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Last updated: December 29, 2020

Is effective altruism only about making money and donating it to charity?

In the past, the community made the mistake of becoming too closely associated with “earning to give”. Most of us still think this is a good strategy for some people, particularly those who have good personal fit with high-paying careers. But donating to charity is not the only way to have a large impact. A lot of people can do even better by using their careers to help others more directly. Many people in the community do both.

But we still believe that donating to the right charities is one way you can make a lot of difference. It’s also one where there’s relatively strong evidence available, because there was existing research to build on.

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Is effective altruism the same as utilitarianism? What if I’m not a utilitarian?

Utilitarians are usually enthusiastic about effective altruism. But many effective altruists are not utilitarians and care intrinsically about things other than welfare, such as violation of rights, freedom, inequality, personal virtue and more. In practice, most people give some weight to a range of different ethical theories.

The only ethical position necessary for effective altruism is believing that helping others is important. Unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism doesn’t necessarily say that doing everything possible to help others is obligatory, and doesn’t advocate for violating people’s rights even if doing so would lead to the best consequences.

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Does effective altruism neglect systemic change?

Some people think effective altruism is too concerned with ‘band-aid’ solutions like direct health interventions without seriously challenging the broader systemic causes of important global issues. Many people believe unfettered capitalism, wealth inequality, consumer culture, or overpopulation contribute significantly to the amount of suffering in the world, and that attempts to make the world better that don’t address these root causes are meaningless or misguided.

It’s certainly true that effective altruism started with a focus on approaches that are ‘proven’ to work, such as scaling up rigorously tested health treatments. These provide a good baseline against which we can assess other, more speculative, approaches. However, as we get more skilled in evaluating what works and what doesn’t, many in the community are shifting into approaches that involve systemic change.

It’s important to remember that opinion is heavily divided on whether systems like trade globalization or market economies are net negative or net positive. It’s also not clear whether we can substantially change these systems in ways that won’t have very bad unintended consequences.

This difference of opinion is reflected within the community itself. Effective altruism is about being open-minded — we should try to avoid being dogmatic or too wedded to a particular ideology. We should evaluate all claims about how to make a difference based on the available evidence. If there’s something we can do that seems likely to make a big net positive difference, then we should pursue it.

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If everyone followed the advice of effective altruism, wouldn’t that lead to a misallocation of resources?

If everyone took the same action, and never updated their views in response to changing circumstances, then yes, that would create problems. Effective altruism makes recommendations about the best available opportunities to help, taking what other people are already doing  into account.

As more people take the opportunities we recommend, they will stop being so neglected, and the value of allocating more resources to them will go down. At that point we would change our recommendations to encompass other opportunities.

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Is effective altruism calculating and impersonal?

Effective altruism is about taking a desire to do good, but using reason and evidence to guide our actions so we have the greatest chance of success. It’s true that this sometimes involves calculations of how effective certain actions might be. It’s also true that we don’t always know the people we are assisting.

Most people are drawn to effective altruism because they have a high level of compassion towards others, and think that we should help others regardless of whether we know them personally. In order to do this is the most effective way, it’s sometimes important to make calculations.

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Is effective altruism too demanding?

The lengths an individual should go to when attempting to make the world a better place is a difficult, personal question. A common minimum standard for effective altruism is to give 10% of your income, and/or shift your career path in order to have substantially more social impact.

For some, that might seem like a big sacrifice. But for many, spending your life working to improve the world provides a clear goal and a strong sense of purpose, and effective altruism provides a friendly, global community to collaborate with. Trying to help others as much as possible can be more purposeful, fulfilling and maybe even more fun, than any of the alternatives.

There’s nothing desirable about sacrifice in and of itself. You certainly don’t have to give up the things that make you happy, or neglect your personal relationships. The point is to help others, not to make yourself feel bad.

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Doesn’t charity start at home?

Many people agree that we should try to make a difference, but think that we should give our money or our time to people in our local communities.

There’s nothing bad about helping people you know, or even yourself. But often the opportunities to help people far away are far greater than the opportunities to help people near you, especially if you live in a wealthy country.

