Heuristics for a good life

I wondered what careers or the like help other people the most. Tyler reposted my question, adding:

Let’s assume pure marginalist act utilitarianism, namely that you choose a career and get moral credit only for the net change caused by your selection.  Furthermore, I’ll rule out “become a billionaire and give away all your money” or “cure cancer” by postulating that said person ends up at the 90th percentile of achievement in the specified field but no higher.

And answered:

What first comes to mind is “honest General Practitioner who has read Robin Hanson on medicine.”  If other countries are fair game, let’s send that GP to Africa.  No matter what the locale, you help some people live and good outcomes do not require remarkable expertise.  There is a shortage of GPs in many locales, so you make specialists more productive as well.  Public health and sanitation may save more lives than medicine, but the addition of a single public health worker may well have a smaller marginal impact, given the greater importance of upfront costs in that field.

I’m not convinced that the Hansonian educated GP would be much better than a materialism educated spiritual healer. Tyler’s commenters have a lot of suggestions for where big positives might be too – but all jobs have positives and many of them seem important, so how to compare? Unfortunately calculating the net costs and benefits of all the things one could do with oneself is notoriously impossible. So how about some heuristics for what types of jobs tend to be more socially beneficial?

Here some ideas, please extend and criticize:

  • Low displacement: if someone had to be hired, you only add the difference between your ability and the second best candidate (plus the second best candidate’s efforts to another job at random). The same goes for what you produce. Even if creating beautiful music doesn’t knock another musician out of business, people listen to your new song instead of older songs, which are not seemingly any worse.
  • Big gains to a marginal person being better: careers that fail the above can still rate highly if this is so. This is a hard route because if candidate quality matters more there will generally be stronger selection so you will be more average for who they let in. Your best bet here might be in something important to you which usually attracts people with poor abilities.
  • Goal discretion: one way a displacing person can make a relatively big difference is to have a better purpose than the person they displace in a position where that matters. This is more likely in jobs that aren’t meant to be altruistic. e.g. if you head an NGO for delivering fresh water to poor households, you only add to the cause to the extent that you are better at it than the alternative guy. If you are an academic with some choice in research topics and no imperative to be altruistic, you can add a person’s worth of effort to an important topic at the expense of an unimportant topic without having to be any better at researching. Similar for shop owners and heads of state.
  • Profits: if you are making huge profits, it’s probably good.
  • Positive externalities: same.
  • Ongoing effects: usually a kind of positive externality. Nice cake lasts minutes whereas nice ideas last a long time (though someone else would have thought of them eventually).
  • Negative externalities
  • Fueling status races or other zero sum games: arguably things people buy to look better than other people do not cause any overall benefit, so you shouldn’t read too much into the profitability of selling such things. Similar for weapons in at least some situations. Same for selling any other negative externalizing capabilities.
  • Speeding trends: culturesome things tend to cycle through new variants continually. Contributing a song, movie, or meme variant for a current trend certainly makes a lot of people like you (briefly). But it’s not clear what people value here: each new item while it is new, or being up to date with the current trends in general. If the former you are doing them a service by adding your bit of culture, if the latter you are just making it more expensive for them to keep up.
  • Effects on galaxy colonization chances and speed: this matters so much you can ignore all the other things.

What jobs do well on most of these things?

9 responses to “Heuristics for a good life

  1. Jesper Östman

    Why care about what jobs do well on most of these things rather than what jobs do well on the last thing?

    • Mitchell Porter

      Look at the history of the human race and the numerous catastrophes it contains. Have you ever considered that successfully initiating galactic colonization may actually *perpetuate* such phenomena?

  2. If you become a musician, you don’t knock out the next-best musician; you knock out the marginal musician. The overall quality of music is increased by the difference between your ability and that of the marginal musician.

  3. And if you apply for a job and are selected, the second-best candidate will probably end up doing a very similar job. If we lump together all of the similar jobs, you end up knocking out the worst person who would have still gotten a job.

  4. Can anyone think of a job that beats “AI Researcher” at maximizing #10?

    • Brian, that depends on how quickly you think we’ll develop strong AI and how much benefit we’ll get from strong AI. If one assumes that smart, general AI will create an intelligence explosion then presumably the competing jobs will be primarily other jobs that help reduce existential risk before that point, such as searching for threatening asteroids, preventing large-scale nuclear exchange, and the like. Also, any job which leads to there being more scientists and programmers and the like overall will also lead to this. Thus, if one has a job that helps make kids in the developing world get better science education and get better nutrition at a young age, that will help also.

      If one is more skeptical of an intelligence explosion Singularity or the limits of such a Singularity then other things should also help a fair bit. For example, anything directly related to space colonization or cheap space flight (such as say work on space elevators or space fountains), or work on cheap energy sources (such as fusion research) would also stand a decent chance at helping 10 a lot.

  5. Become a corporate manager and sink most of your salary into funding mathematics research.

    I already posted quite a detailed justification for this answer on MR, but I’ll paraphrase my reasoning here in terms of the criteria you’ve selected.

    Low displacement/marginal person gains: I think the quality of the marginal candidate in the corporate managerial sector is quite low, relative to the money earned and influence held. This is my main reason for advocating manager over entrepreneur – I think a lot less of the person you’re displacing.

    Goal discretion: Certainly, this is not typically viewed as an altruistic career path. Indeed I think part of the candidature quality problem is that it largely attracts people who are “only in it for the money”, whereas in most other valuable areas people are motivated at least somewhat intrinsically by the work.

    Profits: You’re certainly making a lot of money which presumably means you’re working for a generally profitable company. If not, move to a profitable one.

    Positive externalities/Ongoing effects: Obviously it’d be nice to be working for a company that produces these, although arguably this might make your altruism and competence edge over the marginal candidate substantially smaller (I’d guess Google has nicer and smarter executives than BP, on average.) However I think the putting your salary into research part dominates the effect of what industry you manage in, with possibly a few exceptions for R&D intense sectors like Pharmaceuticals.

    Fueling zero sum games/Speeding trends: Certainly a job at BP beats one at Nike or EMI by these criteria.

    Effects on galaxy colonization: This is where the maths part of my answer shines. Its a safe bet that long term scientific progress towards this goal will require more sophisticated mathematics.

    Will the critical enabling technological breakthroughs come chiefly in computing (strong AI), physics (revolutionary propulsion), biology (GM colonists, terraforming), economics (better theory that directly lead to greater growth), climatology (to save us from AGW extinction), or other disciplines? Will they come largely within the next 50 years, or the 200 after that?

    These questions are important for evaluating where we can have the most marginal impact on the goal, but the answers are extremely uncertain. We can however say with pretty high confidence that mathematical progress is going to be critical regardless (and while you might end up unlucky and funding work in an area that remains of purely theoretical interest for the next 2000 years, the probabilistic, marginal gains are high.)

    Of course I personally couldn’t stand being a corporate manager and would rather just be a researcher or entrepreneur myself. But if you care only about doing the greatest good (and wouldn’t perform poorly in management due to hating it) , your highly paid salary can fund more research than you could have hoped to produce yourself.

    This is all based off my modified version of Tyler’s 90th percentile assumption. The answer naturally varies with the expectations about your level of success.

  6. Pingback: Are meaningful careers a cover story? « Meteuphoric

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