Can Global Priorities Research answer the most pressing questions of our time?

80,000 hours is long  — and it is approximately the amount of time that we are going to spend working, based on today’s standards. How do we want to spend these 80,000 hours in order to not only enhance the quality of our lives, but of many others? And, should we even try to better the lives of others?

The upcoming academic discipline Global Priorities Research tries to find an answer to such questions. Seeing many opportunities, it tries to distinguish the ones worth the hassle from those with only a small impact on future welfare. Combining methods of philosophy, economics and mathematics, such research aims at setting an agenda for our global priorities. Regarding this decision, Global Priorities Research introduced the term longtermism: which assumes that the long-run value of an action does play a more important role than the short-term effects. This is based on the reasoning that compared to the mean species, we have not yet survived as long, which suggests that there will be a whole lot of future generations of us in probability. Therefore, they argue, the long-term future welfare should be the key aspect when it comes to determining current global priorities.

But what does enhancing future welfare mean? In economics, welfare refers to the maximization of the individual’s utility. When comparing your welfare to others, you’ll quickly realize that each of us measures their own utility in a different way. Therefore, the operationalization of this measure is not obvious and must be handled carefully when assessing the future impact of actions.

Especially when acknowledging that in daily life, we recognize that all of us are fallible: If we were asked how people were going to spend the next 80,000 working hours of their lives, most would not answer this rather objective question, but a simpler one. This phenomenon was described by Daniel Kahnemann, who brought psychological ideas into economics, and is called a heuristic. In particular, we’d rather ask another question: how will my working life probably look like and which tasks will I most likely encounter as important ones, given the environment and time I find myself in right now?

This underlines the importance of such research. Global Priorities Research systematically assesses the topics we should spend our resources on, which not only include financial means, but also time. Such research uses different methodological approaches to solve the issue of appropriate allocation. First, the idea of effective altruism is implemented. This means that scarce resources are allocated in an effective economic manner. Therefore, when one decides to give, one should know all available possibilities and choose the one with the most impact. Another idea is objectivity. Such decisions should be based on objective measures, such as the expected value. Moral uncertainty is also accounted for here across our societies. We do not always agree when it comes to moral issues, so the institutes try to account for different moral stands. Consequently, it is not only about comparing expected values and choosing the highest one, but also about including a moral point of view into these considerations.

Seeing institutes carrying out applied research such as the non-profit 80,000 Hours, we can directly infer recommendations for our own lives and careers. They introduce so-called ‘Priority Paths’, trying to cover the most pressing issues we currently face in our world. After all — do you want to take on one of these paths? Would you like to sacrifice your life for the sake of all of us, and the following generations?

There are philosophies that would not consider the underlying concept of longtermism and effective altruism as valid. For instance, Ayn Rand’s objectivity suggests that the moral purpose of one’s life should be one’s own happiness: ‘with productive achievement as his noblest activity’. One should not focus on what can be achieved by many in the long-run future, but on what one can achieve during a lifetime.

The question is then, should we rely on such research, and more importantly, should we base our decisions regarding our careers and resources on the findings of a minority? In fact, I believe it is not about trusting such findings unquestioningly, but about acknowledging such research and being able to form one’s own opinion.

This type of research can be very vital for the future of all of us and especially regarding our life satisfaction, since ‘achieving high’ can also generate contentment in the individual. Ultimately, one must still define one’s terms for achieving high, as no research can carry out such a decision for an individual.