GiveWell exists to help people do as much good as possible with their financial giving. We’re interested in the related question of how to do as much good as possible with one’s talents and career choice, and so we’ve been interested in the debate that has sprung up around last month’s article by Dylan Matthews on “earning to give.”
One of the reasons that we have chosen to focus our analysis on how to give well – rather than on how to choose a career well – is that we feel the latter is much harder to provide general insight about. Everyone’s dollars are the same, but everyone’s talents are different – so even if two people have identical views about the most important causes, the most promising solutions and the best organizations, they may rightly end up doing two very different jobs if they have different abilities. As stated previously, we are generally skeptical of taking expected-value figures like “$2500 per life saved” literally in any context, and we don’t endorse choosing one’s career based on explicit quantification of expected good accomplished. I elaborated on this thinking in an interview with 80,000 Hours.
With that said, we believe that the “earning to give” idea has something very valuable about it: it represents a broadening of the set of options one considers as possibilities for doing good.
The conventional wisdom that “doing good means working for a nonprofit,” in our view, represents an “easy way out” – a narrowing of options before learning and deliberation begin to occur. We believe that many of the jobs that most help the world are in the for-profit sector, not just because of the possibility of “earning to give” but because of the general flow-through effects of creating economic value. Considering both nonprofit and for-profit jobs means that one will (hopefully) end up with a better-fitting, higher-impact (and more personally satisfying) job in one area or the other.
In a previous post, I alluded to a distinction between extreme quantification (basing one’s decisions on shaky, guesswork-filled estimates of expected value) and systematicity (examining as many options as possible and being deliberate and transparent about choosing between them). That distinction is relevant here. We wouldn’t be happy to see more people basing their career decisions on things like “lifetime earnings divided by cost per life saved estimate.” But we would be happy to see more people – with their jobs as well as with their giving – being proactive rather than reactive and putting all the options on the table.
In both giving and working, we feel that most people consider too few options, do too little reflection, and place too little weight on helping others. They give to the charities that they happen to come into contact with, and they make early decisions about careers that often are not fully informed and are not later revisited. When we speak of an “effective altruism” movement, we picture people asking not “How can I feel good?” or even “How can I do good?” but “How can I do as much good as possible?” – not out of obligation or guilt, but out of genuine excitement at the thought of making a positive difference and hunger to make that difference as big as they can. That’s a movement we’re excited to see growing, and we’re excited about “earning to give” as one option among many.