Comparative Value

It’s not always easy to tell if the work you do, the way you spend your time, is a net value-add for the world.

Part of the difficulty is that most types of potential value and anti-value are measured using non-comparable metrics.

For instance, if you spend your work hours each weekday helping the homeless, that’s arguably a good thing. But if you then go home and spend your off-hours burning barrels full of petroleum, one after another, all evening, just for kicks, it may be that the harm you cause outweighs the good you do.

Of course, it would be difficult for a single person (short of starting a wildfire that blazes out of control, anyway) to do sufficient damage to even register alongside the massive, government- and corporation-instigated efforts that operate on a far larger scale. But an individual could easily cause enough psychological damage to another individual to negatively influence the trajectory of that other person’s life from that point forward.

The reverse of that is also true: it’s a lot easier to have a meaningful impact on another person—even in immense, memorable, life-altering ways—than it is to scratch the surface of a planet-scale issue like climate change.

So in addition to this being a highly subjective comparison, it’s also often out of proportion, and at times in non-obvious ways.

Is it more damaging to start a wildfire, or to upend a person’s life so that for the next 70 years, everything that they do and experience is negatively altered because of what you did to them?

Is it more positive to ride your bike everywhere, or to make someone feel good about themselves in a way that they remember for years?

What if you help that person learn something important that sets them on a happiness-producing path? What about a productivity-inducing path? What if you don’t help them directly, but you produce a film that they and thousands of others watch, and that film puts them on that path?

What if, alongside that one person who was positively influenced by your film, 100 other people were negatively influenced?

And how do we measure positive and negative in a vacuum, to begin with? What seems positive to me could seem negative to you.

I would argue that doing away with restrictive laws that require people wear very specific types of clothing, lest they be socially outcast or fined or thrown in prison, is a good thing. Others would debate my definition of ‘good’ in this case. To them, the elimination of such laws would be a step in the wrong direction; a net-negative for society.

I doubt that we’ll ever come up with always-applicable rules and measurements for this. But I suspect we could make some of the relevant data more accessible and crunchable so that when we attempt to make these sorts of choices and compare these types of actions, we would have more to work with.

Maybe we could build an app that allows us to pull in statistics and data and research numbers from numerous sources, which we could use when we compare lifestyle choices. This could help us decide which path or paths would align most favorably with the outcomes we hope to achieve.

I could decide to live more sustainably and use this type of software to show me what living without a car would do for my fossil fuel consumption numbers, while also educating me about the secondary consequences related to going car-free: the cost of making more bikes and of sustaining public transit, for example. That alongside the costs associated with using ride-sharing services more frequently and what repercussions such a shift in habits might have for the condition of local roads and how it might impact people who work in connected industries, like car salesmen and gas station attendants.

I could compare living in one area to another, and see how a move would impact my energy bills. I could then combine that data with numbers related to the type of insulation in my home, how far I live from grocery stores and work, and what kind of internet access I have—which could influence the types of activities I engage in, what my social life looks like, and how much I consume (and how many packages I have delivered via the global supply chain).

This same type of framework could, imperfectly, allow me to gauge my efforts when it comes to investing in other people, taking the time to do good deeds, and generally treating myself well so that I’m more capable of treating others the same.

It’s impossible to know if such a thing would be feasible, or even desirable, were we able to make it happen. The best of intentions could unintentionally lead to nightmarish scenarios in which perverse incentives and scaled-up flaws have an outsized impact.

And of course, we can already do these calculations, access these data points, if we choose to, today. It’s not always intuitive or user-friendly to acquire and understand, but there’s a lot of it out there.

The first and most difficult step, though, is deciding to take responsibility for our choices, to learn what we need to know in order to make more informed choices, and to adjust our perceptions and behaviors, accordingly.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also enjoy one of the books I’ve written.

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