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Is trying to "change the world" foolish?

It's common to believe one can and should "change the world", and certainly leaders commonly espouse such an attitude, reminding us of how "each little drop counts". However, some pragmatists argue such idealism is futile, and that blind optimism only makes life more difficult for oneself. The pragmatists tend to view the matter quantitatively, reasoning that the negative effect on oneself far outweighs the positive effect on others, if indeed one is having a positive effect at all.

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Experts and Influencers

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Experts In Politics

Harry Browne    Libertarian Writer, US Presidential Candidate 1996-2000
[...you could] eliminate the effects of social injustice from your own life. And that’s really the object, isn’t it? ... The world-changers are powerless. They dream of remaking the world; but since they can’t, they’ve placed their emphasis where they have no power at all. Free people recognize that they can’t change the world, and so they concentrate on the power they do have — which is enormous.
01 Jan 1973    Source

Experts In Cognition

Robin Hanson    Economics Professor
Mostly Agree
Dear angsty teen... ...the world... is indeed strange, fake, and wrong, relative to your inborn intuitions. ... A few of you will hold the most strongly to your inborn ideals, paying great costs to move or change. Some such efforts will even succeed, moving your world closer to your inborn ideals. But know that your world is stable enough so that if you actually “fight the power,” you will on average lose. Most of what looks like young “rebels” winning is actually part of the established order.
12 Jun 2010    Source

Sub-Arguments Of This Expert:
Is humanity likely doomed to destroy itself?

Experts In Politics

Barack Obama    United States President
One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world. Your voice can change the world.
03 Jan 2008    Source

Sub-Arguments Of This Expert:
Is hope good?

Mahatma Gandhi    Indian Political and Spiritual Leader
The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problem.
01 Jan 1940    Source

Experts In Literature

David Foster Wallace    Novelist, Essayist, English Professor
[My] secret pretension...I mean, every writer wants his book to change the world, but I guess I would like to know if the book moved people. I assume that the future the book talks about, while it might be amusing, wouldn't be a fun future to live in. I think it would be nice if the book could maybe make people think about some of the choices we are making, about what we pay attention to and give power to, so maybe the future won't be quite that...glittery but cold.
01 May 1996    Source

Experts In Business

Bill Gates    Microsoft Cofounder, Philanthropist
I'm optimistic. I think people are beginning to recognize how important this is, and it really can make a difference for millions of lives, if we get it right. ... You know, the system doesn't naturally make it happen. Governments don't naturally pick these things in the right way. The private sector doesn't naturally put its resources into these things. So it's going to take brilliant people like you to study these things, get other people involved...
01 Feb 2009    Source


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0 Points      dionisos      22 Aug 2016      Stance on Question: Disagree
If you have goals which doesn’t only concern yourself (any consequentialist ethics), then it is logical to try to change the world.
(In fact any goal is about changing the world, but here i assume you are speaking about changing a lot of the world, not just very local things)

1 Point      trishh      17 Aug 2011      General Comment
I think that it's not really foolish but almost impossible to some extent!! people already possess a style of living, and changing each and every individual is not easy task...Instead, laws can be imposed on them... 'change the world' is not really the right way of saying it rather improve the world may be better!!

1 Point      hypoyld      09 Aug 2011      Stance on Question: Disagree
To be pedantic, it's impossible not to change the world however slightly. Historically, people can and do effect significant change.

0 Points      Benja      09 Aug 2011      General Comment
Actually, I think it's an occasion where being pedantic is useful, because it forces people to clarify what they mean when they say they want to change the world.

0 Points      John Sicoli      08 Aug 2011      Stance on Question: Disagree
I believe that it is in our genes to strive to make things better. In some societies people always talk about how their children are going to be someone important, a doctor, lawyer, etc.

It is not foolish to try and change the world. Aside from reproducing it is the most important aspect of humanity. To change it for the better.

We live societies with rules, laws, social norms, etc. To be effective, without massive paradigm shift (war, etc) you must try and make change by playing by those rules.

A friend used to say she wanted to change the world. I would say you are going to become a politician? She would say: No, they do not make change as much as business leaders.

Big business spend lots of money to get what they want. And money talks. So consider that as an avenue for change.

0 Points      Benja      08 Aug 2011      General Comment
The whole notion of changing the world is the idea that one tries to change the status quo. And in achieving that one focuses less on one's personal success and more on society's success. Now, maybe this is a fool's idea. But that's the idea.

Under this conception, merely being a doctor, lawyer, or businessmen doesn't mean you're doing anything to "change the world" as such. What we're talking about here is the subset of idealists among them make significant personal sacrifices. They participate in pro bono work, help underprivileged people in Africa, or spend years at a reduced salary in a lab to try to cure a rare disease.

They fight the fight. Some succeed. Some fail (even inadvertently making society worse!). Some are realistic about what they can change. Others have blind hope. Some have a big effect. Some have almost no effect. Some never lose their sense of optimism. Some end up cynical. Some are rewarded by society. Others are ignored and even punished. Some enjoy the fight. Others find it a constant source of stress.

Some of their peers would consider their behavior foolish. Their life strategy is instead to collect their pay check and enjoy the benefits of a high status job. Go with the flow. Now, they will still change society. Going-with-the-flow behavior implies there's a flow one can contribute to! They will still affect the GDP. But this is passively changing the world, such that one does not try to affect the direction of the flow. It's not actively trying to steer the world in a different, presumably better direction.

Maybe passive* change is the rational way to behave. Or maybe not. That's the question. And perhaps even the question is flawed. But it's worth thinking about, because the "change the world" meme is a prevalent meme in our society.


*You could argue that there's nothing "passive" about a doctor saving lives, but it's passive in the sense that they're primarily giving people around them what they want, rather than fighting what people want. Contrast here a doctor in Nazi Germany who just goes with the flow (maybe if they're really talented they would be selected to be Hitler's personal physician) vs. becoming political (e.g. challenging their party or defecting).

P.S. Regarding genes, it's difficult to determine what's genetic vs. environmental. Your observation that parents want their kids to do high status jobs is not good evidence that it's in our genes to change the world. That's evidence parents are attempting to maximize the chance that their kids reproduce (a la Dawkins' Selfish Gene). Furthermore, just because a behavior is in our genes does not mean the behavior is not foolish.

0 Points      Anonymous      08 Aug 2011      General Comment
Regarding "genetic vs. environmental". Agreed. I wrote "believe" for that very reason.