The meaning of making a difference


Ultimately the question of what it means to “make a difference” is a question for moral philosophy. For the purposes of our career guide, our definition of “making a difference” or “having a social impact” is as follows:

The number of people whose lives you improve, and how much you improve them by.

We usually think of “improving lives” in terms of “increasing wellbeing”, treating everyone as equally valuable, and perhaps extending “people” to include non-humans.

We take a broad notion of wellbeing, including happiness, health and a lack of suffering, as well as broader notions of human flourishing or satisfying one’s preferences. As we explain below, we don’t think our advice usually depends on the precise definition.

Why did we choose this definition?

  1. Wellbeing, broadly defined, is something almost everyone cares about. People from a wide range of moral backgrounds agree that it’s good if people have have happier lives and endure less suffering.1 So focusing on wellbeing allows our advice to be relevant to a wide variety of people.

  2. There are large differences in the impact of different actions on wellbeing (e.g. we’ve argued that some global problems are over 100 times more pressing than others). This means wellbeing is a particularly important outcome to focus on.

  3. We have tools to compare the differences in wellbeing produced by different actions, such as cost-effectiveness analysis. This isn’t the case with other many other moral values, such as justice or beauty.

How do you measure impact in practice?

In practical terms, we think of your impact as the extent to which you contribute to solving social problems faster than they would have been solved otherwise.

This means you have a larger impact when (i) the problem is larger and (ii) you make a larger contribution to it.

How can you actually compare the scale of different social problems, given that in practice they’re extremely hard to measure?

Being difficult to measure doesn’t mean comparisons are impossible, it just means that we need to use approximate heuristics or ‘yardsticks’ instead. For instance, you can compare problems in terms of how much they increase wealth, health, the risk of exstinction, and other important goals. We explain what we mean by ‘yardsticks’ and list those that we find most useful here. You can see the rubric we use to assess the scale of different problems here.

When we’re uncertain we also use probabilities. For instance, a 90% chance of helping 100 people is roughly equivalent to a 100% chance of helping 90 people.

In practice, we recommend focusing on the problems that are most pressing according to our framework, and going into the careers where you can gain the greatest influence to solve these problems.

Why ‘faster than they would have been solved otherwise’?

The true impact of an action depends on what happens because of that action compared to what would have happened otherwise, not on what happens, period. When we work hard and see positive results, it’s often easy to neglect the fact that some portion of those results would have occurred anyway, or that someone else might have filled our role just as well as we did. There is often a gap between true impact and ‘tangible impact’—the immediate results of our actions—and understanding that gap is crucial to finding the places where you can make a real difference. We explain more here.

How important are value judgements about wellbeing in our advice?

The exact meaning of “wellbeing” is a value judgement. Most people agree about the basics (torture is bad, health is good), but some important issues are up for debate, and these can affect what “making a difference” means to you. For instance, the more highly you weigh the interests of animals compared to humans, the more you’ll care about ending factory farming compared to other causes.

Fortunately, most of our advice doesn’t depend on a particular definition of wellbeing. Different values will lead individuals to different conclusions about which problems are most pressing. However, things like acquiring career capital, building influence, and correctly weighing your options are largely independent of value judgments and useful to almost everyone. So we can help people contribute to a variety of problems, depending on their values.

Moreover, even when it comes to the question of which problems are most pressing, the main disagreements are often empirical rather than about values.

When our advice does depend on value judgements, we try to explicitly flag it so that you can make up your own mind. For instance, rather than present a single list of pressing problems, we made a tool that leads you through some of the most important judgement calls.

What about justice, human rights, the environment, and other values besides wellbeing?

Our definition of social impact is about helping people (and perhaps animals) live better lives. People sometimes wonder whether this means we don’t care about other values like justice or equality, or don’t care about helping the environment.

There are a few things to say about this:

  1. We do care about advancing justice, because a more just world is one in which people will live better lives i.e. advancing justice has social impact. Similarly, we care about the environment, because we need the environment so that humans and animals can live better lives.

  2. Justice and other values may well matter independently of their effect on people. However, this isn’t our focus. We focus on increasing wellbeing, and only look to advance justice insofar as it helps with that (due to the reasons above).

  3. That said, we don’t recommend making significant sacrifices of other values in order to increase wellbeing. Rather, we recommend people strive to have a social impact within the bounds of normal morality. For instance, we wouldn’t endorse stealing in order to donate more.

  4. Even if you don’t care that much about wellbeing compared to these other values, you can still use our advice. You’ll just have a very different ranking of problems from us. The rest of our advice remains nearly unchanged.

Now, continue with the career guide.

Notes and references

  1. This is true even for people who aren't utilitarians. Utilitarians think that only wellbeing matters. People who support other moral theories typically think wellbeing matters, as well as other values and moral rules.