Earning to Give or Renting Out Your Soul

William MacAskill, founder and president of 80,000 Hours (an ethical careers advisory service) provided interesting advice for those seeking to “make a difference” in the world. He advises us (I consider myself one who wishes to make a difference) that the best way to make a difference is to earn a lot of money, then donate a chunk of it to the most effective charities. He calls this strategy “earning to give.”

MacAskill’s reasoning is three-fold. 1) The discrepancies in earning between a high-wage earning career (say working on wall street) and one as an executive in a non profit is so vast that 50% of your $10M ¬†potential lifetime salary is more valuable than the time you spent in your non-profit career. 2) MacAskill defines “making a difference” as doing something that would not have happened anyway. It is more likely that someone else could have accomplished what you will accomplish in your nonprofit job than it is that a normal multimillionaire would be as generous to charity as you would if you had the same amount of money. 3) The cost-effectiveness of charities vary and by controlling the capital, you can invest in the most cost-effective charities, doing the most good. For example, it is more valuable to provide 1600 people, $25 cures for trachoma, than it is to spend $40,000 training and providing a guide dog to one blind person.

As a Christian, I find MacAskill’s utilitarian approach to “making a difference” problematic. A Christian understanding of vocation relates to one’s sense of Divine calling or belief that one was made to operate in a specific field. For many, the financial considerations only tell half the story. It is about the job. Doing something that fits. Doing something that is both worthwhile and a match for one’s skill set. The bottom-line analysis breaks down because MacAskill does not consider the intrinsic value of the work for the worker, account for the potential that the individual could bring something new and innovative to the task (rather than assuming that anybody could do the job), or assess the harm that one potential does in the high-wage earning position before giving one’s money away. It is reminiscent of John D. Rockefeller’s “robber baron” mentality of making as much money as possible (as ruthlessly as possible) and being generous in philanthropy. Rockefeller did an extraordinary amount of good (including funding Spelman College), but his form of monopolistic capitalism still wrecks havoc in our liberal democracy.

Finally, MacAskill’s juxtaposition of a nonprofit job versus a job on wall street (or some other similarly high earning profession) is a bit of a misnomer. If it were really that easy to get a Wall Street job, everyone would have one. The vast majority of folks won’t earn $10M over their lifetimes, but the $2.5 million is still the higher range of middle class. In other words, most Americans would look at the income potential of a career in non-profit work and be satisfied with that financial outlook. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the worker predisposed to working for a charity would bring the intangibles necessary to be successful in the finance position. Thus one could walk into a position with the earning potential of $10M, but perform for a variety of reasons, much below that mark. What would be the point of that?

Perhaps MacAskill is right. Perhaps one ought to approach one’s vocation from a pure cost-benefit analysis. But that does not make for a fulfilling life. It seems to me that MacAskill is recommending that we rent out our souls. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (16:26), “What does it profit if one gains the world but loses one’s soul?” I’m not convinced that giving away half of one’s millions can buy one’s soul back.


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