Resigning from West Point

Recently, I decided to resign my appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. This was not an easy decision, but I’m convinced it was the right one given the sum of evidence I had available. The bottom line is that this was a careful, dispassionate, utilitarian decision that I had to make in order to maximize my expected impact on the world. The primary supportive reason was the comparative advantage argument.

Comparative Advantage

In any organizations with a finite number of jobs available and more demand for the jobs than supply (e.g. the United States Army), the impact of one’s actions that one can take credit for is not merely all the good that one does through one’s role, but the marginal difference of the impact of one’s actions over the impact of the actions of the person who would have taken the job otherwise. Merely doing a good job, even if doing that job is very taxing on oneself, does not mean one is actually causing that much of an impact. Rather, one’s labor is only especially useful in a given job if the person they are replacing (the next best person who would get the job otherwise) would not do as good of a job.

The equation to calculate one’s impact of taking a job is a bit more complicated than this because one must also consider the marginal impact of the displaced person who doesn’t get your job over the impact that you would have had should you have not taken the job. In essence, although I was not quantifying my intuitive sense of impact with ‘utils’, this was the situation I was facing:

Evan Bob
Army 55 utils 50 utils
Non-Army careers X utils 30 utils

Bob is the person wanting to commission through OCS or ROTC that the Army would permit to commission if I resigned. As you can see, even if I would have done a slightly better job than Bob (which is not guaranteed), it still makes sense for me to resign so long as my impact outside of the Army is more than ‘5 utils’ greater than Bob’s would have been.

I do not wish to share a number for how relatively impactful a career I think I can have outside the Army is. However, I believe that I can likely have an impact greater than ‘5 utils’ more than Bob’s impact outside the Army and frankly, an impact greater than what I would have had in the Army if I use my talents to work hard in especially important, solvable, and neglected cause areas.

That’s essentially it. It wasn’t an emotionally easy decision–I have read my share of military books and had many dreams of leading troops and positively shaping my future units and the Army as a whole. I fully expected to come back to the big Army after I left my position as an enlisted Army engineer Diver to attend West Point.

I could go into more depth about all the details I considered. However, seeing that you know I want to work in impactful and neglected cause areas outside of the Army, I think you get the point that my decision to resign was optimal, or at least, respectable.

The Exponential Impact of Socially-Contagious Philanthropy

If doing any significant amount of good was basically intractable, it would be more permissible for individuals to ignore the utilitarian imperative to do the most good. However, doing incredible amounts of good is in the reach of many of us. We don’t necessarily have to research and contribute to Multiverse-wide Cooperation via Correlated Decision Making in order to do our part; doing good can be as simple as donating 10% of one’s salary to EA Funds, which, if used for causes as effective as the Against Malaria Foundation, can avert a year of lost health (a DALY) for $29. One may be able to do far more good than just this though. Consider the power of exponential growth:

If you commit to convincing two other people per year to donate 10% of their income to the EA Funds, and convince them to convince two people to do the same themselves, etc., you can expect to have 27 people donating 10% of their income within three years. Considering a simple model based on a mean US income of $72,000, one can expect to be responsible for averting 814,097 DALYs within 7 years. This assumes that these people would not do anything productive with 10% of their money if they did not donate it, that none of these people would have discovered effective giving over this time period, and that the $29 per averted DALY rate would hold. Even accounting for more realistic estimates of these factors, it is likely that one could still claim responsibility for averting over 500,000 DALYs over a 7 year period.

This is a substantial amount of good. Frankly, I struggle to imagine how these 2187 people’s discretionary income could be better spent. To say it would be better for people to not deliberately spend part of their discretionary money on charity and research via the EA Funds is to suggest either that the EA Funds managers are ineffective at choosing organizations and causes to give to, or that each person could get about 247 years worth of pleasure by spending that 10% of their income on themselves. I think both of these are highly unlikely to be the case.

If this inspired you, I encourage you to take a giving pledge and share your reasons for taking the pledge on social media! Like all habits, giving is contagious 🙂

Ethics Demands Speed

BLUF: For problems that we are destined to solve, one’s impact can be thought of as how quickly their efforts expedite a solution times the utility of each moment of that expedition.

We are already well on the path to solve a few great ethical challenges that face us. A clear example, in my mind, is factory farming. The science is already here that these animals are very likely to be experiencing immense suffering, we are quickly coming up with replacements for meat (to satisfy stubborn consumers) via food technology, and moral advocacy efforts are leading people to become sentientists and reducetarians or vegans. It’s only a matter of time until the will of the populace leads politicians to pass legislation to drastically tax animal products and improve the conditions of factory farms, or outright shut them down.

There is a lot to be done between now and the end of factory farming, so I don’t mean to detract from the efforts still required at all. In my mind, this is still a very neglected cause area with room for many people to spend a life devoted to it. That being said, I would bet a lot that factory farming will be done away with in the western world by 2100, and hopefully much sooner. Perhaps the simplest moral question then for one to ask is “when?”

There are a variety of ways to measure one’s impact in a cause area. How much does one increase the probability of a solution coming to fruition times the marginal utility of said solution? The other clearest metric to me is how much sooner will a solution be enacted via one’s efforts? If my actions cause a tax spike on animal products to arrive two weeks early and in those first two weeks, we see a reduction in demand of animals by 50 million, which leads to a reduction in supply by 40 million, I am responsible for preventing the suffering of these 40 million animals. That’s a huge impact. On the contrary, if I didn’t do anything for these factory farms when I could have statistically sped up tax-hikes by 2 weeks, then the suffering of those 40 million animals is on my hands.

Ethics demands speed.