Each of us has unique opportunities to impact the world around us. God gifts each person with unique abilities, resources, and skills, and it is up to each one of us to use them well and do what we feel called to do to transform the world around us.
One thing I’ve been struck by recently is the way that being successful in business enables people to change the world. Working at Creighton University, I’ve seen very successful business people give money to Creighton to help the school move forward. I’ve seen similar donations to the University of Nebraska, and we hear of such donations frequently.
Yet, oftentimes, I see students who think that to really do good, they need to become a social worker, or become a teacher or nurse, or perhaps a pastor or missionary or work for a nonprofit. Somehow these service oriented vocations are more noble– and the more non-profit the better. And while there is something noble about going into these professions, it is not clear, on the face of it, that going into a profession which does not make much money is either noble or of greater worth to society than going into a profession in which you could make a great deal of money, and then give it away to useful effective causes.
There was an interesting article this week on Monday 12/12 in the wall street journal called “The Mistakes We Make When Giving to Charity“. They compare a hypothetical scenario of two doctors– one lives in L.A., makes 700,000 per year, and gives $50,000 to Doctors Without Borders, and that donation saves 500 lives per year. A second doctor joins Doctors without Borders after completing his residency, and saves 200 lives per year while making $23,000 per year. More people tend to think that the one who works for DWB lives a more admirable life, even though he effectively saves less lives per year than if he made a lot of money and gave it to DWB. The point of the article was that, looking at it from a pure impact perspective, it seems that the first doctor saves considerably more lives per year (of course, one might ask why he doesn’t give more of his salary, but that is a different question).
Peter Singer is a non-religious thinker who has written a great deal on “effective altruism”. Here is a brief TED talk he did on the topic. In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, he tells the story of one of his students who wanted to make a huge difference in the world, and although this student was set to go on to graduate school and become a professor, he decided he would be able to do more good by working on Wall Street, because he could save more lives by making lots of money and giving it to effective charities. Of course this is another important piece of the puzzle– there are plenty of feel-good charities out there which don’t actually give you much bang for your buck.
Now obviously, a couple questions need to be asked. First, if all the DWB doctors stayed stateside and made lots of money to give to DWB, who would go work for DWB? In other words, if some don’t volunteer, then who will go? It seems possible that schools could be started in emerging nations to train locals to become doctors– or something like that.
Second, is saving lives the most important thing? I don’t know that it is the most important, but the fact that it seems like a fairly awkward question to ask seems to indicate that saving other people’s lives probably is an important priority.
Third, what, if anything, should we take from these considerations? One thing which makes me especially interested in this question is what I’ve seen over the years at Christian schools I’ve been involved in. Schools like Trinity in Chicago or Bethel in Minneapolis/St. Paul were known for producing teachers, nurses and pastors– all good things. But they also struggled financially because although it was never said, there was never a lot of emphasis on being successful ‘in worldly affairs’– i.e. business. In fact, there was probably some suspicion of it. I certainly see that as well at the Jesuit schools I’ve been at (Fordham, Marquette, Creighton)– arts and science students sometimes (not always) seem to have the attitude that business students have ‘sold their soul for money’– and of course, some have. But the largest donors tend to be successful business people. The fact seems to be that those who work hard to make a good deal of money may very well be able to do a lot more good than if they chose to go into a less lucrative field.
My point is that there is a certain martyrdom factor which sometimes influences our judgment in these matters. We somehow think that if we do something which makes less money it is better, more noble, and more ethical. I do not think that is in the case. And we might do well to encourage more young Christian students to go be successful in business. I think that Catholics tend to do a better job of this than the Protestants I’ve seen.
Finally, I want to make it clear that I am a huge fan of the less lucrative professions and the arts and sciences– I’m a philosophy/english major, and I’m from a family of teachers and pastors (and farmers) who love to discuss theology. But I know plenty of business people who know theology and philosophy as well. What I want to ask is, how can we do the most good? And might that involve encouraging the young people in our churches to go out and be successful entrepreneurs and business people in the world who in turn use their wealth to transform the world for the glory of God? I think so.
May God have mercy on us all…