Just what is making a difference: counterfactuals and career choice

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Doing good directly?

When we think about how to make a difference in our careers, it is natural to think about what we can do directly. We think about the children we could build schools for, the homeless person we could help, what campaigns we might take part in, and so on.

But what we do directly is not the only thing that matters. We also need to think about what would have happened if we hadn’t acted – which is called a counterfactual.

Imagine you’re involved in a car accident. When you regain consciousness, you find that your mother is seriously injured. Paramedics have just arrived and are preparing to help her.

Suppose you believe that what’s important is what you can do directly. Therefore you shove the paramedics out of the way and start performing first aid on your mother. You’re not an expert, so although you save her life, you cause her permanent spine damage.

If you had let the paramedics work, your parent would have fully recovered.

The consequence of your action is the difference between what happened as the result of your action and what would have happened otherwise. In this case, the consequence of your action was your mother suffering permanent spinal damage. This is why pushing the paramedics out of the way was wrong.

Consequences matter

When judging the goodness of an act, what you do directly matters, but so do consequences.

Normally, performing life saving first aid on your parent would be the right thing to do. But in this case, since it results permanent spine damage, it seems pretty clear that it was the wrong thing to do.

The tension in conventional ethical careers advice

When people discuss ethical careers, they often talk about ‘making a difference’ as the supposed reason for pursuing such a career.

So what does it mean to make a difference? ‘Making a difference’, if it means anything, means bringing about good things that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

But then when people think about which careers are ethical, they often seem to focus on which careers do good directly – doctors, aid workers, campaigners etc.

But we’ve just seen that the good you do directly can be completely different from the difference you make.

80,000 Hours is distinctive because we take counterfactuals seriously – we want to bring about positive consequences that wouldn’t have happened otherwise: to really make a difference.

We care much less about whether what we do lines up with conventional notions of which careers are ethical. Indeed, we’re sceptical about taking many conventional ethical careers.

That’s because careers that are normally thought to be ethical tend to be extremely competitive. That means that if you don’t take the job, someone else will take your place. And since the application process is so competitive, they’re likely to be almost as good at the job as you would have been – you’re replaceable. This holds unless you have particularly special talents, so can’t be replaced. Unless, in effect, you’re the paramedic at the car crash.

Most of us aren’t in that position. And that means the difference we would make by taking that ‘ethical’ career is almost zero; even though we might have done a lot of good directly.

So, we end by seeing a simple first step in finding a high impact career: if you want to make a difference, do something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.