I am a high school student who has no formal training in philosophy, so I apologize if this question seems naïve. However, it is one that I am currently facing in a life decision, and I would like a philosopher's input on the matter.

I am nearing high school graduation and, as a result, will need to decide on a university major in the near future. My interests lie in physics, mathematics, and computer science, and I find it likely that I will major in one (or more) of those fields.

However, it occurs to me that I might contribute more directly to the preservation of human lives if I were to major in, say, medicine or biomedical engineering. I think it would not be controversial of me to claim that more people have been directly aided by vaccinologists than algebraic topologists or string theorists.

I have no immediate objections to majoring in medicine; in fact, I believe I would have no problems with the coursework, and could one day become a competent medical professional. However, I suspect that I would be less satisfied with a career as doctor than as a physicist or mathematician.

Even so, by an elementary utilitarian calculus, it seems preferable to me that one person be slightly less satisfied with their life than someone die due to a lack of available medical attention. My question, therefore, is the following: given that I am capable of becoming a competent medical doctor, am I morally obligated to attempt to become one?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Joseph Weissman Feb 22 '17 at 20:54
  • How could you possibly predict that becoming a doctor would result in more overall utility than whatever else you happen to pursue? What if you pursue business, and are successful enough to endow a whole hospital or medical school? What if you become an engineer, and make some gadget that saves thousands of lives? What if you become an author or entertainer that inspires others to accomplish great things? Becoming a doctor might have wasted those talents. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jun 27 '18 at 0:09

13 Answers 13


Since you explicitly referenced utilitarianism, I'm going to take a utilitarian framework for granted, and answer in terms of that framework*. So I'm answering the question of do utilitarian ethics imply that becoming a doctor is the best career choice? Framed that way, this becomes an empirical question - is a career in medicine, in fact, the most effective way of doing good in one's life?

For answering that question, I recommend that you check out 80,000 hours, an organization that's focused on answering exactly the question of "what kind of a career should I choose if I want to do the most good in the world". They actually have an article that specifically the addresses the impact that one could have as a doctor, where they conclude that becoming a doctor is not necessarily the most effective way of saving lives.

Although a doctor may save several lives over their career, the number of doctors in the world is limited: there are more applicants into medical school than there are available positions. So if you become a doctor, you are not increasing the amount of doctors in the world, but rather replacing someone else who would've also become a doctor if you hadn't applied. Of course, medical schools try to pick the best applicants, so if you replace someone there's a chance that you're better than they would have been, and will do a better job of saving lives.

The question then becomes, "how much better would you be in this job than the person you replaced?". Answering such a question requires making a lot of assumptions, but the linked analysis suggests that, assuming that you were admitted, you could probably expect to save about 25 lives by being a doctor. That's definitely not bad, but it's also not necessarily the best you can do: the same analysis also suggests that if you pursued some other career and gave 10% of your income to the right charities, your impact on the world could be 30 times as large.

I would also suggest that a lot of the people who are seeking to become doctors are doing so because they feel strongly driven to it. In contrast, you're considering a career as a doctor only because you have "no immediate objections", and because you feel like you might be obligated to do so. I would expect that, other things being equal, the kind of person who already had a strong internal motivation to become a doctor would be more likely to become a good doctor than the kind of person who was mostly doing it because they felt obligated to do so. So if you became a doctor, you might even do a worse job than the person you were replacing, whereas some other career would allow you to not only be happier, but to do more good as well.

80,000 hours is part of a broader movement of "Effective Altruism" that tries to find the most effective ways of doing good in the world. So if you're interested in the question of how to have the greatest impact with your life, you may want to check out some of the other organizations associated with the movement as well.

(*: By "utilitarian framework" I have been assuming classic utilitarianism. There are also other kinds of utilitarianism, such as average, critical-level, negative, and so on. But although choosing some other kind of utilitarianism would affect what you might want to do instead of becoming a doctor, I believe that the overall conclusion of "becoming a doctor is not the most effective thing that you can do, unless you are exceptionally motivated and talented for a career in medicine in particular" still holds for most varieties of utilitarianism.)

