How To Do The Most Good

Focusing too much on personal behavior or consumption choices is a strategic blunder for those who want to make the world better.

Ruby Sgueglia for Noema Magazine
Credits

William MacAskill is a philosophy professor at Oxford and the co-founder of 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can. He is the author of “What We Owe The Future” (Basic Books, August 2022), from which this essay has been adapted.

When it comes to addressing the world’s urgent problems, people often focus on personal behavior or consumption decisions. The suggestion, implicit or explicit, is that if you care about animal welfare, the most important thing is to become vegetarian; if you care about climate change, the most important thing is to fly less and drive less; if you care about resource overuse, the most important thing is to recycle and stop using plastic bags.

By and large, I think that this emphasis, though understandable, is a major strategic blunder for those of us who want to make the world better. Often the focus on consumption decisions is accompanied by a failure to prioritize. Consider, for example, the recent wave of advocacy for reducing plastic. The total impact this has on the environment is tiny. You would have to reuse your plastic bag thousands of times in order to cancel out the effect of one flight from London to New York. And avoiding plastic has only a tiny effect on ocean plastic pollution. In rich countries with effective waste management, plastic waste very rarely ends up in the oceans. Almost all ocean plastic comes from fishing fleets and from poorer countries with less-effective waste management.

Some personal consumption decisions have a much greater impact than reusing plastic bags. One that is close to my heart is vegetarianism. The first major autonomous moral decision I made was to become vegetarian, which I did at age 18, the day I left my parents’ home. This was an important and meaningful decision to me, and I remain vegetarian to this day. But how impactful was it, compared to other things I could do? I did it in large part because of animal welfare, but let’s just focus on its effect on climate change. By going vegetarian, you avert around 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent every year (a metric that combines the effect of different greenhouse gases). This is a big deal: it is about one-tenth of my total carbon footprint. Over the course of 80 years, I would avert around 64 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

But it turns out that other things you can do are radically more impactful. Suppose that an American earning the median U.S. income were to donate 10% of that income, which would be around $3,000, to the Clean Air Task Force, an extremely cost-effective organization that promotes innovation in neglected clean energy technologies. According to the best estimate I know of, this donation would reduce the world’s carbon dioxide emissions by an expected 3,000 tonnes per year. This is far bigger than the effect of going vegetarian for your entire life.

“Emphasizing personal consumption decisions over more systemic changes is often a convenient move for corporations.”

There are good reasons to become and stay vegetarian or vegan: doing so helps you be a better advocate for climate change mitigation and animal welfare, more able to avoid charges of hypocrisy — and you might reasonably think that avoiding causing unnecessary suffering is part of living a morally respectable life. But if your aim is to fight climate change as much as possible, becoming vegetarian or vegan is only a small part of the picture.

Emphasizing personal consumption decisions over more systemic changes is often a convenient move for corporations. In 2019, Shell’s chief executive, Ben van Beurden, gave a lecture in which he instructed people to eat seasonally and recycle more, lambasting people who eat strawberries in winter. In reality, in order to solve climate change, what we actually need is for companies like Shell to go out of business. By donating to effective nonprofits, we can all make this kind of far-reaching political change much more likely.

Donations are more impactful than changing personal consumption decisions in other areas, too. For example, in “Doing Good Better,” I argued that donating to the best global poverty charities is much more impactful than buying fair trade products. These examples are not a fluke. We should expect this pattern in almost all areas. The most powerful and yet simple reason is this: our consumption is not optimized for doing harm, and so by making different consumption choices, we can avoid at most the modest amount of harm we’d be otherwise causing; by contrast, when donating we can choose whichever action best reduces the harm we care about. We can have as big an impact as possible by taking advantage of levers such as affecting policy.

Moreover, while each of us can mitigate climate change through our everyday actions, this is not true for the risk of a great-power war, engineered pandemics or the development of AI. However, we can all work on these problems by donating to effective nonprofits. Whatever else you do in life, donations are one way to do an enormous amount of good.

