Lots of people say they want to “make a difference,” “do good,” “have a social impact,” or “make the world a better place” — but they rarely say what they mean by those terms.
By clarifying your definition, you can better target your efforts, and make a difference more effectively.
But how should you define social impact?
Thousands of years of philosophy have gone into that question. We’re going to try to sum up that thinking; introduce a practical, rough-and-ready definition of social impact; and explain why we think it’s a good definition to focus on.
This is a bit ambitious for one article, so to the philosophers in the audience, please forgive the enormous simplifications. We hope the usefulness of the definition will make up for it.
If you just want a quick answer, here’s the simple version of our definition (a more philosophically precise one — and an argument for it — follows below):
Your social impact is given by the number of people1 whose lives you improve and how much you improve them, over the long term.
This shows that you can increase your impact in two ways: by helping more people over time, or by helping the same number of people to a greater extent (pictured below).
We say “over the long term” because you can help more people either by helping a greater number now, or taking actions with better long-term effects.
This definition is enough to help you figure out what to aim at in many situations — e.g. by roughly comparing the number of people affected by different issues. But sometimes you need a more precise definition.
A more rigorous definition of social impact
Here’s our working definition of “social impact”:
“Social impact” or “making a difference” is (tentatively) about promoting total expected wellbeing — considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.
In the rest of this article, we’ll expand on:
Why we think social impact is primarily about ‘promoting’ what’s of value — i.e. making the world better — rather than other kinds of moral considerations.
Two final notes before we start. First, our definition is tentative — there’s a good chance we’re wrong and it might change. Second, its purpose is practical — it aims to cover the most important aspects of doing good to help people make better real-life decisions, rather than capture everything that’s morally relevant.
Reading time: 15 minutes.
In a nutshell
“Social impact” or “making a difference” is (tentatively) about promoting total expected wellbeing — considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.
Why “promoting”? When people say they want to “make a difference,” we think they’re primarily talking about making the world better — i.e. ‘promoting’ good things and preventing bad ones — rather than merely not doing unethical actions (e.g. stealing) or being virtuous in some other way.
Why “wellbeing”? We understand wellbeing 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. We chose this as the focus because most people agree these things matter, but there are often large differences in how much different actions improve these outcomes.
Why do we say “expected” wellbeing? We can never know with certainty the effects that our actions will have on wellbeing. The best we can do is try to weigh the benefits of different actions by their probability — i.e. compare based on ‘expected value.’ Note that while the action with the highest expected value is best in principle, that doesn’t imply that the best way to find the best action is to make explicit quantitative estimates. It’s often better in practice to use rules of thumb, our intuition, or other methods, since these maximise expected value better than explicit expected value calculations. (Read more on expected value.)
Why “considered impartially”? 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. In addition, we think that the interests of many nonhuman animals, and even potentially sentient future digital beings, should be given significant weight, although we’re unsure of the exact amount. Thus, we don’t think social impact 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).
Why do we say “over the long term”? We think that if you take an impartial perspective, then the welfare of those who live in the future matters. Because there could be many more future generations than those alive today, our effects on them could be of great moral importance. We thus try to always consider not just the direct and short-term effects of actions, but also any indirect effects that might occur in the far future.
Why do we add “without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance”? We aren’t sure that improving welfare is the only thing that matters morally — moral philosophers have been arguing over what matters for a long time and it seems arrogant to assume we know the answer. Thus we think it’s important to respect other values as well — e.g. autonomy and fairness. We find that this 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.
Social impact is about making the world better
What does it mean to act ethically? Moral philosophers have debated this question for millenia, and have arrived at three main kinds of answers:
Making the world better — e.g. helping others.
Acting rightly — e.g. respecting the rights of others and not doing wrong.
Being virtuous — e.g. being honest, kind, and wise.
We think all three perspectives have something to offer, but when our readers talk about wanting to “make a difference,” they’re most interested in the first of these perspectives — changing the world for the better.
