In this talk from EAGxBerkeley 2016, Ajeya Cotra shares what led her to join the effective altruism movement, then provides an overview of its basic principles.

Below is a transcript, which we've lightly edited for clarity.

The Talk

[00:00:09] When I was a little kid, I really hated visiting my native country, India. It was hot. It was polluted. I didn't recognize any of my relatives. But most of all, it made me really sad. I saw a lot of things in India at a pretty young age: hunger, pain, anger, desperation. 

[00:00:34] One day when I was about eight, my cousins and I went to a small streetside ice cream parlor in Hyderabad and we each got little ice cream cones for less than a dollar. As we were walking outside, we saw something that's sadly familiar to a lot of us who live in big cities like San Francisco and Berkeley. A woman outside the ice cream parlor was begging for money, for food. And even though she was wrapped in rags, I could count every one of her ribs. 

[00:01:08] I didn't have any money to give, but without thinking, I handed over my ice cream cone. As we were walking away my cousins stared at me. “You're crazy,” they said. “Why would you ever do that?” And I didn't know how to respond. So we just walked home in uncomfortable silence. 

[00:01:32] That night, and many nights after that, when everyone else in the house was asleep, I would stay up sob into my pillow because the world was unfair and full of pain. Because what was normal was to ignore that pain, and it was crazy to try to do something about it, no matter how small. Because I knew that after that old woman finished her ice cream cone, she would be hungry again, and I wouldn't be there to help her. Because I felt powerless. 

[00:02:09] So I want to ask you: How many of you have had experiences like this, where you're forced to confront just how unfair the world is — and just how privileged you really are? 

How do you react when you have an experience like this — with shame? Do you feel like you don't deserve the comfort that you have? Do you feel guilt — that you should be doing more to help instead of just living your life as it is? 

Do you feel anger that other people — people more powerful than you, people richer than you — aren't helping? Why should you feel guilty when they're not doing anything either? 

Do you feel apathy, perhaps because you've seen sights like this hundreds or thousands of times, every day on the way to work? And because although you really should feel something, you have papers to write, kids to raise, a life to live? 

[00:03:15] Or do you feel like you just want to deny it all — like it's too hard for you? You don't want to think about it. You just want it to go away. That was my personal favorite as a child. I begged my parents not to take me back to India. My dad can attest I even stayed up at night praying that we wouldn't ever go back, so I wouldn't have to see something like that again. And my prayers were answered. Life got busy and my trips to India became less and less frequent. I got wrapped up in an upper-middle class world and my upper-middle class life. And while I'd like to say that those experiences of suffering stayed with me in the back of my mind, truthfully, they were pretty far back. And I was content. 

[00:04:14] But if there's anyone who's really good at ruining a happy, contented life, it's Peter Singer. When I was 14 years old, I read his book The Life You Can Save

In that book, Peter Singer argues that if you would ruin an expensive suit to save the life of a child drowning in a shallow pond, then you should give up a few thousand dollars to save the life of a child dying of a preventable disease — that those two situations are no different. Peter Singer took me back to that time when I was eight years old and faced with such a stark reminder of how unfair our world is. Peter Singer reminded me that even though that old woman wasn't in front of me anymore, she still mattered. And after that, I was compelled to learn more. 

[00:05:06] I learned that for every single American, there are three people living on less than $2.50 a day — less than the price of a cup of coffee. I learned that adverse effects from climate change are going to kill and/or dislocate tens of millions of the most vulnerable people and animals in the next few years. I learned about the cruelty and racial injustice of our criminal justice system. I learned about the horrifying ways in which we treat the animals that we slaughter for food. I learned about the shame and powerlessness of unemployment and homelessness. And I learned about the burden of disease, of death. 

[00:05:55] By the end, I felt like the world was on fire, and, relatedly, that I was a horrible person because I wasn't doing anything to stop it.

 [00:06:09] I had always thought of myself as a hero. I always imagined that I would be that person who would go rescue strangers from a burning building. I always imagined that when something sufficiently dramatic happened, when the time came, I would step up. But I realized then that even though I couldn't see it, the time had come. 

