How easy is it to do a lot of good? Imagine that opportunities to improve the world were tangible and visible. Say they look like purple jelly beans. When you pick one up, bam! Someone's life is a little better.

In world A, jelly beans are plentiful. Maybe they rain down from the sky every week. Everywhere in the country, this is true. The sidewalks are covered in jelly beans. Everyone picks up a few just going to work every day.

In world B, jelly beans are only found underground. And they're scarce, and unpredictable. Miners have to take a pickaxe and shovel, climb down a shaft, and do a lot of manual digging. Every few months, someone has a bright idea for how to predict jelly bean strains better and mine them faster; results are contentious and inconclusive. The way most jelly beans are found is by someone individually picking them out of the rock.

World A is obviously better off. But let's say that both worlds have serious problems, and something (i.e. jelly beans) needs to be done about them.

In world A, personal power is important. For example, being in charge of stuff. If you're in charge of a fishing fleet, you can use it to go pick up all those neglected beans floating in the Atlantic. You'll improve the world massively. If you're in charge of a college or university, you can outfit its roofs with a aqueduct system to capture any jelly beans that, previously, laid there until they dissolved.

In world B, it's less important. If you're a college or university president, you can try to instill good bean-spotting instincts in your undergraduates so that someday their yields will be higher. But being a good bean-spotter is really hard, so being marginally better at it doesn't help that much. If you're a researcher working on bean-harvesting techniques, you won't expect easy, runaway success.

Do we live in world A or world B?

  • Effective Altruism would say A, I think. Certainly, statistics about how you can save a life for $3,337.06 get you thinking that way.
  • A focus on improving skills and prestige to get personal power (80,000 Hours) follows if you're thinking in world A.
  • I think my culture (me included) tends to feel intuitively that unsexy, unprestigious work is especially noble or valuable. e.g. being a teacher, or a policeman, or a fireman. This seems like it's coming from world B -- if good is difficult to do, better do something dependable and well-trodden.

The answer to the question is definitely 'both', and of course depends on what issues you're talking about. But I think it's still controversial just how much the world is like each.

There's a lot of variations/counterarguments I'll put in another post.