People who want to help the world fall into a common trap which I shall call the “Jesus complex.” This is the desire to solve every problem, and be a great savior who ushers in a new paradise. Doing this is obviously an unrealistic goal; we are very unlikely to be able as individuals to solve every problem.
There is obviously some excessive self-importance in the desire to do this. There is not to say that the end is bad. If I could save the world by myself, I would certainly not hesitate to do so out of fear of being megalomaniacal. Thinking that it would be good to save the world is not self-important. But setting this as one’s goal usually is self-important, because it’s unrealistic.
However, we can as individuals solve some problems. A healthy attitude, I think, is to realize that the world needs many, many things, and giving the world just one of the things it needs could be the work of a lifetime. So we should find a subset of the problem space to work on.
At the same time, it is useful to do this against a backdrop of a general picture of what the world needs, and think of oneself as part of a larger effort to save the world currently being carried out by everybody who cares about the world.
So we wish both to have a general picture of the goal space, and pick a subset of the goal space as the one which we will work on. Finding that subset is not something to do one evening over coffee; it is something to find over many years of work, thought, and experimentation.
There are a few considerations to be balanced in finding this subset. One consideration is the value to be had from each subset of the goal space. Ending hunger in Africa would be more useful than writing the world’s most addictive Flash game.
Another consideration is what one can do. Unless I can imagine a plausible chain of causality from where I am now, to achieving my goal, it’s not a good goal. Almost every goal, unfortunately, would seem to involve a bit of luck. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where our work was all for naught because of some trivial and stupid accident. So robust goals are preferable.
A third consideration is what one would have fun doing. It’s not healthy to sacrifice one’s happiness for the sake of the world. Furthermore, having fun tends to be correlated with doing a good job, and being able to persist in one’s efforts.
Some parts of the possibility space will interest us more than others. Maybe a given goal isn’t the most valuable goal, but it’s a goal that’s really interesting to us. That could be a good goal. There are a lot of people in the world; we don’t have to worry about the things we leave undone, because other people will do them.
So in choosing a goal, it seems that we should let ourselves be biased. It’s better to have a goal that fits like a glove than to have a theoretically optimal goal that we ourselves can’t comfortably live.
Consider, for example, how these principles apply to me.
I think that radically reducing international wealth stratification would be one of the most worthwhile things that could happen right now.
We have enough technology and resources to provide a comfortable physical existence to every person. But many people do not have this. This is obviously wrong. The reason things are this way is that the money is unfairly distributed. If the money were fairly distributed, then a large portion of the world’s worst problems would disappear.
Alternatively, the problem might be with money and capitalism itself. Capitalism is certainly an improvement over feudalism; but it still creates the problem we just noticed. Another problem that capitalism creates has to do with work.
Right now, the amount of work needed to maintain the human race is far less than the working capacity of the human race. A good fraction of the jobs in America are not necessary for anybody’s existence, and there are still not enough jobs for all of the people.
The problem is that under capitalism, people need to work a full-time job in order to live. We can imagine a system in which this wasn’t the case, in which everybody did a little bit of work and had much more free time than we have now. There would be less work being done than is being done now, and no problem of unemployment.
So there are a lot of serious problems that could be solved by changing our social structure — radically reducing wealth stratification, and/or moving to a system which has a different relationship between work and money, or which does away with money.
Though these are things which would be good, it’s hard to see how I could make them happen. I could go into politics; but I’m not attractive enough, I’m not rich enough, my social skills aren’t good enough, I’m too averse to lying, etc. I could do activism; but it’s not clear to me that these people make a big impact, so unless I’m convinced that it’s worth the opportunity costs (i.e. I have nothing better to do), I won’t be an activist.
One area which might be good for me is political theory. I am good at thinking about complex and abstract issues. I’m also under the impression that we don’t currently have an adequate political theory. If a really good political theory came into existence, it could happen that it gained a following and people chose to implement it. So this is one possibility.
I am such a creature of theory, that I know that whatever goals I pursue will involve theorizing. I enjoy it and I am good at it, so my goals should involve it. Consider, for instance, what I am doing right now. I am trying to get clear on the meaning of life, so that I can live according to it and help other people to live according to it. This is a useful thing to do; if I can jump-start other people’s thinking on the meaning of life, then they won’t have to spend as much time thinking about it, and they’ll have more time to do all sorts of good that I didn’t get around to doing. So this is a useful goal which fits my biases and gives the world one of the many things it needs.