So I had to step up. 

[00:06:34] But what would I actually do? There are so many causes worth dedicating a lifetime to — so many problems. I was overwhelmed. How would I actually choose? What would I choose? And that's when I discovered effective altruism (which is still a very, very small social movement). 

It was 2011 and I was a junior in high school. Effective altruism proposed a radical but very simple plan for your life. Figure out how to do the most good and then do it. 

[00:07:07] Needless to say, simple does not mean easy. But one insight from effective altruism really can make it a lot easier. And that's cause prioritization. The idea that you should actively compare different causes, figure out how much good each one does, and only support the causes that do the most good.

 [00:07:29] To a lot of people this might seem unfair, crass, or cold. Shouldn't we support all causes? Don't all causes deserve some support? I don't think so. 

Causes don't deserve support, people deserve support — and causes are supposed to support people. Sometimes we have to ruthlessly prioritize among causes in order to be fair to people. 

[00:07:57] Let me give you an example. Suppose you have $1,000 to spare and you're trying to figure out where to give it. 

You can give it to an organization that trains guide dogs to support people with blindness. Or you can give it to an organization that provides insecticide-treated malaria nets to prevent transmission of malaria. What would happen if we tried to be fair and gave $500 to each? 

[00:08:22] Well, it takes about $45,000 to train a guide dog from a puppy to graduation. So your $500 would support about 1% of that, or about one week of training. 

On the other hand, it costs about $10 to produce and distribute a malaria net. Each net protects two people, usually children under the age of five, from getting malaria for three years. So with your $500, you can protect one hundred children for three years from a debilitating and often fatal disease. Add that to the first $500 you spent, and this is how much good you've done. And this is how much good you would have done if you had spent the next $500 on the malaria charity as well. 

[00:09:14] In reality, if we tried to be fair and support both of these causes equally, what we're saying is that we value helping one person a little bit over helping 100 people a lot. And that's not fair: supporting all causes equally is unfair to people, and they're who we care about. And we can't necessarily rely on our personal experience or instinct to let us know which causes are the best, either.

[00:09:44] John Green puts this beautifully in his book The Fault in Our Stars. The favorite book of the main character, Hazel, stars a cancer survivor named Anna. This is what Hazel says about Anna: “Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic. So she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.” 

[00:10:07]  I aspire to be an Anna. And effective altruists understand, like Anna, that choosing from our heart is unfair, too. We're human, we're biased to want to support those who are like us. Our experience informs the things that we think are urgent. 

[00:10:29] So, if we can't choose from our heart, we need some kind of framework to choose the best cause. Here's one that I find particularly useful. We can break the cause down into three components: importance, tractability, and neglectedness.

Importance

[00:10:46] Let's start with importance. Importance is the product of scale and severity.

 Scale refers to the number of people and animals this problem affects. And severity refers to how badly it affects each one. Even though it might seem hard, we can actually compare really disparate causes that do very different things relatively easily on the dimension of importance. 

For example, let's consider the causes of leukemia and climate change. Ten thousand people die of leukemia every single year. That is horrifying when you think about it. Every 15 minutes, someone with hopes and dreams, someone with a family and a future, dies a painful death of leukemia. But in the next few years, due to the effects of climate change, 10,000 additional people are expected to die of heat stroke alone. Millions of others will die from the effects of increased extreme weather and emerging tropical diseases. 

[00:12:10] From this, we can see that climate change is a more important cause than leukemia — not because leukemia isn't important, and not because it isn’t worth dedicating your life to fighting leukemia. Climate change is more important because we're only so many people and we can't solve every problem; because the world is unfair and full of pain. 

[00:12:39] When we're trying to calculate importance, it's crucial to do the math, to go find the numbers, to figure out how many people a problem affects, to figure out how badly it affects them. I don't know about you, but I'm a bleeding heart. If I were to just make up numbers for how important each cause was, everything would be an 11 on a scale from 1 to 10. But there's going to be a world of difference between two causes that both seem like urgent life and death situations. And if we don't pay attention to that difference, we're going to leave behind people whom we could have helped. 

