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Columns

The Ethics of ‘Selling Out’

Not all high-paying jobs are created morally equal.

By Trevor J. Levin, Contributing Opinion Writer
Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

This summer, like many other anxious ’19ers, I’ve glimpsed the specter of the Great Beyond. Post-graduation plans and the conversations around them have grown increasingly concrete and angsty. In Annenberg, we philosophized about how best to balance personal passions, altruistic motivations, and “practical” things like money and resume-building. Now, we stare soberly at the search results on Crimson Careers and note how few of them meet even two of those criteria. Maybe we wonder whether the underclassman cliche that “you could always do finance or consulting!” is still true. Would it be so bad to “sell out” — to postpone our dreams of changing the world and secure our financial footing?

I fear that framing the decision this way — reducing the dizzying variety of post-graduation pursuits to “selling out” versus “not selling out” — we obscure the real ethical distinctions.

For one, some forms of “selling out” are better than others. Many graduates “sell out” by taking a job in a management consulting firm. Despite the “snake” stereotype, 80,000 Hours — the career-advice wing of the Centre for Effective Altruism — rates consulting as one of the best jobs for beginning a career of doing good. On their analysis, consultants gain transferable skills and connections while potentially even positively impacting the world (though they admit considerable uncertainty about its direct impact). “Sellouts” who head west, or a couple miles east, and work for tech firms also appear to be acting justifiably for similar reasons.

Indeed, classical economics holds that a high income actually corresponds directly with doing good for society. After all, people usually give you money insofar as you do something useful for them, and something is “useful” for a business if it produces something its customers want. But this assumes a world of perfectly competitive and free markets — and even those would heavily prioritize the utility of the wealthy, especially over that of the global poor. For that reason, the effective altruists add a key demand for consultants and tech workers: Rather than simply reaping the rewards of their economic contributions, they must “earn to give,” committing a substantial share of their salary to the world’s most effective charities.

And speaking of non-competitive markets, “selling out” also might mean working at a bank that helped cause the financial crisis. (No, that was not a result of unfettered capitalism.) As many Goldman matriculants surely know, these banks took massive risks that ensnared the entire economy, likely resting on the correct assumption that the securities industry’s enormous lobbying budget would ensure a bailout — creating a grave moral hazard and increasing the risk that such a catastrophe would happen again. By continuing to pour their talent into these institutions, these Harvard graduates contribute to their undeserved return to business-as-usual. (80,000 Hours rates work that makes the financial system highly risky the seventh-most harmful career.)

Contrary to popular perception, the effective altruists do not recommend that everyone follow an “earning to give” strategy, especially in harmful industries. They also warn against front-office finance jobs more generally, given their high burnout, low job satisfaction, and uncertain direct impact. Law school seems to evade the “sellout” charge, but 80,000 Hours is bearish on commercial law — and how many prospective public-interest lawyers stick to those plans when they start the senior-year process again as a 3L, now confronting six figures of law school debt? Some do, and some don’t.

That brings me to what might be an even more important distinction: people who “sell out” versus people who sell out.

Much of the criticism of the sellout path, including the Marina E. Keegan essay “Even Artichokes Have Doubts,” laments the wasted potential of the starry-eyed idealists lured by the well-worn path and prestige of finance and consulting. “How can I change the world as a 21- or 22-year-old?” asks Annie, a banker-to-be. “I know that’s a very pessimistic view, but I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge or experience to step into those shoes. Even if you know that you want to go into the public sector you’d benefit from experience in the private sector.” Keegan rebuts that point by quoting professors on the supposedly soul-killing nature of these jobs, but for moral purposes, I think we should take Annie seriously.

Even if it “wastes” the (limited) potential of their first few years, it seems very plausible that the people who actually follow through — who donate most of their seven-figure hedge-fund salary, who fundraise from their McKinsey network to start an international development NGO — made the right decision. But when 80,000 Hours encourages these professions by giving them high scores for “career capital” and “earning to give” potential, they make an assumption so obvious you might miss it: That the reader’s motivations are altruistic and permanent.

That raises another problem with the discourse around “selling out”: It splits graduates into two putative groups. One follows its principles straight out of Johnston Gate; the other strictly looks out for number one. I worry that, by asking that second group to justify “selling out” to their peers and themselves, we encourage them to redefine their values to justify a career with no ethical commitments at all. (For theoretical support, I cite “social creativity,” the phenomenon of group members changing what attributes they value to increase their self-esteem.)

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, then, I propose ethically-concerned seniors replace their scowls of disgust at hearing “sellout” plans with an actually less self-righteous reaction: “You could probably do a lot of good with that.” They could! And we should make it a strong social norm that they do.

Our careers will be, God willing, long. So, if you need consulting or law school or some other signaling-and-networking launch pad to get to a place you actually want to be, whether that’s a startup, an NGO, policymaking (which 80,000 Hours heartily endorses), or repaying your loans (or your family), I think you should go for it. The risk is that once you enter that world of optionality, high pay, and prestige, you get so comfortable that you never leave. All these justifications are for naught if you truly do sell out — if you completely abandon your dreams, and indeed your moral obligations, of giving something back to the world that has given you so much.

Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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