A recent article in the New York Times (“Big paycheck or service? Students put to the test“) describes a growing trend among elite universities to push students towards careers in public service. This encouragement takes various forms, from the offering of “reflection seminars” with the stated goal of directing students away from corporate jobs, to debt relief for graduates who choose employment in the public sector. According to Amherst president Anthony Marx, the expense of such services is justified by the college’s goal of graduating students who will “make the world better in some way.” Naturally, for these universities, such world-changing careers can only be found in public service.
Students seem to be supporting this public service shift. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust based her commencement address around the question most often asked by new students, “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?”, while Wesleyan students celebrated their graduation by rallying around Barack Obama’s denunciation of our “money culture.” As one of the students quoted in the article recalled, the slur of “corporate whore” is commonly levied by his peers against those who waste their Ivy League degree pursuing profits.
Of course, many students and administrators do not share in the terrifically simplistic Wall Street=Evil, Adbusters mentality. But even then, the choice to pursue a profitable career is rarely defended. At best, the seeking of financial security is permissible as an amoral, practical endeavor if it will lead to a moral course of action later in life. Said Akshay Ganju, a fresh Harvard graduate beginning a job with global consulting firm Bain & Company, “I don’t think the point of our education is to make us rich. We all feel we want to do something meaningful beyond just accumulating wealth.”
The campus debate about career choices is usually couched in terms of high-paying corporate jobs versus service to the community. But this way of looking at the issue confuses the fundamental moral alternative underlying the decision: to engage in a course of self-interested action or a course of self-sacrifice. Should you choose a job you love and find rewarding, or a job that you do for some sacrificial reason—such as to please your parents, or to fulfill your duty to society?
The public service pushers undermine the validity of self-interested career choices by associating self-interest with the negative perception of wealth that is prevalent in today’s culture, especially among university students. For those who have accepted this jaded image, the terms “Wall Street”, “money culture”, and “corporate world” invoke a suited stockbroker—probably corrupt—who moonlights in hedonism, despises the poor, and works 80 hours a week to have a house in the Hamptons and drive a Mercedes. But this is a straw man. Many Wall Street businessmen thoroughly love their jobs, their families, their homes, and the range of values that their wealth makes possible.
Similarly, terms like “giving back”, “public service”, and “helping others” make self-sacrifice palatable, and sidestep the fact that careers in the public sector are predominately low-paying, emotionally straining, and offer little chance of professional advancement. Those who argue in terms of the false alternative between pursuing wealth vs. serving the community ignore the real issue: career as personal fulfillment vs. career as self-sacrificial duty.
So why would anyone advocate this false alternative? Why do university administrations and career counselors frame the issue in terms of wealth vs. service? They frame it in this way because it is precisely self-sacrifice that they want to push. The moral ideal they advocate is not to help others, but to sacrifice oneself in the helping of others.
If the good of others is truly the public service pushers’ goal, then why do they decry business as antagonistic to their mission? As evidenced by profit-seeking businessmen throughout history, an individual’s selfish pursuit of wealth in a capitalist society raises the level of prosperity of others. In any business transaction, self-interested action on the part of both parties is the driving force of mutual benefit. We pay for a product or service precisely because it benefits us, and one becomes wealthy by continuing to provide a product or service which benefits others, so that they in turn continue to buy it to benefit their lives.
For those who deny self-sacrifice is the root of the public service pushers’ morality, consider Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two giants of capitalism that have had a profoundly beneficial impact on the way we live. How many products and services remain in existence for you to enjoy because of the savvy investments of Mr. Buffett? How many jobs have been created? How much more productive is the world because of the growth of the personal computer, initiated and guided by Mr. Gates? How many lives have been saved by the technological advancements the computer has fostered? Yet at what point were Gates or Buffett ever upheld as models of moral action? Despite bettering the lives of billions through the selfish, insatiable pursuit of wealth, never was so much praise reaped upon them as when they chose to give their earnings away, when they turned away from practical action undertaken for the benefit of their own lives and chose to sacrifice that wealth for the good of others.
In philosophy, the view that maintains the existence of a seemingly irreconcilable tension between that which is right and that which benefits one’s life is known as the moral-practical dichotomy. This, the idea that there is an inherent conflict between the moral course and the practical course, is a torturous dictate which ultimately destroys morality by rendering it impossible. Because man’s survival depends on his acting in his own self-interest (e.g., he must obtain food to eat, he must seek shelter for himself), man is regarded as inherently immoral (cf., the doctrine of original sin), and the practical becomes a necessary evil that he can never fully escape. Man can at best approximate the status of a moral being by reducing practical, self-interested action to a minimum, but moral perfection is intrinsically unattainable.
The source of the moral-practical dichotomy is the view that morality equals altruism. Altruism upholds the good as that which is done for others, and in doing so defines self-sacrifice as the fundamental virtue by which that good may be obtained. The moral-practical dichotomy is a direct consequence. Even when altruists do not explicitly call for it (though they often do), sacrifice is their basic requirement of moral action. Any action partaken for the primary benefit of oneself is immoral beneath the altruist ethics, regardless of whether or not those actions benefit others. Thus all self-sustaining actions are immoral, precisely because they are undertaken in service to oneself, rather than in service to others.
It is not kindness, not generosity, not good will towards others that the public service pushers proselytize to students. It is sacrifice—the sacrifice of their goals, their dreams, their values. Students should answer these calls for self-sacrifice with a resounding “No”, and should get on with the business of choosing whichever career they find most personally rewarding.