[00:13:21] We could be working on the most important cause in the world, but it wouldn't matter if we couldn't make any progress on it. And that's the second criterion for a cause: tractability. Tractability basically means that we can see a path forward. We have good evidence that putting additional resources, time, and money into a problem will produce results. 

Tractability

[00:13:46] Let's think about the tractability of two political causes. The first is criminal justice reform in the United States. Every year, police in the US shoot and kill 1,000 people without a trial. Unarmed black men are seven times more likely to be killed than unarmed white men. The Black Lives Matter movement focuses especially on this issue of police violence. But in truth, this kind of excessive cruelty and racial inequality is present at all levels of our criminal justice system, from sentencing to trials to bail.

 [00:14:28] The second cause is foreign aid reform. The United States spends about 1% of its federal budget on foreign aid. Over half of this aid is actually military aid. Even the nonmilitary aid overwhelmingly goes to countries where we have a political stake or military presence rather than the countries that need aid the most. If we could convince the United States government to slightly increase its foreign aid budget, or if we could convince them to redirect more of that aid to proven cost-effective health interventions, we could save millions of lives. 

Unfortunately, very few people know about or care about foreign aid reform. It's not in the public eye, and it's a federal issue decided by a small group of people behind closed doors. It's very, very hard for an outside activist to influence. 

[00:15:20] On the other hand, we're at a really exciting moment in our country for criminal justice reform. [Editor’s note: This talk was given in 2016.] It's all over the news media. There's overwhelming bipartisan support for things like cameras on cops, reclassifying a lot of felonies as misdemeanors, retroactively reducing sentences, releasing prisoners. This is a rare moment where we can help the disadvantaged a lot by cutting the size of government. So, criminal justice reform is a vastly more tractable cause in our current political environment. 

[00:15:56] It's important to note, though, that tractability depends on the situation. It can depend on your location. For example, as people in the United States, it's relatively easy for us to help people overseas by providing health interventions or economic interventions. It's much harder and riskier for us to try and mess with other countries’ political systems. On the other hand, someone in Uganda or Kenya might be much better placed to be an activist in their country and work to change their government’s policies. And it obviously depends on the skills you have as a person. The world's top biochemist is much better placed to work on the problem of aging than the problem of criminal justice reform. 

This means that tractability can change. It means that determining the best cause to work on at the moment requires us, in a sense, to be opportunistic. We should look for good opportunities to work on the causes that we think are the most important. It also means that we should build up skills so that the most important problems in the world become more tractable for us.

Neglectedness

[00:17:13] What about neglectedness? Neglectedness is the idea that a cause is getting a lot fewer resources than its importance and its tractability would suggest it should get. And other things being equal, we want to support causes that are more neglected. This is not out of a sense of fairness, this is not out of a sense of trying to balance out the money that different causes get. 

It's the idea of picking low-hanging fruit. If there are millions of people directing their efforts and billions of dollars already going toward a cause, then there’s a strong chance that the easiest, most cost-effective things that you could do in order to do a lot of good are already taken. And if you're not highly, highly specialized or if you're not taking a dramatically different approach than everyone else in the field, you will be working on the toughest problems — the ones that all of those millions of people and billions of dollars haven't yet been able to solve. 

So in a sense, neglectedness implies that a cause is more tractable. If you're going into a smaller cause that's less established, that doesn't have much money or funding, then you can lay the foundational groundwork. That has a multiplying impact because other people can build on your work. And if you hadn't stepped in and helped that cause, it's highly unlikely that other people would have filled that gap. A less neglected cause, on the other hand, is likely to have been addressed anyway. 

[00:18:47] Let's look at two broad causes to illustrate the idea of neglectedness. The first is human welfare in the United States. The second is farm animal welfare. Let's look at some of the numbers. 

There are seven times as many farm animals in the United States as there are humans, but 97 percent of donations go to organizations that aid humans. Of the other three percent that goes to animals every year, the vast majority is to pet shelters. So farm animals are vastly more neglected than both humans and pet animals, and there's a good case to be made that they suffer a lot more than pet animals. 

