A remarkable fact about the world is that certain sequences of inky marks can change a life. The following sequences of inky marks have moved hundreds of people I know personally to change course and take on more meaningful projects and careers. I hope they will do the same for you.
If you’re pressed for time, I recommend reading just my top four — the ones with asterisks* on them.
Section I: How do I choose a cause to live behind?
…You notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class. …Do you have any obligation to rescue the child?
And likewise, there is only one best charity: the one that helps the most people the greatest amount per dollar. This is vague, and it is up to you to decide whether a charity that raises forty children’s marks by one letter grade for $100 helps people more or less than one that prevents one fatal case of tuberculosis per $100 or one that saves twenty acres of rainforest per $100. But you cannot abdicate the decision, or you risk ending up like the 11,000 people who accidentally decided that a pretty picture was worth more than a thousand people’s lives.
Focusing on the right cause could boost your impact more than ten times, enabling you to achieve more in a few years than you might normally be able to achieve in a lifetime.
We could thus use our entire budget to provide a single guide dog, helping one person overcome the challenges of blindness, or we could use it to cure more than 2,000 people of blindness.
…We believe that maximizing good accomplished largely reduces to doing what is best in terms of very long-run outcomes for humanity, and that this has strategic implications for people aiming to maximize good accomplished with their resources.
Section II: What are the biggest problems in the world?
One recent paper speculates, using loose theoretical considerations based on the rate of increase of entropy, that the loss of potential human lives in our own galactic supercluster is at least ~10⁴⁶ per century of delayed colonization.
Our analysis suggests that choosing the right problem could increase your impact over 100 times, and so be the most important decision you ever make.
To calculate the loss associated with an existential catastrophe, we must consider how much value would come to exist in its absence. It turns out that the ultimate potential for Earth-originating intelligent life is literally astronomical.
…Why are so many of the world’s smartest people so worried right now? Why does Stephen Hawking say the development of [artificial superintelligence] “could spell the end of the human race” and Bill Gates say he doesn’t “understand why some people are not concerned” and Elon Musk fear that we’re “summoning the demon”?
Speciesism is giving different sentient beings differing moral consideration for unjust reasons.
The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.
Multipolar traps — races to the bottom — threaten to destroy all human values.
Humanity is playing for unimaginably high stakes. At the very least, there are billions of people suffering today. At the worst, there are quadrillions (or more) potential humans, transhumans, or posthumans whose existence depends upon what we do here and now. All the intricate civilizations that the future could hold, the experience and art and beauty that is possible in the future, depends upon the present.
A question that I found myself asking after reading many of the articles above is, “What ought I do with my life?”
If you’re asking this too:
- Shoot me an email for navigation help. So, I kind of suck at answering emails in a timely manner, but if you’ve read the series and are serious about navigating option space (which is admittedly complicated), email me at tyleralterman[at]gmail.com.
- Check out EA. Here the Wikipedia page for a movement called Effective Altruism (EA). EA is a fairly recent intellectual movement that uses scientific reasoning to improve the world as much as possible. It is now comprised of 100+ chapters in universities and cities around the world; lots of businesses and nonprofits; philosophers, scientists, and entrepreneurs, etc. The first book suggestion below is a good read on the movement. I have some gripes with the movement, but nonetheless think that it’s basically the only interesting network of people who are directly and rigorously targeting the goal of universal flourishing.
Bonus: Book-length readings
Most of us want to make a difference. We donate our time and money to charities and causes we deem worthy, choose careers we consider meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we believe make the world a better place. Unfortunately, we often base these decisions on assumptions and emotions rather than facts. As a result, even our best intentions often lead to ineffective — and sometimes downright harmful — outcomes. How can we do better?
As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence.
You have 80,000 Hours in your career. Choose how you spend that time well, and you’ll have a huge positive impact on the world. Choose badly, and you might not achieve much at all.
What does it actually mean to be rational? Not Hollywood-style “rational,” where one rejects all human feeling to embrace Cold Hard Logic — real rationality, of the sort studied by psychologists, social scientists, and mathematicians. The kind of rationality where you make good decisions, even when it’s hard; where you reason well, even in the face of massive uncertainty; where you recognize and make full use of your fuzzy intuitions and emotions, rather than trying to discard them.