Not quite the path to moralityFlickr: 401(K) 2012

In a world dominated by corporate monopolies and vicious governments, it can be hard to do the Right Thing. We can’t step out the front door without feeling morally compromised. Did you give that homeless person you passed on your way to lectures your spare change? Would he have just have spent it on booze and drugs? But then why not? Maybe your pennies would be better spent being dropped in a charity donation box. But where does that money even end up and how much difference does it actually make? It’s easy to boycott Starbucks in protest at their tax avoidance strategies – the coffee sucks anyway – but what about Amazon and Vodafone and Topshop and Google?

While some people are just looking for a job with a massive salary, many of us are also concerned with how we can do the most good with our careers and earnings. It’s not easy. It’s no secret that a graduate level investment banking job will start you rolling on £50k or more, with stratospheric increases down the line. The same can hardly be said for charity work, particularly the smaller, more focused ones.

That’s where The Pledge comes in. This movement, initiated by Giving What We Can (GWWC), an organisation that promotes ‘effective altruism’, has been gaining momentum in Cambridge recently. The Pledge encourages students to donate 10 per cent of their future earnings to charity. The organisers of GWWC also run a project called 80,000 Hours, which encourages people to ‘earn to give’. 

Sounds rosy, right? As Zack Hassan has pointed out, the average starting salary for a Cambridge grad is £25k. That will rise over time: 10 per cent is hardly likely to break the bank. Earlier this year, Matthew Van Der Merwe argued the moral case for deliberately seeking a high-earning job and then donating a proportion of your earnings to charity. This would be better than taking a job at a charity, he said, as you would be displacing someone from the banking job who probably wouldn’t have had the same charitable impulses as you, whereas there will be plenty of people who could do your job for the charity.

But while jobs in the City – and capitalism in general – makes people richer, they also make people poorer. By taking the path of six-figure salaries and billionaires’ bonuses, you are engaging with and perpetuating that system. It is a system that values people on their economic worth alone. Those with disabilities, women, and people who are born into poverty are disproportionately disadvantaged. In the UK today the failure of capitalism has resulted in government austerity and an ever widening gap between wages and food prices. But the system is a worldwide phenomenon. 

GWWC and 80,000 hours are attempting small adjustments within a system that still works to keep people poor. A useful parallel can be drawn with the way in which tech companies have approached the gender pay gap. 

Apple, Facebook and Yahoo have all recently announced that they will pay for female employees to have their eggs frozen, so that they don’t have to risk stalling their career by taking time out to have a baby. Their intentions were good – any effort to increase the number of women in senior executive positions, especially in the world of tech, should be welcomed. But they fail to recognise the actual problem, which is that women’s natural functions are deemed to make them less valuable to their companies. Artificially intervening in women’s reproductive timelines only encourages this notion. 

Philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have donated billions of dollars to charities in their lifetimes, but they are extreme cases. Millions of the world’s population, even those in work, live in poverty. The world’s 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion people combined. Even in the UK the top one per cent own as much as the bottom 55 per cent. If the wealthy just give away a portion of their riches so that they can sleep better at night, poverty is not going to disappear. As Zack concedes, charities treat the symptoms of problems rather than the cause. 

Whatever job I end up in when I graduate, money will of course be a consideration – a girl’s got to eat. But in looking to do good in one’s life, in looking to be good, it’s pretty safe to say that raking in annual earnings that exceed what most people will earn in a lifetime, even if you do give a bit of it to charity, is not the path to moral well-being. And I’m not attacking those who do choose to take The Pledge – undoubtedly it’s better than doing nothing. But it’s not the answer to society’s ills. If we want the world to be more just, we need to work to make the world more equal. We need to pledge to change the system, rather than tweak it from within.