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What Is Effective Altruism?

What does it mean to be truly selfless? To help others and make the world a better place without expecting a reward? Altruism is acting out of concern for others. It can be motivated by a religious belief, a sense of duty, or personal loyalty. In humans, altruism triggers the reward center in the brain, indicating that altruism may be hard-wired. Effective altruism seeks to harness that human proclivity for selflessness and turn it into something more strategic. In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the effective altruism movement, its core principles, and what aspects of it generate the most controversy.

Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that encourages an evidence-based approach to charity, philanthropy, and doing “the most good.” While it presents important and useful ideas, some aspects of the ideology have attracted criticism.

The history of a movement

The EA movement as we know it today has deep roots in the ideas of Peter Singer. Born in Australia in 1946, Peter Singer studied philosophy and wrote the groundbreaking Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals in 1975. Singer has also contributed money, time, and research to causes like poverty relief, environmentalism, reproductive rights, and more. He often illustrates his beliefs with the metaphor of a drowning child. Anyone who sees a child drowning would feel a moral need to act, even if it would ruin their clothes. Why is it different if that child is a million miles away? Part of Singer’s core belief is that not only do people have a moral duty to reduce suffering, but they must do it effectively.

Effectiveness serves as the bedrock for the EA movement. It isn’t enough to donate money to any organization that asks for funding; people are duty-bound to find charities that are doing the most good possible. In 2015, Peter Singer published a book – The Most Good You Can Do – arguing this belief. The Centre for Effective Altruism was founded three years before, with its members coining the phrase “effective altruism.” This organization serves as a hub for the global EA community. William MacAskill, the founder of 80,000 Hours, is another important figure to know. In 2015, he published Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. Since those early days, the effective altruism movement has grown in size. Organizations like GiveWell evaluate charities and help people choose the most cost-effective, evidence-based ones.

What are EA’s core principles?

William MacAskill gives a simple definition of EA in a Vox interview: “Effective altruism is about trying to use your time and money as well as possible to help other people.” How do we do that? Three core principles guide EA:

Using evidence

Evidence is at the heart of effective altruism. You’ll often see EA described as a research field as well as a social and philosophical movement. To do the most good possible, research must identify what organizations, programs, policies, careers, and so on are actually making a positive impact and which ones aren’t. It isn’t enough for the money to go where the organization says it’s going. Is the money actually doing anything or are there other organizations that can do more with that same amount of money? Good methodologies, studies, and analyses are essential, but expensive for nonprofits to conduct. Many EA organizations are dedicated to collecting this valuable information.

Prioritizing causes

No one can give to every cause, so how do we choose? Effective altruism organizations tend to focus on three factors: scale, neglectedness, and tractability. Scale refers to how many individuals are affected and how much they’re affected. Poverty is one example of an issue with a large scale. The second, negectledeness, refers to a cause area that’s not getting enough attention or funding. This makes them higher priority. Tractability asks how easy it is to track progress on the cause. If a cause is easier to track, positive change is more likely. Using these factors, many EA organizations give high-priority status to global health and development, animal welfare, and protecting the long-term future.

Maximizing impact

Maximizing the impact of one’s donations and time is crucial to EA. For most people, that means identifying the organizations using their donations as effectively as possible. For others, it means choosing a career that allows them to do the most good, which may mean landing a job with a high income that lets them give generously. Effective altruists are not interested in the bare minimum or giving just enough to make themselves feel better. Maximizing is an analytical, data-driven process focused on achieving the best possible outcomes.

Criticisms of effective altruism

The most basic definition of effective altruism – do the most good for the most people – doesn’t seem controversial. However, scratching at the surface of EA reveals three common criticisms worth exploring:

It can fail to address systemic change

This common criticism of EA is outlined clearly in Amia Srinivasan’s review of William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better. She writes that the book doesn’t address the sources of “global misery” and that EA “doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align with it.” 80,000 Hours addresses this critique, saying that effective altruism is open to systemic change “in principle,” provided that systemic change does the most good. This answer seems to suggest that while EA may not be ignoring systemic change, it’s still filtered through “the most good” lens. It doesn’t seem like systemic change is inherently a priority for EA. One reason for this may be that systemic change is often harder to measure. For an effective altruist, tackling a systemic issue like racial discrimination can seem too abstract and complex – perhaps even pointless – when there’s no tangible sign of progress. In light of a failure to move the needle, many effective altruists may take their time and money to something more “cost-effective,” which ignores the reality that systemic change takes a long time.

Its focus on numbers can leave vulnerable people behind

Many effective altruists are interested in doing the most good for the most people. Unfortunately, that can lead to scenarios where smaller, more vulnerable groups are left behind while EA turns its attention to larger groups with the potential for more dramatic outcomes. There’s no clearer example of this moral cost than a metaphor used by William MacAskill: You find yourself in a burning building. You have to choose between saving a child or a Picasso painting worth millions of dollars. According to MacAskill, it’s better to save the painting because you can sell it and give the millions of dollars to charities that save thousands of children. Most people wouldn’t actually leave the child to die, but when further separated from the situation, it wouldn’t be unthinkable for someone to hold back donations from a small organization because it helps fewer people. The smaller a group is, the more vulnerable they tend to be, which means EA’s focus on numbers could lead to further marginalization and harm.

Longtermism could lead people to stop tackling current issues

Longtermism is one of the most controversial aspects of effective altruism. It looks into the distant future, claiming that future lives are just as important as the people living today. This motivates preparations for future issues such as emerging technologies (like AI) and space settlement. However, because “strong” longtermism looks so into the far future, critics worry it could make current problems less important to effective altruists.

In his 2020 Medium post “Against Strong Longtermism: A Response to Greaves and MacAskill,” Stanford research fellow Ben Chugg summarizes the potential pitfall with longtermist thinking:

Longtermism is causing many to question why we should be at all concerned with the near-term impact of our actions. Indeed, if you are convinced by this calculus, then all current injustice, death, and suffering are little more than rounding errors in our moral calculations. Why care about parasitic worms in Africa if we can secure utopia for future generations?

Criticizing longtermism doesn’t mean we should not prepare for the future. As the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, neglecting to prepare has catastrophic effects. That said, longtermism taken to its most extreme conclusion could encourage people to focus less on solving the problems of the present and more on intangible future concerns.

Effective altruism: a surprisingly complicated concept

On the surface, effective altruism makes sense. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do the most good with the resources they have? EA’s emphasis on research and evidence is also needed in a world with countless organizations vying for attention and funding. However, there are some serious criticisms about its approach to systemic change, emphasis on numbers, and longtermist views. Does this mean EA can’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – work? It’s complicated. If nothing else, effective altruism can encourage people to think more deeply about ethics, charity, the causes they support, and the careers they choose. People should know where their donation money goes, how organizations are measuring success, and if there are more effective organizations out there. However, people should also think about what “good” means, who gets to define it, and whether doing “the most good” at all times is a realistic or even moral endeavor. Again, it’s complicated, but effective altruism – and any movement that wants to make the world a better place – warrants scrutiny. Do you want to learn more about effective altruism? Consider taken a course online.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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