I really enjoyed this post on the GiveWell blog. If you have a bit of time, I recommend reading it; if not, I’ll briefly summarize the post here.
Jason Fehr states that there are two basic purposes to living one’s life, one of which I agree with. First, “to enjoy one’s own life to the fullest, and second, to improve the human condition as much as possible given one’s means and talents.” Since I’m feeling agreeable, I’ll focus on the second one that I agree with.*
Fehr goes on to expand on the second purpose to say that the easiest way to calculate one’s value is to consider the lives that you save that wouldn’t be saved if a person of average talents replaced you. That is, if you are a paramedic, of course you might save several dozen lives a year. But if you hadn’t been a paramedic, then an average paramedic would’ve replaced you, and might’ve saved just as many or more lives. Therefore, you only count as saved lives that an average person in your position wouldn’t be able to save.
Fehr mainly focuses on the implications this has for charitable giving, and he’s quite right there, so go read him (and the GiveWell blog more generally) if you want to improve the effectiveness of your charitable giving. I’ll instead focus on what this metric means for your life.
Of course, since most of us don’t work in life-saving professions, I think for the purpose of your job, you can count it as “lives improved.” How many lives have you improved over what an average person in your job would do? If the answer is that your job doesn’t really improve lives, or that you’re average or below average at your work, then I think you need to consider a change in employment. Of course, you don’t have to change it right now; I understand the current economy pretty much necessitates most of us keeping the jobs that we have. But down the road, you should consider such a change pretty seriously if you aren’t improving lives at an above average rate in your current vocation.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought in my circumstances to the question of whether it’s better to stick with a job that doesn’t particularly improve that many lives itself, but does make you a lot of money that you can give away to improve other lives. I think it can be worth it (see Buffett, Warren), but it’d depend of course on your making a particularly effective use of your charitable donations.
This metric of “lives improved” over what an average person would otherwise do of course could be extended to your personal life as well-are you a better friend to others than average, etc. But I think each reader is best positioned to make this personal judgment themselves, and know the specifics of their own lives much better than I do, so I’ll leave it at that.
Now, I do disagree with Fehr when he says a main purpose of life is to enjoy yourself to the fullest. I don’t disagree that people act as if this is the case; I certainly do so myself. And maybe I’m just a Puritan (a lot of my ancestors were Puritans). But I don’t really think that’s the point of life-the point of life should be to improve the human condition, and take care of your own happiness to the extent necessary for your psychological well-being to improve the human condition. Go read Peter Singer for more on this-I pretty much agree with him on this topic. I do think it’s quite possible that a life spent helping others will be a far happier one than one focused on improving your own happiness alone.
But let’s suppose I’m wrong, and making sure that you are happy yourself should be a large part of your life-goal. Do you really need to say it? Do you think an insubstantial portion of humanity is given to ignoring their own happiness to help others to such a degree that they need a reminder to pursue their own happiness? I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by quite a few remarkably unselfish people, but I think the Mother Teresas of the world are still very rare. People (myself most of all) need a lot more reminders to help others than they do to pursue their own happiness.
*Of course, my view on this is greatly shaped by Christianity, but as always I’ll try to keep my arguments secular for those who don’t share my beliefs.