Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.
The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.
Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.
Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do. [...]
Two former analysts at the mega-hedge fund Bridgewater and Associates have worked to change that. Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld created GiveWell, a nonprofit that analyzes charities to help people decide where to give, rather than how much to give. They take into account, for instance, that a malaria donation can save a life, while a check sent to the New York City Ballet probably cannot. (Although it may produce a slightly better version of “Swan Lake.”) [...]
Take Jeff Kaufman. A Cambridge, Mass.-based developer at Google, Kaufman and his wife, Julia Wise, managed to live on $10,000 in 2012, they say. Together, they give away at least 45 percent of their income each year (the rest goes to savings and taxes). Kaufman and Wise meticulously document their spending on their blogs. In 2010, for example, they spent a measly $164.44 on groceries each month and gave themselves $38 apiece to spend each week on nonessentials (including all non-grocery meals). In 2012, they moved in with Jeff’s family, which saved even more money, they say. [...]
If GiveWell makes the empirical argument to the public, Giving What We Can makes the moral one.
Toby Ord, the founder, is an Australian philosopher teaching at Oxford. That’s hardly an accident. Oxford’s philosophy department is chock-full of consequentialists, or ethicists who think morality is about maximizing the good, however one defines “good.”
The group conducts charity evaluations and is a grass-roots network for those trying to live the consequentialist lifestyle. At least in Britain, the idea took off fast, and not just with avowed consequentialists and utilitarians.
The group has been profiled across Britain, in the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the BBC. The initial coverage focused on Ord’s promise in 2010 to give £1 million (or $1.5 million) to charity over his life, a tall order for an Oxford fellow making $50,000 a year. But somewhere along the line, Ord’s colleague and charity co-founder Will MacAskill hit upon an even catchier pitch. At the height of the Occupy movement in late 2011, he gave a talk at Oxford titled: “Want an ethical career? Become a banker.”
MacAskill, like Trigg, realized that percentages don’t matter. Absolutes do. Ord may be able to give $1.5 million over the course of his life, but Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein made more than $15 million in 2012 alone. Before the crisis, Blankfein was clearing $50 million annually. And investment bankers don’t even get the biggest cut. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made $5 billion in 2010. Suppose Paulson were to keep his job, move to a studio in Hoboken, reduce his living expenses to $30,000 a year, and give the rest of the $5 billion away. He could save 3,000 times as many lives in a year as Ord could save in 80 years. So why not enter finance with the express goal of using earnings to save lives? [...]
It’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old Peter Singer envisioning that an article he published in Philosophy and Public Affairs would push people like Jason Trigg into the financial sector.
But the 66-year-old Singer of today welcomes the result. In between fending off religious opponents and helping lead the animal rights movement, he’s been doing a fair bit of giving advocacy himself. He has his own group, The Life You Can Save, spun off from his book of the same name, which also organizes at universities and works as an informal ally of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours.
And he embraces earning-to-give as among the most ethical career choices one can make, more moral than his own, even. “There is a relatively small group of philosophers who actually have a big influence,” he says from his home in Australia. “But otherwise, the marginal difference that you’re going to make as a professor of philosophy compared to somebody else is not all that great.”