The impact merge

by Joe_Carlsmith4 min read13th Jan 2021No comments

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EA Psychology
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(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

Lots of people want to do big things — start a big company, write a bestselling book, participate in an important project. I’ll call this the “accomplishment desire.”

Often this is centrally tied to social status; the relevant type of “bigness” is highly correlated with what would seem cool at, e.g., a college reunion. But it also mixes in richer values. Maybe someone wants to be a famous musician; but they also often want their music to be good, and expressive of who they are.

This desire is also tied to meaning — to wanting to have done something, mattered, lived a life of consequence. Accomplishments are the types of things you look back at on your deathbed; they’re your legacy. (My sense is that having children is often central here, even if this doesn’t read as traditionally “big”).

Lots of people also want the world to be as good as possible. They want there to be no disease, injustice, poverty, war; they want love and joy and beauty. Call this the “good world desire.”

The accomplishment desire and the good world desire need not mix, even where they co-exist: many people who want to start big companies aren’t centrally motivated by a desire to do good, and wanting to make good music isn’t the same as trying to make the world better through music — music has its own standards. People generally want the big things they do to be good for the world (few seek “big” legacies of harm), but that doesn’t mean they’re aiming for bigness on the “good for the world” dimension.

Still, it’s natural to attempt a merge: e.g., to hitch the accomplishment desire to the good world desire, into an overall aim of trying to improve the world as much as possible. Let’s call this the “impact merge.”

My question is whether the impact merge is a good idea. It might seem so — if you’re aiming to do big things, why not aim for big improvements to the world? But I think there are considerations on both sides.

My basic concern is that the accomplishment desire is, at bottom, about you, whereas the good world desire is about the world. So I worry that the two, hitched together, will not always pull in the same direction.

This is easy to see in contexts where they literally recommend different actions. Suppose, for example, that your desire for accomplishment is in fact deeply tied to some sort of desire for social status. In that case, you might turn down a more impactful role for a more conventionally prestigious one; you might prefer to start your own projects, rather than help someone else succeed at theirs; you might care unduly about whether you are getting credit for your good deeds, and so on.

But that’s the easy version of the question. The harder version comes in contexts where someone has in fact successfully keyed their personal conception of accomplishment entirely to improving the world as much as possible. Such a person would view the more impactful role as a bigger accomplishment than the more prestigious one; prefer helping someone else with a more valuable project to starting their own, etc. They would look, from the outside, like someone who didn’t care about accomplishment at all, and cared only about the world.

But the essential “about them”-ness of their accomplishment desire would remain. They still care that it was them who did good deed X; they just don’t care that this fact is socially legible.

Here’s a case to illustrate the point (this sort of case is also explored in a draft paper from various researchers at the Global Priorities Institute). Consider two scenarios:

  1. The world is wonderful, but Bob can’t do anything to improve it;
  2. The world is terrible, but Bob can do a lot to improve it, though not nearly enough to make it as good as it would be in (1).

Suppose that Sally is choosing which of these worlds to create. If Bob cares about how much good he accomplishes in life, he’ll hope that she chooses (2). But that seems messed up, and incompatible with the good world desire — e.g., Bob is hoping for a worse world. True, he’s not causing a worse world, since in that case, he wouldn’t be improving it, and Bob is all about improving the world. But intuitively, the point of improving the world is for the world to be good, not for anyone in particular (including oneself) to have made it better.

For this sort of reason, I’ve generally felt resistance to framing idealistic endeavors in terms of trying to “have an impact,” “make a difference,” and so forth. Such framings seem like they don’t have their eye on the true prize, which is always and only what happens in the world, rather than what you cause to happen. True, if you try and fail to cause something good to happen, but it happens anyway, that means you might’ve spent your resources elsewhere, and the world could’ve been even better as a result; but the ultimate problem there isn’t that you didn’t make a difference; it’s that the world ended up worse than it could’ve been.

(The Global Priorities Institute paper also explores a number of other more practical differences that can arise between what they call “difference-making” and “standard” versions of consequentialism, once you bring in questions about risk and ambiguity aversion, but I won’t get into those here).

That said, trying to keep one’s accomplishment desire and one’s good world desire strictly separate can seem too austere. For one thing, the accomplishment desire is often strong; demanding that it stay unmixed with your efforts to do dood seems to imply either that it will need to be directed elsewhere, or stifled. Either way, your efforts to do good will be cut off from the energy the accomplishment desire provides — a deprivation that could be costly, especially given that cases like Bob’s above only make a difference to Bob’s attitudes, not his actions.

What’s more, even though the accomplishment desire is necessarily in some sense self-oriented, not all manifestations of it seem objectionably self-concerned. Here I’m reminded of a suggestion in C.S. Lewis (I can’t easily find the exact citation), to the effect that the truly virtuous person will spend great effort building a beautiful church, but then feel just as happy afterwards as they would if someone else had built it. This seems like a bit much to me: I think there are virtue-compatible ways of being proud of something you in particular have done, like building a church, that go beyond being glad that someone did it.

I don’t have a great analysis of how to draw lines between more and less problematic forms of this pride, but here’s a shot. Some forms of pride in one’s actions seem intuitively still humble — still oriented, ultimately, towards the good that was done, but grateful, as well, to have been able to be a part of it. These forms of pride place the good that was done first; it’s the central focus, and the self-related meaning/accomplishment flows from there. In other cases, though, the good that was done seems more like an instrument of the meaning/accomplishment. What was wanted, first and foremost, was to have done something good; one does good, as it were, as a way of having done good, not as a way of increasing goodness. This seems to me more problematic.

I don’t think I’ve really clarified this distinction; but I think the existence of a distinction at all gives me hope that there are virtuous options for the accomplishment desire other than “merge it with the good world desire,” “stifle it,” or “purchase your accomplishments and your world-improvements separately.”

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