For example for $1,000 you could double the annual income of a family engaged in subsistence agriculture in Kenya. This can be life-transforming. If you live in a wealthy country, it’s hard for $1,000 to achieve anywhere near as much in your local community.

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Does charity and aid really work?

A lot of charity work is probably ineffective, and there are many examples of aid and development having no real impact. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some charities which achieve amazing outcomes. In fact, that’s exactly why it’s so important to find the best ones, and to use our best judgement when working out which causes we should spend money and time on supporting.

If you’re extremely skeptical of non-profits though, there are many other opportunities for having a big impact, including for-profit entrepreneurship, policy, politics, advocacy, and research.

If you think that it’s hopeless to do good through donating to non-profits then please let us know why! We’re always open to changing our minds.

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Does donating to charity just subsidize billionaires?

It’s plausible that if individuals stopped donating to the most effective charities, larger philanthropic organizations would step in to fill in the gap. So, in the end, the effect of the individual donations would just be to free up money for the larger philanthropic organizations.

This is a difficult question to resolve. On the one hand, it’s likely that, if individual donors didn’t exist, larger donors would take up some of the slack. On the other hand, if money is freed up for large and effective philanthropic organizations, they can then fund other effective interventions, including those that are important but that individual donors would be less likely to support.

But there are some highly effective charities which can productively absorb a lot more funding. For instance, in 2018, GiveDirectly transferred more than $30 million to the poorest people in the world, and they could transfer far more money if they received more donations. Donating to charities with a large funding gap is less likely to displace funding from others sources.

Hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to fund effective interventions in the next fifteen years. This gap cannot be fully covered by big foundations. For example, Good Ventures and the Gates Foundation have endowments of around $8bn and $41bn respectively.

As above, if you’re skeptical about donating to charity, then there are many other ways that you could use the principles of effective altruism to help you make a difference more effectively, such as helping you to choose which cause to work on.

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How are the people you’re trying to help involved in the decision-making?

The possibility that we don’t actually understand and address the needs of the people we are trying to help is real, and a risk we have to remain constantly vigilant about. If we don’t listen to or understand recipients we will be less effective, which is the opposite of our goal.

Some people support the charity GiveDirectly because it gives cash to people in poverty, leaving it entirely up to them how they spend the money. This might empower people in poverty to a greater extent than choosing services that may ultimately not be desired by the local community.

Other charities we support provide basic health services, such as vaccinations or micronutrients. These are so clearly good that it’s very unlikely the recipients wouldn’t value them. Better health can empower people to improve aspects of their own circumstances in ways we as outsiders cannot.

In cases where the above don’t apply, we can conduct detailed impact evaluations to see how the recipients actually feel about the service that purports to help them. Of course, such surveys won’t always be reliable but they’re often the best we can do.

In other cases, such as when we’re trying to help non-human animals or future generations, these issues can be even more difficult, and people do their best to predict what they would want if they could speak to us. Obvious cases would include pigs not wanting to be permanently confined to ‘gestation crates’ in which they cannot turn around, or future generations not wanting to inherit a planet on which humans cannot easily live.

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Does effective altruism neglect effective interventions when the impact can’t be measured?

Some of the actions that we recommend are ones that have been tested and shown to have a high impact. But there are many actions that seem promising which would be infeasible to evaluate using experimental methods such as randomized controlled trials. However, when high-quality evidence is available, we take it very seriously.

Several effective altruist organizations work on more ‘speculative’ projects, which are very difficult to quantify. For example, Open Philanthropy Project works on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development.

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Is the effective altruism community too homogeneous?

The effective altruist community could stand to be more diverse. We’re aware of this and trying hard to improve. And if you have suggestions about ways we can improve, please do let us know. While the community first emerged among people in richer nations, as it grows, it’s drawing in people from many different backgrounds. We’ve been excited to see  cities across the globe hosting EA conferences, from Hong Kong to Nairobi.

In terms of our beliefs and practices, we’re very diverse. Some are vegetarians, others aren’t. The community as a whole is secular, but some members are religious. And there’s a wide range of political beliefs. While many people have strongly-held beliefs and values, there is a strong emphasis on building a community that is respectful of difference, and open to listening to criticism. What unites us is a shared passion for helping others as much as possible.

