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Columns

Selling Out: A Qualified Defense

By Patrick M. Magee, Contributing Opinion Writer
Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

If you type “sell out” into the search bar of the Harvard Confessions Facebook page, a number of posts pop up. One laments “wanting to sell out” but being “too deep in nonprofit work to do so.” Another characterizes one’s friends “sell[ing] out one by one” as “the saddest thing to see.” Yet another describes being a premed as “one of the most sell out tracks that exist,” glossing medicine as a career that makes “cuts in people’s bodies and bank accounts to buy that new Rolex.” Most of the remaining posts are similar, contrasting the altruism of non-governmental agencies and social work with the selfishness of the for-profit world.

Like many generalizations, this picture contains a kernel of truth. We’re all called to contribute our utmost to social welfare, a mission NGOs aim toward explicitly. Those who sacrifice life and livelihood to fight social and biological pathologies deserve our utmost praise. And it’s hard to argue that financial institutions or even medical corporations have always done their part to serve the global community.

But implicit in the profit-nonprofit divide is the assumption that the latter is the only way to fulfill the call to serve humanity, or at least the best way. And not only is this wrong — it’s borderline elitist.

The truth is, the number of us who will ever have a significant impact on people outside our families and local communities is vanishingly small. In part, this is due to the societal distribution of labor: there will always be more jobs in healthcare and sales than in nonprofit management or social work. But even on the nonprofit side, it’s rare that anyone is so indispensable that their absence would have irremediable effects. True, there are some once-in-a-generation figures who are in this position, and if you’re one of them, you can stop reading this column. But the biggest impact most people have will be local: in the way they serve their families, their friends, and the disadvantaged in their communities. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, some would argue that we have a special ethical obligation at the local level, even above serving global welfare. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the consultant who abandons his children to dig wells in a third world country is really fulfilling his most immediate obligations to society — especially when he could have used a portion of his salary to fund this very work.

Now, what I’m not saying is that people should avoid entering nonprofit work — far from it! It’s a laudable way to help people in need, and those who sacrifice higher earnings to follow such a vocation should be commended. But it’s wrong to suppose that it’s the only way to serve others, or even the best way for most people. It’s implausible that Bill Gates, who has donated nearly $50 billion to charitable causes, would have better served the world by starting his career in the nonprofit sector. And while essentially no one attains Gates’s level of wealth, the principle applies even to those of far more modest means. Consider the case of Sylvia Bloom, the legal secretary who amassed and donated over $8 million to community charities in New York. Or Matt Wage, the philosophy student who entered trading with the intention of giving away half of his pretax income to global health initiatives. True, it’s hard to argue Matt Wage is a typical representative of financial trading. But that’s an indictment of traders as people, not trading as a profession.

What these examples demonstrate, I think, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to serving humanity. Some of us are called to do it in social work, others in Big Tech, and still others — like Sylvia Bloom — in for-profit jobs with little visible impact. And this diversity of paths is a very good thing. It means that the impact we have on the world doesn’t reduce to the career track we choose in our early twenties. More importantly, it means that everyone has the opportunity to find service in their work, not just the small percentage who have jobs in the nonprofit sector.

So, if you’re called to be a social worker, go right ahead. If you become an investment banker, be a generous one. But don’t feel like you need to do one or the other — or that the former is the only way to be a good person.

Patrick M. Magee ’21 is a joint Philosophy and Physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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