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    +1. Only answer which actually has research into the benefits of a career in medicine. – Xodarap Apr 19 '14 at 14:26
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    The factuality of the answer is greatly appreciated. But there are two things to consider: Doctors do usually have a good salary (because they "save lives", which is greatly rewarded in terms of salary), so as a doctor 1) the op would probably be able to donate more money to charity. He would also 2) help with his daily job and could join Doctors Without Borders and donate time without intermediaries. In short, one thing does not exclude any other thing. You say he can do more donating 10% of the salary, so the question is updated to: "Should I donate 10% of my salary and become a doctor?" – Trylks Apr 22 '14 at 11:16
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    @Trylks I agree that becoming a doctor can still be a good career choice for an altruist, and I certainly wouldn't use the arguments in my answer to argue someone out of a medical career if they felt they had a calling for that field! But I worry that anyone who only has "no immediate objections" to pursuing a challenging career may well lose his motivation midway. Of course, he could also find out that he really likes medicine, but I'm just saying that there's enough uncertainty involved in the outcome of the "medicine career" option that he can hardly be considered obligated to pursue it. – Kaj_Sotala Apr 22 '14 at 15:23
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    I've thought about this one a lot as someone who didn't become a doctor -- I did not even consider it until I was already well into a different degree. The point that medical schools limit the number of trainees is a very significant one; in this case, I would consider replacing a (criminal) lawyer a better moral choice, since I would rather have a mediocre GP and (e.g.) face false or trumped up charges with a good public defender than vice versa (good GP and mediocre legal defence). So the question is then, "Would I likely be better than most others who do this?" – selfConceivedAsEvil Apr 24 '14 at 13:39
  • 25 aint much. Someone could save more lifes by advancing airbag systems or better safety gear – BlueWizard Jun 16 '16 at 6:11

A self driving car is likely to save more lives than almost any practicing physician. You still have time to be one of the primary developers for a self driving car.

Better hygiene has contributed to longer lives for more people than any medical treatment. While better hygiene has been driven in part by medical discoveries, that hasn't been the primary reason why people want to live cleaner lives.

Probably the single most important step in not dying early, is having a job that is safe -- ie not being a farmer, fisherman or logger. Building industrial capabilities is likely to directly save more lives than most doctors.

That said -- if everyone became a doctor, we would all starve to death. Everything contributes to the general welfare, if you hold up one professional as the only moral choice, you are implicitly saying that doing other jobs is immoral. The world needs farmers, engineers, firefighters, teachers, mathemticians, and yes, doctors.

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    Could you structure this in more philosophical terms? There is a philosophical argument to be made using these premises but it ain't here. – virmaior Apr 19 '14 at 6:17
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    @virmaior It is there. He said ideas and heads save more lives than hands. – Asphir Dom Apr 19 '14 at 22:55
  • This is a solid answer. – Ron Royston Jun 19 '15 at 2:18
  • @virmaior: Just because you are missing the point doesn't mean it's not there. – VSO Feb 26 '16 at 14:32

I am going to suggest three different routes through which you can look at this question.

The first is a Kantian route. Kant develops a moral theory around the idea that we are rational free creatures. For him, to act morally is to act rationally. Practically, this happens by acting in accordance with duty. For Kant, there are perfect and imperfect duties that attach to being the sort of creatures we are. Perfect duties describe those obligations that we can arrive at by excluding what is self-contradictory or contradictory in a world with the laws of nature (I am simplifying by leaving out some other formulations). Imperfect duties are those obligations that follow from our nature as fragile beings.

The question you are asking falls under the realm of imperfect duties for Kant. This can be shown as follows: if everyone became a medical doctor, then your becoming a medical doctor would not contribute to the alleviation of suffering (since presumably there would be an excess of medical care), therefore there's no perfect duty that people become medical doctors. Imperfect duties, by contrast, work on human limitations, viz., that we will all need help. This creates two types of obligations: (1) to improve yourself and (2) to provide aid in some circumstances. Here, the primary question relates to (1) but also touches on (2).

