80,000 Hours founder Will MacAskill appeared with Private Eye editor Ian Hislop on BBC Radio 4’s The
Today Show. You can listen to the programme here.
The interview opens with Will explaining the logic behind 80,000 Hours’ “Banker vs. Aid Worker”
campaign: namely, that a professional philanthropist, or someone who enters a lucrative career with
the intention of giving much of it away, can fund the work of several aid workers, and as such can do
several times as much good.
But interviewer John Humphrys had some bones to pick. These are some of the salient points he
On that basis, we don’t need charity workers?
Interviewer John Humphrys argued that, by this logic, we should all become bankers and no one
should be a charity worker. This is a misunderstanding of 80,000 Hours aims. We’re not the Banking
Fan Club of Great Britain: we simply wish to help individuals make the biggest positive impact they
can in their careers. As it stands, pursuing a lucrative career and funding several charity workers
through it would do multiple times as good as being a charity worker yourself, but the lucrative
career is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
And we do assume a more-or-less constant pool of aid workers. Because as Will MacAskill pointed out,
persuasive as we may be, we’re not quite that persuasive: the NGO sector is extremely competitive,
and there is little risk that 80,000 Hours’s “Banker vs. Aid Worker” debate will suddenly create a labour
shortage in the sector.
But there’s a flaw: I know lots of people who want lucrative careers, but not many who want to give it all away
As Will argued, that is precisely the purpose of 80,000 Hours. Lots of people have lucrative careers,
and are sitting on funds which could do a tremendous amount of good, but very few are willing to
give it to others. We are quite precisely trying to change that.
The aim of the organization is to create a community or network of people with ethical aims and
encourage them in their choice of career. We concentrate on young people, students and young
professionals, to promote the mindset of using your life to make a positive difference in the world.
Given that they are living on a lot less than they will be when they go into their careers, it will be
easier for them to give a significant portion of their income, rather undertaking the much more
difficult task of scaling down your expenses once you are already used to a high-earning income.
But is there not the danger that as people get older, they will lose these altruistic aims?
Once again, that is the reason 80,000 Hours exists. We not only seek to promote an ethical approach
to careers, we also aim to create a vibrant community of people with similar goals and ideals, who
can mutually reinforce each other’s altruistic aims. As every one of us knows, it is hard to do the
right thing when you’re on your own. But if you are surrounded by friends who have also made a
similar commitment and are willing to go through the process of leading an ethical life together,
the prospects of keeping true to your beliefs becomes a lot easier. 80,000 Hours seeks to put you
in touch with other people pursuing similar goals, and together, as a community, we can stay
committed to doing the most good we can through our careers.
Taking another tack: try and make current big earners altruistic
Private Eye Editor and Have I Got News For You panellist Ian Hislop aired the idea of taking a different
approach: instead of trying to convince young people to become high earning philanthropists, he
wondered if we could approach high earners and convince them to become philanthropists. Citing
examples from his BBC programme “When Bankers Were Good”, he argued that bankers today
have lost the ethical culture of their Victorian counterparts, when outsider figures such as Quaker
or Jewish bankers worried about the ethical impact of their careers and commonly engaged in
philanthropic pursuits. He contrasted this with the amoral, or immoral, banking culture of today, and
argued that we should be trying to change the bankers of today, not merely of tomorrow.
Will agreed, and pointed out that the 2008 financial crisis and much of the global recession was
in part triggered by the greed of the financiers: perhaps, by encouraging those with ethical goals
to enter into these careers, they might be able to do the job better than people largely motivated
by greed, and benefit everyone in the process. In other words, a knock-on benefit of professional
philanthropy is that by taking the job, you’ll probably be denying it to someone who would have
done no good in it at all; because of your ethical motivations, you might do the job better, and avoid
short-termism of the kind that engendered the financial crisis, for example.
You can’t legislate people to become philanthropists, it must come from within
Humphrys then turned to high-profile philanthropists of today, such as Bill Gates, and argued that
such philanthropic tendencies cannot be imposed, but must arise naturally, from within.
Ian Hislop retorted that, while it may be true we cannot demand that all bankers be altruistic, we can
contribute to creating a culture of philanthropy, where instead of bankers telling the world “we make
a lot of money, you should be grateful”, they can live by the maxim “we make a lot of money, we
should be grateful.”
It is a little mysterious how John Humphrys came to this idea. 80,000 Hours is not a legislative
scheme. We are there precisely to help people develop their own ethical tendencies and then
support them in their choice. We are not trying to demand that all bankers be ethical or coerce
them into being so we are trying to convince them to become ethical, and encourage some ethical
people to become bankers (as long, of course, as they give a significant portion of their income to the
best ethical causes).