Beyond donations, three other personal decisions seem particularly high impact to me: political activism, spreading good ideas and having children. The simplest form of political activism is voting. On the face of it, it is improbable that voting could really do a lot of good. If you live in the United States in a competitive state, the chance that your vote will flip a national election falls around one in 10 million. Every election I have ever voted in would have turned out the same whether I had voted or not, and that is almost certainly true for everyone reading this book. What this line of reasoning neglects is that, even if the chance that you influence an election is small, the expected value can still be very high.

There are several caveats to this. First, many voters do not live in competitive states. If you live in a state that’s certain to go to a particular candidate, the expected value of voting might be tiny because the chance of your having an effect is so small. Second, to make your vote worthwhile, you need to do more than just turn up and vote; you need to be better informed and less biased than the median voter — otherwise, you risk doing harm.

Many of the same arguments apply to other forms of political activism. Although the chance that you personally will make a difference by getting involved in a political campaign is small, the expected returns can be very high because, if your campaign succeeds, the payoff could be very large.

Another way to improve the world is to talk to your friends and family about important ideas, like better values or issues around war, pandemics or AI. This doesn’t mean that you should promote these ideas aggressively or in a way that might alienate those you love. But discussion between friends has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to increase political participation, and it is also probably a good way to get people motivated to work on some of the major problems of our time.

“Whatever else you do in life, donations are one way to do an enormous amount of good.”

The final high-impact decision you can make is to consider having children. One mistake people sometimes make is to overemphasize the negative effects of having children and not to consider the benefits at all, both to the children and to the world. Although your offspring will produce carbon emissions, they may also do lots of good things, such as contributing to society, innovating and advocating for political change. I think the risk of technological stagnation alone suffices to make the net long-term effect of having more children positive. On top of that, if you bring them up well, then they can be changemakers who help create a better future. Ultimately, having children is a deeply personal decision — but among the many considerations that may play a role, I think that an impartial concern for our future counts in favor, not against.

So far, I have looked at ways that you can use your time and money to improve the long term. But by far the most important decision you will make, in terms of your lifetime impact, is your choice of career. Especially among young people, it has become increasingly common to strive for positive impact as a core part of one’s professional life rather than as a sideshow. More and more people don’t just want money to pay their bills; they also want a sense of purpose and meaning.

This is why, as a graduate student, I co-founded 80,000 Hours with Benjamin Todd. We chose the name 80,000 Hours because that is roughly how many hours you have in your career: 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 40 years. Yet the amount of time that people normally spend thinking about their career is tiny in comparison. When that’s combined with how poor existing career advice is, we end up with the outcome that a large proportion of people land in careers that are neither as fulfilling nor as impactful as they could be.

How, then, should you decide on a career?

  1. Learn: Find low-cost ways to learn about and try out promising longer-term paths, until you feel ready to bet on one for a few years.
  2. Build options: Take a bet on a longer-term path that could go really well (seeking upsides), usually by building the career capital that will most accelerate you in it. But in case it doesn’t work out, have a backup plan to cap your downsides.
  3. Do good: Use the career capital you’ve built to support the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems.

In reality, you’ll be pursuing all of these priorities throughout your career, but each one will get different emphasis at different stages. Learning will tend to be most valuable early in your career. Building your options by investing in yourself and accruing career capital is most valuable in the early to middle stages of your career. Making a bet on how to do good is most valuable in the mid to late stages of your career.

But your emphasis might move back and forth over time. For instance, a 40-year-old who decides to make a dramatic career change might go back into learning mode for a few years. And you might be lucky enough to find yourself with opportunities to have an enormous positive impact right out of college; if so, this framework shouldn’t discourage you from doing that.

Let’s first look at learning. People often feel a lot of pressure to figure out their best path right away. But this isn’t possible. It’s hard to predict where you’ll have the best fit, especially over the long term, and if you’re just starting out, you know very little about what jobs are like and what your strengths are. Moreover, even if you could find the best path now, it might change over time. The problems that are most pressing now could become less pressing in the future if they receive more attention, and new issues could be discovered. Likewise, you might find new opportunities to make progress that you hadn’t anticipated.

