Acton Institute Powerblog

Occupy Business Careers?

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In a recent BBC article, Sean Coughlan reports a novel idea from Oxford academic Will Crouch,

He argues that someone becoming an investment banker could create sufficient wealth to make philanthropic donations that could make a bigger difference than someone choosing to work in a “moral” career such as an aid charity.

Indeed, there seems to be an ever increasing suspicion, even among Christians, that certain career paths are per se more moral than others. However, as Fr. Robert Sirico writes in The Entrepreneurial Vocation,

Every person created in the image of God has been given certain natural abilities that God desires to be cultivated and treated as good gifts. If the gift happens to be an inclination for business, stock trading, or investment banking, the religious community should not condemn the person merely on account of his or her profession.

This is unfortunate, to say the least. Crouch argues that if more ethically inclined individuals would pursue careers in banking, for example, they would significantly increase the resources at their disposal to help those in need. According to Crouch,

The direct benefit a single aid worker can produce is limited, whereas the philanthropic banker’s donations might indirectly help 10 times as many people.

Using some basic, ball-park calculations, he estimates that “an ethically inclined banker who donated half their income could save 10,000 lives” throughout their working lifetime. What might be the difference in our neighborhoods, country, and world if more charitably inclined people were open to business related careers? Certainly, it is not everyone’s gift, and there is nothing wrong or deficient about being a social worker, for example, but perhaps there are some who have avoided such a path, such a calling, simply because of an unfair stigma.

Will Crouch offers a different perspective:

We are calling on people to be like Robin Hood, but by earning the money rather than stealing it.

A novel idea, if you ask me.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


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  • “The counsellor will do good.  The wealthy might be a misanthropist as easily as a philanthropist.”

    Actually, there are plenty of bad counselors out there who have done more harm than good. Additionally, the fact that the “wealthy might be a misanthropist as easily as a philanthropist” shows that wealth is not evil, per se, but that its value depends upon how it is used. The point of Coughlin’s article is that if more “ethically inclined” people were open to a calling in business, we might end up with more philanthropists.

  • Roger McKinney

    “an ethically inclined banker who donated half their income
    could save 10,000 lives”

    Probably not. Thousands of people die every year but there
    is nothing a philanthropic banker can do about it. Giving money does not necessarily
    save lives. It won’t save any of the people dying of cancer or most of those
    dying from dirty water or hunger.

    People like to draw attention by raising the stakes to
    matters of life and death, but very little that anyone does really saves lives.

    On the other hand, the Chinese government probably saved
    tens of millions of lives by freeing markets slightly. Remember that 30 million
    + died of starvation because of government policies in the 1960’s.

    • Here is the full quote: “Looking at typical incomes in investment banking and the cost of
      treating tuberculosis in the developing world, he calculates that an
      ethically inclined banker who donated half their income could save
      10,000 lives.”

      Perhaps this figure is too high, but, in any case, I think you may be oversimplifying things. For example, that “the Chinese government probably saved tens of millions of lives” by not continuing to starve them through oppressive economic policies is hardly laudable. Indeed, I would not call that saving lives. It strikes me as the broken window fallacy applied to ethics. If I stop harming someone, have I, therefore, healed them?

      Purchasing tuberculosis medicine through the free market and freely giving it to people dying of tuberculosis, however, does qualify in my book. Greater economic freedom in those countries where people are dying of curable diseases but cannot afford the necessary treatment is a very good thing, even a necessary and maybe a greater thing in the long run, but to bring about such a change takes time that some people do not currently have to wait for it.

      • Roger McKinney

        Assuming that the donations would actually go to the
        purchase of the medicine and that medicine would actually get to the people who
        need it, I don’t doubt that such donations would save 10 K lives. But those are
        very large assumptions for corrupt nations in which nothing goes as intended.
        There are many reasons why people in poor countries don’t have the vaccines
        they need and most of them involve high levels of corruption. But if half the
        money went through, that’s still impressive savings of life. I don’t know of
        any other examples that are so dramatic.

        The Chinese government didn’t directly kill the 30 million
        who starved to death in the 1960’s; the communist system did by making the so
        poor. So you can’t say that the government quit killing people because it never
        killed any in the first place. Poverty killed them directly. By freeing markets
        slightly, the Chinese government allowed people to save themselves.

        “If I stop harming someone, have I, therefore, healed them?”

        Obviously not, but you’re splitting hairs. By not killing
        people you have given them opportunity to heal themselves. The outcome is the
        same: lots of lives not killed by starvation plus hundreds of millions of
        people lifted from starvation poverty and disease to relative wealth. By not
        killing 30 million more Chinese, freer markets prevented the deaths of more
        people than the TB program will ever save in a thousand years.

        It amazes me the lengths that people will go to trash the
        Chinese miracle just because it was a market based miracle. Has the TB programs
        saved even 1% the number of lives that freer markets in China
        have saved? Add up all of the charity in the world for the past century and you
        won’t have results even close to what China
        has accomplished in 30 years with freer markets.