||It has been suggested that High impact philanthropy be merged into this article. (Discuss) Proposed since May 2015.|
Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists aim to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. Effective altruism sometimes involves taking actions that are less sentimental or emotionally salient. While a substantial proportion of effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies much more broadly, e.g., to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save and improve the most lives. Notable people associated with the movement include Peter Singer and Dustin Moskovitz.
- 1 Philosophy
- 2 Behavior
- 3 Cause priorities
- 4 Organizations
- 5 History as a social movement
- 6 Notable proponents
- 7 Criticism
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
- 11 Further reading
Effective altruists seek to identify charities that achieve a large amount of good per dollar spent. For example, they select health interventions on the basis of their impact as measured by quality-adjusted life years per dollar.
Effective giving is an important component of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others. Some charities simply fail to achieve their goals. Of those that do succeed, GiveWell reports that some achieve far greater results with less money.
The effective altruist charity evaluator GiveWell has emphasized the importance of evaluating each charity's room for more funding. In general, effective altruists believe that selecting a cause to contribute to should be based on the marginal value that resources would accomplish at the margin, rather than based on what has already been accomplished.
Effective altruists reject the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. For example, they believe that a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one's own community. As Peter Singer notes:
It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. [...] The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously [...], this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.
In addition, many effective altruists think that future generations have equal moral value to currently existing people, so they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans and work to prevent the suffering of animals, such as those raised in factory farms.
Effective altruists argue that counterfactual reasoning is important to determine which course of action maximizes positive impact. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or providing social services. Since charities and social-service providers usually can find people willing to work for them, effective altruists compare the amount of good somebody does in a conventional altruistic career to how much good would have been done had the next-best candidate been hired for the position. According to this reasoning, the impact of choosing a conventional altruistic career may be smaller than it appears.
The earning to give strategy has been proposed as a possible strategy for effective altruists. This strategy involves choosing to work in high-paying careers with the explicit goal of donating large sums of money to charity. Benjamin Todd and William MacAskill have argued that the marginal impact of one's potentially unethical actions in such a lucrative career would be small, since someone else would have done them regardless, while the impact of donations would be large.
Although there is a growing emphasis on effectiveness and evidence among nonprofits, this is usually done with a single cause in mind, such as education or climate change. Effective altruists, however, seek to compare the relative importance of different causes.
Effective altruists attempt to choose the highest priority causes based on whether activities in each cause area could efficiently advance broad goals, such as increasing human or animal welfare. They then focus their attention on interventions in high priority areas. Several organizations are performing cause prioritisation research.
Most narrowly construed, effective altruism is about making one's donations in a way that does the most good. There are two related aspects to this: how much to donate and what to donate to. Charity evaluator GiveWell focuses largely on the latter question, by identifying the best giving opportunities and the extent of room for more funding available to them. Giving What We Can aims to address both aspects: its pledge encourages people to commit to a minimum amount they should donate, and its top charity recommendations help people determine where to donate.
Many effective altruists go further than donating a large fraction of their present income by seeking to increase their earnings.
Selection of one's career is an important determinant of the amount of good one does, both directly (through the services one provides to the world) and indirectly (through the ways one directs the money earned based on the career). 80,000 Hours seeks to provide career advice to people with effective altruist goals to help them maximize their positive impact, and claims that careers should be selected based both on the immediate impact (including impact through the job and by donating money earned) and building career capital (that can be used to do other things later).
Effective altruism is in principle open to helping in whichever areas will do the most good. In practice, people in the effective altruist movement have prioritized a few specific focus areas:
- Global poverty alleviation
- Animal welfare
- The far future, including global catastrophic risks.
- Building the effective altruism movement
Global poverty alleviation
Global poverty alleviation has been a focus of some of the earliest and most prominent organizations associated with effective altruism. Charity evaluator GiveWell has argued that the value per unit money is much greater for international poverty alleviation and developing world health issues, and its leading recommendations have been in these domains (Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Deworm the World Initiative, and (earlier) VillageReach in global health, and GiveDirectly for direct unconditional cash transfers). Giving What We Can also focuses on global poverty alleviation. Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save focused heavily on the moral imperative to donate more because of the extreme poverty that exists in our midst.
While much of the initial focus was on direct strategies such as heath interventions, cash transfers, micropayments and microloans, there has also been interest in more systematic social, economic, and political reform that would facilitate larger long-term poverty reduction.
Many effective altruists believe that reducing animal suffering is a worthwhile goal, and that, at the current margin, there are low-cost ways of accomplishing this. The main organization in this area that is also connected with effective altruism is Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE, formerly called Effective Animal Activism), which evaluates and compares various animal charities.
There is significant variation in the degree to which effective altruists concern themselves with the welfare of animals. Many oppose practices such as factory farming, and promote vegetarian or vegan diets. Some are additionally concerned about reducing wild animal suffering, including the suffering of insects. On the other hand, some effective altruists are not concerned with the welfare of animals at all, or are concerned but do not think that vegetarianism or veganism are necessarily required.
Far future and global catastrophic risks
Some effective altruists believe that the far future is extremely important. Specifically they believe that the total value of any meaningful metric (wealth, potential for suffering, potential for happiness, etc.) summed up over future generations, far exceeds the value for people living today, an argument that has been highlighted in the work of two philosophers closely associated with the effective altruism movement:
- Nick Bostrom has written about the "astronomical waste" in terms of value lost to future generations due to delayed or botched technological development today.
