Are meaningful careers a cover story?

It is more respectable to have a non-altruistic hobby than to have a non-altruistic job. If I say to a public servant that their career doesn’t make the world a better place, I’m being offensive. If I say to a chess player that their hobby doesn’t make the world a better place, they will likely agree. It’s no accusation.

People also like to have jobs that make the world a better place, whereas they don’t usually care about whether their hobbies do. A few people volunteer or create things for the enjoyment of others of course, but it’s not much of a negative if a hobby doesn’t achieve altruistic goals. People rarely worry ‘I must get out of this hockey; it’s so draining to think all my efforts aren’t helping anyone, and when I die there will be nothing to show for it’.

At first this may seem unsurprising. Jobs are where you exchange socially beneficial work for money, while hobbies are where you enjoy yourself. But why must they be grouped that way? By definition jobs are where you get money, and pleasing others will tend to get you money, but if you are already making money without seemingly making the world a better place, why try so hard to add your dose of altruism there? It should often be easier to change to a more altruistic hobby than a more altruistic job, since you don’t need to find someone to pay you for it. And if you take up an altruistic hobby, you don’t displace anyone.

Here’s a hypothesis for why altruism matters more in jobs than hobbies. Humans are sensitive about receiving money, and about others receiving it. We intuitively feel that material wealth should be divided fairly amongst the tribe and are suspicious of people who accumulate it without sharing. We allow inequality if it’s deserved in return for other socially beneficial actions, but we monitor this closely. We can’t believe the rich really deserve it, nor the welfare dependent, and this suspicion of cheating colors all our dealings with them. When we are given money then, we must feel and look like we deserved it or we risk deep shame. So the very fact that employment gives you money means you need a clear, tellable justification about altruism.

On the other hand we don’t crave justice in enjoyment of leisure time. The fact that someone is having a really interesting conversation with a friend without apparently deserving it doesn’t make the rest of us feel cheated and suspicious. Why don’t our fairness instincts kick in with leisure?  I expect because leisure has always been too hard to count and measure and not directly useful enough to survival to redistribute, unlike concrete goods. So you don’t need any altruistic justification for having fun. Notice that if people wanted altruistic jobs mostly due to direct desire for altruism we would see a different pattern; they would be similarly interested in altruism in other pursuits.

From a conversation with Robin Hanson

17 responses to “Are meaningful careers a cover story?

  1. In my own experience, and especially now that I’m aware of existential risk, I have a desire to do something that makes a large and positive impact on the world. However if I attempt to do only that, I burn out. On the other hand, if I only spend time in enjoyable recreation, life starts to feel a little short on meaning. In either case, life starts to “taste flat”, becomes less appealing, etc.

    In other words, I’m unhappy focusing solely on either recreation or contribution, and they work best as complements. If I attempt to make my recreation contributive, optimizing it less for enjoyment, it becomes both less enjoyable and less productive as a counter to my core contributive efforts. I haven’t been following the near/far theory as closely as some others, but perhaps it can be said that people desire satisfaction of both Near and Far desires.

    As you pointed out, if people wanted jobs for their direct benefit to altruism, most would be choosing different jobs. I think most people care a little about altruism, just not that much. And they aren’t rationalists. I also think that most jobs contribute to widespread benefits (though some may be over or under compensated by any given metric). It’s then just a natural tendency to exaggerate this benefit, to one’s self and others, like other common social delusions.

  2. Here’s another theory: we know that we pay for our leisure efforts directly – they come at the expense of our fun. We’d rather someone pay us to do good, so we can check that off without actually having to sacrifice for it.

    • As I’m sure you appreciate, those who do jobs perceived as altruistic pay a *great deal* for the privilege: jobs without that perk will on average pay more, and indeed I suspect most in altruistic jobs could have done more good taking a non-altruistic job and donating the difference.

  3. Your ‘tribe-values’ hypothesis sounds true, but ‘individual effects’ not directly related to the values of the tribe are likely important too: Both signaling effects and ‘self-delusion’ effects are relevant here. It feels good to tell yourself that you ‘make a difference’ in your job by doing stuff that helps others, especially if the job is boring or badly paid.

    Also, most people spend a lot more time working than they do playing hockey. Tangential to what Robin Hanson said, people usually justify how they spend their spare time with the work they do when they’re on the job – ‘I’ve deserved to relax now instead of working in the local soup kitchen because I worked hard’. If you can convince yourself that your work contains some altruistic elements, you don’t have to feel quite so guilty about not doing anything altruistic when you’re not working.

  4. “On the other hand we don’t crave justice in enjoyment of leisure time. The fact that someone is having a really interesting conversation with a friend without apparently deserving it doesn’t make the rest of us feel cheated and suspicious. Why don’t our fairness instincts kick in with leisure? I expect because leisure has always been too hard to count and measure and not directly useful enough to survival to redistribute, unlike concrete goods.”

