How should we think about doing good?
Many people would like to have a positive impact on the world with their job, but what exactly does this mean? There’s a whole lot of socially conscious jargon thrown around in company mission statements and job descriptions these days. If you truly want to make a difference in the world, it’s worth taking a step back to look beyond the buzzwords.
While there’s no single definition of what it means to do good, how you think about this question could have major implications for your career. For instance, should you focus on helping people or animals? How much should you change your lifestyle to help those with less resources than you? Does it make sense to focus on helping those around you or think more globally? Should you work directly for a charity or should you take a high-paying job to donate more money?
These are complicated questions, and you certainly don’t have to have all the answers. But before jumping into your career search, we think it’s worth taking a step back. In part 1 of the guide, we’ll explore the different approaches to doing good, reflect on how your personal values influence your actions, and think about how to best prioritize our time and resources to do the most good.
The most good
Imagine that you have $1000 to donate anywhere you want. As you think over your decision and look into different important causes, you come across a passionate plea from Wikipedia. “If Wikipedia has given you $2.75 worth of knowledge,” reads a pop-up box, “take a minute to donate to the Wikipedia endowment. Only a tiny portion of our readers give. We ask you humbly. Don’t keep scrolling.”
You have to admit, it’s a pretty compelling ask. You use wikipedia all the time – and so do millions of other people who benefit from its free information and educational materials! If $2.75 would help out, imagine what $1000 could do…
Not much, it turns out. Wikimedia’s VP of engineering estimated it would take about $10 million per year for Wikipedia to sustainably support itself. In recent years, however, the organization has been raising well over $150 million annually. This means that, while the initial donations are genuinely valuable, your extra $1000 probably won’t make much of an additional difference. In fact, Wikimedia’s own chief executive noted that the efforts driven by additional funding have high costs and unclear results.
But let’s apply this same line of thinking to a more complicated scenario. Imagine you now have $100,000 to donate. You could put this money towards education – potentially funding one student’s college education in the U.S. Alternatively, if you donated the same amount of money to malaria medication, you could save the lives of about 20 children.
Both education and global health are genuinely important causes worth donating to, so it may feel a bit weird to compare them. But ultimately, we can’t tackle every problem at once. With limited time and resources, there are often trade-offs when deciding what to work on. This doesn’t mean one should always donate to global health over education in wealthy countries or that there’s an objectively correct answer to this complex question. But it does illustrate the kind of challenging moral questions that come up when deciding who and how to help.
Using your career
Like with donations, the positive difference you can make with your career can greatly vary depending on which causes, roles, or organizations you work within. In some cases, your expected impact can be ten times, or even a hundred times higher, by making a different choice.
Because of this, choosing a cause or organization to work for solely based on your intuition and interests might not lead you to a very impactful job. However, there are probably a lot of careers that align with the things you care about and enable you to make a bigger difference. So how can we estimate a career’s impact?
The answer is a bit complicated. One reason for this is that impact is the product of lots of different and complicated factors. On top of this, you rarely have all the relevant information about all the roles you are considering, and there are genuine disagreements about the efficacy and impact of different career paths.
For instance, try to imagine how you would actually quantify how much good you could do in vastly different jobs – like doing research to improve pandemic preparedness or advocating for better treatment of farm animals. Unsurprisingly, these estimates are going to be very uncertain, so we think it’s best to regard any such estimate with a critical eye and a large grain of salt.
Nonetheless, we think it’s still important to think about how much of a difference you can make with your career. In some cases, careful analysis will reveal that the impact of some jobs is very different from what you would expect.
Before diving into how we might assess the potential impact of specific roles and career paths, we’ll spend some time reflecting on what impact means more generally.
Process over conclusions
By the end of part 1 of the career guide, you should feel equipped to think carefully about your own values in the context of your career and to critically analyze the different problems you could tackle with your limited time.
It’s no coincidence that we take you through a substantial exploratory process rather than just tell you our top choices for ‘the most effective organizations’ or even ‘the most important causes’.
Just as you might spend a lot of time researching the best possible product before making a big purchase, it’s easily worth spending several hours thinking about how you’re going to spend the time and energy through your professional career. There are a few reasons why we think the process is important:
- We are morally uncertain: While we have specific assumptions about values, we aren’t completely sure that our values are correct. We think it’s valuable for people with differing values to reach different conclusions.
- Your specific circumstances differ: It might be that the highest impact options available to you are very different from other people. We’d like our advice to be broadly applicable – even in circumstances we can’t directly take into account in our recommendations.
- We believe in worldview diversification: We think it’s important to allow for multiple different worldviews when exploring highly contested questions.
While we’ll always try to be transparent about our assumptions and beliefs, we believe that giving you the tools to assess your options based on your own values is likely to yield better results than simply following our specific recommendations.