“And go forth from this place with grateful hearts, paying back the gifts you have received here by using your minds, voices and hands to strengthen your new communities and your world.” Such were the words that University President Peter Salovey carefully chose to conclude his 2017 Baccalaureate Address.
In saying this, Salovey not only met the required quota of such platitudes, but also tapped into something that is close to the heart of many Yale students: To lead a life that positively impacts the world. While students are mostly adamant about wanting to do good, many are often less certain about how exactly to go about it. This is understandable. The world is filled with worthy causes, and as students of the liberal arts model, we are privileged with an extraordinary degree of freedom in choosing where and how we allocate our efforts.
To resolve this uncertainty, some may turn to effective altruism — a social movement concerned with using reason and evidence to have the greatest possible impact on the world. In particular, the organization 80,000 Hours — its moniker the number of hours in the average career — provides thoroughly researched advice for aspiring change-makers. One of the most salient strategies promoted by 80,000 Hours is “earning to give” — opting for a high-paying job and subsequently donating large sums to impactful organizations. Many Yale graduates already work in high-paying jobs. According to Payscale.com, the median Yale graduate earns $66,800 within the first five years of graduation, placing them among the richest top 0.6% of the world’s population and allowing them to provide significant support to worthwhile causes.
Although this approach indeed is a surefire way to have a personal impact, it is not for everyone. Some simply cannot see themselves in the corporate sector, while others may have ethical reasons to reject the “earn to give” approach.
Fortunately, effective altruism goes well beyond “earning to give.” In fact, the current consensus among influential thinkers in the movement is that only a minority of aspiring altruists should opt for this particular strategy. Instead, people should generally take to heart the core message of the movement: that we ought to work in ways that yield the greatest return on our efforts. This deceptively simple maxim has nonetheless shaped the course of many lives, mine included.
For those passionate about human health or income inequality, one of the simplest ways to multiply social impact is to expand one’s scope beyond domestic borders, since the lowest hanging fruit already has been reaped in the most developed nations. Scholars interested in using economics as a force for good may look to the example of Yale professor Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, who has spearheaded evidence based interventions in Bangladesh, India and Malawi to name a few. Mobarak, who is among the guests of this semester’s Yale Effective Altruism Fellowship seminars, is among those who have put to rest the myth that an academic career is incompatible with extraordinary and tangible impact.
Reading the above might lead one to believe that effective altruists have no concern for domestic issues or for systemic change. This would be an unfortunate misunderstanding. The notion of “doing good better” can be applied to political and institutional matters; it merely implies adopting an unwavering, results-oriented approach to one’s chosen cause.
It is from effective altruists that I have seen the most rigorous attempts to outline the impact of regressive U.S. policies, and it is in this movement that I have met the most determined proponents of animal rights. It should also be added that the focus of effective altruism is not limited to the social sciences. Whether it be research into the ramifications of advanced artificial intelligence or the development of cutting edge health solutions, the movement recognizes the tremendous potential of high-impact science.
At a glance, the above may seem heartless. How could one disregard the unconditional worth of a human life out of concern for cynical optimization? However, it is exactly because of this unconditional value that effective altruists insist on doing the most possible good. It is because each life is so precious that we see the need for heart-wrenching trade-offs. In a world characterized by a surplus of dire challenges, choosing any solution but the optimal one is to leave the world worse than it could otherwise be. So, when we go forth from this place with grateful hearts, let us not remain satisfied with merely doing some good — let us all strive do the most possible good.
Joshua Monrad is a sophomore in Saybrook College and the co-president of the Yale Effective Altruists. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .