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Social value of work: factors to consider

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Your capacity to help people through your work depends heavily on the job that you take. Some professions help people a great deal, others help people to a slight degree, others don't help people at all on balance, and others harm people on balance. Some things to consider when thinking about how much social value you can contribute in a given job are:

  • Direct effects on customers — How much does your product help the people who buy what you produce, relative to how much they pay for it? Does it dramatically improve their lives? Is it a convenience that they could do without? Does buying it make their lives worse?
  • Effects on people who benefit indirectly: This includes externalities and flow-through effects. For instance, if you provide good medical care to somebody, and that person's work productivity improves to the point that they contribute through their job, then that is an indirect benefit to their customers. Such indirect effects may be positive or negative.
  • Replacability (the use of counterfactuals): Replacability works two ways: what other work you could be doing instead (which you are likely already factoring in), and who your counterfactual replacement at the job would be.

Direct effects on customers

Some jobs benefit customers enormously. For example, doctors who screen patients for breast cancer can recognize breast cancer at an early stage when it's most treatable, saving patient's lives.

Some jobs benefit customers slightly. For example, a professional gardener might improve customer's lives by making their environment more pleasant, but not on the level of saving their lives.

Some jobs harm customers on balance. This is arguably true of casino workers, who enable compulsive gambling addiction, which can ruin people's lives.

A very rough indicator of how much you help your customers is how much they're willing to pay you. For example, Steve Jobs created products that many people were willing to pay a lot for, because they found them valuable, and as a result became a multi-billionaire. For more on why earnings can be a decent proxy for social value, see social value of work: income as a proxy.

Indirect effects: flow-through effects and externalities

Flow-through effects: customers of customers, and customers of customers of customers

In some cases, your work may improve the ability of your customers to serve their customers. Examples:

  • You run a company providing high-quality home Internet connections. Some of your customers design websites from the home, and the high-quality Internet connection helps them test their websites which improve the lives of their customers.
  • A hospital has contracted with you to do its laundry. If you run the laundry service effectively, you can reduce the infection transmission rate of the hospital, thereby making life better for the customers of the hospital (the patients). These patients in turn are more productive at work, which affects their customers.

In general, serving your customers well is the most reliable way of making sure you are having positive effects on the customers of your customers. It is, however, possible that in some cases, serving your customers well can actually harm their customers or others whom they have an effect on. For instance, you might provide banking services to a business that defrauds its customers regularly.

The following general points are worth noting:

  • Subjective value criterion: Ceteris paribus, the greater the subjective value you provide your customers, the greater the value you generate in flow-through effects.
  • Productivity enhancement criterion: Providing value to customers in areas that affect their productivity is likely to generate more flow-through effects than providing value to them in leisure areas -- even controlling for their experience of subjective value. However, improving people's leisure experience can have positive flow-through effects if it improves their mood and thereby their productivity.
  • Value created by customers criterion: Providing value to customers who generate more value for others will, ceteris paribus, generate higher flow-through effects. Thus, for instance, providing Internet access to somebody who spends the whole day playing video games is probably likely to generate less social value in flow-through effects than providing Internet access to somebody who intends to tutor people over the Internet.

In general, flow-through effects are likely to be captured to quite an extent by the money one can charge. In particular, note that customers are willing to pay more when they experience greater subjective value (because that inclines them to pay more), when it improves their productivity (because that directly improves the amount of money they have at their disposal), and when they themselves create more value (because they are probabilistically likely to themselves earn more and therefore have more to spend).


Just because a job contributes a lot of value doesn't mean that you can contribute the same amount of value by taking it. Food production is crucial for people's ability to live. But there's not a shortage of people who are available to produce food. So if you take a job in food production, you won't be crucial to people's ability to live — if you weren't doing it, somebody else would be.

It's important to note that by taking a job that someone else could have done, you free that person up to contribute social value by taking a different job. So the value that you contribute isn't just the value that you contribute beyond the value that your hypothetical replacement would be contributing – it also includes the value that your hypothetical replacement contributes in his or her own job.

The point is that calculating the value that you contribute isn't as simple as the value that the job itself contributes: it's possible that you can contribute more by taking a job that contributes less to society than you could by taking a job that contributes more to society but that a lot of other people could do.

In general, you can help people the most through your work by taking a job that helps people and that other people wouldn't be doing (or wouldn't be doing as well as you) if you didn't take it.

Another remark: the point about replaceability is also relevant to jobs that harm people on balance. If you take a job in an industry that harms people that lots of people are willing and able to do, you won't harm people very much. If you take a job in an industry that harms people that nobody's willing or able to do, you'll harm people a lot.

Once again, the use of income as a proxy captures the replacability consideration to some extent: if you're hard to replace, people are probably willing to pay you more. And if your replacements themselves have alternative jobs of high value they could be doing instead, then people are willing to pay you more.

Other points

  • In many cases, the job may not create much social value by default, but it may put you in a position of authority or power that allows you to make discretionary choices that greatly affect social value. For instance, if you train as a scientist, you may have the requisite credentials that your views on some important issue (such as vaccines or GM crops) will be taken seriously. If you train as an economist, your views on government economic policy may be taken seriously. This is closely related to the replacability criterion discussed above.
  • One way of generating social value while working, but not directly through work, is by practicing earning to give: choose careers, or make work-related choices, that increase your earning, and then give away the extra earning for philanthropic purposes.
  • There may be be a trade-off between trying to create social value immediately and trying to progress in acquiring knowledge, skills, and credentials that can be leveraged to have higher impact later.

See also

Social value of particular activities

Career name Discussion of social value
Finance Social value of finance
Biomedical research Social value of biomedical research
Entrepreneurship Social value of entrepreneurship
Medicine Social value of medicine
Software engineering Social value of software engineering
Academia Social value of academia
Basic science research (overlaps with academia) Social value of basic science research