Why becoming a banker might be the most ethical choice you ever make

MATTHEW VAN DER MERWE wants you to change your outlook on how to make a difference in the world. His conclusion might surprise you…

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Almost everything you’ve been told about choosing an ethical career is wrong.

The jobs in which you can make the biggest difference are ones which you’ve likely never considered. It’s probably better to work for Goldman Sachs and donate 20% of your income, than to work at Oxfam. Loads of people want to use their career for good, and we rightly respect these people for being selfless and deciding to devote their lives to making the world a better place.

If you’ve ever been to a ‘more-than-profit’ careers fair, you’ll be familiar with the options that are presented – working for a charity, in the public sector, or for an international organisation like the WHO. It’s easy to see why these are supposed to be the most decent careers – they’re jobs in which people’s work makes a direct positive impact on the world, and the people on the stalls don’t seem evil or miserable. The choice between these careers and conventional high-earning paths seems obvious. You could sell out and spend your life formatting PowerPoint presentations, or moving around numbers on a screen; or you could do something useful and try to make the world a bit better.


You can make more of a difference working for a bank than a charity


Unfortunately this picture is totally wrong. It’s simply not true that people can do the biggest amount of good by taking these traditional ethical jobs. When you consider how much difference you make from taking a job, you should imagine what the world would be like if you didn’t take it. The impact of your career choice is the difference between the two worlds.

Now think about a standard ethical career. Let’s say I take a job working at Oxfam when I graduate. If I hadn’t taken that job, the next best applicant would have got it. These sorts of jobs are highly competitive, so this person would probably be roughly as good at the job as me, and so the world would be almost the same. The positive impact of my choice is nowhere near as big as it might first appear. Now think about the worst career of all: finance.

In Cambridge it’s fair to say that banking is seen as one of the most contemptible careers, but it shouldn’t necessarily be this way. Let’s say I take a job in finance, earn a six-figure salary for most of my career, and decide to give 20% of my earnings to charity. Over my career I could donate at least £1m, and still be left with more earnings than 95% of the UK. So what’s the impact of this job? If I didn’t take this job, someone else equally skilled as me would have taken it, but would have on average donated under 1% of their income.

What if they could be the good guys?

What if they could be the good guys?

The difference between these worlds is huge. By taking the job and donating, I’ve made a million pounds’ worth of difference, whereas if I’d taken the job at the charity myself the impact that I would add beyond whoever replaced me would be very little. In fact, that donation could potentially pay for several new charity workers, or even provide funding for a whole new charity. Even though it seems counterintuitive, this kind of trade off is not unprecedented.

Engels took a high-earning job as a factory manager in order to support Marx while he wrote Das Kapital. This wasn’t inconsistent; it was pragmatic. Some of the people who’ve done the most good in the world have been the mega-rich. Bill Gates has saved an estimated 6 million lives through his philanthropy. Imagine how many would have been saved if he had worked for an NGO. More importantly, there are a good number of people already swayed by these arguments and doing exactly this, working in high-earning jobs in finance, and often giving away even more substantial portions of their income.


Make all those hours worth it

Critics often argue that the good effects of the donations would be outweighed by the harm of taking a job at an evil company. Banks definitely do some pretty bad things, but the maths just doesn’t add up. If you give your money to the most cost-effective charities, you can be sure that your money is going as far as possible. For example, £1m over a lifetime could save literally hundreds of lives if donated to the Against Malaria Foundation.

However bad banks are, it’s just not believable that everyone working there is responsible for hundreds of deaths! More importantly, if one person doesn’t take a banking job someone else will. Supply for these jobs is not drying up any time soon. I’m not saying that everyone should become a banker, just as no-one says that everyone should be a charity worker. Nor am I saying that bankers are great people, since virtually none of them donate a substantial amount of their earnings.

The point is that if you genuinely want to choose the career which does the most good, you should look past the traditional options, and consider ‘earning to give’.

There’s a careers advice service for students who want to have a big positive impact with their careers: 80,000 Hours: Cambridge. 80,000 Hours does not think Earning to Give is the best option for everyone, though it may be for some people.