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Even your personal preferences are likely to change — probably more than you expect. Ask yourself: How much do you think your personality, values and preferences will change over the next decade? Now ask: How much did they change over the previous decade? Intuitively, I thought they wouldn’t change much over the next decade, but at the same time, I think they changed a lot over the previous decade, which seems inconsistent. Surveys find similar results, which suggests that people tend to underestimate just how much they will change in the future.

All of this means that it’s valuable to view your career like an experiment — to imagine you are a scientist testing a hypothesis about how you can do the most good. In practical terms, you might follow these steps:

  1. Research your options.
  2. Make your best guess about the best longer-term path for you.
  3. Try it for a couple of years.
  4. Update your best guess.
  5. Repeat.

Rather than feeling locked in to one career path, you would see it is an iterative process in which you figure out the role that is best for you and best for the world. The value of treating your career like an experiment can be really high: if you find a career that’s twice as impactful as your current best guess, it would be worth spending up to half of your entire career searching for that path. Over time, it will become clearer whether you have found the right path for you. For many people, I think it would be reasonable to spend 5% to 15% of their career learning and exploring their options, which works out to two to six years.

Kelsey Piper provides one example of the value of learning early about your options. In order to test out her potential as a writer, while in college she wrote 1,000 words a day for her blog. It turned out that she was good at it. Blogging helped her figure out that writing was the right path for her and helped her to eventually get a job at Vox’s Future Perfect, which covers topics relevant to effective altruism, including global poverty, animal welfare and the long-term future.

“Beyond donations, three other personal decisions seem particularly high impact to me: political activism, spreading good ideas and having children.”

When you are thinking about exploration, I think it is good to aim high, to focus on “upside options” — career outcomes that have perhaps only a 1 in 10 chance of occurring but would be great if they did. Shooting for the moon is not always good advice. However, if you want to have a positive impact on the world, there’s a strong case to be made for aiming high. Even if there is a small chance of success, the expected value of focusing on upside options can be great, and, crucially, there is a large skew in outcomes. In many fields, the most successful people are responsible for a large fraction of the impact; for example, various studies have found that the top 20% of contributors produce a third to a half of the total output.

Even though focusing on upside options when you are exploring is very valuable, you should also limit the risk that you could do harm. Because we are so uncertain about long-term effects, there is an increased risk of doing harm, so you should take this consideration seriously. In a slogan: target upsides but limit downsides.

The next thing to consider on your career path is building options by investing in career capital, developing the skills and networks you need to have a big impact early in your career. Some of the skills you could focus on include the following:

  • Running organizations
  • Using political and bureaucratic influence to change the priorities of an organization
  • Doing conceptual and empirical research on core longtermist topics
  • Communicating (for example, you might be a great writer or podcast host)
  • Building new projects from scratch
  • Building community; bringing together people with different interests and goals

Investing in yourself can pay off in unanticipated ways. For example, based on 80,000 Hours’s advice, Sophie Rose decided not to apply to medical school and instead shifted her focus to global pandemics. She found funding for a master’s degree in epidemiology to build career capital in the area. When COVID-19 broke out, she found a neglected solution: challenge trials, which can greatly speed up the development of vaccines by deliberately infecting healthy and willing volunteers with the novel coronavirus in order to test vaccine efficacy. So she co-founded 1DaySooner, a nonprofit that signed up thousands of volunteers for human challenge trials in order to speed up vaccine approval. The world’s first challenge trial for COVID vaccines started in the UK in early 2021.

There is sometimes a trade-off between exploring and investing. This is particularly clear in academia. If I wanted to try out a different job and quit academic philosophy for a few years, that would probably be the end of my philosophy career — in my field, once you leave, there is no way back. But things are not usually as clear-cut as this, and building career capital does not always preclude exploring later on.

The final consideration for choosing a career is the one we ultimately care about: doing good. For most people, the opportunity to have a lot of impact comes later in their career, once they have gained career capital. But sometimes you might come across a great opportunity to do good right away. For instance, Kuhan Jeyapragasan realized that their position as a student at Stanford University gave them a great platform for spreading awareness of important ideas. They helped to start the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative, which has helped hundreds of people learn about risks to humanity’s long-term future.

