Why You Should Work at a Private Prison

[Epistemic status: low confidence]

I honestly doubt that morally good or bad people exist, but I’m going to use these terms as shorthand for “people who care about reducing human suffering” and “people who don’t care about reducing human suffering”.

Imagine a world where all of a sudden, most doctors purposefully induce complications during surgery, or give you prognoses that hurt you instead of help you. Doctoring would become a stigmatized profession that decent people would no longer do. 

“What? You want to become a doctor? Why? All they do is hurt and scam people!”

This, of course, clearly isn’t the case. The profession innately has the capacity to immensely improve the world. It’s just the case that, in our hypothetical, most doctors are harmful. In our hypothetical, a good doctor would have an outsized positive effective. Not only would they not be purposefully and actively harming people, but they would be genuinely helpful and pleasant, fixing maladies and making the world a better place. You know, like doctors do in real life.

Lately, this is how I’ve been thinking about other stigmatized jobs. An extremely brief list of examples might include: prison guard, debt collector, , cop.

If good people decide not to take morally bad jobs, that means bad people will take the morally bad jobs, and arguably produce more morally bad results.

There are three ways to prevent this: One, somehow convince all morally bad people not to take the morally bad jobs that morally good people already won’t take, so the jobs disappear. Two, reshape reality so the morally bad jobs don’t have a chance to exist. This is the project of many radicals, such as prison abolitionists. The third way is to have good people take the morally bad jobs so, instead of leaning into the capacity for harm that the job allows, they lean into the capacity for good, which largely occurs on the margin.

I think this is equivalent to the prisoner’s dilemma in some ways: defecting is taking the objectionable job, and cooperating is agreeing to not take it. In this comparison, you also have advance knowledge that there’s a sub-group of the population will always defect and take the job.

The important takeaway here is that there’s a cultural understanding that morally good jobs are things like being a doctor. But the reality is that it’s extremely rare to be a doctor on the margin — by becoming a doctor, all you’re likely doing is taking that spot from someone else.

On the other hand, being anything but a bad person at a job that traditionally attracts bad people is extremely on the margin. You’re drastically improving the state of the world by acting neutrally, and even more drastically improving it by being a positive moral force.


It’s  pretty intuitive that there already are good people who enter these fields. I imagine some of them are capable of doing good work (for example, there are a lot of judges who strictly prescribe rehabilitative sentences). But I also imagine that bad or corrupt systems have an immune system built into them that prevents them from being reformed, and which prevents individual actors from acting in ways that are against the norm. A prison guard who is really nice to the inmates will probably be bullied by his peers. In fact, I imagine bullying and informal threats from managers are the primary ways that this kind of reform is prevented.

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