The Haste Consideration

by Matt Wage, origi­nally on the 80,000 Hours Blog

The haste con­sid­er­a­tion: re­sources for im­prov­ing the world are vastly more valuable if you have those re­sources sooner.

I’ll first ex­plain one way to see that the haste con­sid­er­a­tion is true, and then I’ll talk about one im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tion of this con­sid­er­a­tion.

Peo­ple who ded­i­cate a large part of their life to strate­gi­cally do­ing as much good as pos­si­ble—i.e. effec­tive al­tru­ists—are able to ac­com­plish vastly more good than most peo­ple will. Un­for­tu­nately, not many peo­ple are effec­tive al­tru­ists.

One way to try to im­prove the world would be to try to con­vince more peo­ple to be effec­tive al­tru­ists. If you spent all of your efforts do­ing this, how long do you think it would take to con­vince one per­son who is at least as effec­tive as you are at im­prov­ing the world? For most peo­ple, if they’re strate­gic about it, I think they could do it in less than two years.

Now imag­ine two wor­lds:

(1) You don’t do any­thing al­tru­is­tic for the next two years and then you spend the rest of your life af­ter that im­prov­ing the world as much as you can.

(2) You spend the next 2 years in­fluenc­ing peo­ple to be­come effec­tive al­tru­ists and con­vince one per­son who is at least as effec­tive as you are at im­prov­ing the world. (And as­sume that this per­son wouldn’t have done any­thing al­tru­is­tic oth­er­wise.) You do noth­ing al­tru­is­tic af­ter the next 2 years, but the per­son you con­vinced does at least as much good as you did in (1).

By stipu­la­tion, world (2) is im­proved at least as much as world (1) is be­cause, in (2), the per­son you con­vinced does at least as much good as you did in (1).

Many peo­ple ob­ject to this. They think, “It’s pos­si­ble that world (1) could be im­proved more than world (2) is. For ex­am­ple, world (1) be bet­ter if, in that world, you con­vinced 10 peo­ple to be effec­tive al­tru­ists who are at least as good as you.” This is a nat­u­ral thought, but re­mem­ber that we are as­sum­ing that the per­son you con­vince in (2) is “at least as good as you are at im­prov­ing the world”. This im­plies that if you con­vince 10 peo­ple in world (1), then the per­son you con­vinced in world (2) will do some­thing at least as good as that. It’s true by defi­ni­tion that world (2) is im­proved at least as much as world (1) is.

There are two les­sons we can take away from this. The first les­son is that in­fluenc­ing peo­ple to be­come effec­tive al­tru­ists is a pretty high value strat­egy for im­prov­ing the world. For any al­tru­is­tic ac­tivity you’re do­ing, it might be use­ful to ask your­self, “Do I re­ally think this will im­prove the world more than in­fluenc­ing would?”

The sec­ond les­son is that you can do more good with time in the pre­sent than you can with time in the fu­ture. If you spend the next two years do­ing some­thing at least as good as in­fluenc­ing peo­ple to be­come effec­tive al­tru­ists, then these two years will plau­si­bly be more valuable than all of the rest of your life. In par­tic­u­lar, these two years will be more valuable than any two-year pe­riod in the fu­ture. This is one way to see that the haste con­sid­er­a­tion is true.

One im­pli­ca­tion of the haste con­sid­er­a­tion: It’s plau­si­ble that how you spend the next few years of your life is more im­por­tant than how you spend your life af­ter that. For this rea­son, when choos­ing a ca­reer, you should pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to how each ca­reer would re­quire you to spend the next few years. For ex­am­ple, if a ca­reer would re­quire you to spend the next few years study­ing in school and do­ing noth­ing al­tru­is­tic, then this is a ma­jor cost of that ca­reer.

Part of In­tro­duc­tion to Effec­tive Altru­ism

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