making a difference

Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

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If you want to do the most good, maybe you shouldn’t work for Wall Street

Suppose you are an altruistically minded person who is adamant about doing the most good you possibly can. If you are lucky enough to have a wide range of options, what career should you choose?

Two years ago, William MacAskill, President of 80,000 hours, a non-profit organisation focused on “enabling people to make a bigger difference with their career,” suggested you steer clear of charity work and aim for Wall Street. He called this approach earning to give. A couple of days ago, MacAskill has published a blog post where he admits that heavily pushing for the idea of earning to give was “a marketing strategy,” and that, although 80,000 hours did believe that “at least a large proportion of people” should become high-earners in order to donate more money, placing so much emphasis on this idea may have been mistaken. The 80,000 hours page on earning to give now reads: “This page was last updated in 2012 and no-longer fully reflects our views.” MacAskill’s current point of view is that only a “small proportion” of people should strive to earn to give. Continue reading

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