From a Kantian perspective, you have freedom in how you go about improving yourself and also in how you provide aid, but you are obligated to do both. Thus, there's no clear Kantian reason why you should pursue medicine over string theory. At the same time, if string theory is a talent you think cannot be of use to others, you will need to find other ways of helping others.

We can also look at your question in terms of a virtue theory approach to moral decision-making. The word "virtue" can be confusing in meaning due to its long history. In this type of approach, the goal is to maximize your human potential and through this to flourish (the Greek concept is eudaimonia). In order to do so, you must be committed to some idea of human potential. Thus, you would need to look at where your specific abilities lie and how you could maximize your humanity through them.

This would not be limited merely to your mental abilities. In other words, on this perspective, it matters if you would have to be an unhappy but effective doctor versus a highly effective and happy computer systems analyst. Moreover, you need to look at whether you are flourishing not just in areas you want to but in others like generosity and friendship. Moreover, depending on the type of virtue ethics we are referring to, your goal might also need to include the flourishing of your community.

On such a perspective, if concerns about whether you would enjoy such a life weigh heavily, you are probably better off not being a doctor -- as there's no specific requirement that you flourish in this way. (Save that you live in an obscure community where its flourishing requires you to become its doctor).

A further way of looking at this problem which seems close to some of the remarks you make is utilitarianism or its more contemporary cousin consequentialism. In both cases, your goal is to maximize or minimize some unit. In Peter Singer's contemporary version, this would be minimizing suffering. In John Stuart Mill's classical version, the goal is to maximize happiness.

At a first glance, it seems that on such an analysis the moral thing to do would be to pursue the career that can help the most people. But this is not necessarily the case. There are several reasons why. First, there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory ("you must do") and acts that are superogatory ("doing so means you're a great person worthy of praise"). If being a computer programmer would contribute to increasing the good, then it's not entirely clear that it is wrong to be one -- unless the version is severe to the point of always requiring you to maximize the good.

Second, many consequentialist accounts work by coming up with rules that would maximize the good rather than calculating every time. (We don't want to weigh whether it would make people happier or not every time we are deciding to kill someone , so we just evaluate the problem generally). So then, it's going to depend on certain calculations about how such acts will impact society generally.

Third, a utilitarian approach would also need to factor in how this choice will effect your productivity. In other words, a depressed doctor who sees one patient a year probably provides less good than a happy mathematician whose work dramatically improves our ability to deliver food around the world through his equations.

All of that to say, philosophy in generic terms cannot tell you that you must become a doctor. But it can give you tools to look at this problem in several different ways. And on most analyses, you are in no way required to become a doctor rather than a mathematician but it might be a noble choice to make in order to help others.

  • You may want to summarize your answer. To make it more accessible. Helping others is not noble - helping yourself is. And in no way you can show that by helping others we are ACTUALLY making them better. – Asphir Dom Apr 19 '14 at 22:47

You need to broaden your thinking.

  • You could become a mathematician and work on optimising ambulance response. Your objective function is to minimise something such as deaths, and your constraints are the geography, position of ambulances and a function relating time to probability that a caller will die. If you do this properly you can save many lives.
  • Or you could become a computer scientist and use machine learning to build prediction models to assist doctors in diagnoses.
  • You can build surprise forecasting models to alert doctors to look twice if interactions between a patient's features indicate that the doctor is likely to overlook something (these actually exist).
  • As a computer scientist you can build reinforcement learning and robotics tools to help with delicate surgery that humans are not good at.
  • You can build prediction models to monitor patients in a hospital and alert doctors if there is likely to be a problem with this patient.
  • You can become a biostatistician and save lives indirectly.
  • You can use quantitative models to build better prostheses to liberate physically disabled patients.
  • You can improve existing quantitative epidemiology models to better combat the spread of infectious disease.
  • You can improve the application of statistical testing to drug trials, perhaps meaning legitimate drugs can go to market faster and ineffective drugs can be weeded out quickly.
  • You can work on even more ambitious things than the above. I have seen a lecture of a new technology created by computer scientists that shoots mosquitoes with a laser in places with high rates of Malaria. This is the type of thing that could scale to save millions of lives. You need to apply cutting edge computer vision algorithms, or you could be a physicist and contribute to the laser design.

