Why might it be high impact to focus on broadly spreading positive values?
Over human history, there have been many times where dominant groups have given less consideration to the interests of others, often minorities in the society or those with less power.
But in the last 300 years, campaigns for equal consideration for people of different genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, faiths, and abilities have made significant progress.
Though such campaigns are still works in progress, these examples of ‘moral circle expansion‘ suggest that positively shaping people’s values is possible and can have big impacts, and that there could be promising opportunities to continue this progress.
It seems likely that, if positive values were more widespread, this would help with a range of issues. These values include altruism and concern for those whose interests are often under-considered — including members of the abovementioned groups as well as people from different countries, future generations, nonhuman animals, or potential machine intelligences.
If it were possible to do effectively, promoting these values might improve the lives of many people suffering today and also be one way of reducing the chances of future moral catastrophes like continued factory farming or suffering of future potentially sentient machines. In general, this might be one of the broadest ways of helping with future problems that we’re not even aware of yet.
A recent book from our cofounder Professor William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future, presents the case that throughout human history, values change may have been radically contingent — meaning that a change in values is not likely to get ‘washed out’ by future developments and could instead persist for thousands of years. For example, Will discusses evidence that slavery might not have been abolished until much later, or perhaps would never have been abolished, if not for the moral advocacy of abolitionists.
If this is right (and we’re genuinely unsure), persistent values change might represent a very promising way to improve the long-run future.
Even if values change isn’t radically contingent in general, there could also be ways that the values held by society today or in the near future get ‘locked in’ for a long time — for example, in constitutions or in some plausible scenarios involving advanced AI systems — making it more important that positive values are widespread before such a point.
We’re unsure about the range of things an impactful career aimed at promoting positive values could involve, but one strategy would be to pursue a position that gives you a platform for advocacy (e.g. journalist, blogger, podcaster, academic, or even public intellectual) and then using that position to speak and write about these ideas.
Learn more about broadly promoting positive values
Want to learn more about global issues we think are especially pressing? See our list of issues that are large in scale, solvable, and neglected, according to our research.
Plus, join our newsletter and we’ll mail you a free book
Join our newsletter and we’ll send you a free copy of The Precipice — a book by philosopher Toby Ord about how to tackle the greatest threats facing humanity.