Tuesday 6 October 2015

QALYs for normal people

Two days ago I was on about utilitarianism and am naive enough to believe that governments can optimise the public good by rational decisions about who to tax and where to spend. But only by believing that all their citizens (black, female, blind, very small and very old included) are equal. QALY utilitarianism really doesn't work for individuals because we are all human. Even with my blunted affect I'm with E.M. Forster “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”. One of the theoretical bases of altruism is the concept of inclusive fitness: we'll make a sacrifice to benefit those with whom we have genes in common. JBS Haldane [previously] claimed that he would risk death by drowning to save two brothers or eight cousins: we'll naturally do more for our own children than a random black kid languishing in another country.  And I'm mildly aggravated by people who manifest the Illusion of Control by trying to manage their lives/careers to achieve a specific goal. If you feel passionately about that goal then, almost by definition, you haven't subjected it to a cold rational cost-benefit analysis. If you want an internal debate about the morality of altruism, there is a longish piece in the Grauniad about giving money to strangers instead of spending it on [more] stuff for self. I'm afraid I flung it across the room: you can over-think things.

But hyper-rational MacAskill is not above offering life-coach advice from the perspective of one who is not close to being half-way through his. Here he speaks at TEDx to tell school- or college-leavers how they can best manage their lives if they have bleeding-heart tendencies. Taking a gap-year to go South and build huts for Africans is a waste of time and talent!  You would do better to do one or more of the following.
  • Become an entrepreneur or get up close to one. Entrepreneurs have to be generalists, so they upskill on a broad range of topics. The Beloved lucked into an office-help job with Clive Sinclair as the 8th hire at his ZX80 venture in Cambridge, UK. Two years later she was Customer Service North America in Boston, MA.
  • Go into research. The market for researchers is under-supplied and the training is somewhat generic - if you can find out how a gene works you can find out whether compulsory Latin has benefit in primary schools or why dams fail.  And you'll be able to discover where is the best place to dispose of your disposable income.
  • Go into politics.  Especially if you're at Oxbridge and have some rich friends: that cohort has a 1/30 chance of ending up in parliament.
  • Upskill yourself. You'll be better off, and so will the poor, if you work for a year as an intern in a consultancy in Washington or Uppsala than if you wield a hammer in Ouagadougou.
  • Get a job in Megacorp and climb the corporate ladder. You don't have to put all your earnings into cocaine and Porsches.
80000 hrs gives a parallel list of career advice. And offers a quiz to help you down the right path.

But one final thing - take this advice with a pinch of salt. MacAskill accepts, with minor qualification, the idea that Norman "Short Wheat" Borlaug saved a billion many lives.  I profoundly disagree.  One thing that would help us all [I'm speaking for oaks and ants and oafs as well as Oxbridge graduates] is fewer people.

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