The replaceability effect: working in unethical industries part 1

High earning careers are often perceived as unethical careers. It’s not just that people think earning lots of money is bad, it’s also that a lot of the careers that make you really rich involve things that also seem immoral.

The example of our times is investment banking. It’s hard to be precise about why investment banking is bad, and I’m pretty sure that most people who think bankers do harm don’t really have much of an idea of what bankers do. But it seems plausible that irresponsible risk-taking in some parts of the banking system has had a really negative effect on millions of lives.

Let’s suppose, for sake of argument, that banking is pretty bad. That raises the question: is it bad to become a banker? Banking isn’t just a relevant example because it’s topical. It’s also one of the highest earning salaried careers available today. If I’m picking a career with the intention of giving away a large portion of what I earn, can I pick a job that causes harm because I think the money I give away will do more good?

One interesting thing you can do is to work out the total harm of the investment banking industry and compare it against the good you can do with your donations directly. But that’s only a small part of the issue. This article will look at something called the replaceability effect. It’s the idea that, often, if you don’t take a job, someone else will take it. For some types of jobs, this is a very safe assumption, and it makes the harm you do by taking a job in an unethical industry much smaller than you might first guess.

The second article in this series will address a potential problem of this line of reasoning: collective action. If everyone acts assuming that someone else will do the dirty work if they don’t, you get collective action problems where everyone would be happier if they could all agree not to do the job. That article involves a bit of game theory. The third article in the series asks whether we should be making these sorts of arguments at all. Perhaps there are some things you just shouldn’t be party to, no matter what you could bring about if you were.

Suppose I want to be an investment banker. I’ll be earning stupid amounts of money pretty quickly, so let’s say I’m happy to donate 50% of what I earn to the most effective causes. I’ll still be making more than the median household income, in my early 20s. But I’m worried about the harm I’m doing.

The first thing to remember is that what’s most important is not what I do directly, but is what my choices bring about. In Ben’s excellent article, he points out that you’d be crazy if you wanted to push paramedics out of the way to treat your injured parents. In that case, it’s pretty clear that we don’t actually think you should care about what you do yourself, but rather about the difference between what happens after your choice and what would have happened otherwise.

Now, if I decide not to become a banker, what difference does that make? Someone else gets the job. Top investment banking jobs are heavily sought after; there’ll be plenty of people willing to take your place. So what are the differences between me and them?

I care about the ethics of my choices. If we start with the assumption that lots of bankers aren’t particularly ethically motivated, it seems extremely likely that I care more about ethics than the person who would replace me. That means that if a choice ever comes up which I am fairly free to decide on, I’m more likely to make the ethical choice. (If there are no choices where I’m free to decide one, then my being the banker doesn’t do any harm anyhow.)

I’m giving half away. If one of the harms of banking is that it perpetuates wealth inequality, then this is just good on its own. But probably more importantly, the charities I donate to will be able to save literally tens of thousands of lives over the course of my career. The person who replaces me would probably donate fairly little to charities. The top 20% of spenders, a bracket almost all bankers would fall into, donate on average about 0.4% of their spending. That’s a lot less than 50% of income – especially since, if you save, that ends up at more than half of spending. They’re also probably not particularly interested in finding out which charities are the best charities. That matters a lot, because there are huge differences in the cost-effectiveness of charities. It’s hard to say how huge, but a very conservative estimate makes the difference between the best charities and the median charities at least a factor of 100, and it could be many times more than that.

I’m better at it. This is a slightly dodgy assumption. The selection process is competitive enough at the top end that the choice between top candidates is probably pretty random. It’s also not clear if this is a good or a bad thing. We might think that, even though banking is harmful now, it couId be good if only it changed a few things – like risk-taking incentives. If we think that, then having more skilled bankers might be better. Otherwise, we might prefer to starve the industry of skilled people. But in either case, because the differences in ability are so slight, it’s pretty marginal.

On top of that, there’s a long term point to be made. If good people stay out of banking because it’s harmful, banking isn’t going to go away, but it’s not likely to get better any time soon. Getting people who care about ethics into the industry might be the only way to make the industry ethical.

There’s a bunch of additional points that we might want to bring out. One is that I also need to think about what I would do if I didn’t take the job. If there’s another job that does about as much good and no harm at all, then I should take that one. But that’s pretty obvious.

Another nuance is that we have to think about the chain of events the other guy starts off when he moves into a different job. He pushes someone else out of a job and the whole thing spirals down the chain. But, of course, if I were to take a different job I’d be denying someone else a job. So, it’s a bit more complicated than I’ve made out. But because banking is so competitive all of the effects here are pretty small.

One concern a lot of people have is this: when I take a banking job I’m sending a signal to people around me that I think the banking industry is good. Now, I think it’s hard to be persuaded by that. First, although I’m sure we all have very high opinions of ourselves, realistically no-one else will be particularly moved by your job choice. You’d have to be a particularly messianic figure for your signal to have that kind of effect. Second, you don’t need to be a silent victim to the first impressions other people have from your job choice. If your job choice sends a signal, so be it. You can send other signals too - like joining 80,000 Hours and telling your friends about why you did it.

The basic replaceability argument is only a rough sketch of the whole picture. It shows us that when we look at the consequences of our actions, and inspect the simple choice of whether or not to take a job in a harmful industry, the harm of our taking the job is somewhat less than it first appears. Obviously, though, there is still a harm. So you shouldn’t take the job unless you think you can do something pretty good with it. The argument, so far, has also only looked at the effects of the actual choice. It hasn’t looked at the effects of the sorts of attitudes involved in thinking about the choice this way. That’s what the next article is about. It also hasn’t answered the basic question, which we’ll examine in the third article, about whether weighing up consequences like this is the right way to go about it at all.

Read the second post here

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