80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#130 – Will MacAskill on balancing frugality with ambition, whether you need longtermism, & mental health under pressure

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

Imagine you lead a nonprofit that operates on a shoestring budget. Staff are paid minimum wage, lunch is bread and hummus, and you're all bunched up on a few tables in a basement office.

But over a few years, your cause attracts some major new donors. Your funding jumps a thousandfold, from $100,000 a year to $100,000,000 a year. You're the same group of people committed to making sacrifices for the cause — but these days, rather than cutting costs, the right thing to do seems to be to spend serious money and get things done ASAP.

You suddenly have the opportunity to make more progress than ever before, but as well as excitement about this, you have worries about the impacts that large amounts of funding can have.

This is roughly the situation faced by today's guest Will MacAskill — University of Oxford philosopher, author of the forthcoming book What We Owe The Future, and founding figure in the effective altruism movement.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

Years ago, Will pledged to give away more than 50% of his income over his life, and was already donating 10% back when he was a student with next to no income. Since then, the coalition he founded has been super successful at attracting the interest of donors who collectively want to give away billions in the way Will and his colleagues were proposing.

While surely a huge success, it brings with it risks that he's never had to consider before:

• Will and his colleagues might try to spend a lot of money trying to get more things done more quickly — but actually just waste it.
• Being seen as profligate could strike onlookers as selfish and disreputable.
• Folks might start pretending to agree with their agenda just to get grants.
• People working on nearby issues that are less flush with funding may end up resentful.
• People might lose their focus on helping others as they get seduced by the prospect of earning a nice living.
• Mediocre projects might find it too easy to get funding, even when the people involved would be better off radically changing their strategy, or shutting down and launching something else entirely.

But all these 'risks of commission' have to be weighed against 'risk of omission': the failure to achieve all you could have if you'd been truly ambitious.

People looking askance at you for paying high salaries to attract the staff you want is unpleasant.

But failing to prevent the next pandemic because you didn't have the necessary medical experts on your grantmaking team is worse than unpleasant — it's a true disaster. Yet few will complain, because they'll never know what might have been if you'd only set frugality aside.

Will aims to strike a sensible balance between these competing errors, which he has taken to calling judicious ambition. In today's episode, Rob and Will discuss the above as well as:

• Will humanity likely converge on good values as we get more educated and invest more in moral philosophy — or are the things we care about actually quite arbitrary and contingent?
• Why are so many nonfiction books full of factual errors?
• How does Will avoid anxiety and depression with more responsibility on his shoulders than ever?
• What does Will disagree with his colleagues on?
• Should we focus on existential risks more or less the same way, whether we care about future generations or not?
• Are potatoes one of the most important technologies ever developed?
• And plenty more.

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Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

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