I suggest you look at lectures (such as on TED) that describe the ways in which computer scientists and mathematicians are helping the medical profession in great ways.

If you are a really good quant, you can contribute greatly to humanity (and save many lives) without needing to directly save people with your two hands.

  • +1 very good examples of helping indirectly and suggesting helping indirectly might be in sum total "better" than helping directly. – obelia Apr 19 '14 at 18:46
  • He can also skip college, become an entrepreneur, and give to charities he cares about. – Dan Esparza Apr 21 '14 at 14:54
  • @DanEsparza That is not necessarily a way to maximise E[Wealth(t)]. – user2763361 Apr 21 '14 at 14:57
  • Tell that to Matt Mullenweg, Arash Ferdowsi, Mark Zuckerberg, David Karp, Dustin Moskovitz, Pete Cashmore, Danielle Morrill, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, Susan Lyne, Evan Williams, and ... oh yeah: Bill Gates. – Dan Esparza Apr 21 '14 at 19:36
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    @DanEsparza This is as fallacious as saying that the best way to maximise E[Wealth] is to be a poker player "because of Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey,...". What's needed is sensible statistical thinking - The expectation operator is applied to the entire population, why is why being a victim of availability heuristic does not constitute evidence. You also have a lot of heterogeneity within a population. It could be that successful entrepreneurship requires features X, but he has characteristics/features Y instead. – user2763361 Apr 22 '14 at 0:34

If this were simply an academic exercise, then a formal analysis based on a utilitarian analysis or other moral theory would suffice. However, as I read this as an ethical issue that you are seriously addressing for your personal decision making, I will try to help from a personal perspective.

As a young person, I looked at things in this way. What is the best way my life can contribute to mankind. Along with my more vocationally oriented courses, I also studied philosophy and religious studies to that end. It has now been 20 years since that time and I have a very different perspective on the correct way to make life decisions.

Philosophical theories are great for ruling out bad choices, or justifying actions that you wish to take, but it is next to useless for choosing between multiple acceptable options.

It is a little like trying to drive a car based on the laws of physics. Your destination, what route to take, what time to leave, what car to use are all highly personal and can not begin to be captured by the laws of physics. Physics may let you know the maximum range of your car before refueling, the maximum speed to travel around a corner, or the minimum following distance. It can rule out many courses of action, but it can't provide motivation for any particular action.

I have often seen philosophy and religion misused to create personal obligations. But the world and people are far too complex for any philosophy to even begin to accurately model, and can not provide motivation or answer the big personal questions you will need to answer in life. What career to persue, where to live, who to choose as your life partner? Philosophy can be useful to try to make sure you don't engage in a moral pileup which damages youself and others, but that is about it.

Based on my informal working philosophy, I would get advice from those who know you well, professional career advisors, and look to yourself for what you will find deeply personally satisfying. If the path that you choose is in harmony with your abilities, what you enjoy, and your values, you will be able to do an unmeasurable amount of good in the world, no matter what particular job you have.


To clear up any misunderstanding, I think philosophy can be useful for developing attitudes that are important for leading a rich and meaningful life in community. For example, the universal value of all people, which has served as the basis of several moral theories. Philosophical reflection is also especially useful for ruling out activities which contravene our basic values and moral impulses.

However, it is simply not in the realm of moral philosophy to be able to make positive recommendations of vocations or other life choices, like using physics to decide where you should go on holiday. It is a mistaken use of philosophy to try, and can have unfortunate personal consequences when used like this.