We agree this focus makes sense — we don’t just want to avoid doing wrong, or live honest lives, but actually leave the world better than we found it.
And there is a lot we can all do to get better at that.
For instance, we’ve shown that by donating 10% of their income to highly effective charities, most college graduates can save the lives of over 40 people over their lifetimes with a relatively minor sacrifice.
From an ethical perspective, whether you save 40 lives or not will probably be one of the most significant questions you’ll ever face.
In our essay on your most important decision, we argued that some career paths open to you will do hundreds of times more to make the world a better place than others. So it seems really important to figure out what those paths are.
In contrast, it’s often a lot easier to know whether a path violates someone’s rights or involves virtuous behaviour (most career paths seem pretty OK on those fronts), so there’s less to gain from focusing there.
This might sound like common sense, but it turns out to be an unusual way to look at things.
Much existing advice on ‘ethical careers’ is about avoiding working at bad companies rather than how we can do more good.
And discussion of ethical living more broadly typically focuses on reducing harm, rather than how we can best do good.
For instance, when it comes to fighting climate change, there’s a lot of focus on our personal carbon emissions, rather than figuring out what we can do to best fight climate change.
Asking the second question suggests radically different actions. The best things we can do to fight climate change probably involve working on, advocating for, and donating to exceptional research and advocacy opportunities, rather than worrying about plastic bags, recycling, or turning out the lights.
Why is there so much focus on our personal emissions? One explanation is that common-sense ethical thinking hasn’t caught up with the situation that modern technology has put us in.
Our ethical views originate from before the 20th century, and sometimes from thousands of years ago. If you were a medieval peasant, your main ethical priority was to help your family survive, without cheating or harming your neighbours. You didn’t have the knowledge, power, or time to help hundreds of people or affect the long-term future.
The Industrial Revolution gave us wealth and technology not even available to kings and queens in previous centuries. Now, many ordinary citizens of rich countries have enormous power to do good, and this means the potential consequences of our actions are usually what’s most ethically significant about them.
So, we think ‘social impact’ or ‘making a difference’ should be about making the world better. But what does that mean?
What does it mean to make the world better?
We imagine building a world in which the most beings can have the best possible lives in the long term — lives that are free from suffering and injustice, and full of happiness, adventure, connection, and meaning.
There are two key components to this vision — impartiality and a focus on wellbeing — which we’ll now unpack.
Impartiality: everyone matters equally
When it comes to ‘making a difference,’ we think we should strive to be impartial — i.e. to give equal weight to everyone’s interests.
This means striving to avoid privileging the interests of anyone based on arbitrary factors such as their race, gender, or nationality, as well as where or even when they live. We also think that the interests of many nonhuman animals should be given significant weight, although we’re unsure of the exact amount. Importantly, we’re also concerned about potentially sentient future digital beings, which could exist in very large numbers and whose welfare could be in part determined by how we design them.
The idea of impartiality is common in many ethical traditions, and is closely related to the “Golden Rule” of treating others as you’d like to be treated, no matter who they are.
Acting impartially is an ideal, and it’s not all that matters. As individuals, we all have other personal goals, such as caring for our friends and family, carrying out our personal projects, and having our own lives go well. Even considering only moral goals, it’s plausible we have other values or ethical commitments beyond impartially helping others.
We’re not saying you should abandon these other goals, and strive to treat everyone equally in all circumstances.
Rather, the claim is that insofar as your goal is to ‘make a difference’ or ‘have a social impact,’ we don’t see good reason to privilege any one group over another — and that you should therefore have some concern for the interests of strangers, nonhumans, and other neglected groups.
(And even if you think that the ultimate ideal is to have equal concern for all beings, as a matter of psychology, you probably have other, competing goals, and it’s not helpful to pretend you don’t.)
In Peter Singer’s essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, he imagines you’re walking and come across a child drowning in a pond. Everyone agrees that you should run in and save the child, even if it would ruin your new suit and shoes.
