When you think about “doing good”, what do you think of? Maybe volunteering or giving up your seat on the bus for an elderly person. Maybe doing the 40-hour Famine or running Round the Bays to raise money for a cause. These things are obviously and objectively “good”. If you told your friend that you did something of the kind, they would probably respond with something like, “aww, that’s great!” And you will likely experience that warm, fuzzy feeling all over again.
However, if you’re like most students, you probably have very limited time to volunteer and minimal funds to donate. Perhaps you’re also a little like me and have listened to or watched so many podcasts and documentaries about how fucked the world is that you have a guilt complex. You feel that whatever good you do does little to prevent suffering. It turns out we’re not alone. There’s a global community of people and researchers who have thought about, and continue to think about, the best ways for people with finite resources to improve the welfare of humans and non-human animals. There’s plenty of room onboard their ship, destination: justice, for students who want to maximise the extent to which they improve the lives of others.
I talked to Mac Jordan, president of Uni’s Effective Altruism (EA) Club, for insight into how Auckland students can become more effective do-gooders. Don’t worry! The message isn’t to throw all your money at UNICEF the next time you see their ad on TV. EA aims to answer the question “how can we maximise the good we can do with limited resources?” I’d say this message is pretty accessible and probably aligns with what you’re already spending a lot of time thinking about, namely, what you’ll do after you graduate.
According to Mac, university students “have a lot of opportunity to make substantial changes to their life direction”. Firstly, tertiary students have a lot of educational resources available to them. They have a higher chance than other groups of people, such as those who aren’t able to attend university and those in low- or middle-income countries, to end up in stronger financial positions. Secondly, young people, on average, have a lot more of their life left to help those in worse positions than themselves. Thirdly, Mac says that, “enthusiasm is [also] a really valuable resource because we can potentially put this into something that could have 10 or 20 times more impact than something else” that we have less enthusiasm for.
For example, as a Health Sciences student, I have special knowledge (and enthusiasm!) about health, which can, with development, be applied on a global level. And EA research shows that Global Health and Poverty is a ‘cause area’—along with Animal Welfare, AI Safety, and Existential Risk—where it’s possible to have a tremendous impact. This isn’t to say that careers outside these areas aren’t beneficial or don’t do good. Instead, it’s possible to have a very large impact within these areas according to three measures: scale (they affect, or have the potential to affect, many lives), tractability (progress can be made relatively easily), and neglectedness (there has been little investment in the problem thus far). Therefore, “thinking about our careers is really the biggest place where students can find the best value for having an impact.”
“The synthesis of personal interest and social impact is really important” not only for maximising the good we do but also to prevent burning out. The good news is that these things are often correlated. In our interview, Mac said, “the more impact we have, the more satisfied we may be with what we’re doing.” So, where/how can we find these opportunities? One of the best resources is a website/organisation called 80,000 Hours. It’s named after the average amount of time people spend working in their lives—a gross figure, I know. The organisation collates a wide variety of evidence on effective careers and different cause areas within EA. It also offers career profiles and advertises job and internship opportunities.
“If you’re on campus, you can join [the EA Club’s] careers workshops where we go through a template that 80,000 Hours uses for planning one’s career. [The workshops] introduce a number of ideas, but they’re also about selecting, exploring, and finally scrutinising a plan. For the last session, we start to develop purpose-made CVs and go on to some of the job aggregation sites within EA.”
Another way students can maximise the good they’re doing, according to Mac, is by simply “being open to updating our ideas and beliefs” or having a “scout” mindset. Collecting, interpreting, and internalising what the evidence tells us about the most impactful actions might make us feel uncertain about our career choices or how we use our time. Mac says having a “scout” mindset allows one to be sensitive to new information that can help us see reality more clearly, better understand what causes we most align with, and the different ways we can lead impactful lives. EA as an entity practises its own open-mindedness mantra too. For example, the global priorities I mentioned earlier are subject to change depending on the latest evidence.
Suppose we find ourselves in a relationship with a nice philanthropist (80,000 Hours who?) or become one ourselves—I mean, given our enthusiasm for working in our chosen field, it’s only natural that we become loaded as well—what might we do with our excess money? Within EA, there are a bunch of organisations like 80,000 Hours, but instead of aggregating career opportunities, they aggregate charities. For example, GiveWell is an organisation that evaluates charities working in Global Health and Poverty. They then identify which charities are doing the most good with their donors’ money. Many similar organisations are dedicated to other cause areas like Climate Change and Animal Welfare.
EA, like all movements, is not without critiques. One of the critiques Mac and I discussed was whether it’s right to prioritise promoting welfare over other worthy purposes such as realising peoples’ human rights. Mac agrees “that there’s more that could be done to explore” the intersections between EA’s goals and other aspects of social justice. For example, asking the question, “how does freedom relate to welfare?” Importantly, however, EA describes itself as “tentatively welfarist”, which means it’s open to shifting its focus, should evidence suggest that doing so would be the most effective thing to do.
Others also criticise EA for being too impartial, as its principles seem to advocate eliminating factors like emotionality, sentimentality, or personal preference from decision-making. EA seems to suggest that you should just look for a Sugar Daddy rather than a fulfilling career because presumably, you’ll have more money to donate to effective causes if you become very rich. But in reality, EA does not encourage anyone to sacrifice their wellbeing in the name of trying to do as much good as you can. At the heart of EA is trying to do as much good as you can with the resources you have. And using evidence can help you do just that.
All this is to say that there is no one way to go about doing good. But if you’re looking for a place to start or are tired of being paralysed by an overwhelming sense of “there’s just too much to do”, being open to new career pathways and aware of the different organisations—who have done most of the hard work for you—can be a good place to start.
80,000 Hours: How to make a difference with your career – https://80000hours.org/
Effective Altruism UoA Club: For career workshops, introductory and in-depth programmes, socialising, and one-on-one support – https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSecRUQ5nnJ9aqmU3irtUr41ByLZTy8iTJ34Y464dDUMdK_xTw/viewform
“Doing Good Better”: book by Dr William Macaskill introducing key principles in EA
EA Forum: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/
Why you think you’re right—even if you’re wrong: TEDtalk discussing “scout” mindset – https://www.ted.com/talks/julia_galef_why_you_think_you_re_right_even_if_you_re_wrong?language=en