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    While this might be helpful for OP, this is not a philosophical answer in terms of how this is defined for the purposes of philosophy.stackexchange.com – virmaior Apr 19 '14 at 6:18
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    I would argue that a discussion of the purpose and limitations of theories of moral philosophy is a valid philosophical discussion. It is instructive on the nature of academic philosophy, I think, that you have downvoted this for being helpful rather than being philosophical ;-) – Richard Apr 19 '14 at 6:38
  • Your posting makes some excellent points for the OP to absorb. I've made several big life decisions which I allowed to be dictated by what I thought was 'expected' (or 'best' from a utilitarian point of view), and have regretted them ever since. Choosing an occupation that is personally fulfilling (whether or not it's 'useful' -- itself a problematic notion, as John Moreno and virmaior have also pointed out here) is, in my opinion, one of the most important personal decisions anyone is likely to make. I recommend the OP not to disregard this criterion when weighing up his available choices. – Erik Kowal Apr 19 '14 at 7:01
  • @Richard, your comment misunderstands why I downvoted and misunderstands the point of philosophy.se. To give an analogy. (1) OP asks a question on unix.se (2) you answer that they should switch to windows (3)I downvote (4) you complain that this shows what is wrong with unix as an approach to OS. The point is not that there isn't other advice that could help the OP, it's that philosophy.se is specifically not about personal philosophies. – virmaior Apr 19 '14 at 7:58
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    @virmaior - Looking at the full list of StackExchange sites to identify a more appropriate one for the OP's question, I don't see a better fit for it than this one. Also, the overview of this site at philosophy.stackexchange.com/tour doesn't manifestly exclude the OP's question from the site's stated scope - at least, not in my judgment. But if I'm wrong, I would seriously have to question the site's usefulness to anyone besides academic philosophers who have no interest in using their insights for any practical purpose. I think it's necessary to cut non-specialists a little slack here. – Erik Kowal Apr 19 '14 at 10:19

If you start from an assumption that you want to maximize "preservation of human lives", then most likely becoming a physician is NOT the way to do so; instead, any profession that scales can maximize that value. A practicing oncologist can only help his direct patients, a research oncologist can help a much greater number of cancer patients globally, even if "help for each person" is smaller.

I.e., a social project, drug research, charity project, etc that extends lifespan by a month for a million people has some ten times greater effect than personally saving a hundred of dying people. Achieving any measurable difference to large populations outweighs anything you could possibly do for the (very limited) number of people you can help in person.

A highly successful USA surgeon can save more lives by donating part of their income to cost-effective life-saving charities than by actually doing life-saving surgery - again, because of the scaling effect. A successful capitalist (e.g. Bill Gates through his foundation) is able to save much more lives than any practicing doctor.

So, for that assumption professions that achieve scaling effects - generally, R&D (including medical research) or political/social areas - would be the way to go for maximizing the good you can do.

  • +1 for scalability, which is possible as a mathematician, physicist and computer science. – user2763361 Apr 19 '14 at 15:26

The tag and framing of this question implies a utilitarian starting point so I'm starting here. In that context, this questions can be broken down into three independent questions that can be more easily dealt with. I will dig into the one I think is most likely to lead to an answer.

1. Is Utilitarianism the correct framework for determining right & wrong?

There are many choice out there. I find utilitarianism convincing.

2. What is the most moral choice from a Utilitarian perspective?

This is more of a practical question than a philosophically fundamental one. Interesting nonetheless, especially in our complex world.

What choices do you have, apart from medicine? Medical school places are limited so the school should produce the same number of doctors regardless of your choice. If you give up your place in medical school, perhaps it will be taken by a person who will otherwise have become an evil corporate lawyer and the net result of your choice will be to replacing a harm doing lawyer with a harm reducing doctor. Meanwhile you could devote yourself to engineering, a profession without a yearly cap on graduates and focus on inventing medical technology.

