If you want to do your own research into which problems are pressing, below is a process you can work through. It’s one stage of our full career planning process and accompanying planning template.
Creating your own ranking of pressing problems according to your values and beliefs about the world is a lot of work, but it can also be really worthwhile, especially because it can give you more of an inside understanding of different global issues. You can also do a bit of both — doing some of your own research and also sometimes deferring to others’ reasoning.
Going through this process will probably be valuable even if you only do it once. But it’s also valuable to keep reflecting and learning more about global problems as you progress in your career. This is not only because the most pressing problems could change, but also because it’s nearly impossible to settle such a complex question in one go, so you’ll want to keep updating your views over time.
Reflect on your values and worldview
Which global issues you think are most pressing depends on what you think most matters morally, as well as what the world is like — empirical judgements — and how we can come to best understand it — epistemic judgements.
We’d encourage you to spend time thinking about your overall moral values and worldview at some point, and ideally before making a long-term commitment to a path.
There’s a vast amount we could theoretically discuss here, including many fundamental debates in moral philosophy.
One starting point is what you think of the ideas discussed in our article earlier in the series on what it means to ‘do good’ section of our key ideas page, such as impartial concern for welfare and moral uncertainty.
You can then check out the further reading we link to there, as well as the final section of our article on personal development.
More practically, we find that our readers often divide into two broad worldviews: longtermism and neartermism. So another approach is to ask how confident you are in each of these views, and consider what they imply.
This list of views is not meant to be exhaustive. Some others include:
- Mainstream economics estimates costs and benefits of different actions in dollars, while moderately discounting those that occur in the future
- A justice-focused approach centres on rectifying the worst injustices in the world
- An environmentalist worldview either takes the environment to be an unusually pressing priority (perhaps for longtermist reasons), or takes the natural world to have intrinsic value beyond its value for sentient beings, or both
- A socialist view holds that the biggest priority is reforming political and economic systems
How much confidence do you have in each of these views? Write your thoughts in our career plan template — you’ll find the prompt in the appendix, as this section is optional.
Now think through the implications. Given your understanding of the world, what do these views imply you should do? This is hard, but even just partially reflecting on this is more than many people do, and is essential for informing your list of potential top global problems. Again, you can add your thoughts in the appendix of your template.
We think that when fully considered, all of these views can end up prioritising issues that even their proponents don’t usually focus on. For example, we think people with all moral views have more reason to focus on reducing existential risks than they normally realise.
Learn about frameworks for comparing global problems
We often use the importance, neglectedness, and tractability framework (INT) as a rough guide to comparing problems. (For a popular explanation of INT, see this article and video in our 2017 career guide or “Prospecting for Gold*” by Owen Cotton-Barratt.)
There are many other relevant considerations and approaches that are not naturally captured by INT. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of a great write-up that captures all relevant considerations, though we mention some additional ones in our problem framework article. You can also find some listed here.
There are also other useful approaches, such as trying to directly make cost-effectiveness estimates of marginal effort on different issues.
If you want, you can reflect on frameworks you want to use in the appendix of your template.
Generate ideas for top problems
After you’ve clarified your best-guess worldview and thought about what it might imply — as well as thought about frameworks you might use to compare problems — you can start generating ideas for top problems.
Here are some approaches you could take:
Write your ideas in the appendix of your template.
Narrow down (some)
You can then start doing your own comparisons of ideas from your long list, given your worldview and the frameworks you’ve learned about.
It’s also often helpful to apply all our normal advice on decision-making, which we talk about in more detail in our career planning process, e.g. making a shortlist of longer-term career options. In short: generate a long list of options, identify key uncertainties, and work out what research you might do to resolve those uncertainties. Then do it, reassess, and repeat.
Applying best practices from forecasting can also be helpful. See a reading list on how to improve your decision-making (scroll down to ‘Here is some further reading we recommend’).
Write down your prioritised list of pressing global issues in the appendix of your template. Aim for a relatively long list of 5–15 issues.
If you want something a bit less time-intensive than this process, in 2016 we created this problem quiz, which asks six questions that seem to be particularly important to us in determining where to focus. The tool then ranks our write-ups of different problems based on your answers. The ranking is out of date, but we still think the questions are important. You can also see another similar effort from 2015 by the Global Priorities Project.
This is a supporting article in our key ideas series. Read the next article in the series, or here are some others you might find interesting:
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