What is effective altruism?


Most forms of do-gooding start out with a What (“I want to promote microfinance!”), move to a How (“maybe I should do a sponsored marathon?”) and simply take the Why for granted (“because of course microfinance is good!”).

Effective altruism, in contrast, starts with a Why and a How, and lets them determine the What. Let me explain:

The Why is to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Rather than merely aiming to make the world better than when we found it — “to make a difference” — we want to make the most difference. So, for example, rather than simply trying to find a development charity that “does good work”, Giving What We Can seeks to find those charities that do the very most to help people in developing countries with every pound or dollar they receive. In general, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.

The How — how to find those activities that do the most good — is by using good evidence and good reasoning. Where a question concerns a matter of fact, we try to find the best empirical evidence that is relevant to that question. (An anecdote is bad, a double-blind randomized controlled trial is better, a well-performed meta-analysis is best.) Where a question concerns values, we use clear arguments, rational reflection, and the latest insights from ethics, economics, and psychology to help us come to the right view. So, for example, rather than going with feel-good slogans like “follow your passion”, or passing on anecdotes about specific people, at 80,000 Hours we’re busy digging into all the available academic research related to doing good through your career, and getting clear, conceptually, on what making a difference involves.

From these two ideas, the What follows. Effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. I’ll talk more about the reasons why these are generally thought to be the highest-impact cause areas in later posts, but in each case, the reasoning is that the stakes are very high, and there is the potential to make a lot of progress. Right now, within the Centre for Effective Altruism, the What consists of the organisations listed to the right: organisations that, for example, promote donating a good chunk of one’s income to the causes that most effectively fight global poverty (Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save); or that advise individuals on which careers enable them to have the greatest positive impact (80,000 Hours); or that try to figure out how best to improve animal welfare (Effective Animal Activism). But these activities are just our current best guesses. If we had good evidence or arguments that showed that we could do more good by doing something else, then we’d do that instead.

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  • Martijn

    This might be the greatest idea ever. I can give you all the reasons why it’s so good, but you have got them all figured out. My definate props for that!

    I have a tip though. If you are interested, continue reading.

    I like your story but I don’t LOVE it. It’s because it’s written in an inpersonal style. In order to promote it more effectively, I’d like you to give a personalised WHY?

    I.E: I was hiding from my friends for two years. I was failing in my study of philosophy and I didn’t wanted to come out. I had a severe case of depression. I had everything I needed: A house, food, even a hot shower, and still I despaired. Life was way out of whack, something was deeply wrong!

    Then, I remember the moment clearly: I was in the kitchen and I was going to stuff myself with yet another sandwich, when by chance a shadow of a man walked by, obviously a beggar. I looked at my extra bacon and egg sandwich, and something just clicked in my brain. I hurried outside and caught him on the street corner. I gave it to him, he murmbled something weird, but the look he gave me was etched into my soul.

    That day I felt elated. I went out and started to do random acts of kindness. I bought flowers and gave it to an old lady and an anorexic girl. I joined a couple of young people to give free hugs. I donated all my pocket money to beggars. I even withdrew money to give more.

    I was stunned: Living truly is giving! The depression lifted and I never looked back. I was able to finish my master in philosophy, and made more friends than i ever had. Since then I have been trying to help as much as I can. And as smart as I can!

    ~ I am sure you can write a terrific personal story. Continue what you are doing, and make it count!

    • Martijn

      Was that of any help?

    • http://www.stafforini.com/ Pablo Stafforini

      Thanks, Martijn! Will is currently writing a book on effective altruism and is giving a lot of thinking to ways in which we can make EA ideas more appealing to a wider audience, without sacrificing precision or accuracy. Making such ideas more personal is a key way of accomplishing this, and for this reason the book will feature interviews with many prominent EAs and top researchers.

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