- In his Ph.D. thesis, philosopher Nick Beckstead has highlighted the overwhelming importance of the far future and therefore of any steps we can take in the present that would affect the trajectory of the far future.
Furthermore the importance of addressing existential risks such as dangers associated with nanotechnology, biotechnology, the development of artificial general intelligence and global warming is often highlighted and the subject of active research. Bostrom states:
|“||There is more scholarly work on the life-habits of the dung fly than on existential risks [to humanity].||”|
Some organizations that work actively on research and advocacy for improving the far future, and have connections with the effective altruist movement, are the Future of Humanity Institute, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and Future of Life Institute. In addition, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute is focused on the more narrow goal of developing friendly artificial intelligence before unfriendly artificial intelligence.
Building the effective altruism movement
Some effective altruists seek to have a large impact by growing the effective altruist community or by improving its understanding how to effectively allocate future funds and resources.
Charity evaluator GiveWell started in 2007. Its focus is on identifying the most promising causes and charities to donate to, and most of its recommendations have been in the area of developing world health and poverty alleviation. GiveWell is a part of the effective altruism movement, and its ability to move funds has been improved by the promotional efforts of other effective altruist organizations.
In September 2011, GiveWell announced GiveWell Labs for exploration of more speculative causes In August 2014, a name change to "Open Philanthropy Project" was announced. The Open Philanthropy Project would be a collaboration between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a philanthropic foundation founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna.
Giving What We Can
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is a community of people interested in maximizing the good they can do in the world through donations. Founded in November 2009 by moral philosopher Toby Ord, the organization's focus is on causes related to the alleviation of global poverty. Although GWWC does some in-house research evaluating causes and charities, it largely relies on research by other organizations such as GiveWell. The Giving What We Can pledge requires people to donate at least 10% of their income to the causes that they believe are the most effective.
A number of organizations consider themselves to be part of the effective altruist movement, notably 80,000 Hours.
- Against Malaria Foundation (AMF)
- Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI)
- Deworm the World Initiative (DtWI)
The ideas behind effective altruism have undergirded practical ethics, particularly consequentialist ethics, for a long time, and have been reflected in the writings of philosophers such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger, but the movement itself, with its institutional infrastructure and associated community, came into being only in the late 2000s.
Three of the earliest organizations to embody the ideals of effective altruism were:
- Charity evaluator GiveWell, founded in 2007 by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, with the goal of evaluating charities to figure out what the best options were for making donations.
- Giving What We Can, founded in November 2009 by Toby Ord, with a focus on creating a community of people who pledged to donate a substantial portion of their income to alleviate global poverty.
- 80,000 Hours, founded in October 2011 by William MacAskill and Benjamin Todd, for the purpose of offering career selection advice to people who wanted to maximize the positive social impact of their lives.
According to William MacAskill, the name "effective altruism" emerged from a mailing list discussion in November and December 2011 with the goal of figuring out a good name for an umbrella organisation that would cover both Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. The name chosen was the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). A public Facebook group titled "Effective Altruists" (not affiliated with CEA or any other organisation) was created in November 2012.
In September 2014, a new website called the Effective Altruism Forum was created. The website was designed to be quite similar in look and feel to LessWrong, a community blog and forum for rationalists and those concerned with existential risk which had some overlap with effective altruism. It used a similar codebase (derived from the source code for Reddit). The other significant website created in 2014 was the Effective Altruism Hub, which indexes effective altruist projects and resources around the web, and hosts several central ones including 'EA Profiles' and the map of effective altruists and EA Donation Registry that this powers.
Four books about effective altruism are slated for release in 2015. The first of these books, The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer, was published on April 7, 2015 by Yale University Press and was reviewed by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times.
The philosopher Peter Singer has written several works on effective altruism, including:
- The 1972 paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", in which he argues that people have an obligation to help those in need:
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.
- The book The Life You Can Save, in which he argues that people should use charity evaluators to determine how to make their donations most effective,
- The book The Most Good You Can Do, that describes the philosophy and social movement of effective altruism and argues in favor of it.
He founded an effective altruist nonprofit, also called The Life You Can Save, which promotes giving to effective charities. He is a member of Giving What We Can, a board member of Animal Charity Evaluators, and gives at least 33% of his income to a variety of cost-effective charities.
Toby Ord is an ethicist at Oxford University. He promotes consequentialist ethics and is concerned with global poverty and catastrophic risks. He founded the organization Giving What We Can, which encourages people to pledge ten percent of their income to charity. He lives on £18,000 ($27,000) per year and donates the remainder of his income to charity.
Much of the controversy about effective altruism is due to the idea that it can be ethical to take a high-earning career in a potentially unethical industry if this allows one to donate more money. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt the earning to give strategy, i.e., they take high-earning careers in order to have more money to donate. He believes that most people who work in finance and other high-paying industries value money for selfish reasons and that being surrounded by these people will cause effective altruists to become less altruistic. Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds. He also questions whether children in distant countries should be treated as having equal moral value to nearby children. He claims that morality should be "internally ennobling", a position similar to virtue ethics.
In The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry questioned whether effective altruism could change the world. It said: "The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an 'objective' look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that's fine, so long as everyone realizes it."
In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator alleged that effective altruists moralistically select a few causes as worthy and deem all others "a waste of precious resources." William MacAskill responded in the same magazine, defending the utilitarian logic the movement uses to evaluate the effectiveness of different charities.
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