An article in the Washington Post by Dylan Matthews, "Join Wall Street. Save the World." evoked memories of long conversations that my business partner and I had while still in college. Matthews' article features Jason Trigg, a twenty-five year old MIT graduate who earns a large salary by writing computer code for a high-frequency stock trading firm.
Trigg could have pursued many different careers, ranging from academia to cancer research. He opted for the Wall Street firm because of the high salary he earns. Unlike his peers, Trigg lives on less than half of what he earns, living with three roommates and walking to work. He donates the rest of his income to charity. His favorite cause is the , a highly effective non-profit that estimates it saves one life for every $2500 donated.
Philosopher Peter Singer's work inspired Trigg's commitment to helping others. Singer first told the following story in a 1972 paper, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality:"
A man walking by a shallow pond notices a toddler struggling in the water. No one else is around. Rescuing the child would ruin his shoes and muddy his suit. Tending to the girl and finding her parents would take time, making him late for work. So he walks away. The girl drowns.
Singer believes the story's moral is that “If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” In Matthew's words:
Most people would agree with this. But as Singer notes, most people don’t give much, at all, to those in other countries suffering extreme poverty. Remember that giving about $2,500 can save one life from malaria. For the median American household, which earned about $50,000 in 2011, that amounts to 5 percent of one’s gross income. Arguably, a child in Africa gains more from not dying than an American family loses by making $47,500 rather than $50,000 in a given year.
New York Times columnist David Brooks in "The Way to Produce a Person," (June 3, 2013) wondered whether Tripp had made the right decision, noting that what a person does gradually alters who a person is. Brooks asked, without answering, whether Trigg would become more like his colleagues at the Wall Street firm and less focused on his mission of saving lives.
When I graduated from high school, a classmate and I were both unemployed and both entering the same expensive college at the end of the summer. For lack of anything else to do, we agreed to paint a house that my father owned. We quickly realized that we could make very good money as painting contractors – as long as we did not work for my father again (he thought our inexperience justified paying us near minimum wages). By the end of our fourth summer, our fifteen employees worked on a variety of projects ranging from painting to computer programming, and we made very good money.
My friend and I were confident that post-graduation we could turn our summer business into a very profitable firm. I planned to attend seminary. He contended that I could do more good by making money and then donating a large fortune (it doesn't hurt to dream when one is young!) to help others, à la Carnegie, Rockefeller, Mellon, etc. I responded that years spent accumulating a fortune would change who I was as a person.
In retrospect, I'm thankful that I went to seminary rather than pursuing wealth. I'm a very different person today because of my experiences over the intervening four decades than I was upon graduating from college. Experiences and relationships change people. Trigg will be truly exceptional if he successfully sustains his commitment to helping others by earning and donating as much money as he can.
Ethicists classify the process of character formation described above as part of virtue ethics. The values (or virtues) that a person acquires strongly influence that person's perceptions of the world, the way in which s/he habitually acts, and how s/he weighs occasional moral choices.
Virtues are both taught and caught. The teaching may be formal (e.g., in a class on ethics) or informal (e.g., by reading a novel or watching a movie). We catch virtues when we decide to emulate someone (an ethical role model, aka a moral exemplar), engage in an activity that alters us (e.g., feeding the hungry), or are in relationship with others (e.g., a partner, parent, boss, or teacher).
Who do you want to become? What type of person would you like to be? What are you doing to learn and to acquire (catch) the virtues inherent your answers?
In the moment, we may have little control over who we are or what we do. In the longer term, by having an idea of who we want to be (e.g., child of God), we can develop and acquire the virtues, skills, and other characteristics required to be that person. Conversely, not living intentionally means that the odds of becoming somebody we do not want to be increase greatly.