Good work: What should you do with your life?

Benjamin Todd on a philosophical non-profit organisation which asks, what should you do with your life? This article appears in Issue 64 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

“What career should you pursue if you want to make a difference?” It turns out that this is a largely philosophical question, but it has received very little attention from philosophers – and good luck finding a careers adviser who can help you navigate moral philosophy.

It’s clear that your choice of career is an immensely important decision, and not just to you. There are huge problems in the world. More than a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. One in one hundred people take their own lives. Civilisation itself faces risks from climate change and nuclear weapons. But these problems can be solved, and the contribution you make depends on your choice of career.

What’s lacking is information and guidance to help you navigate the maze of tricky moral dilemmas and messy empirical issues that arise from trying to make a big difference with your career. Despite philosophy’s alleged irrelevance, what’s needed is philosophically informed careers advice. Philosophers can address these tough moral questions, and the clear thinking encouraged by philosophical training makes them well placed to navigate the empirical problems too.

We called ourselves 80,000 Hours because that’s roughly how much total time you have to make a difference in your career. That’s a lot of time, but it’s also finite. The idea behind the name is that it’s worth investing the time to really think about what you’re going to do with those hours. If an improved career choice can make that time 1% more valuable, then it would be worth spending 800 hours (5 months of full-time work) thinking through how to do that before getting started. It seems like we often spend much less time thinking about our choice of career, and there’s much more than 1% of the value at stake.

Ultimately we’re interested in helping people use the 80,000 hours they have in the best possible way – finding the ethically optimal career. In practice, this means we care a great deal about which careers have the largest positive consequences for the world. As Rawls said, “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness.” The consequences of your different career options, as a wealthy westerner, vary a great deal. Some careers are likely to be net harmful. In others you can literally save thousands of lives. Because the world is like this, the size of the consequences of different careers is one of the most morally significant factors you can consider. That’s not to say only consequences matter. It’s just that they seem very important given how the world is today.

Another reason why we think it’s useful to consider which careers have the largest positive consequences is because no one has systematically tried to answer the question before, and there is a lot of relevant data out there. This means, despite the difficulty of the question, we think we can make progress on it.

In practice, what is 80,000 Hours doing? Each week, we do in-depth coaching with one or two people. We work out the most important, resolvable questions they have about the potential social impact of their options. Then we try to answer these questions. We write up everything for our blog. Over time, we’re building up an answer to the overarching question “in which career can you have the largest social impact?”

What issues do we tend to focus on? First, we help people pick a cause e.g. global health, climate change, nuclear disarmament and so on. We think the potential for impact in some causes is hundreds of times higher than in others, so working within the right cause is extremely important. For this, we draw on a significant body of research and data created by economists and other groups like the charity evaluator, GiveWell.

Second, we evaluate specific career paths. Within career paths, we focus on two factors. We look at what leverage the career gives you to effect change, whether that’s a public platform, influence over an organisation, money or something else. We also look at how much career capital you gain; that is, how much it improves your ability to get better opportunities in the future. In particular, we evaluate the usefulness of the skills you gain, the quality of the network and what you gain from the credentials provided. To do this evaluation, we conduct lots of informational interviews, gather research where available, and make back-of-the-envelope estimates.

Our team has found studying philosophy useful in coming up with these broad strategies, but how exactly does philosophy come up in the specific questions we look at? Here are a couple of examples of how philosophy matters in career choice.

First of all, a philosopher might wonder what “making a difference” actually means. “I want to make a difference” is the slogan of ethical careers, but it’s rarely examined. It seems that people often make a pretty fundamental mistake when using it, which means that thousands of people end up incorrectly comparing their options.

To us, it seems clear that “make a difference” means “do some good that wouldn’t have happened otherwise” i.e. do good relative to the counterfactual situation in which you don’t take that action. But people often don’t assess the counterfactual when aiming to make a difference with their careers.

If you make a serious attempt at evaluating the counterfactual, it leads to a pretty dramatic shift in how you view careers that make a difference. Here’s one example. Suppose a charity runs a huge campaign raising money for medicine to prevent deaths due to HIV/AIDs, and raises millions of pounds. Their direct impact was to raise a huge amount of money for a good cause. Champagne all round.

But what would have happened if they hadn’t run the campaign? Some of the donors would have given the money anyway. And some of them would have given the money to other charities instead. That’s because many people give a more or less fixed amount of their income to charity each year. If they give to you, then they become slightly less inclined to give over the rest of the year. In fact, it seems like the average donor is of this type. We know this because the total fraction of national income given to charity is fairly stable over time. It probably is possible to raise money that wouldn’t have been given to charity otherwise, but it’s difficult and requires innovative techniques. (For instance, we think most of the money raised by our sister charity, Giving What We Can, is genuinely additional because they encourage people to donate at least 10% of their income, and very few people would do this otherwise).

