What causes allow you to do the most good?
In this chapter, we’ll go over some of the cause areas that are worth considering when thinking about using your career to do good. It’s important to note that this list is not exhaustive and there are other important cause areas, as well as many cause areas with specific potential areas of impact within them. It’s also important to note that the overview we give on each cause area is, naturally, a very shallow introduction and not an in-depth explanation. We provide links for more in-depth reviews.
Global health & development
Global health and development is the cause area aimed at improving the lives of the world’s poorest people. Interventions in this space include direct cash transfers, dissemination of bed-nets to prevent malaria and deworming treatments.
There is an incredible amount of suffering that can be effectively alleviated, mostly hurting the world’s poorest people: Millions of people worldwide suffer from extreme poverty and awful-yet-preventable diseases and hundreds of thousands of children die every year from illnesses that can be prevented. For many of them, there are interventions that have been extensively studied and shown to work and to be very cost-effective with more evidence than any other cause area detailed here.
Many of the organizations in this space are more constrained by lack of funds than lack of talent.While this isn’t true for every organization and role, many roles in this space are very competitive. This means that this cause area is incredibly promising for donations but your counterfactual contribution by working in this space depends heavily on whether you bring unique skills, experience or talents.
If you care about the suffering of animals (and more specifically cows or chickens) then you might find animal welfare an incredibly important cause area. Factory farming is a cause of immense suffering for many billions of animals each year. The number of suffering animals and the extent of their suffering is much higher than humans and there’s some evidence that current work to reduce that suffering is very cost-effective. This means that even if you care more about humans than farm animals, you might be able to alleviate more suffering by working on animal welfare.
Two important and promising sub-areas within this cause area are corporate campaigns and research into clean meat:
- Corporate campaigns to improve conditions in factory farms. There is some good evidence that these campaigns are effective and are a major driver of the global trend of large corporations making some improvements in animals’ conditions.
- Research into clean meat which is making fast progress in both quality and price. If meat substitutes (that don’t require killing animals) become cheap enough (and tasty enough!), we believe many people will switch over and reduce their meat consumption.
In many animal welfare organisations, there is a real lack of professionals with the relevant skills. Researchers with background in biology and chemistry for example are one of the main bottlenecks for clean meat research. If you’re interested in working in this cause area, we’d also recommend checking out Animal Advocacy Careers, an organization dedicated specifically to careers in this space.
Probably the most well known out of these cause areas, climate change is likely to cause increasing amounts of extreme weather events, famines, and have global catastrophic consequences. Given the magnitude of the effects, both mitigation of the extent of climate change and adaptation to the effects of climate change may be pivotal in how much suffering there is in the foreseeable future.
There are many different organizations currently working on both mitigation of climate change and adaptation to its effects. Unsurprisingly, they vary greatly in their cost-effectiveness. The best ones can be claimed to surpass work in global health and development, but many others don’t.
While the fact that climate change receives more media and popular attention than other cause areas may draw people towards it, we encourage readers to see this as a downside, rather than a benefit. This means that most effective roles are very competitive and many of the most important and promising interventions are getting attention, resources and help. That isn’t to say that there isn’t room for more professionals to contribute, but rather that it would likely be easier to have a higher counterfactual impact in less mainstream causes.
Mental health is another cause for an immense amount of suffering worldwide, including loss of life. It is also an area where there are well known and effective treatments that aren’t available to many people worldwide. The reasons for people not getting the mental help they need are varied: Price, lack of availability, prohibitive government / local policy or even the stigma around mental health. This cause area is still relatively neglected and there are many potentially promising interventions.
Many promising interventions in mental health aim to increase availability of help, either by using technology to lower the cost of treatment or by working with governments to improve policy and make good treatments easier to come by.
Global catastrophic risks and existential risks
There are potential risks that, while rare, could cause enormous damage. These can include pandemics, nuclear war, and risk from future technologies such as AI. Work in this area is usually focused either on preventing or reducing the damage from such events. While a specific person’s work in this area might never become relevant, it can still be considered very important and promising for it’s huge impact in the scenarios that it becomes relevant. Recently, we saw how important pandemic preparedness can be. The Effective Altruism community has been flagging pandemics as an important catastrophic risk for years, but most governments, institutions and individuals struggle to prioritize risks that are less familiar.
Of specific note are global extinction risks – events that have the potential to end life on earth. These events are unique in their importance: If they come to pass, it’s not only the people who are affected who suffer, but we also lose any potential flourishing and happiness of future generations. If you believe the long term future matters, this can be overwhelmingly important. In many cases, the extreme nature of these events means that work on them should be considered very cost-effective even if the chance of that work becoming relevant is low.
Naturally, getting robust evidence for the effectiveness of work that will come in handy in future disasters is challenging. Working on these causes inherently requires some speculation, but this speculation might be necessary given the inherent uncertainty and importance of this work.
Lastly, and importantly, long term risk, catastrophic risks and existentialism risk are very neglected. For many systemic reasons (most beneficiaries aren’t alive yet, people’s difficulty in thinking about rare occurrences, etc), there are very few resources being spent on dealing with large-but-rare risks. There are many promising areas of research, policy work, and advocacy that are in great need of skilled people.
Broad societal improvements
There are many institutions and processes that have a huge long-term influence on people’s welfare. Efforts to improve them, such as strengthening democracy, improving government decision-making, creating research infrastructure, or improving global economic growth could have incredible impact on people’s lives. In most cases, organizations set up to make a meaningful broad societal change tackle large and difficult problems which mean that even a small chance of success can be very worthwhile.
In practice, this is really a set of smaller cause areas that, if relevant, should be looked at separately. For example, enacting election reform, improving the incentives that affect scientific publishing, and trying to find ways to combat fake news are all very different. Though, just like with catastrophic risks, many of these areas are relatively neglected.
Depending on your skills, it may be more effective to help others contribute more, rather than contributing directly. In some cases, you can do an amazing amount of good by helping others who want to contribute – do so effectively. There are many ways in which we can help increase the benefit of others’ contributions, either by increasing the amount of people willing to donate or volunteer, or by helping those who do be more effective in their contributions.
Work in improving altruism can include research into prioritization (which eventually feeds into guides like this one), promotion of altruism or effective altruism to a larger audience, charity evaluation, and many other projects or contributions that help support the community.
For some skill-sets, such as community management, advocacy and some areas of research, the indirect contribution of supporting others’ donations can be a unique opportunity to make use of skills that are, in some cases, difficult to turn into direct impact.