Making a Difference 101: Making an Actual Difference

Here’s a short quiz for you.  Which of the following people do you think have actually made a difference?

A.      A shopper who notices a Fair Trade product selling quickly and grabs the last one.

B.      A lobbying group who campaign for a change in the law which is then implemented.

C.      A mother of three who donates 5% of her income to the most effective charities.

D.      A layman who pushes a firefighter out of the way so that he can try to rescue someone from a burning building himself.

E.       An ethical vegetarian who refuses to eat some leftover meat that will only be thrown away anyway.

My guess would be that the mother of three is the biggest hero in this group.  And that’s because she is doing something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  Had the shopper not bought the final Fair Trade product, at the rate they were selling, someone else probably would have bought it quickly anyway.  With the lobbying group, it is very hard to tell whether or not the law would have changed without their campaigning.  The layman, as many of you will no doubt have guessed, has actually put the victim in more danger through his actions, since otherwise the victim would have been rescued by a trained professional…so in that sense, he has made a difference, but this is not the sort of difference one wants to make!  The case of the ethical vegetarian is quite a tricky one.  At first it seems that it makes no difference whether he eats the meat or not, since the animal has already been raised and slaughtered, the meat has already been purchased, and no one else is going to eat it.  But perhaps if he gives in today, from now on his hosts will know that he will eat any meat perceived to be “left over”, and so will buy more meat accordingly, and over time this could affect consumer demand in such a way as to influence supply.

Now, the philosophers among you will probably object, “It depends what you mean by ‘made a difference’,” while the non-philosophers among you will probably want to know more details about the specific cases I have outlined, and hopefully all of you will realize that it’s not always clear if one has made a difference.  But the take-home message is simply this: You only make a difference if you do something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

A friend of mine gave a brilliant talk about this idea at TED@SaoPaulo.  I encourage you to watch the first three minutes:

I think it’s pretty clear that we should all be trying to do something good that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.  A more controversial question is whether it’s okay to do something bad that would have happened otherwise.  For example, 80,000 Hours stirs up a lot of debate about whether going into banking in order to be able to donate a lot of money should be considered an ethical career.  On the one hand, the finance industry can be the cause of the very problems you are trying to fix with your donations, but on the other hand, if you don’t take that job in banking someone else will…and you’ll even probably be a nicer banker than they would be with your ethical intentions!  What do you think?

Look out for the next post in this series tomorrow on “Making a Good Difference".  For the first post in our Making a Difference 101 series, click here.

Share this story:

Related stories:


About the author:

Holly Morgan

Holly Morgan is a former Executive Director at The Life You Can Save and a former Director of Community at Giving What We Can; while a philosophy student in Oxford, she played a key role in getting both of these organizations and the wider Effective Altruism movement off of the ground.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.