[00:19:35] This leads to a very important point: Neglected causes are going to look like bad causes; they're going to appear weird, like fiction, or as if they're a lot less important than other causes. They're going to look a lot less tractable than other causes. That's why they're neglected. The analogy to investing is really appropriate here. What did Microsoft look like in 1978? 

Would you have invested in them? Most people didn't, and now they're worth $290 billion. The key to being a good investor, and to being a good altruist, is to dig past first impressions and actually do the research so you’re more likely to be the one who makes the bet that pays off. 

[00:20:25] So, we want to look for causes that are highly important, highly tractable, and highly neglected relative to their importance and tractability. That already narrows down the space of causes a lot, no matter what your values are.

But does this mean that there's one true cause? Was all of this leading up to me telling you that the thing you should be working on is X, and you can just turn your brain off and go do that for the rest of your life? 

Absolutely not. This is not a solved problem. And even though a lot of effective altruists use this framework, or something like it, to find causes to work on, there's still a huge amount of variation. We have different values. We have different beliefs. We have different assumptions and different priorities. 

[00:21:15] So, let's look at some of the causes that are very popular in the effective altruism movement. Here are the three:  

  • Global poverty
  • Animal welfare
  • Reducing existential or global catastrophic risk

I will go through these one by one. 

[00:21:44] As I mentioned, over a billion people in this world are living on less than $2.50 a day. Many of those people are affected by easily preventable diseases that we've mostly eliminated in our countries. 

[00:22:17] Next, we have farm animal welfare. There are three times as many farm animals as there are humans in the world. The vast majority of them are kept in industrial farming operations where they live very, very short and very, very painful lives. And it can actually be extremely cheap to help them. 

[00:22:55] And the last cause is existential risk reduction, or global catastrophic risk reduction. A global catastrophic risk is a situation where, if it happened, it could dramatically derail human civilization or lead to the extinction of humanity or life on Earth in general. This might be something like a US-Russia nuclear war, a bioterrorist attack from synthetic pandemics, or risks from an artificial intelligence going wrong. 

[00:23:34] These are three causes that are the most popular in effective altruism, but they're by no means the only causes. Many people, for example, believe that opening our borders to immigration is the most effective way that we can fight poverty all over the world. Others believe that educating people who are already altruistically minded on rationality and decision making is the best way that they could have a leveraged impact on the world. And these are only our current best guesses. 

[00:24:08] The point of effective altruism is not to come in, pick one of these three tracks based on what seems interesting to you, and just defend that to the death. Causes will change over time within a person and within the movement as a whole. Plus, they will differ from person to person. It's all about learning from each other.

How to do EA? 

[00:24:29] If effective altruists don't all support the same cause, and if we don't support the same cause throughout our whole life, then what the hell do we have in common? How do you do EA?

 [00:24:42] The first point is to support the cause that you currently think is best. We've talked about this a lot. It means not going with your gut. It means not just giving to the first organization that asks for your money. It means not just working for the first nonprofit where you get a job. It means taking a step back, figuring out your values, and determining where you can have the most impact. 

[00:25:08] But it also means challenging your beliefs, because even though you're working on the cause that you currently think is best, no one person has it all figured out. So if [someone else in the EA movement] disagrees with you about what the most important thing to work on is, don't just smile and agree to disagree. You're on the same side. Ask them to convince you. You’re both trying to figure out how you can best allocate your limited, limited resources to do the most good. You're on a team, so try to learn from each other.

 [00:25:44] And the last is expanding your compassion. A lot of people got into effective altruism, myself included, because we realized we didn't just care about ourselves and our immediate community. We cared, at least in some sense, about all humans. I realized this when I was eight years old and I gave the ice cream cone to that old lady. And I realized it again when I was 14 and I read Peter Singer for the first time. And I turned to effective altruism to ask what it should mean to care about all humans. How should I change my behavior? What should I be doing if I really want to put that principle of caring about all of humanity into practice?

