The (False) Dilemma

Here’s am adequately entertaining essay on two roommates who try to figure out how best to help the world, choose to invest their time and effort in careers in order to produce the most beneficial/altruistic wealth, and ultimately just quit and go back to working part-time non-profit jobs. In doing so they also form a critique of Peter Singer’s “Effective Altruism,” noting that the internet is constantly bombarding us with tricks or “hacks” or lists of “simple ways” we can live “better” lives or “change the world”—pick your cliché.

The dilemma (and one that many of my friends have also mentioned they face):

The first was more or less the classic life of an affluent American Liberal, the one on which I was well started, that long and basically dissembling reaction to born privilege. Nonprofit job, artish hobbies, moderate drinking, hope the friends stay funny and nearby. While young: shared apartments, cheap whiskey n + 1; older: art in the house, Spanish wine, the New Yorker. And when God or the workers’ council weighs our fates, hope the scales might be tipped by the weight of a book…

The second life embraces what the other cringes from, power and privilege. It goes the way of my more confident college-mates, the ones who became consultants or surgeons or even financial operatives. Behind it is legitimacy, hard facts, popular science; it’s decisive and clear, it has authority, it doesn’t resent. Maybe it can tilt some widget of the Big Machine in a slightly more human direction, by raising cash and influence for well-chosen political campaigns, or by giving a chunk of its substantial yearly income to NGOs installing mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa, and maybe convincing others to do the same. At the pearly intake, then, no need for scales; they’ve already seen the spreadsheet. Mightn’t the second life have more political weight, more active power, more, yeah, effect?

A friend recently told me that he’s studying economics because he purposely wants to find a job he doesn’t much enjoy; better not to mix pleasure with the cold truth of having to pay simply to exist on the planet, he insists. No, he’ll hate his job but make a lot of money, with which he can hike any number of trails (the Appalachian Trail already under his belt). As someone who has pretty much made hiking (and teaching about the ecosystems in which we hike) my work, I must say there is a certain resonance to his logic. On the other hand, I can always go back and take the same hikes I do with the kids on my own: win/win.

I don’t think your job or relationship status or situation have to be political acts, in so far as they might function as engines of purity, clarity, or ethical meaning. Yes, working at the IMF is categorically wrong, but so is driving a car—they’re just the same problem seen at different scales. I saw a facebook post from an acquaintance last week, extolling the political benefits of non-traditional relationships, i.e. if, say, you have an open relationship, then even though that relationship is not as revolutionary as, well, something more revolutionary, it still moves the needle towards the destruction of gender norms because it “educates” other couples, and eventually the broader public.

I have to admit that I find that kind of reasoning illogical, if not somewhat appalling. Free-love orgies did not really do anything to dismantle the patriarchy in the ’60s (in fact, imbuing sexual relationships with broader political meaning almost always entrenches the dominant power). Yes, gay marriage is currently moving the needle in the right direction, but that’s because it changes a legal institution, i.e. it grants power to those who previously didn’t have it. It has nothing to do with the actual relationship, it’s simply the ability to avoid discrimination.

Similarly, if your job grants rights or food or opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them, then it’s probably a good thing in the broader social context. If it helps some people but at the same time hurts others, or hurts the ecosystem, then not so much. But again, jobs don’t have to be the sole source of meaning or ethical action (you can just stock shelves, too, and be very content and do a lot of good for yourself and others). But if you’re worried about this dilemma at all then you’re unlikely to work at a global bank or hedge fund anyway.

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