This illustrates a principle that many people can get behind: if you can help a stranger a great deal with little cost to yourself, that’s a good thing to do. This shows that most people give some weight to the interests of others.
If it also turns out that you have a lot of power to help others (as we argued above), then it would imply that social impact should be one of the main focuses of your life.
Impartiality also implies that you should think carefully about who you can help the most. It’s common to say that “charity begins at home,” but if everyone’s interests matter equally, and you can help more people who are living far away (e.g. because they’re without cheap basic necessities you can provide), then you should help the more distant people.
We’re convinced that a degree of impartiality is reasonable, and that many people should try thinking harder about impartiality than they are used to. But there remains huge questions about how impartial to be.
The trend over history seems to have been towards a greater impartiality and a wider and wider circle of concern, but we’re unsure where that should stop. For instance, compared to people today, how exactly should we weigh the interests of nonhuman animals, people who don’t exist yet, and potential digital agents? This is called the question of moral patienthood.
Here’s an example of the stakes of this question: we don’t see much reason to discount the interests of future generations simply because they’re distant from us in time. But because there could be so many people in the future, the main focus of efforts to do good should be to leave the best possible world for those future generations. This idea has been called ‘longtermism,’ and is explored in a separate article in the key ideas series. We think longtermism is an important perspective, which is why we say “over the long term” in our definition of social impact.
This section was about who to help; the next section is about what helps.
Wellbeing: what does it mean to help others?
When aiming to help others, our tentative hypothesis is that we should aim to increase their wellbeing as much as possible — i.e. enable more individuals to live flourishing lives that are healthy, happy, fulfilled; are in line with their wishes; and are free from avoidable suffering.
Although people disagree over whether wellbeing is the only thing that matters morally, almost everyone agrees that things like health and happiness matter a lot — and so we think it should be a central focus in efforts to make a difference.
Putting impartiality and a focus on wellbeing together means that, roughly, how much positive difference an action makes depends on how it increases the wellbeing of those affected, and how many are helped — no matter when or where they live.
In practical situations, however, we rarely find that different views of wellbeing drive different decisions, such as about which global problems to focus on. The three notions correlate closely enough that differences in views are usually driven by other factors (such as the question of where to draw the boundaries of the expanding circle discussed in the previous section).
What else might matter besides wellbeing? There are many candidates, which is why we say promoting wellbeing is only a “tentative” hypothesis.
Preserving the environment enables the planet to support more beings with greater wellbeing in the long term, and so is also good from the perspective of promoting wellbeing. However, some believe that we should preserve the environment even if it doesn’t make life better for any sentient beings, showing they place intrinsic value on preserving the environment.
Others think we should place intrinsic value on autonomy, fairness, knowledge, and many other values.
Fortunately, promoting these other values often goes hand in hand with promoting wellbeing, and there are often common goals that people with many values can share, such as avoiding existential risks. So again, we believe that the weight people put on these different values has less effect on what to do than often supposed, although they can lead to differences in emphasis.
We’re not going to be able to settle the question of defining everything that’s of moral value in this article, but we think that promoting wellbeing is a good starting point — it captures much of what matters and is a goal that almost everyone can get behind.
How good is it to create a happy person?
We’ve mostly spoken above as if we’re dealing with potential effects on a fixed population, but some decisions could result in more people existing in the long term (e.g. deflecting an asteroid), while others mainly benefit people who already exist (e.g. treating people with parasitic worms, which rarely kill people but cause a lot of suffering). So we need to compare the value of increasing the number of people with positive wellbeing with benefiting those who already exist.
This question is studied by the field of ‘population ethics’ and is an especially new and unsettled area of philosophy.
We won’t try to summarise this huge topic here, but our take is that the most plausible view is that we should maximise total wellbeing — i.e. the number of people (again including all beings whose lives matter morally) who exist in all of history, weighted by their level of wellbeing. This is why we say “total” wellbeing in the definition.
That said, there are some powerful responses to this position, which we briefly sketch out in the article on longtermism. For this reason, we’re not certain of this ‘totalist’ view, and so put some weight on other perspectives.