Comments2
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:24 PM

I think an important caveat/'qualifier' for EA is that it's really for people who are either a) highly educated/ talented b) wealthy or c) both.. ? Is that fair to say?

I think some of the principles are more broadly applicable - it makes sense for someone who is giving any amount of money to think in this way & the suggested orgs are helpful. 

But certainly in terms of choosing a career.. - for someone without high intelligence/education/resources, they probably won't be in a position to survey the landscape and pick up jobs in any field they feel they are needed. 

So what should an averagely educated, averagely intelligent person do? I don't know that EA thinking is that helpful here, besides as a guide to giving... - how to choose between teacher or social worker? Or what about jobs like bin lorry driver/electrician/other essential workers.. - individually it's probably hard to measure their impact in terms of QALYs.. it might even be negligible? But without these workers society wouldn't function, so the cumulative impact is massive.. 

This must have occurred to EA thinkers and some of what I've read has touched on some of these points, so I'm probably stating the obvious here. I don't see this point as particularly undermining any of the EA stuff, which I think is broadly useful and relevant, but I do think it's an important caveat that could be more explicit/visible. 

I'd be curious to hear what others think about this - has this occurred to people? Am I missing something, or have I misunderstood? Are there more ways that EA thinking is relevant to the average person? How would someone assess the impact of teacher vs. social worker? Is that even possible?

Thanks

Iain

I think this is an excellent point. Something I'd like to write into a forum post someday if I get any actual conclusions is that EA seems to have some difficulties that are inherent in the mathematical realities of the movement.

On the one hand, EA wants to grow and advocate more publicly. This makes sense and is a good thing for a movement. While EA definitely focuses on slower, more sustainable growth, my understanding is that when EA wants quality, they mean quality of fit moreso than explicitly targeting quality of talent/money/resources. We want people aligned with the movement - it's okay if they aren't hugely influential in their fields.

On the other hand...EA is essentially a love letter to the Pareto principle. The guiding principle of EA is that some interventions are much, MUCH more effective than others. The unfortunate truth is that in many fields, the same applies to not just organisations, but people. One Sam Bankman-Fried makes the impact of thousands or tens of thousands of "ordinary" people. And even then, an "ordinary" person is someone who makes a median or above-median income in a wealthy country and donates 10% of it per year - even THIS is not a low bar to cross! 

Research productivity isn't quite as bad as this, but there are absolutely some people who have way more impact than others. EA also badly needs people, but it badly needs people who meet a certain talent bar. Once again, the Pareto principle comes into play. If an EA organisation wants to double its headcount, one might think  "Oh, it'll be easy to get a job there!" And yet, often the objective standard is very high. It might be very easy to find a job if you meet that standard (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/YDF7XhMThhNfHfim9/ai-safety-needs-great-engineers for an example) but meeting that standard is HARD.

The final issue is this. Earning-to-give and donating 10% to charity is a totally reasonable path that can save dozens or hundreds of lives. Basically any effective altruist would say this is a totally good thing, you should be proud of it, and it is a totally worthy contribution to the cause. But if you engage with EA materials, you will hear about this a few times, and you will hear far more about other causes. Why is that? Because...there's just not that much to say about it, really. Once you've gotten the infrastructure of research up (which charities are effective, where do I donate), the only updates in this area tend to be "Here's a way to advocate to get other people to give more", "Let's celebrate X Day", and "Hey, GiveWell found a new effective charity!". If we wanted to make a "10%-er post" every week, I feel like we'd run out of content pretty quickly. 

Therefore, when most people engage with places like the EA forum, they get people talking about things that probably aren't relevant to them. Most people are talking about things that are less obvious, still being fleshed out, or require specific, often highly niche and difficult-to-obtain talents. This isn't because EA is elitist and is deliberately shutting out the plebians who don't want to devote their whole career to EA, it's because these are the areas where new content is needed, and where new content won't repeat itself.

I don't yet have any suggestions about this.

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