Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about whether we have a duty to work on things that make society better off. This might seem like a weird question but I feel that a lot of the decisions that we make speak for ourselves in this regard. For example, if you choose to dedicate most of your career to work at a hedge fund and make money did you do the most you could to make society at-large better of? Should you even care or should you just do what’s in your own self-interest. What if you donate your wealth once you’re old and have no use for that capital? These are the types of questions that I am currently thinking about and to which I have of course no real answers.
Working on things that matter
The first issue that I have with the title of this essay is understanding what constitutes “work that makes society better off.” Judging work as positive or negative is mostly a subjective endeavor and the response you will get will vary greatly depending on who you ask.
The proponents of ethical egoism will argue that it’s ethical to act on your own self-interest because all of our commonly accepted moral duties (e.g. say the truth, don’t harm others, etc.) are rooted in self-interest even if on the long term it can make people worse off through a variation of the tragedy of commons. Altruists would argue that we should put the the welfare of others over our own and utilitarians would argue that you should do what’s in the best interest of society at-large. In practice you will see everyone using their own moral compass to determine whether their job is creating positive or negative value.
I do want to acknowledge the fact that getting to think about whether your jobs is making society better off is a huge privilege that many people don’t get to have because our socioeconomic system doesn’t provide them with a lot of choices. In any case, trying to figure out what to work isn’t as trivial as it seems.
Factors that affect your perspective
The time horizon over which you analyze “work” can affect how you understand your work. For example, some might argue that working as a hedge fund gal for 50 years adds very little “real” value (maybe even negative value) to society but if that person then donates $1 billion dollars to a great charity that helps 100,000 people with mental illness did they contribute more than a psychiatrist that could only help 2,000 patients in the same amount of time? I don’t have an answer to this and my logic might be flawed but I think these are questions worth asking to ourselves when we think about what we want to work on.
Should you maximize your impact?
Assuming that we should work on things that make society better-off another factor that I’ve been thinking about is whether we should actively seek to maximize our impact. For example, if you are working as an engineer helping build this product that will help 1 million people get better medical screenings but an opportunity comes up to build a product that gives educational access to 10 million kids should you take it? I believe this question is particularly hard to answer because it’s fundamentally comparing apples to oranges and there are so many factors involved in this decision. For example, what is the likelihood of you succeeding with either product? Will either of the products still get built if you don’t work on it? Furthermore, your individual morals, values and preferences will come into play and will in all likelihood influence what you end up working on.
I will keep thinking about these questions and in the meantime I will try to work on things that I personally believe will make society better-off and that I am personally passionate about. This is a fine line to walk and it’s easy to fall into one side but I will try my best to balance both things.
If you have any thoughts on whether we have a duty to work on things that make society better off please reach out to me.