What the program is about
Effective altruism (EA) is an ongoing project to find the best ways to do good, and put them into practice.
Our core goal with this program is to introduce you to some of the principles and thinking tools behind effective altruism. We hope that these tools can help you as you think through how you can best help the world.
We also want to share some of the arguments for working on specific problems, like global health or biosecurity. People involved in effective altruism tend to agree that, partly due to uncertainty about which cause is best, we should split our resources between problems. But they don’t agree on what that split should be. People in the effective altruism community actively discuss and disagree about which causes to prioritize and how, even though we’ve learned a lot over the last decade. We hope that you will take these ideas seriously and think for yourself about which ways to help are most effective.
Finally, we give you some time at the end of the program to begin to reflect on how you personally can help to solve these problems. We don’t expect you’ll have an answer by the end of the eight weeks, but we hope you’re better prepared to explore this further.
What the program involves
Each part of the program has a set of core posts and sometimes an exercise.
We think that the core posts take most people about 1-2 hours to get through, and the exercise another 30-60 minutes. We have matched the readings and exercises so that, in total, we think it will take around 2-2.5 hours per week to prepare for the weekly session.
The exercises help you put the concepts from the reading into practice.
Beyond the core posts, there are more materials each week in ‘More to Explore’ — these are all optional and explore the themes of the week in more depth and breadth.
Approximate reading times are given for each of the posts. Generally, we’d prefer you to take your time and think through the readings instead of rushing.
This curriculum was drawn up by staff from the Centre for Effective Altruism, incorporating feedback from others. Ultimately we had to make many judgement calls, and other people would have drawn up a different curriculum.
How we hope you’ll approach the program
Taking ideas seriously
Often, conversations about ideas are recreational: we enjoy batting around interesting thoughts and saying smart things, and then go back to doing whatever we were already doing in our lives. This is a fine thing to do — but at least sometimes, we think we should be asking ourselves questions like:
- “How could I tell if this idea was true?”
- “What evidence would it take to convince me that I was wrong about an idea?”
- “If it is true, what does that imply I should be doing differently in my life? What else does it imply I’m wrong about?”
- “How might this impact my plans for my career/life?”
And, zooming out:
- “Where are my blind spots?”
- “Which important questions should I be thinking about that I’m not?”
- “Do I really know if this idea/plan will help make things better or not?”
Answering these questions can help make our worldviews as accurate and full as possible and, by extension, help us make better decisions about things that we care about.
Disagreements are useful
When thoughtful people with access to the same information reach very different conclusions from each other, we should be curious about why and we should actively encourage people to voice and investigate where those disagreements are coming from. If, for example, a medical community is divided on whether Treatment A or B does a better job of curing some disease, they should want to get to the bottom of that disagreement, because the right answer matters — lives are at stake. If you start off disagreeing with someone then change your mind, that can be hard to admit, but we think that should be celebrated. Helping conversations become clearer by changing your mind in response to arguments you find compelling will help the community act to save lives more effectively Even if you don’t expect to end up agreeing with the other person, you’ll learn more if you acknowledge that you disagree and try to understand exactly how and why their views disagree with yours.
Be aware of our privilege and the seriousness of these issues
We shouldn’t lose sight of our privilege in being able to read and discuss these ideas, or that we are talking about real lives. We’re lucky to be in a position where we can have such a large impact, and this opportunity for impact is the consequence of a profoundly unequal world. Also, be conscious of the fact that people in this program come to these discussions with different ideas, backgrounds, and knowledge. Some of these topics can be uncomfortable to talk about — which is one of the reasons they’re so neglected, and so important to talk about — especially when we may have personal ties to some of these areas.
This handbook aims to introduce people to effective altruism in a structured manner. There are far too many relevant topics, ideas, and research for all but a small fraction of them to fit into this very short program. If you are interested in these topics, you may find it very useful to dive into the linked websites, and the websites those sites link to, and so on.
This handbook is also accessible as a Google Doc version here
Our goal is to introduce people to some of the core principles of effective altruism, to share the arguments for different problems that people in effective altruism work on, and to encourage you to think about what you want to do on the basis of those ideas. We also tried to give a balance of materials that is in line with the (significant) diversity of views on these topics within effective altruism.
In drawing up the curriculum, we consulted community members, subject matter experts, and program facilitators.
We think that these readings are interesting and give a good introduction, but we hope that you engage with them critically, rather than taking them all at face value. Once you’ve read this curriculum, we encourage you to explore other EA writings (e.g. on this wiki).