Why effective altruism?

by Aaron Gertler3 min read27th May 2020No comments


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The effective altruism community is focused on combining care for others with careful reasoning. Why?

Commonsense ideas

Lots of people try to live a good life. They help their friends and families. They adopt pets who need homes. They hold open doors, stop at red lights, and refrain from littering.

They also use evidence and reasoning to make decisions. They seek out advice from doctors, read reviews to choose a new phone, and learn about candidates' policies before voting.

Effective altruism simply combines those two commonsense ideas: helping others and using evidence. This could mean:

While these specific practices may not be common, we think most people would agree that helping others and using evidence are important.

Different stories, common themes

We've heard many stories from people who became involved in effective altruism. No two were alike:

  • Some people see their efforts as a kind of empowerment — a way to address the problems they see in the world and avoid feeling helpless.
  • Some feel motivated by the luck they've had — where they were born, their financial circumstances, their access to education — and want to use those advantages to make the world better and fairer for those who weren't as lucky.
  • Some view EA as an ordinary part of living a good life, not something to fuss over. Others see it as an extraordinary opportunity — a chance to take part in a global movement working to fix a broken world.

But a few common ideas come up over and over again — ideas which motivate people to give more, work harder, and think more carefully.

Helping those in need

Effective altruism starts with a desire to help others (whether people or animals). Just as we want to live happy and healthy lives, we know that others want the same, and we want to help them do so.

We try to extend our caring beyond those we know — to those who live far away, or who won't be born for another century, or who are slaughtered to produce food. We aim to account for all beings that matter morally.

We also focus not only on whom we can help, but also on how best to help. We recognize that we can do more for other people when we try to learn about what they need and which approaches will work best to provide that.

People involved in effective altruism are willing to give their money or their time to help others; they recognize that good intentions aren't enough, and that by working together, we can dramatically improve the world.[1]

Improving the world

Humans have done a lot to make the world a better place. We eradicated smallpox; we learned to harness electricity; we saved hundreds of millions of children from dying before the age of 5.

This is real progress — but it relies on human action, and it isn't guaranteed to continue. Improving the world takes a lot of work, and things could get worse if we aren't ready for whatever challenges the future brings.

Many of us look at what humans have accomplished so far and ask: "What's next?" We've seen other people change the course of history for the better, and we want to make our own contributions: furthering progress, helping to address the problems that remain, and guarding against potential disaster.

Using evidence and reasoning

The world is complex. We don't just care about the direct effects of our actions; we want to be aware of their indirect consequences, whether in the near term or far into the future. If we want to improve the world, we need to account for this complexity, as well as our own uncertainty.

Sometimes, promising ideas lead nowhere. And sometimes, weird or speculative ideas turn out to be highly impactful. We need to be open to unusual ideas and proposals, but also evaluate them carefully — using the best available evidence, and considering potential pitfalls and counterarguments.

This is a hard task, and we've barely begun to understand how best to improve the world. Many EAs are motivated by the difficulty and importance of this intellectual endeavor, and by the hope that research will lead us to find better ways of helping.

Seeking fulfillment

Effective altruism isn't just about sacrifice and obligation. We don't purport to be selfless. Rather, we often find that helping others can be a source of fulfillment — adding purpose and meaning to our lives. To quote Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of GiveWell:

"We're excited by the idea of making the most of our resources and helping others as much as possible."

The rest of this collection features classic articles and quotes from across the history of effective altruism (and beyond). We hope you enjoy it.

And of course, please let us know if you have suggestions that could make the Handbook better!

  1. However, “willing” may not always mean “able.” We recognize that everyone sometimes needs to prioritize situations in their own life (for example, health problems) before they can work on addressing the needs of others. It’s hard to maximize your long-term impact unless you’ve taken care of your own needs first. ↩︎

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