If you had to cross the street to save a life, you would not hesitate. But a £10 donation to another country? Maybe you would.
Because we do not see the lives we save by staying at home to avoid a virus. We do not experience the survival of future generations when we recycle. We do not meet those we bring justice to by protesting police brutality. And that means us humans, we don’t care about the long run.
Doing good is about doing what is right regardless of if the result is instant. Yet immediacy does matter. It matters because often we don't know if what feels right is the same as doing good. We have to rely on the instinct that our actions are positive.
And we can exchange this instinct for togetherness and the feeling of being part of a movement; it is the reason protest is so successful and so popular. Instinct is exchangeable for progress, like charges being brought to George Floyd’s killers. We know we have done good.
This is some change, but it is not real change.
Real change is patient and slow. Real change takes commitment and sacrifice. Real change is never good enough.
A utilitarian would say that the best choice is the one that will produce the greatest good, even if that good is far in the future. They would ask, if every person desires their own happiness, why are our individual decisions not the same as those that would create collective happiness?
To respect the long run, perhaps those protesting the police should stay at home to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. People will die because of these protests but in the short game they have led to justice. The danger feels immediate, the solution feels in reach, so we act.
But if we are serious we will not stop until real progress. We will play the long game for George Floyd too.
In a casino, you can double or lose your money in seconds. It is smarter to invest in the stock market, where bigger returns may take decades. Although in each case, it is not clear what is the right choice. Red or Black? Facebook or Tesla? While unlike gambling — in the long game of racial justice and environmentalism, the choices are clear: equality and science — patiently fighting for the long term bettering of the world has a greater impact than fighting for today.
Maybe our governments can learn from this when creating our coronavirus strategy. It needs an end game, a solution, a light at the end of a not-too-long tunnel. Something for the people to work for, because we do not have the patience for the long run.
This does not mean that we should accept hate now because change will come eventually. It means we should fight harder and more consistently. The sportspeople, tech YouTubers and CEOs using their platforms today to say what is right should have no plans to return to normal. Donations to projects fighting racial injustice should not be one time. Reading one book today is not enough if your bookshelf is empty.
The long run is scary, because we don’t trust it. We don’t see small steps even when all of our small steps count towards big goals because most of us will never see them reached in our lifetimes. Goals that are no less important because we are not rewarded for them.
The more good we do for invisible causes the faster they stop being part of the neglected long run, and the more likely our children will see not some change, but real change.