It might be also be useful to think of this in terms of comparative advantage, an economic concept.

It's hard to answer these questions.

3. As a utilitarian, should I always do the most moral thing I can do

Utilitarianism at its core is a framework for quantifying an action's rightness or wrongness. It's based on "The Greatest Happiness Principle." This is an abstract exercise aimed at reaching a rational definition of right and wrong. The Utilitarian morality of an action is a measure of the total pleasure and pain to humans (and perhaps animals) resulting from that action. Choices can be ranked from most to least moral. Is one always morally obliged to choose the most moral action? This is not as obvious under utilitarianism as it is under other frameworks. All systems of morality need to contend with the questions: 'What is moral?' and 'Why should I be moral?' Because of its quantitative nature, utilitarianism gets stuck with a third question: 'How moral should I be?'

It's important to remember that most utilitarian philosophers were mostly concerned with morality for institutions, not individuals. In the context of a government policy or decision taken at a non-profit, attempting to do the most moral thing at all times is a relatively straightforward and common sense objective.

Jeremy Bentham & John Stuart Mill were writing and acting mostly in the context of convincing legislators and policy makers. Bentham advocated policies such as welfarism and abolitionism because he deemed them consistent with the "greatest happiness principle" and therefore moral. If you convince an uncorrupted legislator that some policy is the most moral one, the argument is over. The correct law or policy is the most moral one.

A more modern example is Peter Singer (who bases most of his ideas on Bentham's) and his work on bio-ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. These can be personal decisions, not just institutional ones. However, like legislative choices one is ostensible searching for the most moral action by default.

Peters Singer does bring his philosophy into the personal arena with books aimed at the general public. When taking Utilitarianism to the personal ethics arena, it gets a lot hairier. A simple utilitarianism does not allow for preferential treatment of your own pleasure and pain or your own. So if you have a choice between relaxing on Saturday or working an extra day in order to fund a charitable cause which will alleviate more suffering than you experience by working Saturday, that is the most moral thing to do. Sundays & evenings too.

Maybe in the case of a prospective medical student the right choice is the one where he will make the most money. Maybe corporate law. The proceeds from practising law can be used to fund medical treatment for the poor of the world. There are many charities that can turn your money into cataract surgery of life saving inoculations. That might lead to more overall happiness in the world, but probably lead to less happiness the the medical student turned saintly lawyer.

I think it's obvious where I am going with this. If being moral means always taking the most moral action possible, this sets an impossibly high standard for morality. Its an absurdity. Not even moral philosophers live like this. It's a very extreme conclusion.

In my opinion, this is where utilitarianism starts to falter. We have a definition of good and bad that I find very convincing. We have a desire to be moral, that's why we started examining these questions in the first place. We don't have a framework by which to live. My own resolution is to declare an answer to this question to be outside the scope of utilitarianism. Morality is a consideration in one's life, but it is not the only consideration. To be practicing utilitarians, we do not need to be monks. We simply need to use utilitarian reasoning when we are making moral considerations.

To the extent that this question is personal rather than an abstract, I would advise that it is practically very difficult to predict and analyse the results of you choice of profession. Do not make morality the only lens through which you make this choice.


You are on the horns of a dilemma: 1) You believe that you will do better at physics, math, or computer science than medicine. 2) You believe that you could save more lives/do more good for society by working in medicine.

In your shoes, I would try to find a way to do both. For instance, computer science has many potential applications to medical research. I'm not quite sure of the applications of math or physics, but there are probably a few. For all anyone knows, in one of those fields, you might find the cure for cancer (or produce an algorithm) that leads to its discovery. That is "indirect," but could save many more lives than merely working as a doctor.

My (engineer) father used to say that a society that values a second-rate philosopher over a first rate plumber will find that neither its philosophy nor plumbing holds water.

So do what you do best. But keep your medical aspirations in mind so that you can "circle back" that way from computer science, physics or math, and satisfy both sets of desires. "Where there's a will, there's a way."