 [00:26:30] This is why most effective altruists believe that global poverty is such a pressing cause. When you let all of humanity into the circle of people you care for, a lot of the concerns that are very local to us — while they're very real — become overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who are outside of our immediate community. 

[00:26:57] The thing about being involved in this community is that you never stop caring. Most effective altruists care at least somewhat about animals, non-human animals, as well as humans. Although most of us struggle with just how much we're supposed to weight the interests of animals against the interests of humans, those of us who have reflected on it and think that we do care have often gone vegetarian or vegan. And many effective altruists support reducing factory farming for the same reasons that others support ending global poverty: When we let tens of billions of animals into the circle of living beings whom we care about, then a lot of human concerns get pushed aside out of sheer numbers and the sheer amount of suffering that most of these animals endure. And most effective altruists also care about future humans and animals, and how our actions affect generations to come. 

[00:27:58] Again, most of us struggle with how much to weight people who will be alive in the future relative to people who are alive today. It's not a solved problem. But those of us who decide that we care a lot about future beings often work on reducing existential risk. If humanity goes extinct, or if civilization is derailed, then trillions of future people may not come into existence or may live worse lives. 

[00:28:32] I have by no means achieved global empathy. Most of my day is spent thinking about myself. I care way more about my friends than I care about people living far away. I care way more about humans than I care about animals. And I can barely plan for the next five years, much less the next 5,000. 

But the thing about being in this community is that no one ever lets me get away with just stopping, packing up, and going home. I'm always being challenged to grow, to care more, to think more deeply, and to do more. 

[00:30:36] Let me tell you a little secret. I say that I'm an effective altruist. That just means a person trying to be effective at altruism. This is the ideal: You figure out how to do the most good and then you do it. But in reality, you figure out how to do a little more good than you're doing today, and then you work on that. And as you act on what you think is the best thing to do right now, your values change, your beliefs change, you learn more, you grow more, and you figure out how to do a little more good. And you keep going. 

[00:31:12] We're human. Sometimes we won't do as much good as we're planning to do. Sometimes we'll be selfish. Sometimes we'll take a break. Sometimes we'll make bad decisions. But it's important not to let the fact that you can't meet your own high standards mean that you should just lower your standards. Being consistent is not the highest virtue in the world. You can do so much more good by aiming high and then falling short than you could by deciding that you're just a bad person, and that you'll give up and go home. 

[00:31:53] Larissa MacFarquhar has written a beautiful book that I think every single one of you should read. It’s called Strangers Drowning. It’s about what it's like to be an ordinary human trying really, really hard to do an extraordinary amount for other people. She talks about how our world often sneers at do-gooders. Society often jumps at the chance to accuse someone who is trying to do a lot of good of hypocrisy or failing to meet their own standards, as if that were the only measure of a good thing. She talks about why those people keep trying. So if you're facing criticism like that — if someone says, “Oh, you're a vegetarian, why aren't you a vegan?” or “Oh, you're giving 10%, but why aren't you giving 20%?” — keep trying. The people you're trying to help will thank you, even if other people roll their eyes at you. 

[00:32:57] These principles get us pretty far, but we have a long way to go. Peter Singer may have shattered my happy, peaceful life when I read that book. He may have brought back all of those ugly emotions that I wanted to hide from — the emotions that bubble up when you notice the unfairness and sadness in the world. But he also gives us the tools to fight that unfairness. He gave me a sense of resolve. And he introduced me to a movement and a community that has my back, that supports me as I try to improve, and that truly gives me so much hope for the world. 

That's what I want to leave you with. The world is getting better. There are solutions to the world's toughest problems. We don't have to hide from them. They may be difficult, but we're smart. They may take a while, but we're determined. So please keep that in mind and try to learn from [others] because there really are actionable things that we can do. 

I'm going to leave you with a statistic that's just the beginning of what I hope will be your journey as effective altruists, if you're not on there yet. It takes less than $3,000 to save a human life. 

[00:34:37] So yes, we can do it. The world is getting better. And it's because ordinary people like you decided to do something extraordinary. Thank you for stepping up.

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