Luke Muehlhauser recently joked that it seems like everyone has their own definition of effective altruism. And it is true, everyone has a spin or aspects of EA they want to emphasise or care about. For myself, I want EA to be as broad and approachable as possible. That said, a definition should not mislead people, there is steel in EA and it does demand a certain intellectual/lifestyle approach.

Anyway, it seemed like a valuable exercise, at the very least for clarifying my own values to think a bit and try and capture the core of what I believe is important about effective altruism in a minimal definition:

1. Give More. Most of us spend only a tiny amount of our time and income trying to make the world a better place. If we give a little more of both, making the effort to make consciously working towards a better world a significant part of our lives, we have an amazing opportunity to make a real difference.

2. Give Better. If we want to make a real difference, we should try to use evidence and reasoning so that we have the best chance of having a big positive impact. If we think hard about the impact of our time and money, and use evidence and careful analysis to update and test our beliefs, we can get better at investing it well. Deciding what to do and where to give to have the biggest impact is not easy. But we think the best answers come from being open to new evidence and part of a community of likeminded individuals asking the same questions.

. Is there anything that this misses which you think of as essential to effective altruism? It deliberately avoids anything that strays into negative affects - for example shades of utilitarianism, or specific causes/values / concepts. Possibly, the biggest weakness is that it says little about how evidence and reasoning lead you to update your beliefs. But the second section seems too long and wordy already, I would like to cut it down if possible. But I think it is a decent first draft anyway.

11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:56 AM
New Comment

Thanks! Yes, collecting some definitions and polling their respective popularity would be interesting!

I recently published an article on why the “give more” part is not necessary. For some people the best thing they can do – in objective utilitarian and possibly Rawlsian terms – is to invest in themselves. If giving more is restricted to giving to others, giving more and giving better would then be in conflict; if it is not restricted like that, it is just redundant since giving better already determines everything about where to give.

It’s also important to always use the superlative since we don’t want to incur opportunity costs. You do so in the body of the paragraph though. :‑)

I’ll post some quick definitions as comments to my comment because I recently thought of a “funny” one (Poe funny I guess).

And see also “Effective Altruism is a Question (not an ideology)” and the discussion underneath.

+1 I'd avoid over-associating EA with just effective giving. E.g., startup-founding, political advocacy, and scientific research can all be undertaken with EA ideas in mind.

“Effective altruism is using evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible.”

From What is Effective Altruism. The definition I’ve been citing a lot recently.

The behaviors that follow when you accept:

  1. (a) “All lives have equal value” or (b) “All lives are morally relevant.”
  2. “There are more or less desirable states of existence.”

1b is probably enough in most cases. I’ve heard of people who value people in their own country at least 100 times as highly as people outside, but that seems mind-bogglingly extreme. So long as this differential doesn’t reach the same orders of magnitude that exist between the cost-effectiveness estimates of interventions in the opposite direction, EA is still the forcible conclusion.

1a is stolen from the Gates Foundation. Does “lives” include animal lives?

“How can I do the most good with the money and time I would’ve donated anyway?”

That’s sort of my take-away from Nick Cooney’s book, but he surely only tried not to be overly demanding of his readers, not to define EA.

Effective altruism is the question: “How can I minimize the opportunity cost of sentient beings I negligently kill or torture?”

I'd kill these sentences "Deciding what to do and where to give to have the biggest impact is not easy. But we think the best answers come from being open to new evidence and part of a community of likeminded individuals asking the same questions."

don't know why like minded is valued.

Also, your definition is too loose - literally millions of people have done this that will never identify as effective altruists. It might better differentiate if you said that an EA also identified with a community of people trying to evangelise the above 1 and 2 primarily through that community. But that isn't as positive a descriptor.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

I NEVER BELIEVE ON SPELL CASTER BEFORE NOT UNTIL I MET WITH THIS GREAT SPELL CASTER CALLED (DR HOODOO) HE IS REALLY POWERFUL AND HE IS SPECIALIZED ON A SPELL TO BRING BACK LOVE'S ONE,LOST, HE CAN ALSO MAKE SOME ONE TO LOVE YOU OR SPELL FOR A GOOD JOB. I AM NOW HAPPY AND A LIVING TESTIMONY BECAUSE THE MAN I WANTED TO MARRY LEFT ME 3 WEEK S BEFORE OUR WEDDING AND MY LIFE WAS UPSIDE DOWN COS OUR-RELATIONSHIP HAS BEEN ON FOR 3 YEARS.....I REALLY LOVE HIM, AND I CANNOT DO WITHOUT HIM..BUT ALL HIS RELATIONS WAS AGAINST OUR FRIENDSHIP INCLUDING HIS MOTHER AND HE HAD NO GOOD PAYING JOB.....SO WHEN I MET WITH THE SPELL CASTER I TOLD HIM ALL THAT HAS HAPPEN TO ME...AT THE FIRST STAGE I WAS UNDECIDED, SKEPTICAL AND DOUBTFUL, BUT I JUST GIVE IT A TRY....AND IN 7 DAYS MY BOYFRIEND (NOW MY HUSBAND) CALLED ME BY HIMSELF AND CAME TO ME APOLOGIZING THAT EVERYTHING HAD BEEN SETTLED WITH HIS MOM AND FAMILY...THAT IS HOW WE GOT MARRIED AND HAPPILY TOGETHER NOW...YOU CAN CONTACT THIS SPELL CASTER ON HIS EMAIL hoodoo_spelltemple@hotmail.com OR CALL HIS PHONE NUMBER ON _+2348106615004...

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[-][anonymous]7y -1

hoodoo_spelltemple@hotmail.com OR CALL HIS PHONE NUMBER ON _+2348106615004...

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[-][anonymous]7y -2
[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply
[-][anonymous]7y -2

MY NAME IS MONICA, AM HERE TO TESTIFY OF A GREAT SPELL CASTER CALLED DR HOODOO. THIS GREAT MAN AND HIS 7DEMONS RESTORED JOY AND HAPPINESS BACK INTO MY LIFE AFTER 6MONTHS OF EMOTIONAL PAINS AND TEARS, BUT THIS GREAT MAN WIPE AWAY MY 6MONTHS OF PAINS AND TEARS IN JUST 48HOURS BY BRINGING MY MAN WHOM I LOVE SO MUCH BACK TO ME. I WANT TO RECOMMEND THIS GREAT MAN TO EVERYBODY BECAUSE HE IS TRULY A REAL SPELL CASTER INDEED. CONTACT HIM NOW, hoodoo_spelltemple@hotmail.com

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply