Writing for The Harvard Crimson, Ms. Sandra Korn points to an interesting phenomenon. A large proportion of Harvard’s recent graduates have chosen to pursue careers in finance such as investment banking. This is no doubt due partly to the impressive salaries that such careers often provide.
The author proceeds to scold these graduates for disregarding Harvard’s imperative to “depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.” Financial careers, she says, are largely “socially useless” and even “socially destructive.” She concludes:
It is vital that students question the ubiquitous pre-finance culture that pervades Harvard and dedicate themselves to truly serving their fellow human beings—not creating more wrongs.
Still reeling from the economic crisis, many likely sympathize with the idea that financiers are socially useless. But are they? Even the author concedes that the financial industry provides companies with capital to enable hiring, expansion and innovation. In “The Morality of Moneylending,” Dr. Yaron Brook writes:
…[L]ent money is not “barren”; it is fruitful: It enables borrowers to improve their lives or produce new goods or services. Nor is moneylending a zero-sum game: Both the borrower and the lender benefit from the exchange (as ultimately does everyone involved in the economy). The lender makes a profit, and the borrower gets to use capital—whether for consumption or investment purposes—that he otherwise would not be able to use.
Although Dr. Brook refers specifically to the practice of moneylending, the principle applies to all financial practices. Finance is characterized by trade, which allows each party to exchange his time, money, or expertise for something of greater value to him. Financiers make a living by providing others with the means to achieve retirement, home ownership, a more comfortable lifestyle, and an education for their children, just to name a few. Are we to believe that a specialized service which enables people to improve their lives is socially useless?
And yet, there is a question much deeper than the benefits of the finance industry at stake here, a question of moral value. Is it true that Harvard graduates looking to turn their hard work into dollars are wrong to do so? Should one’s moral purpose be to dedicate oneself to serving one’s fellow human beings? Are we our brother’s keepers?
In the hero’s speech in Atlas ShruggedAyn Rand writes:
Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away?
Every value, from a slice of cake to a Wall-Street sized salary, requires an act of creation. Each individual must earn values through his own thought and action. For this reason, each needs a moral compass that acknowledges his need to benefit from the values he creates; a code that recognizes his life as the standard of moral value. From this perspective, a financier who produces abundant wealth for himself is pursuing his happiness. He is as moral in pursuing his happiness by creating wealth as he would be in teaching an elementary school or putting out fires. When it comes to a moral evaluation of careers, we should not apologize for creating and enjoying values but assert the pursuit of our own happiness as right.