The meaning of making a difference

We talk a lot in our advice about “having a positive impact”, “doing good”, and “making a difference”. What do we mean when we use these phrases?

The question of what it ultimately means to do good is one for moral philosophy, and we don’t claim to know the answer. But for the purposes of our advice, we think it makes sense to use the following working definition:

“Doing good” or “making a difference” is about promoting welfare, considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.

What is “promoting welfare”? We understand welfare as an inclusive notion, meaning anything that makes people better off. We take this to encompass at least promoting happiness, health, and the ability for people to live the life they want.

What more precisely welfare consists in is a controversial question, which you can read about here. However, different views on this question are not usually decision-relevant in our choice of global priorities, as most of the ideas for what welfare might consist in — for instance happiness or getting to live a life of your choosing– are tightly correlated with one another.

Although people disagree over whether welfare is the only thing that matters morally, almost everyone agrees that things like health and happiness do matter a lot — and this is one reason we make promoting welfare central to our advice.

What do we mean by “considered impartially”? In short, we mean that we strive to treat equal effects on different beings’ welfare as equally morally important, no matter who they are — including people who live far away or in the future, and including non-humans. Thus, we don’t think doing good is limited to promoting the welfare of any particular group we happen to be partial to (such as people who are alive today, or human beings as a species), but is about promoting welfare impartially.

Why do we say “over the long term”? We think that very often, much of what matters about people’s actions is the difference they make over the long term — basically because we think that the welfare of those who live in the future matters; indeed, we think it matters no less than our own. We thus try to always consider not just the direct and short-term effects of actions, but also any indirect effects that might occur tens or even hundreds of years into the future.

Finally, why do we add “without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance”? Basically, we aren’t sure that improving welfare is the only thing that matters morally. Thus we think it’s important to respect other values as well — e.g., autonomy and fairness. We find that this very rarely comes up (respecting people’s autonomy and promoting their welfare generally go hand in hand); but if there were a conflict, we would try very hard to avoid any actions that seem seriously wrong from one of these other common-sense perspectives.

Check out our key ideas page, and especially this list of further reading, for more on all these ideas and why we think it makes sense to use this definition of making a difference.

Notes and references