What’s a Wonderful Life? The impact of what we do not do

Photo by Rachel Cook on Unsplash

George had loved his working life. For 30 years he had been the chair of one of the leading research councils, providing the money that made wonderful things happen. Now he was finally hanging up his hat but he would have a contented retirement ahead of him, happy in the knowledge he had made the world a better place. Now, he poured a small measure from the special bottle he had been saving, and prepared to enjoy this moment before he joined the colleagues who were waiting to celebrate with him in the next room.

There was a knock at the door.

“Give me a moment,” said George.

The knock came again. George put down the glass of single malt and opened the door. There was a young man, no older than one of the younger Masters students the research council funded, looking rather flustered.

“Hello?” said George.

“I’m really sorry, I’m new here. I have,” the young man held out a memory stick, “it’s a message from some of the people who couldn’t be here. They wanted you to watch it before the party.”

George sighed and took the stick. “OK, thank you, er?”

“Clarence,” said the young man (yes, you guessed right where this is going – and if you didn’t, you need to watch more classic films).

As the video started playing the screen filled with a landscape of palm trees, and a beach. The camera swept out into the ocean and dived beneath the surface. Something about it was familiar. Maybe something he had seen as part of a proposal. For a minute and more the camera moved through clean, clear water, occasionally pausing on playing turtles and reef sharks darting among coral – yes, he recognised it – a video from some crackpot idea. It certainly hadn’t looked like this when he saw it. The water had been thick with pollution, the coral bleached and dead. The film cut to an urban scene. Again, it looked familiar, but also different. He remembered dirt, people dying before their time, misery, and again some stupid idea he’d not given a moment’s thought to since, but these faces were happy, people his age and older going about their business without a care, wheelchair users cruising wide clear boulevards, children reading under shady trees.

Eventually one last face filled the screen, a face he had seen before, gaunt, pleading, asking for a chance, any chance – a face now beaming, saying thank you and turning to get on with its rich life.

George sat in silence.

“Who gave you this?” he said after a few moments composing himself.

“Well,” said Clarence, “In a way, which is to say I don’t fully understand – I’m new, didn’t I mention, but from what I do understand in the only real way that counts…you did.”

“I did?”

“Yes. This, and again I’m not quite clear, but this is what the world would have been like if you had never been here.”

“What?”

“Yes, well it all goes back to the interview. You remember. It was you and that young lady from, where was she from?”

“I don’t remember,” said George, but he remembered her. Naïve and brash and utterly unsuitable to be handing out research funding! He had made that point very well in the interview. He would be a safe custodian of the council’s money, of the country’s future research, safe from the kind of cavalier hunches that would end in disaster. Safe from supporting ideas like the ones he had just been watching unfold.

“Well, if you had never been born, she would have been given the position of chair, and she would have funded these projects, the weird and the bizarre ones strong on potential but high on risk. But you were, and she wasn’t and, well, of course none of what you saw happened. The reefs remain dead, the oceans dying, city lives still cut short, sickness still killing.”

George just sat.

“Anyway, don’t you have something to go and celebrate?”

“Sorry, what?” George turned around, but Clarence was gone.

When considering any important decision, think about the consequences of doing nothing just as carefully as you think about the consequences of each possible action. The more important the decision, the more important this principle becomes.

And yet we are really bad at thinking about the consequences of “business as usual”. That is why, sometimes, we simply walk off cliffs – as, for example, we are apparently prepared to do in the face of the climate emergency, or some of the other wicked problems we face.

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is the boiling frog principle we’re all familiar with. We don’t notice things that happen slowly enough. And furthermore the assumptions that underlie the things we do every day don’t feel like assumptions. They feel like laws of nature. So on the one hand we don’t feel the need to change course and on the other we don’t feel that it is possible to change course. And so we carry on. And inaction leads us to boil alive.

The second is that we simply don’t feel a connection to failures to act the way we do to actions. There are historical reasons for this – philosophers like Kant and Plato ascribe particular value to particular acts of will, and this notion has become very influential. On the other side of the equation, the likes of John Stuart Mill and, more recently, the effective altruism movement, would have us carefully consider the consequences of all our actions – including inaction – and choose the best.

But however much we may think there are benefits to this approach we find it almost impossible to actually do. One reason for this is that we find it hard to take seriously the idea of calculating the consequences of inaction. We love to believe in cause and effect – a cause leads to a set of effects and a cause is, we tell ourselves, an action. If we do nothing, how can that have an effect? And anyway, if we do nothing, someone or something might just do something – so we can’t bear the sole blame of inaction. And because we can’t bear the sole blame it makes little sense to think of it in the same way as a deliberate act with an obvious effect.

Neuroscience seems to support the idea that there is something special about decisions. I recommend Moran Cerf’s TED talks. There seems to be a neural correlate to a moment of decision (detectable a fraction before we are aware of making a decision).

Of course a moment of decision is very different from a decision to act rather than do nothing. And it offers hope. If what matters is the decision rather than the action, maybe we can make ourselves better able to see that doing nothing is a decision, and one that has consequences – including, when you end up boiling many frogs, moral ones.

I want to end with one of the most important decisions. Investment. Specifically investment in research. Funding bodies make decisions all the time about which projects to support and which projects to pass on. Many of those that get passed on will never happen (funders, I think, often use a variation of the justification I mentioned above – “someone else might fund this so I’m not to blame”). How do they make these decisions? The thing they all too rarely consider is this. What are the consequences of not funding this project?

Whenever I’m giving a talk and there are people in the room who make these decisions, I tell them this. The greatest impact you will ever have on the world is the result of the projects you say no to. Don’t ever forget that. The projects you fund may bring about a huge amount of good in the world, and that is a wonderful thing. But the times you say no will almost certainly deny far more benefit than the times you say yes will bring. Before you celebrate too hard, instead be humbled by that thought. Let it weigh on you as it should before you make your decisions, and do all you can to minimise that gap.

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