The replaceability effect and earning to give

TLDR; Although it is harder, the relevant moral comparison to make for actions is against what would have happened (in expectation) if you did not make a choice. This has consequences especially when evaluating the trade-off between taking a job in an unethical industry in order to donate money to good causes – earning to give.

Part 1: The replaceability effect – working in unethical industries

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 financial 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. This effect corresponds to the concept economists call marginal elasticity.

The second part of this article 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 part 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 could be 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.

Part 2: Collective action

In the first part 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

  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
  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.

Part 3: Supporting immoral industries

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.

Originally published on the 80,000 Hours blog.

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