Career choice is a crucial decision in the life of most individuals. People spend more time on their jobs than on any other activity besides sleep—about 80,000 hours over the course of a typical life (MacAskill 2014: 269). Choosing the right career, therefore, may be one of the most impactful things an altruistically-motivated person can do.
Despite its high importance, career choice has received very limited attention. One of the earliest publications on the subject was a youth essay by Karl Marx, who held that we should choose the career “which offers us the widest scope to work for mankind”. Such a career, Marx claimed, would be best not only altruistically but also for the person pursuing it, since “experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.” (Marx 1835) In contemporary philosophy, there is a small literature on whether it is permissible to pursue a non-altruistic rather than an altruistic career, but almost no discussion of how different careers should be ethically ranked (MacAskill 2014). Most of the relevant research on career choice has been conducted outside academia, primarily by the organization 80,000 Hours, which has developed a framework for comparing the social impact of different careers.
Holden Karnofsky has identified four alternative frameworks for making career choice decisions: paths to particular roles working on particular causes; aptitudes a candidate can build in a variety of roles and causes and apply to a variety of jobs; causes to which a candidate can contribute with their career; and heuristics, such as “Do work you can be great at” or “Do work that builds your career capital and gives you more options.” (Karnofsky 2021) 80,000 Hours uses the paths framework, while Karnofsky himself has focused mostly on the aptitude framework, though he advises candidates to consider multiple frameworks.
Cholbi, Michael (2020) The ethics of choosing careers and jobs, in Bob Fischer (ed.) College Ethics: a Reader on Moral Issues That Affect You, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 878–889.
Argues against the “maximalist” view that we are morally required to choose the careers that do the most good.
Karnofsky, Holden (2021) My current impressions on career choice for longtermists, Effective Altruism Forum, June 4.
MacAskill, William (2014) Replaceability, career choice, and making a difference, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 17, pp. 269–283.
Marx, Karl (1835) Reflections of a young man on the choice of a profession, in Collected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.
Todd, Benjamin (2016) 80,000 Hours: Find a Fulfilling Career That Does Good, Oxford: Centre for Effective Altruism.
Todd, Benjamin (2021) Planning a high-impact career: A summary of everything you need to know in 7 points, 80,000 Hours, May 6.