Many careers guides and agencies suggest that ethically minded folks go into the nonprofit sector. And some use the phrase ‘ethical careers’ as a near-synonym for charity work. Of course, some charity workers do a lot of good. But there seem to be many career options that do at least as much good as charity workers. Why, then, do people love charity workers?

In this post, I discuss one possible explanation for the conventional wisdom about ethical careers: I suspect that many people implicitly view the extent of self-sacrifice required by our choices as a proxy for the moral value of our choices. Some of my altruistically minded friends are initially puzzled by the idea that (say) secretarial work can be more choice-worthy than charity work because the former can help important people do vastly more good.

While they don’t make this idea explicit, I think their tendency is to assume that jobs demanding greater self-sacrifice must be morally better. People may be disposed to hold this kind of view, in part, because our positive reactions to friend-favoring altruism might not be sensitive to effectiveness, and because doing the right thing often involves sacrificing one’s own interests. But morality and self-sacrifice do not always coincide.

In the context of career choice, morality and self-sacrifice come apart. Aid workers have an extremely demanding job, with low salaries, cruel realities, and (in extreme cases) high rates of mental problems. But many individual aid workers typically don’t make much of a difference, since their jobs are often replaceable. If it’s morally important to make a difference, then self-sacrifice here is a poor guide to moral choice.

Morality and self-sacrifice may come apart in other contexts as well. Donating 10 percent of your income to one of the most cost-effective charities may do more good than donating all of your money to one of the least cost-effective charities. Although the latter option is more self-sacrificial, it may be morally bankrupt.(1) And, to use an uncontroversial example, you needn’t throw yourself onto a grenade if no one else is near enough to be in danger.

Self-sacrifice is not sufficient for morality, because some selfless acts don’t do enough good. And it’s not always necessary, since the right thing to do is sometimes in our interest. While self-sacrifice is importantly related to altruism, the correlation is clearly imperfect. People who enjoy finance and find the business world fascinating should be glad to learn that they can make the world a much better place as a professional philanthropist, without giving up their self-interested motivation.

I think that conflating morality with self-sacrifice may explain, in part, why some altruistically minded people are initially puzzled by the idea that becoming a banker could be morally better than becoming an aid worker. In a forthcoming post, I will offer one possible explanation behind the intuition that self-sacrifice is morally important.

(1) Pun intended.