Universalisability – Immoral Industries Part 3

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When I tell people that they might want to consider professional philanthropy as a career choice, they react in a lot of different ways. Some people raise an eyebrow. “Seb,” they say as if explaining something very obvious, “if everybody quit their jobs and took a high earning career to give money to charities, then there wouldn’t be anybody to give the money to!”

To put the problem a bit more sympathetically, “80,000 Hours is trying to convince people to do Earning to Give. So if you succeeded, by getting everyone to do it, the world would be worse off.”
But this misses the point entirely. First, so we’re all clear, 80,000 Hours doesn’t necessarily recommend Earning to Give as the best career path. It all depends on who you are and what your strengths are. Even many effective altruists (EAs) who are suited to a high earning career can do better elsewhere. 80,000 Hours is just trying to put Earning to Give on the map of possible ethical career options.

But, more importantly, we only recommend that anyone does Earning to give because we look at the way the world is and we reckon it makes a positive difference. If the world became different, and lots of people naturally decided to do Earning to Give, we’d recommend something else.

80,000 Hours is about getting people to think seriously about the difference their career choices make. That means you have to react to evidence. There is no risk that a world where everyone is a member of 80,000 Hours would be one where everyone does Earning to give.
This ties into a debate with a long and proud tradition in the field of ethics. A certain brand of ethicist believes that one ought to do only things that you’d be satisfied to have everyone do. For example, you shouldn’t lie because if everyone lied then all communication would break down. (For these people, you shouldn’t lie even when there are compelling reasons to do so. It’s wrong even if it would save lives to lie to a murderer.)

This sort of theory has a lot of problems, and philosophers can spend a lot of time fixing little objections to it. But it’s important to realise that universalisability usually depends on a particular way of phrasing something. For example, “If everyone did Earning to Give the world would be bad” might be true, but replace “Earning to Give” with “effective altruist” and add that many EAs would do Earning to Give, and it doesn’t seem so true at all. (Also note that many things that seem unobjectionable are not universalisable. I ought not give Sally a lollipop because it wouldn’t be good if everyone gave Sally a lollipop. It also isn’t clear where we get our assessment of ‘good’ from when we work out if things would be universalisable.)

What we can agree on is fairly unobjectionable. Keep your options open and don’t rule out careers just because someone else told you they were unethical. The impact your life has on the world around you is complicated and depends on lots of factors. You have to sit down and work out whether your decision to take a job makes the world worse or better. Sometimes, direct harm will be outweighed by other benefits. Sometimes, direct good will be outweighed by other harms.