The “learn more, build options, do good” framework is generally useful for anyone deciding what to do with their career. But the specific path that works best for you depends on your personal fit. Some people are happiest locked away for months on end researching abstruse topics in economics or computer science, while others excel at managing a team or communicating ideas in a simple and engaging way.

You might also have some unique opportunities that other people don’t have. Marcus Daniell is a professional tennis player from New Zealand. He has ranked as one of the top 50 doubles players in the world, and he won a bronze medal in doubles at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. After learning about effective altruism, Marcus set up High Impact Athletes, which encourages professional athletes to donate to effective charities working on global development, animal welfare and climate change. People who have donated through High Impact Athletes include Stefanos Tsitsipas, the current No. 5 tennis player in the world, and Joseph Parker, a former world heavyweight champion boxer and sparring partner for Tyson Fury. The opportunity to set up High Impact Athletes was unique to Marcus; his network allowed him to try out something new and set up an organization with lots of potential upside.

“This is a time when we can be pivotal in steering the future onto a better trajectory.”

Isabelle Boemeke’s story is in some ways similar. She started out as a fashion model, but after speaking to experts who said nuclear energy was needed to tackle climate change but were afraid to promote it because of its unpopularity, she pivoted to using her social media following to advocate for nuclear power. Of course, I’m not recommending professional tennis or fashion modelling as reliably high-impact careers, but these examples illustrate the importance of focusing on where you personally, with all your unique skills and abilities, can make the biggest difference on the world’s most pressing problems. It would, for instance, have made little sense for Marcus or Isabelle to retrain as an epidemiologist or a climate scientist.

For many people, personal fit can mean the best way of contributing is through donations: you work in a career you love and excel at, and even if the work itself is not hugely impactful, you can make an enormous difference with your giving. This was true of John Yan. After learning about effective altruism and thinking about his career options, he decided to continue as a software engineer and donate a significant fraction of his income to effective charities as a member of Giving What We Can.

Personal fit is a crucial determinant of your career’s impact — it is a force multiplier on the direct impact you have and on the career capital that you gain. If you can be in the top 10% of performers in a role rather than in the top 50%, this could have a disproportionate effect on your output. Being particularly successful in a role also gives you more connections, credentials, and credibility, increasing your career capital and leverage.

Personal fit is, in addition, one of the main ingredients of job satisfaction. People often associate altruism with self-sacrifice, but I think that, for the most part, that is the wrong way to think about it. For me personally, since I started trying to do the most good with my life, I feel that my life is more meaningful, authentic and autonomous. I am part of a growing community of people trying to make the world a better place, and many of these people are now among my closest friends. Effective altruism has added to my life, not subtracted from it. There is, moreover, a pragmatic reason to do a job you enjoy: it makes your impact sustainable over the long term. You want to be able to sustain your commitment to doing good for over 40 years rather than think about how you can do as much good as possible this year. The risk of burnout is real, and you will work better with other people and be more productive if you are not stressed or depressed.

Can one person make a difference? Yes. Mountains erode because of individual raindrops. Hurricanes are just the collective movement of many tiny atoms. Abolitionism, feminism and environmentalism were all “merely” the aggregate of individual actions. The same will be true for longtermism.

Looking back on people who have made a difference — abolitionists, feminists and environmentalists; writers, politicians and scientists — they can seem different from you and me. But they weren’t different: they were everyday people, with their own problems and limitations, who nevertheless decided to try to shape the history they were a part of, and who sometimes succeeded. You can do this, too.

Because if not you, who? And if not now, when?

Out of the hundreds of thousands of years in humanity’s past and the potentially billions of years in her future, we find ourselves living now, at a time of extraordinary change. A time marked by the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with thousands of nuclear warheads standing ready to fire. A time when we are burning through our finite fossil fuel reserves, producing pollution that might last hundreds of thousands of years. A time when we can see catastrophes on the horizon — from engineered pathogens to value lock-in to technological stagnation — and can act to prevent them.

This is a time when we can be pivotal in steering the future onto a better trajectory. There’s no better time for a movement that will stand up, not just for our generation or even our children’s generation, but for all those who are yet to come.