Now consider, if lots of fundraising drives are not really raising new money, then they’re just moving money from one charity to another, and so at least some fundraisers are making things worse. That’s because some will be taking money from more effective charities and moving it to charities that can’t do as much with the money.

(Geek’s aside: There’s reason to think that charity effectiveness has a log-normal distribution i.e. there’s lots of middling charities and a small number of really good ones. If that’s true, then mean charity effectiveness is much higher than the effectiveness of the median, which determines the majority. That would mean that the majority of charity fundraisers are reducing the good done by the charity sector).

So, by thinking carefully about the counterfactual, we see that an activity most people think is clearly good – fundraising for charity – may often make things worse. There are lots of other examples of how forgetting to evaluate the counterfactual when making a difference can give a seriously misleading impression of your impact. You can see a few more on our blog. For instance, we’ve shown that doctors actually don’t save many lives, and there are reasons to think it can be good to work in harmful industries. A little bit of conceptual thinking turns out to be really important for making a difference.

Another example of philosophy figuring in to career choice comes up when we try to weigh the interests of future generations. There’s a pretty strong argument that what matters most about your actions in terms of consequences is their effect on the far future. This argument was made in a recently published philosophy thesis, “On the overwhelming importance of shaping the far future” by one of our trustees, Nick Beckstead. The basic idea is that: (i) future civilisation has the potential to be extremely long and valuable, (ii) our actions today can have a non-tiny impact on that future (for instance, we could trigger a nuclear war that wipes us out), (iii) thus, the impact of our actions on the trajectory of future civilisation is likely to be the most important thing about them.

We can illustrate this with some extremely rough numbers. The Earth will remain habitable for about a billion years. If we don’t wipe ourselves out, then civilisation could last at least that long. If you think there’s even just a small chance of not wiping ourselves out, then the expected length of civilisation is much longer than what has come before. If you think there’s even a small chance of colonising other planets, then the expected length of civilisation could be much more than a billion years.

If there are realistic actions that could decrease the chance of extinction in the next hundred years by more than one in a million, then they would be extremely valuable compared to the impact we can have on people in the near-term. In fact, if the expected length of civilisation is a billion years, a one in a million reduction in the chance of extinction would be as valuable as 1,000 years of future civilisation.

It seems like there are realistic ways to increase our chances of surviving by more than one in a million. For instance, the chance of extinction by asteroid impact in the next century is about one in a million. This risk could be almost entirely mitigated by setting up comprehensive tracking and deflection system, at a cost of around $20 billion. In fact, the risk has already been substantially reduced by NASA’s existing tracking systems.

There are many ways to respond to this kind of argument. One line of thought is that our ethics should be “person-affecting”. Action A is only better than action B to the extent that it’s better for someone. On the strict version of this view, it’s impossible to help non-existing people, so we need not include the potential interests of future generations in our moral calculus. This leads us into the minefield that is population ethics. I’m tempted to agree with Derek Parfit, as he argues in Reasons and Persons, that we should reject the person-affecting view, but you might disagree.

If the argument about far future consequences is right, then it raises a fascinating empirical question: which actions today yield the largest benefits to the future path of civilisation? This question is tentatively being explored systematically for the first time at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford and the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Since this question is only just being explored, much of the work that needs to be done is conceptual, and philosophers are making a significant contribution.

We routinely hear the objection that you can’t measure the good done by a career. Unpicking this objection is important. It encourages the attitude that “anything goes” in doing good, so long as you have the right intentions. Unfortunately, when you look at the evidence, lots of common sense ways of doing good seem to make very little difference at all. An unwillingness to explicitly compare means we squander our limited time. Dealing with this objection is tricky, since it contains several overlapping ideas.

One confusion I think is common is the idea that measurement must be precise. Think back to a paradigm measurement from science classes, like using a pair of scales to weigh something. These normally gave you a “precise” number as the result. When comparing careers, however, we don’t get precise numbers, so you might think the good you do is not measurable.

But this isn’t a good way to think about measurement. No measurement is perfectly precise. Weighing with scales actually only gives you a range of probable values for the true weight, because the scales are not 100 per cent accurate. There will be faults in the design, tiny tremors and other small imperfections. In reality, there’s always some uncertainty. Our choice is only ever how much uncertainty is OK given our purposes.