No. You are not obligated to do anything. Your only obligation is to live and die in that order. Or maybe vice versa.

Or maybe let me reference the common consensus aka. common opinion:


Noun 1. moral obligation - an obligation arising out of considerations of right and wrong; "he did it out of a feeling of moral obligation" duty, obligation, responsibility - the social force that binds you to the courses of action demanded by that force; "we must instill a sense of duty in our children"; "every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty"- John D.Rockefeller Jr

Going by the references above.

  1. If your duty is to follow your feelings then yes you are bound to follow your feelings. The Economist Altruism: The joy of giving

  2. If you can clearly distinguish between joining medicine being right and it being wrong, and you think right is better than wrong, you can do so too. You don't have too though. Unless you follow 1. The free dictionary Morally Right

  3. There is a social force, aka. peer pressure. If you want to follow that pressure and think it is good to be pressured into doing something you also can join medicine. But what is peer pressure? The feeling of not following the herd. Which brings us back to 1.

So morality is basically a feeling of what your peers say or would say. I guess this is why you are asking this question. But! are we your peers? If so then I'd say yes a doctor more is better than a doctor less on this planet. As long as there are people left to feed us, clothe us, shelter us etc.

There might be other justifications for joining medicine for you though. Or not.

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    Why so many downvotes? Is swearing not allowed here? – user132181 Apr 19 '14 at 9:41
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    It seems your answer was downvoted because it is too opinion-based. – user132181 Apr 19 '14 at 9:50
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    Yes, in some sense. When you're referring to some school of thought or opinions of professional philosophers, it means that you're referring to opinions that are thought through very carefully and thoroughly. – user132181 Apr 19 '14 at 9:57
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    Then after stating your opinion give concise reasons why you think something is the case. This site is about questions and answers, not questions and (seemingly) random opinions. – user132181 Apr 19 '14 at 10:05
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Even so, by an elementary utilitarian calculus, it seems preferable to me that one person be slightly less satisfied with their life than someone die due to a lack of available medical attention.

This could be relevant if you are living in an area where there is a shortage of medical doctors, or if you plan to start your medical career in such an area. Or if your plan is to pay some medical attention for those who can't pay. But then again, this has impact on your family life and (to put it euphemistically) lifestyle choices so the question arises, whether you would really be just slightly less satisfied. Fighting ebola virus in some remote areas may give you a lot of moral pleasure, and this may erase the dissatisfaction from lower living standard and reduced lifestyle choices. Or it may not. Depending on how much you're like David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer.

Now to a more realistic scenario. Suppose you have no intention of becoming a moral hero, but you would just like to pick a profession that is most profitable for the rest of humanity while still guaranteeing you an expected living standard (the expectations may, of course, vary depending on the effort and talent you put in). Is, then, becoming a medical doctor the best choice?

This is a very complicated calculus but there are people who could do such calculations. In health care economics, effects on public health are measured in "DALY's" (disability-adjusted life years). How many DALY's will you save during your entire career as a doctor? Or suppose you study mathematics and become a biostatistician who discovers a clever statistical method that will allow to .. ummm .. say, work out new drugs faster. Or suppose you become a public health propagandist and will convince millions of people to give up smoking and to go for a run three times a week. Or suppose you become an IT expert and you design a device to monitor the health condition of people with chronic diseases (and consequently, use less of medical doctors' time). How many DALY's will these alternative options save? You say it's "elementary" utilitarian calculus, but it's not. After doing all those complicated calculations (which are, in principle, doable), you will still find that the result depends on a number of premises. And you certainly have no moral obligation to be a fortune-teller.

There is just one thing that is highly recommendable: living a healthy life (in terms of physical activity, eating, sleep etc). Besides being less of a burden for health care system (and thus freeing some medical doctors' time for people who have unavoidable diseases), this means you will enjoy your life more.

Have a good time.


I will not challenge your moral compass nor will I reveal my own, insofar as to alert you to whether or not I agree or disagree with it.