    Well, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in the book Flow that people enjoy themselves more at work than at leisure. (If you haven’t read this book, I think you’d like it a lot.)

  5. Clayton Roche

    When people ask what I do they aren’t asking about my hobbies.

    (though that could be to your point)

  6. Holding an altruistic job is a form of status signalling. “I am so high-status that I don’t need to work just for the filthy lucre. I can both support myself and help others at the same time.”

    • Mitchell Porter

      That might be true sometimes. But your declaration has the form of a fallacy: behavior X makes you think of Y, “therefore” behavior X exists to signal Y.

  7. John Maxwell IV

    “If I say to a public servant that their career doesn’t make the world a better place, I’m being offensive. If I say to a chess player that their hobby doesn’t make the world a better place, they will likely agree. It’s no accusation.”

    What if you said to someone who volunteered in a hospital that they weren’t making the world a better place, or if you said that to a telemarketer? I predict that the person who volunteered in a hospital would get more upset than the telemarketer.

    What if offense has to do with a mismatch between what you think and what the person you’re talking to thinks?

    • I chose a public servant and a chess player because I thought they were both fairly neutral. There are jobs such as telemarketing where employees usually accept that they aren’t helping the world much, but that usually goes along with hoping to get a different job soon and not identifying with it much. That’s not how people feel at all about hobbies that don’t seem to help. I agree there is always some element of offense if someone is actively trying to be helpful and others aren’t impressed e.g. your hospital volunteer.

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  9. also, a job is more a matter of self-preservation (albeit a commonplace, daily, kind of self-preservation,) so you are more focused on weighing the costs and benefits. You are expecting to get something done, because you are receiving something for it.

    When you have a hobby, mentally you’re playing (because you are telling yourself that you are relaxing, playing and having fun.) “Playing” isn’t organized.

    …..but I believe it is also a personal difference, I do think about the utility of my hobbies.

  10. Stuart Armstrong

    It takes energy to bend yourself to the will of others – even when the other is yourself. You bend yourself to the discipline of a job because you need the money; you compel yourself to contribute to charity because you tell yourself that is the correct thing to do. Altruistic actions cost willpower, just as a job’s discipline does.

    But you only have limited time and energy to force yourself to do something for whatever reasons. If you have a job that’s altruistic, it might cost you in salary terms, but it doesn’t burn up more of your willpower than an ordinary job. You’ve added altruism without burnout.

    On the other hand, if you work at a job and have altruistic hobbies, you’re burning up your willpower all the time, and few people can maintain that level of commitment.

  11. Notice that as making Art becomes more and more accessible/widespread, artists are adding trying to save the world to their list of virtues. Corporate responsibility is another example.

    The hypothesis I’m making here is that we bring in morality when other components of a performance (job/hobby etc.) don’t already suffice to signal our reproductive fitness. (Treating morality as a courtship display here, see: The Mating Mind, Miller.)

    Because we get to choose our hobbies, we naturally choose those that best signal our fitness, according to what we already do best and what is already known to impress people. If we don’t mess that up, we won’t find ourselves needing to bring morality into the picture.

    But our jobs don’t pay according to how well we impress people (at least most don’t). Yet money is very important, so we choose those that pay the most. But that job won’t necessarily be impressive. Hence morality: “I may not be doing something that is hot or cool, but at least I’m saving the world.”

    Morality is something only the well-off (rich (donate money), healthy (save a life), sexy (don’t fuck around), etc.) can afford. So that is what it signals. You voluntarily abstain from taking as much, in order to signal you already have so much.

    With jobs, you excuse your not doing anything too impressive by pointing out that you are in fact trying to save the world, and are doing so by foregoing impressing others through the usual means. It’s a cop out, really.

  12. as suggested let’s say this is a signaling strategy, altruism does not exist (genetically) and but false signals of getting something for nothing feed a brain weakness – deception…sending and receiving…especially in hyper-competitive /work/resource gathering environments…of course, having any beneficial effect on anything is patently abasurd…not only because the future is unknowable…so likely “i’m a ‘i’m gonna save the world/feed the poor/microlend/etc’ kinda person” signaling, is just a pretty ordinary false- status boast –” i’ve got so many resources i can afford to help others/pursue my ‘passions’/etc….pretty dum… but it is awful competitive out there…then girls always like sensitive world-saving guyz, right?

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  14. It’s not about the money – it’s about the time. I feel guilty thinking “Well, there went 8 hours of my day, 5 days a week, 363 weeks a year” ad infinitum for a job that did nothing to help others. I would feel guilty if I spent the same amount of time on a completely non-altruistic hobby. Not to mention that for many service-minded people, it’s simply mind-draining and horrible to trudge into work, each and every day of your life, to do donkey work and then leave again.

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