the elite university student ethics crisis™

matthew sun

@sunnydmatt

interface, july 2021

"where should i work after graduation?"

i can be your angle....or yuor devil

PUBLIC SERVICE

GOVERNMENT*

ORGANIZING

👼

FINANCE

CONSULTING

TECH

😈

*some caveats

 

you may not totally identify with this ethics crisis persona

 

but i have talked to many students who do feel this way

 

and perhaps some of the analysis will resonate anyway :)

1.

why do these moral crises about where to work "ethically" have an absolute chokehold over some (not all) students at elite institutions?

2.

the decision of where you work has real moral weight, but just as/if not more important is how you conduct yourself at your job, the communities you are a part of, and your life outside your job.

reject cynicism, and embrace agency!

why do these moral crises about where to work "ethically" have an absolute chokehold over some (not all) students at elite institutions?

duh...it's competing desires for

💸 MONEY + PRESTIGE

vs.

🙏 MORAL VALUES

okay...but this is incomplete!

everyone faces this tradeoff between chasing their passions versus seeking money and power. but elite students seem to have a unique amount of guilt!

why do these moral crises about where to work "ethically" have an absolute chokehold over some (not all) students at elite institutions?

💸 MONEY + PRESTIGE

vs.

🙏 MORAL VALUES

exacerbated by...

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

  • reminder: most people hate their jobs
    • most people take it as a given that they are so much more than their job description!
  • the types of people who end up at elite colleges are likely to have internalized a system of self-worth that is based upon their output that is considered valuable and legible to gatekeepers of elite institutions
    • grades, leadership positions, honors and awards
    • do you instinctively doubt whether you really care about XYZ or whether your interest in XYZ is valid if you haven't joined/founded a club for it, interned at an organization in the space, or written an academic paper on it?

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

  • because of [xyz accumulated awards], institutions tell you that you are a "leader of tomorrow" and, because of this, you have a special responsibility
  • many of these articles lament that "the best and brightest are going to finance"
    • "best and brightest" is a loaded term. smart is context-dependent
  • you do have a responsibility to the world! but it's not any greater simply because you are viewed as smart. and it would be a mistake to think that you can only carry out that responsibility at A Non-Problematic Organization You Work At Immediately Post-Graduation
  • tl;dr elite college students need to get over themselves a little bit. the point of mass movements is that they are about collectives, not individual heroes

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

  • purity politics reinforces a classic idea of an individualized, atomized conception of morality
    • morality is avoiding sin, staying "clean"
    • poorly suited for a world in which wrongdoing is shared & systemic*
  • where does it work? (social value of shame - Greek life)
  • where doesn't it work?
    • individual choices to abstain from working at FB, Goldman Sachs does nothing to dismantle those systems.
    • "Goldman Sachs doesn't care if you raise chickens"

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

  • purity politics enforced by a culture (particularly at elite universities) of intense judgment / critique of institutions)

    • very destabilizing when sense of self has historically been derived from external sources - institutions, peers

    • critique is often not accompanied by a straightforward answer for how to move forward, so exposure to critiques is also particularly difficult for students who have been trained to believe there is a single right answer.

      • "Goldman Sachs is problematic" does not mean "avoid Goldman Sachs" is the only solution

    • identifying a valid critique is important and essential!

  • importantly, the point is not to reject the critique because it makes you uncomfortable but to internalize it without becoming paralyzed by guilt

conflation of work/self

inflated sense of self-importance

obsession with purity politics

my sense of worth is derived from my work output.

my responsibility to the world comes from my individual intellect & talents.

the best way to correct problematic institutions is to distance myself from them.

my sense of worth is derived from my work output.

my responsibility to the world comes from my individual intellect & talents.

the best way to correct problematic institutions is to distance myself from them.

my moral worth comes from my work, art, relationships, family, beliefs, politics, and everything else that matters to me.

my responsibility to the world is derived from my position in a deeply interconnected society.

i will recognize and engage with critique without defaulting to avoidance as the answer.

1.

why do these moral crises about where to work "ethically" have an absolute chokehold over some (not all) students at elite institutions?

2.

the decision of where you work has real moral weight, but just as/if not more important is how you conduct yourself at your job, the communities you are a part of, and your life outside your job.

reject cynicism, and embrace agency!

let's say you've chosen to work in Big Tech/Consulting/Finance.

  • this is no time to plunge into self-loathing
    • cynicism leads to inaction
    • moreover, your cynicism is contagious. your peers look up to you
  • accept that maybe you made an ethically dubious choice, but do not fall into the trap of believing that you must now see yourself as an evil person. good people do bad things. we are human!
    • instead, commit to living with the moral consequences of your action. consider this an added responsibility to move throughout your life with intention, respect for the dignity of others, and deep engagement with social issues that goes beyond performative virtue signaling

let's say you've chosen to work in Big Tech/Consulting/Finance.

  •  influence your peers
    • your position as a peer who went to Princeton means that (certain) people will listen to you, give you second chances
    • your peers are persuadable! i know so many people in finance/consulting/tech who are fundamentally confused about how to live a good and meaningful life, and chances are you do too! use your proximity to them to influence them
      • small ex: reboot writing (it won't cause a revolution, but it is not nothing)
  • Do things you are bad at outside of your job!

    • Join community organizations, canvass, go to town meetings, even if you have never done it before

let's say you've chosen to work in Big Tech/Consulting/Finance.

  •  if you end up at a job that is not aligned with your values, find communities outside of work that do align with what you believe & reaffirm your values
    • (this is maybe what churches used to be for)
    • If you are afraid that you will not be able to hold yourself accountable to your ideals in the future, trust the people that you surround yourself with to do that
  • Find freedom in the fact that systemic change requires all of us, but it is no one individual’s burden
    • Admit to yourself that you are limited and let that also set you free. You might crave social validation, your parents’ approval, financial security and material comfort.

let's say you've chosen to work in Big Tech/Consulting/Finance.

  • careers are long
    • one way to resolve the "money vs impact" dilemma is simply to satisfy priorities in separate parts of your career
    • you can focus on earning until you achieve financial independence and then, when you are not under financial constraint, dedicate yourself wholly to the causes you most care about
      • requires confidence, self-awareness, accountability

let's say you've chosen to work in Big Tech/Consulting/Finance.

all is not lost.

💟 reject cynicism, self-loathing, and guilt

🌆 engage with your communities, in and outside of work

 🌱 appreciate that you have a lot of time ahead of you to figure out the answers

the end.

the elite student ethics crisis

By Matthew Sun

the elite student ethics crisis

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