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Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference

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  1. For arguments against the idea that choosing a non-altruistic career is permissible, see (Buss 2006; Care 1984; Unger 1996, p.151) Interestingly, one of Karl Marx’s first essays was on career choice (1975). Marx also argued that one is morally required to pursue an altruistic career path; though this essay is no evidence of his mature thought. Bernard Williams gives an argument that one could use to defend the view that it’s permissible to choose a non-altruistic career in (1973, pp.97–118). Other literature on the ethics of career choice includes (Perlman 2000), who uses the example of choice of legal careers as a critique of some theories within the ethics of law. There has also been a small debate about whether it’s true that many professionals, within certain professions, ought to retire immediately. See (Smilansky 2005, 2007; Lenman 2007).

  2. For example, in a survey by The Guardian, over 70 % of students said that ethical considerations were crucial in choosing an employer. See (Robinson 2006) .

  3. (Unger 1996, p.151) suggests a similar concept in passing, though advocates it on somewhat different grounds than I develop here.

  4. This is clearly the case, for example, in (Burrows 2006), and in the many ethical careers websites that one can find on-line.

  5. See, for example, (Shatkin 2008), which is steeped in this sort of language.

  6. Finding reliable information on expected earnings of different career paths is surprisingly difficult. Salary rankings are easy to come by (e.g., but they neglect to take into account: i) average career length and attrition rate; ii) non-wage compensation like business ownership and stock options; iii) necessary work-related expenses (e.g. more expensive housing); iv) fluctuations in the financial success of different industries over time; v) substantial variation of earnings within broad categories of careers. However, a career in charity work typically starts with a salary of $32 000, rising to $100 000 at the most senior levels (using data on “Charity Officer” from A career in some areas of finance often starts at $50 000 (excluding bonuses of up to 100 %) rising to hundreds of thousands or millions per year (using data on “Financial Trader” “Investment Analyst” and “Investment banker” from; law, consultancy and other areas of finance are similar, though not quite as high-earning. Because the earnings in senior positions in such careers are so much higher than the earnings for charity workers in senior positions, the assumption that, for university graduates, the expected lifetime earnings from deliberately pursuing a lucrative career is several times greater than the lifetime earnings from charity work seems to me to be conservative (though the difference in median earnings might well be less than a factor of 3). However, as noted, even if the ratio of earnings between the two careers were significantly less than that, my argument would still go through.

  7. Depending on empirical matters, the replacement issue can be considerably more complex than described above. I will not go into the implications of different possible empirical situations, because they do not affect the basic philosophical point.

  8. Raised in (Foot 1967, p.23), and discussed further in (Thomson 1985).

  9. This is why we normally think that it’s permissible to emit CO2 if one successfully offsets one’s emissions–indeed, if one offsets more than one omits, then one has made some people better off while making no-one worse off.

  10. First raised in (Williams 1973, 98–9).

  11. Raised in (Foot 1967, p.23), and discussed further in (Thomson 1985).

  12. Considered in, for example (Anscombe 1961; McMahan 1994).

  13. A casual survey of the many tribute websites reveals rhapsodic praise for Schindler. See, for example, (Bülow 2011), who claims: “Oscar Schindler rose to the highest level of humanity, walked through the bloody mud of the Holocaust without soiling his soul, his compassion, his respect for human life”. Even David M. Crowe’s biography, which takes a particularly dispassionate and unromantic view of Schindler, describes him as “one of the most remarkable Righteous Gentiles in the Holocaust” (Crowe 2007, p.624).

  14. If one earns above $12 000/year, one is in the highest-income 10 %, globally. Note that all these figures given are purchasing power parity adjusted: they have taken into account the fact that money goes further in poor countries. If you live below the famous $1.25/day poverty line, you consume less produce per day than could be bought with $1.25 in the USA in 2005. 1.4 billion people live below this line. See (The World Bank Group 2008).


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MacAskill, W. Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 269–283 (2014).

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  • Practical ethics
  • Career choice
  • Making a difference
  • Replaceability
  • Harm
  • Integrity