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‘Is it bad to pay my bills working in an ethically compromised industry?’

 Agony Uncle

Q: I work for a big accounting firm that services industries including fossil fuels, the arms trade and industrial agriculture.

I stay in the job because I’m worried I will need the money in future, for example to start a family. But, maybe this is just capitalist conditioning talking?

I do know for sure that my employer, and the accounting industry at large – including related sectors like law and banking – are key facilitators of the some of the biggest social and environmental harms we face right now.

How should I reconcile the need to earn money to pay my bills with minimising the complicity of my labour in gross injustices? Reform from within seems unlikely in this case, so should I leave? Or, should I stay and do better things with my income?

An anxious auditor

Your dilemma made me think of effective altruism (EA), the school of ethics that has been in the news recently because of its association with the disgraced cryptocurrency CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried (what a name!) EA is primarily about applying statistical analysis to determine which charities are the most effective. It’s also known for its rather distinctive moral claims; some supporters, for instance, argue their ‘long-termist’ perspective means it is more important to spend money right now combatting a possible AI-powered robot apocalypse that could affect tens of billions of future people, than fight the many bad things already happening.

Another controversial aspect of EA is its endorsement of ‘earning to give’: this is the practice of taking super-high-paying jobs in, say, finance in order to give away big proportions of your income to effective charities. The reasoning is that a conscientious person who has the potential to earn a huge salary would make a bigger difference as an individual by getting that job and redirecting their earnings, rather than by slogging away in a ‘good’ third sector job. This has been cited as an influence behind Bankman-Fried’s single-minded drive to make as much money as possible. He was arrested last year, after his cryptocurrency exchange collapsed, accused of engaging in fraud among other charges (he has pleaded not guilty).

The ‘earning to give’ ethos is bleak for several reasons. In particular, it assumes away the radical political change that we actually need to make the world a meaningfully better place (the kind that would render most of those high-paying jobs non-existent). That said, it is a form of ethical action that can have positive consequences and involves a kind of self-sacrifice.

So: is that your plan? Earn money from an ethically compromised industry in order to 1) save for a family and 2) put your money to work in effective charities? It might be one way to sleep more easily at night, but I’m not sure it’s what I would endorse in this situation. After all, there are ethical grey areas in the world of work (I recently heard of a graphic designer whose boss allowed employees to opt-out of working on a campaign for a fossil fuel company) and … there’s doing work for the arms industry. Whose raison d’etre is making deadly weapons. I don’t know what to say, other than: yes, I agree, that’s pretty bad. It might even be harmful to you, too: you’re clearly a well-meaning and morally-minded person, so I’m worried the tug of war between your morals and your working life will eat away at you. Corrode your soul.

Look, accountancy is an eminently transferable set of skills. Are there not companies out there, perhaps in-house at a medium-sized business, that are hiring with decent salaries? Keep an eye on job listings and, perhaps, set yourself a deadline for when you’d like to leave. Don’t just count pennies – be the change you want to see.

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