems. This might involve working for any number of charities or pressure groups. If the cause is something you are deeply passionate about, then this commitment and drive will end up with more fruitful results.
Of course, you can advocate for solutions in any job. You can also do a stable job, while doing advocacy part-time, so you don’t need to worry about funding your advocacy.
Other impactful roles include:
- Various political positions (e.g. politician, think tank positions, civil servant, lobbyist).
- Positions with a public platform (e.g. journalist, public intellectual).
- Managers and grant makers at influential organisations.
- Research (e.g. biomedicine).
Since effective altruists care about which causes are the most pressing, and which charities make the biggest difference, taking a job at a highly recommended charity would mean that your work will have a big impact.
Earn more, donate more
Many effective altruists say that, as an easy baseline, you should be donating 10% of your income to effective charities. Tory Ord, a moral philosopher at Oxford University, lives on £18,000, and then donates the rest of his income to charity. Meanwhile, another Oxford University philosopher and effective altruism proponent, William MacAskill (who co-founded 80,000 Hours), keeps around £29,000 of his income, and donates the rest. And Peter Singer gives away 20% of his income.
If you commit to donating 10% of your income, then one of the most effective ways to make a difference is to take a high-paying job. Some of the wealthiest people in the world, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett, have saved and improved millions of lives through their philanthropy. Bill Gates would not have been able to help so many people if he was working for a small not-for-profit.
High-earning career paths include investment banking, founding a tech startup, quantitative trading, software engineering, data science, management consulting, law and medicine.
But wait. Don’t some high-paying jobs also do harm? Yes, that’s true. And some do a lot of harm. Here are 10 jobs that 80,000 Hours recommend you avoid. However, MacAskill recommends that people choose a career in banking – rather than in the charity sector – if they really want to be a force for positive change. Effective altruists do say, however, that you have to be a good fit for the job, otherwise you won’t stick to it or excel at it. You also shouldn’t have to sacrifice your life satisfaction in order to do good.
Effective altruism is gaining popularity as a social movement. What this shows is that there definitely is an ethical dimension to one’s career choice. By looking at the data and comparing the potential impact of various job opportunities, you may find that you want to prioritise making a positive impact.
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