The haste consideration

Here’s a crucial consideration for altruists.

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 2 years.

Now imagine two worlds:

(1) You don’t do anything altruistic for the next 2 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 2 years doing something at least as good as influencing people to become effective altruists, then these 2 years will plausibly be more valuable than all of the rest of your life. In particular, these 2 years will be more valuable than any 2-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.