Expected value: acting under uncertainty
How do you know what will increase wellbeing the most? In short, you don’t.
You have to weigh up the different likelihoods of different outcomes, and act even though you’re uncertain. We believe the theoretical ideal here is to take the action with the greatest expected value compared to the counterfactual. This means taking into account both how much wellbeing our actions could result in, and how likely those outcomes are, and adding them together.
Why do we say “without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance”?
In our definition, we say social impact is about promoting wellbeing, but we also add “without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.”
The purpose of this clause is to remind us of how much could be left out of our definition, and how radical our uncertainty is.
Many moral views that were widely held in the past are regarded as flawed or even abhorrent today. This suggests we should expect our own moral views to be flawed in ways that are difficult for us to recognise.
There is still significant moral disagreement within society, among contemporary moral philosophers, and, indeed, within our own team.
And past projects aiming to pursue an abstract ethical ideal to the exclusion of all else have often ended badly.
The “without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance” clause is a shorthand for the idea that we should:
Respect others’ rights
Respect others’ values and be willing to compromise with them
Consider a range of ethical perspectives, and take actions that seem good based on many perspectives
Respect our other important personal priorities, like family, personal projects, and our own wellbeing
Be very cautious about doing anything that seems obviously wrong according to common sense
We think everyone has reason to be “morally uncertain” and so support these principles. You can read more about this in our separate articles:
Considering these principles, if we had to sum up our ethical code into a single sentence, it might be something like: promote wellbeing while respecting others’ rights.
And we think this is a position that people with consequentialist, deontological and virtue based ethics should all be able to get behind – it’s just that they support it for different reasons.
Is this just utilitarianism?
No. Utilitarianism claims that you’re morally obligated to take the action that does the most to increase wellbeing, as understood according to the hedonic view.
Our definition shares an emphasis on wellbeing and impartiality, but we depart from utilitarianism in that:
We don’t make strong claims about what’s morally obligated. Mainly, we believe that helping more people is better than helping fewer. If we were to make a claim about what we ought to do, it would be that we should help others when we can benefit them a lot with little cost to ourselves, which is much weaker than utilitarianism.
Our view is compatible with also putting weight on other notions of wellbeing, other moral values (e.g. autonomy), and other moral principles. In particular, we don’t endorse harming others for the greater good.
We’re very uncertain about the correct moral theory and try to put weight on multiple perspectives.
Overall, many members of our team don’t identify as being straightforward utilitarians or consequentialists.
Our main position isn’t that people should be more utilitarian, but that they should pay more attention to consequences than they do — and especially to the large differences in the scale of the consequences of different actions.
If one career path might save hundreds of lives, and another won’t, we should all be able to agree that matters.
In short, we think ethics should be more sensitive to scope.
Conclusion and what to read next
We’re not sure what it means to make a difference, but we think our definition is a reasonable starting point that many people should be able to get behind:
“Social impact” or “making a difference” is (tentatively) about promoting expected wellbeing — considered impartially, over the long term — without sacrificing anything that might be of comparable moral importance.
We’ve also gestured at how social impact might fit with your personal priorities and what else matters ethically, as well as many of our uncertainties about the definition — which can have a big effect on where to focus.
From there, you can start to explore which global problems are most pressing based on whatever definition of social impact you think is correct.
You’ll most likely find that the question of which global problems to focus on is more driven by empirical or methodological uncertainties than moral ones. But if you find a moral question is crucial, you can come back and explore the further reading below.
In short, if you have the extraordinary privilege to be a college graduate in a rich country and to have options for how to spend your career, it’s plausible that social impact, as defined in this way, should be one of your main priorities. How to act on that priority effectively is the focus of the rest of the key ideas series.
We often say “helping people” here for simplicity and brevity, but we don’t mean just humans — we mean anyone with experience that matters morally — e.g. nonhuman animals that can suffer or feel happiness, even conscious machines if they ever exist.↩