If there’s always some uncertainty left, then in practice what it means to measure some quantity is to reduce uncertainty about its magnitude. That’s all that’s actually possible. Now that we’ve given up an unrealistic definition of measurement, we can see that lots of things can be measured – all we’re saying is that there is something we can do to reduce our uncertainty about them. (To see much more on this approach, see How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard.)

Turning to the question of which careers have the most potential for impact, there are all kinds of things we could find out that would reduce our uncertainty about the relevant questions: how many people you affect, how good those people say these effects are, how impactful experts say the work is, and so on. We’re never going to be anywhere close to certain, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to measure impact.

So, we’ve seen one conceptual objection to the idea that we can’t measure the impact of careers. Other objections are moral, most commonly the idea that the value of different careers is incommensurable. Other objections are about methodology. For instance, when we’re dealing with extremely uncertain outcomes, should we use quantified comparisons of the value of different options or should we do something else? The charity evaluator Givewell, for its part, aims to identify the funding opportunities that maximise the good done per dollar, but they are sceptical of the value of expected value estimates. Navigating these kinds of problems is exactly what philosophers are trained for, except in this instance the answers really do matter.

I find it fascinating to think about which career is best for the world – it’s an extremely important but almost completely neglected question. Moreover, there is plenty of work for philosophers here, work with real world consequences. We’ve seen three examples – analysing what it means to make a difference, estimating the importance of future generations, and understanding the objections to comparing the value of different careers. Many of the people we’ve advised have completely changed their lives after doing some philosophy. It’s not often something like that happens.

Benjamin Todd is co-founder and executive director of 80,000 Hours. In less than two years, 80,000 Hours has grown from a student society to a fully-fledged Oxford-affiliated non-profit, which has been covered on the BBC, Washington Post, TED and more. If you’re interested in getting involved or thinking about your career, find out more on the website: 80000hours.org

  1. I see from its website that 80,000 Hours is seeking ‘hardworking individuals’ to work as graduate interns for some months at a stretch, with some expenses covered but no actual wage for their labour. No doubt this policy underwent rigorous philosophical scrutiny in the search for means of ‘making the world a better place in an effective way’.

  2. Robert, our interns receive up to £10 in living expenses, free accommodation and sometimes travel expenses too. This is a better deal than you’ll get in any industry except finance, consulting, law and engineering. Our interns also receive substantial help with their careers. Among previous interns, there’s people who have set up a non-profit, received a Marshall Scholarship, become a freelance software engineer, and received high-paid jobs in consulting, partly as a result of the internship. All of our interns far preferred to work with us than their next best alternative.

  3. I agree to some degree with effective altruism movement. But claiming that doctors do not save that much lives is seriously misleading.
    In first place one can not analyse reality solely in terms of quantitative data (life years) but also in qualitative data (qualitative of life in this case). And the it is in the latter where I think doctors make their main contribution.
    In second place, It is clear that a normal working doctor, won´t do much of a difference in this world, but that is the case in any job in which one does not take the time to aim for some explicit help or contribution. Examples of social doctors like Jim Yong Kim or Paul Farmer or more research driven one like Damasio are clearly counterarguments to the claim that doctors don´t save significant lives.
    I think that maybe this facts are taken for granted in that claim, but I think that it is dangerous to make such broad assumptions. I would be so much better to clarify and limit such declarations.
    Greetings :)

  4. Philosophical questions and the contemplation of the meaning of life in relation to a consumerist, globalist political economy juxtapose paradoxes of mind, God, transcendence freedom and the problems of with quantitative analysis of finite material opportunities. Vast human historical movements coerce people to live in social currents simultaneously bettering and degrading individual experience of existence. Discovering a real-time synthetic course paradigm for developing human potential without spiritual decay is challenging.

    Perhaps it’s something like a chess game deliberation of the array of pieces and potential vectors in combinations that may occur yet that are mutually exclusive scenarios in the future with or without intervention (if one is playing the standard theory). I wish you luck in the effort to make the world a better place. Jesus Christ with the humility of God made quite an effort that was the foundation for western civilization after late antiquity. The Church was an element unifying pagan tribes in the British Isles and elsewhere. The brevity of life and uncertainty affecting human choices bring a certain log-rolling slipperiness to the effort.

  5. Dear Javier,

    I was referring to some research we’ve done here on how many lives the average doctor saves:

    http://80000hours.org/blog/72-how-many-lives-does-a-doctor-save

    This research looks at both quality and quantity, since we look at how many QALYs the average doctor saves.

    I agree some outstanding doctors may save a huge number of lives, particularly those who are also involved in research (which we don’t analyse in the post). The research is about the average direct health impacts.

    Ben

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