Ethical Inquiry: The Ethics of Job Choice


At around noon every Thursday, the smell of curry and steaming plates of rice wafts out of Wilson 101. While Kabob and Curry may be the incentive for some, in reality, most come for the discussion–vibrant, student-led, philosophical, discursive and oh-so-very Brown. The room was tightly packed with newcomers and regulars alike. I arrived at 12:05 and much to my chagrin, there was a dearth of Kabob and Curry. A regular told me, “You gotta get here at 11:50 for that.”

“Ethical Inquiries” are hosted weekly by the Philosophy DUG on a wide variety of topics, including the ethics of hip-hop discussion last month. This week’s topic hit particularly close to home, especially for juniors and seniors who are all attempting to escape the inevitable question, “what are you going to do post-grad?”

The discussion aimed to ask slightly more (but only slightly) unanswerable questions:

1. What ethical considerations should there be when choosing a career?

2. Do we have a duty to leave the world better than (or as good as) it was when we entered it?

3. What does our choice of career say about our idea of the ‘good life’?

After a short introduction by members of the Philosophy DUG, we were off. The discussion began in a typical liberal arts fashion, with a member of the group answering question #2 with a decisive, “Locke would say, yes, we do,” citing his belief that while you can take some things and claim them as private property, you cannot take so much that would prohibit access to those same things for others.

The commenter also invoked notions of intergenerational justice, the idea that if you are to act rationally, you need to leave the world a better place than it was when you found it because you would want the same done to you. In other words, it’s the golden rule–on a macroscopic level.

But Locke’s credentials for making moral rules–and their application to employment ethics–were quickly contested when someone pointed out that “Locke was also a slave trader.” It was the first acknowledgement of what was to become the ultimate dilemma identified throughout the conversation: lofty ideals vs. practicality and one’s actions.

It seems practicality ultimately wins out for most Ivy League students, with up to 60 percent of Princeton graduates entering investment banking or consulting, depending on the year. Harvard graduates are more likely to enter the financial sector than any other, according to The New York Times, although their numbers range from 17 percent to 28 percent in recent years. And despite Brown fashioning itself as an anti-elitist institution, our numbers aren’t so different.

A survey of 822 graduates of the class of 2013 conducted by the CareerLAB found that 181 recent grads, or 22 percent, will be headed to work in consulting or finance and banking. A list for top employers of 2013 Brown graduates includes Bain & Company, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Deloitte.

This isn’t surprising nor is it condemnable. A frequent point brought up in Wilson 101 was that the ability to embark on a career path that may be considered more “ethical” than a job on Wall Street, such as at a non-profit, is in itself a luxury. Many students at Brown who feel strongly that their career be philanthropic or not wholly for personal gain have a financial safety net to fall back upon, sometimes because of parents who work in the same fields they denounce.

But some students weren’t willing to let anyone off the hook. One student commented that it is “impossible to say you’ve done something neutral” when you choose a job. “You are actively participating in social forces,” he said. This brought up the question: are there careers that are inherently good or inherently bad? Or, simply, are you intrinsically unethical if you go into finance? Or does your practice within your field matter? Can there be an ethical banker and an unethical member of the Peace Corps?

The answer reached was, like most answers reached at Brown, “it’s complicated.” For example, you could be the investor that brought Tesla public, an act very few could characterize as unethical. In fact, as a member of the financial sector, you have far greater reach than many people who devote their careers to affecting social change. From a utilitarian perspective, you’re as ethical as they come.

While many contributors to the discussion were of this belief–that one can be ethical within any occupation–there was a somewhat universal criticism of the University for shuttling students off to the financial sector. This is an indication that while jobs in the financial sector were ultimately not considered morally reprehensible, jobs in other fields were morally preferable.

Some faulted Brown for acting as an active liaison to the financial sector. One student described working in finance as “the seemingly logical next step,” especially when their presence on campus during job fairs is disproportionate to other career opportunities. While some contributed this to market forces–that it’s easier to get a job in the financial sector than most other fields, so Brown is just mirroring that reality–some were more cynical.

“Brown is making it easy,” a student said. “They put kids into investment banking so they’ll have money to give back to the University.”

To further muddy the waters, a survey of the Class of 2003 ten years after graduation (in which 30 percent of the class took part, so take that as you will) found that while 42 percent of graduates are employed in the for-profit sector, only 9.6 percent of 2003 grads described their occupation as financial services. This could be due to the fact that, in general, the Class of 2003 didn’t go directly into financial services at as high a rate as the Class of 2013. Or it could reveal a trend–that Brown students who may initially go into the financial sector later leave.

Either way, the survey also revealed a lot about what Brown students value ten years after leaving College Hill. When asked to rank these values on a scale from essential to not important at all, the class of 2003 responded as follows:

“Being well off financially”

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“Working for social and political change”

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“Helping others”

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While according to this survey financial stability is seemingly more important to Brown grads than actively working to create social change, helping others is by far the highest valued action, with 74 percent of respondents placing it at “very important” or “essential,” compared with 66 percent of respondents placing financial security in the same categories.

This alludes to the fact that Brown grads do not see jobs in a good/bad binary. In fact, this notion is overly idealistic. In reality, Brown grads can seek to be ethical within their field of work, whether it be non-profit, for profit, in the Peace Corps, or on Wall Street. Whether or not that’s enough for you is a personal (and perhaps philosophical) question.

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