In this section, we lay out what we mean by these phrases. In brief, we think ‘making a difference’ is about promoting welfare in the long term. However, we’re highly uncertain about this definition, so in practice aim to consider other perspectives.
Our advice doesn’t entirely depend on the philosophical views we gesture at in this section, but we think it’s important to be transparent about them, as these broad ideas have informed our advice since we started in 2011. Alternatively, skip ahead to our practical suggestions.
It sounds obvious that if you can help two people rather than one, and the cost to you is the same, it’s better to help the two people. However, when applied to the world today, this obvious-sounding idea leads to surprising conclusions.
Modern levels of wealth and technology have given some members of the present generation potentially enormous abilities to help others, while our common-sense views of what it means to be a good person have not caught up with this change. This means that some actions that are widely considered to ‘do good’ have dramatically greater positive consequences than others.
For instance, the UK’s National Health Service and many US government agencies are willing to spend over $30,000 to give someone an extra year of healthy life.2 This is a fantastic use of resources by ordinary standards.
However, research by GiveWell has found that it’s possible to give an infant a year of healthy life by donating around $100 to one of the most cost-effective global health charities, such as Against Malaria Foundation. This is about 0.33% as much.3 This suggests that at least in terms of improving health, one career working somewhere like AMF might achieve as much as 300 careers focused on one typical way of doing good in a rich country.
These kinds of health programmes offer such a good opportunity to do good that even the most prominent aid sceptics have offered few arguments against them.
When we’ve looked at other ways of doing good, we’ve found this pattern replicated: the most effective ways to help usually seem much better than what’s typical. We’ll give more examples later.
This wide spread of outcomes is also probably what we should expect to find.
A trait like height follows a ‘normal’ distribution: the tallest people are only about 50% taller than the average. A trait like income, however, follows a ‘fat tail’ distribution: the highest-earning people earn thousands of times more than average. This concept has also been popularised as the ‘80/20 principle’, or as the idea that outcomes are dominated by ‘black swan events’.
We expect that the distribution of the expected impact of different actions is more likely to be like income than height.
One reason for this is that if the outcomes of different actions are caused by the multiplication of several factors — as they often are — then the value of different actions will end up as a fat tailed distribution (technically, a log-normal distribution).
There is also some empirical evidence for a fat tail in how cost-effective interventions are. It also seems like many social programmes have little impact at all, which by itself would create a significant difference between the best and typical.
This means that if your aim is to impartially help others, your key concern shouldn’t just be to ‘make a difference’ — it should be to identify the very best ways to help among the options open to you. This insight is the key idea behind the ‘effective altruism’ movement, which we helped to found in 2012 (see an academic introduction and a popular introduction).
This idea might sound obvious, but when we surveyed people on how much more effective they think the best charities are compared to the median, a typical response was that the best charities are only 66% more effective; whereas instead it seems like the difference is more like 10,000%. So, the difference between the best and typical ways of helping are much larger than ordinarily supposed.
This means the top priority in doing good is to get the big picture right, and not to sweat the details. If you can do better on the big decisions, then you can have hundreds of times more impact than what’s typical, which is an amazing feat. That’s what the rest of this series is about.