It’s concentration declaration season for AB sophomores and BSE freshmen and the same old questions are bubbling to the surface: Do I really have what it takes to become a math major? Should I pursue classics or comparative literature? Then there’s the most familiar question: Should I choose the more “practical” major that may land me a stable career or the niche major whose classes truly excite me? Should I follow my head or my heart?
It could be a humanities student deciding between psychology and sociology or a STEM major weighing engineering and theoretical physics. There’s no good answer of course, but we seem to have a very stagnant way of thinking about it on this campus: you should follow your passion. Making a choice that prioritizes future earnings is often considered “selling out.” But this dichotomy neglects the most important factor that we should be considering: the ethics of each choice. And sometimes, arguably even often, the ethical choice is to choose against the major you are most passionate about.
All concentration choices are career choices. While your choice of concentration doesn’t necessarily close off possibilities, the questions you study in school inform your career choices down the line. If you choose a theoretical concentration, for example, you grow accustomed to theory and are, at the very least, more likely to choose a theoretical career.
Career choices have ethical implications too. If you had two people with equally good intentions, the one who chose a career where they have fewer opportunities to make a difference would be morally inferior to the one who chose a career where they’re very influential and had more opportunities to actually effect change.
Imagine a student choosing between declaring politics or history. The student came in wanting to do politics, but turns out the grubby reality of political life is not to their taste, so they are now considering operating in the murky depths of the past by studying history. Two life paths diverge — one in which the student pursues politics and after a career of distasteful schmoozing, they are able to issue one minor bill that impacts a lot of people, and the other in which they become a well-respected historian whose discoveries are interesting but lacking in impact.
Are we supposed to say that these are equally ethical choices? In one, the agent may be less happy, but they are able to do more good for others. In the other, the agent is happier, but they may do less good for others. If Princetonians are supposed to use our capabilities to “do good,” then the ethical choice would seem to be the former.
Of course, we can’t predict the future. The student as a politician could be unenthusiastic, unelectable, or worse, corrupted by power. The same student as a historian could elevate a forgotten voice which inspires more people than a lifetime of practical political work ever could. These are appropriate possibilities to consider.
But that still doesn’t leave the student off the hook.
We cannot just assume that our personal interests will always line up with what’s ethical. Instead, we have to assess the probabilities, and in this case, minorly influential politicians are far more common than revolutionary historians.
And I’m not the first to say so. Effective altruists, led by Princeton’s very own Peter Singer, would argue that to maximize global happiness, people should maximize their earnings so they can donate to good causes. I think that’s too harsh — people don’t have to subvert all their needs and wants to the goal of maximizing total happiness.
But I do think there’s a unique responsibility that students have with a Princeton education. Princeton confers upon us countless privileges that the vast majority of the people in the world can’t even dream of, including a chance to rub shoulders with some of the world’s most highly regarded professors on a daily basis.
Princeton is an investment by people past and present who believe that Princeton students have the potential to make an impact in the world. Do we not have a moral obligation to choose career paths that directly allow us to make a difference rather than satisfy our personal desires?
The entire discourse around “selling out” is all about ethics — we’re very aware that using a Princeton degree to enrich yourself while causing harm in the world is bad. But we have to recognize that using a Princeton degree to indulge in your intellectual desires while ignoring real world problems is not substantially better.
So, yes, sometimes it’s worth spurning the academic field you truly enjoy. Some career paths which involve pursuing a doctorate in a subject that is mostly fodder for scholarly journals for the sake of “following your passion” may not be really impactful, or at least impactful to the extent that we expect to see from a Princetonian. Some career paths considered “selling out” are worth doing, like following through with a computer science major and using it to build an app that saves people hours of their lives.
Of course, you have to follow through and actually do the work to truly do good, sometimes in environments that are not conducive to ethics. If you pursue a major in economics but then succumb to peer pressure and use it to scam poor people out of their life savings, then yeah, maybe you should have stuck with French and Italian. But with a major that puts you where the big decisions are made, your positive aspirations can have real tangible impacts on others’ lives. And we should all believe in our ability to make a difference, not seek to minimize our potential future impact.
People should not choose fields that make them miserable: that would make for a painful college experience followed by an unimpressive career. But there’s no moral obligation to choose to pursue the field that you love the absolute most in school for the rest of your life either. Life isn’t school — you have responsibilities, not just desires.
Rohit Narayanan is the Community Opinion Editor at the ‘Prince’ and an unrepentant sophomore electrical and computer engineering concentrator. If you think he’s subtweeting you, you can demand a full tweet at @Rohit_Narayanan on Twitter. Put your philosophy major to good use by emailing him its ethical justification at firstname.lastname@example.org.