This is an introduction that I first published on my own blog but was asked to publish here as well for archival purposes. Many thanks to everyone who has contributed to it!
Effective altruism is about doing the most good in the world. This includes figuring out what exactly that means, how it can be achieved, and implementing these insights.
Central to the movement are the following ideas:
- Top charities are thousands of times more cost-effective than others12 and make it easy to have a huge positive impact.
- Hence, it is typically more important where you give than what you give, and empirical, scientific research needs to guide these giving decisions, not personal bias or geographic proximity.
- Failing to give or failing to give effectively incurs tremendous avoidable suffering.
The following sections will explain these points in more detail, and the final one will give an overview of the movement.
Few people would be content to note on their deathbed that they have wasted their life on egoistic pursuits, so that after their death the world will be as if they had never lived.
Enter consequentialist philosophers. Many people find it intuitive that we—the average readers of this article who live in relative affluence—have a moral obligation to help, but for those that still have reservations, Peter Singer, Toby Ord, Thomas Pogge, Peter Unger, Shelly Kagan, and others have analogies similar to the following classic by Peter Singer3:
Imagine that you’re walking across a park past a shallow ornamental pond and you notice that a small child has fallen in, and seems to be in danger of drowning. … Of course, you think “I must rush in and save the child.” Then you remember that you’re wearing your favorite, quite expensive, pair of shoes and they’ll get ruined if you rush into the pond.
Is that a reason for not saving the child? I’m sure you’ll say no it isn’t, you just can’t compare the life of a child to the cost of a pair of shoes, no matter how expensive. …
But think about how that relates to your situation in the world today. There are children whose lives you can save. … Nearly 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty related causes. That’s almost 27,000 every day. And it wouldn’t take a lot to save the lives of these children. We can do it.
The estimated cost4 of saving a child’s life is likely greater than even rather expensive shoes, but compared to the the value of a child’s life—an often fulfilling, happy life seventy-odd years—the difference is negligible.
However, effective altruism is not about rushing in and putting all our resources into saving one child’s life. With ten thousands of people dying of preventable or treatable diseases every day,5 we need to pay the utmost attention to maximize the impact of our donations. Effective altruism is not about doing some good, it is about doing the most good with the limited resources that we have.
One’s choice whether or not to donate is a matter of life or death for another person. But so is the decision as to where to donate. When we choose one charity over another, both of which run life-saving programs, we consign some people to death so others can live.
Even just comparing medical interventions, some are 1,000 times more effective in the suffering they can avert per dollar donated.1 A large donation to an ineffective charity that uses it to save one life would then mean that 999 more people die unnecessary deaths. Few of us have a choice between donating $100 and $100,000, but we all have the option to donate to the most effective charities rather than waste almost our whole donation.
These considerations apply to nonhuman animals as much as to humans. There is no agreed-upon method for comparing the suffering of different species, but Animal Charity Evaluators estimates that the cost for saving the lives of farmed animals6 might be four orders of magnitude less than that for saving human lives,4 a consideration that might outweigh whatever lower value one might assign to the life of an animal. On the other hand, animals are much less likely to benefit from long-term flow-through effects.7
Similarly, effective altruists are investigating whether there are highly effective giving opportunities in areas that are usually deemed political. For example, opportunities within the US policy areas of labor mobility and criminal justice are being investigated by the Open Philanthropy Project. It also investigates types of global catastrophic risk (also known as existential risk)—such as biosecurity and geoengineering—and what can be done to avert them. Investigations into giving opportunities in the area of scientific research funding are also on the agenda.
Some charities address life-threatening issues; others address less severe problems but do so at lower costs; still others combine both advantages, but are already well funded. Most charities, however, improve lives in less significant ways and at high costs, for example due to using ineffective or poorly researched interventions. With all these factors to bear in mind, and additional complications such as differences in the quality of the evidence, it is a challenging task to prioritize charities.
Two organizations have put years of work into doing just that. GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators have been determining empirically which charities excel in all these categories. These charities are thus the best giving opportunities for donors. The reliability of their evidence is paramount to them, and they go to great lengths to subject their reasoning to public scrutiny, so that they can continually improve.
As of December 2014, GiveWell recommends:
- The Against Malaria Foundation, which funds mosquito nets for malaria prevention
- GiveDirectly, which distributes cash to people in extreme poverty
- The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats people for parasite infections
- The Deworm the World Initiative of Evidence Action, which provides advocacy and technical assistance to governments to conduct deworming.
As of December 2014, Animal Charity Evaluators recommends:
- Animal Equality, which advocates for farmed animals through media outlets, grassroots outreach, undercover investigations, and legal and corporate outreach
- Mercy For Animals, which advocates for farmed animals through undercover investigations, corporate and legal outreach, online vegetarian ads, and grassroots outreach
- The Humane League, which advocates for farmed animals through online advertising, grassroots outreach, public campaigns, presentations, and corporate outreach.
- GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators find the best charities in existence and publish each step of their processes.
- The Open Philanthropy Project investigates promising giving opportunities including those that lie outside the focus of GiveWell.
- Giving What We Can accepts pledges from effective altruists who plan to donate at least 10% of their income.
- 80,000 Hours provides career coaching for everyone who wants their life to have the greatest possible positive impact.
- Charity Science experiments with different ways to conduct outreach and fund-raising.
- The Effective Altruism Forum can help you find answers to your questions.
- The Effective Altruists Facebook group provides you with another forum for effective altruism discussions.
- Effective Altruism Hub encourages you to be public about your donations to inspire others.
D.T. Jamison et al., Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2nd ed., NCBI bookshelf (World Bank Publications, 2006), 52, ISBN: 9780821361801. ↩
Owen Cotton-Barratt, “Human and Animal Interventions: The Long-Term View,” 2014. ↩