Let’s admit it: some of the things we think about at 80,000 Hours are considered weird by a lot of other people.
Our list of the most pressing problems has some pretty widely accepted concerns, to be sure: we care about mitigating climate change, preventing nuclear war, and ensuring good governance.
But one of our highest priorities is preventing an AI-related catastrophe, which sounds like science fiction to a lot of people. And, though we know less about them, we’re also interested in speculative issues — such as atomically precise manufacturing, artificial sentience, and wild animal suffering. These aren’t typically the kind of issues activists distribute flyers about.
Should it make us nervous that some of our ideas are out of the mainstream? It’s probably a good idea in these cases to take a step back, reexamine our premises, and consult others we trust about our conclusions. But we shouldn’t be too shocked if some of our beliefs end up at odds with common sense — indeed, I think everyone has good reason to be open to believing weird ideas.
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One of the best reasons for this view relates to another of 80,000 Hours’ top priorities: preventing catastrophic pandemics. I’d guess few people think it’s strange to be concerned about pandemics now, as COVID-19 has killed more than 6 million people worldwide and thrown the global economy into chaos.
But 80,000 Hours has been worried about pandemics for a while — we had a podcast episode about the threat in 2017 (with our now-CEO Howie Lempel). It might have seemed odd at that time to be worrying about such an extreme scenario when there are so many important problems to be addressed in the world every day. In fact, 80,000 Hours cofounder Will MacAskill reported in his new book, What We Owe the Future, that he was met with laughter when he pitched pandemic preparedness as a top policy priority to the first minister of Scotland in 2017.
Now, though, it’s clear that failing to heed these warnings was a big mistake; we wish preparing for catastrophic outbreaks of infectious disease had just been normal.
And if your goal is to have a big impact on the world, you’d be well-advised to consider at least some weird ways of going about it. A lot of the most obvious ways of doing good in the world already have a lot of people working on them.
If you can find a problem or a solution to work on that seems off the beaten path, you may have a better chance at making a difference. One way to do that is to focus on a population whose moral status is often discounted, such as factory farmed animals (maybe even shrimp) — or future people.
This won’t always work out, but ideas that seem weird are more likely to be unduly neglected.
Looking back, there was a time when the threats from nuclear weapons and climate change — which I listed earlier as “widely accepted concerns” — were completely novel and unconventional. So our sense of what might be weird is highly contextual and, in a sense, parochial. We should be reluctant to give too much weight to ‘weirdness’ concerns when thinking about serious matters.
However, there’s certainly something to be said for keeping yourself grounded. When you follow enough arguments to their apparently logical endpoints, you can end up reaching some very bizarre and counterintuitive conclusions. So if you come to conclusions that seem totally disconnected from what you think is valuable, it may be worth operating under the assumption that something in your line of reasoning has gone wrong, even if you can’t pinpoint it.
It would be most surprising, though, if we’ve just now come to the end of moral discovery. Gender equality, racial justice, religious liberty, LGBTQ+ rights, and democracy all took a long time to gain wider acceptance. New moral ideas always seem strange at first. And many people will resist them.
But if you’re comfortable with being a little weird, you might find yourself on an important moral frontier. And if you’re trying to be ambitious about making the world a better place and improving the prospects for future generations, that’s where you should want to be.