I will challenge this premise on which your uncertainty is founded: To effectively contribute to the preservation of human life (through my skilled work), I must be a doctor or a biomedical engineer.

I believe this is false based on categorical evidence. Consider the minds behind healthcare technology like ultrasound and MRI machines: computer engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists, physicists, mechanical engineers. All of these professions can and do contribute to the development of this technology through direct employment in either a healthcare company like Philips Medical or through research at a university. I know a couple of people with such professions. And the fruits of their efforts directly affect lives in the way you describe.

You need to realize that whichever science or technology background you pick does not prevent you from working on problems you feel satisfy your moral tenets. This cage, where your passions lead you away from helping humanity in the way your heart burns to, is purely in the confines of your mind. You're imagining it. You can be a mathematician doing gene fold research or a computer scientist programming the UI for an ultrasound machine. You can be a mechanical engineer designing an insulin pump. You can be a chemical engineer designing cancer drugs. You have a wide range of choices above and beyond what you think; only some, like aeronautical engineering or petroleum engineering, don't actually make sense. You do not have to be a doctor to be at peace with yourself in the way you are seeking.


"by an elementary utilitarian calculus", you may do more harm than good in the medicine, mostly if you're not fully satisfied. Modern medicine is already criticized for being too much mercantilist ("curing" illness with the aid of expensive drugs full of bad side-effects), and too less about preventing diseases (the "high medicine" goal of old chinese medicine).

Now, if a slight dissatisfaction would make you lean towards accepting or questioning the farmaceutical-industry-dominated-system, that's something hard to predict.

Gandhi was a lawyer and managed to peacefully free 350 million indians from the British rule.

Bertrand Russell was a mathematician and also a philosopher, who wrote great books that helped push a little further the now growing obscurantism.

So my advice|answer would be: do what you like most, only in this way you'll have the energy to bring to the world the truth we need.


"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge." --Bertrand Russell. What I believe, 1925.

In other words, cultivate your heart and seek guidance in knowledge, not in morality. It is important to cultivate your heart first. Historically, the self-same lofty moral code has often been used by people with bitter hearts to inflict cruelty.

In order to become a loving, forgiving person, you must make yourself happy, that is, to engage in activities that give you intrinsic pleasure. And there are instinctive pleasures characteristic of your age you should not postpone.

Physics, mathematics, and computer science, medicine and biomedical engineering, I would recommend you study them all. You can always teach yourself mathematics and computer science, but you need professional credential to access some fancy science labs. To make the most out of school, medicine is the way to go. Even if you end up rich and young like Richard Yoo, it is still good for you to come back and become a scientist, because when one grows older and life starts to lose savour, science becomes a major source of pleasure.

Be warned, modern pure mathematics is a mess. Take engineering classes instead where mathematics is checked by reality. Also stay away from theoretical physics. Beware of theories.

A good role model is James Watson. Another one is Pavlov. Both spent the majority of their time in the labs; none involved much mathematics. The lab is where you strike gold, not classrooms.

The danger of platonism is that it implies mathematics is the source of knowledge. But the truth is mathematics consists entirely of different ways of saying the same thing.

Edit: The following is an except from Bertrand Russell's The Art of Philosophizing:

If you wish, therefore, to understand the world theoretically, so far as it can be understood, you much learn a very considerable amount of mathematics. If your interests are practical, and you only wish to manipulate the world, whether for your own profit or for that of mankind, you can, without learning much mathematics, achieve a great deal by building on the work of your predecessors. But a society which confined itself to such work would be, in a sense, parasitic on what had been already discovered.

Again, be warned: go to school only when it is necessary. If you go to American school for math, nine times out of ten you will be stuffed with stuff. Mathematics is supposed to improve clear thinking, but American math education has exactly the opposite effect because almost all American math educators are formalists.

Remember what Karl Marx has done to us.

protected by Community Apr 22 '14 at 21:25

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