Collective Action: working in unethical industries part 2

In my last article I looked at how it sometimes the best option is to take a high-earning job, even in an industry one thinks is harmful, in order to donate more to charity. There were a lot of caveats. The job has to earn more than you could have made otherwise to make up for the marginal harm you do by taking it. But for a competitive job market in a mainstream job, that marginal harm is often much smaller than the total harm caused by the job.

At this point, one might raise a second objection – this is a classic collective action problem in which the ‘best option’ for an individual is much worse than the result of longer term co-ordination. The Prisoner’s Dilemma and The Tragedy of the Commons are classic examples.

Here’s how that might go. Let’s consider the pool of young effective altruist (EA) graduates entering the job market and considering professional philanthropy. Suppose that their highest earning job opportunity is in some industry which they all agree is harmful. Each young graduate apparently believes:

  1. If I enter the harmful industry, the harm I cause (due to the reasoning about replaceability in the previous post) will be much smaller (1) than the good I can do through my philanthropy

  2. The industry is harmful, so it would be better if all of us didn’t work in the industry

Since each young graduate believes (1), they all choose to take the job in the harmful industry and pursue professional philanthropy. But each young graduate also believes that this outcome – where they all work in the harmful industry – is not the ideal outcome. By thinking about how to individually make the most difference, we seem to have ended up in a situation that everyone agrees is not best! This problem extends beyond professional philanthropy – it could apply to all sorts of reasoning we do at 80,000 Hours. What has gone wrong?

I think this story is only convincing because we treat all the young graduates as making a simultaneous decision about whether to enter the harmful industry. In effect, we’re ignoring the possibility for communication between the EA job seekers.

In reality, what would happen? Each young EA would take account of how many other EAs had entered or were planning to enter the industry already. Over a period of years, as more and more EAs become professional philanthropists, it would become less and less good to enter the industry. This is because as the proportion of EAs in the industry increases, the average amount donated by each person in the industry would rise, so each new EA would make less difference. Moreover, the easy opportunities to make the industry less harmful would be taken by other EAs, so the harm done by entering the industry would get larger and larger. Eventually, it would no longer be best to pursue professional philanthropy in that industry. If each EA does their job, then over time we’ll move towards having just the right proportion of EAs working in the harmful industry.

This process could be accelerated by coordination mechanisms like the 80,000 Hours network. 80,000 Hours can do the work of each individual EA by keeping track of how many people are going into the harmful industries.

So, the truth in the objection is that you need to pay attention to what other EAs are doing. But it doesn’t mean that we should always avoid working in harmful industries, or thinking in general about how to individually make the most difference.

See the next post here

(1) Note that we’re not saying the harm done is ‘negligible’ or ‘zero’. We can also construct puzzle cases were each individual apparently makes no difference, but it adds up to a really bad outcome if everyone does the same thing. Shelly Kagan explored these kinds of cases in “Do I Make a Difference?” Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2):105-141 (2011).

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