Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions and to act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based upon their values. It is the broad, evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.
While a substantial proportion of effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies more broadly to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save lives, help people, or otherwise have the biggest benefit. Notable people associated with the movement include philosopher Peter Singer, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Oxford based philosopher William MacAskill, and researcher Toby Ord.
- 1 Philosophy
- 2 Behavior
- 3 Cause priorities
- 4 History as a social movement
- 5 Criticism
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes and references
- 8 Sources
- 9 Further reading
Effective altruism differs from other philanthropic practices because of its emphasis on quantitatively comparing charitable causes and interventions with the goal of maximizing certain moral values. In this way it is similar to consequentialism, which some leaders of the movement explicitly endorse. The views of the philosopher Peter Singer in particular helped give rise to the effective altruist movement. Singer's book The Life You Can Save argued for the basic philosophy of effective giving, claiming that people have a moral imperative to donate more because of the existence of extreme poverty. In the book, Singer argued that people should use charity evaluators to determine how to make their donations most effective. Singer personally gives a third of his income to charity.
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 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 prioritization research.
Effective altruist organizations claim that some charities are far more effective than others, either because some do not achieve their goals or because of variability in the cost of achieving those goals. When possible, they seek to identify charities that are highly cost-effective, meaning that they achieve a large benefit for a given amount of money. For example, they select health interventions on the basis of their impact as measured by lives saved per dollar, quality-adjusted life years (QALY) saved per dollar, or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) averted per dollar. This measure of disease burden is expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.
Effective altruism organizations use randomized controlled trials as a primary form of evidence, as they are often considered to be at the highest level of strong evidence in healthcare research. They also make philanthropic recommendations for charities on the basis of their current funding need rather than merely by evaluating the value of the work itself.
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. In the 1972 essay 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality', Peter Singer wrote:
It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor'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, but 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 a career may be smaller than it appears.
Effective altruism encourages significant charitable donation. Some believe it is a moral duty to alleviate suffering through donations if the purchases that one forgoes to donate do not cause comparable suffering to oneself, leading some of them to lead a frugal lifestyle in order to give substantially more than is typical in their society. Advocacy focuses on increasing the amount that people donate or identifying nonprofits that best meet the criteria of effective altruism.
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is an organization which hosts a community of individuals who have pledged to donate at least 10% of their income for the remainder of their working lives to the causes that they believe are the most effective. GWWC was founded in November 2009 by Toby Ord, a moral philosopher at Oxford University, who lives on £18,000 ($27,000) per year and donates the remainder of his income to charity. As of 2015, more than 1,000 individuals took the pledge.
The Founders Pledge is a similar system run by the nonprofit Founders Forum for Good where startup founders make a legally binding commitment to donate at least 2% of their personal proceeds to charity in the event that they sell their business. By May 2016, one year after launch, 430 entrepreneurs had pledged, for an estimated total value of $134 million based on the founders' equity and the companies' valuation.
Effective altruists argue that 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 is an Oxford, UK-based organization in the effective altruism movement that writes articles and conducts one-on-one coaching to help people find careers with a positive social impact. It considers indirect methods of altruistic employment, such as earning a high salary in a conventional career and donating a portion of it, as well as direct practices, such as scientific research. It was co-founded by William MacAskill, who is also its current president.
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.
This is a practice which has attracted controversy. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt the strategy. He wrote 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 acknowledge this possibility and aim to reduce the risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds. In The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued that taking an "unethical" job is fundamentally immoral, no matter the reason.
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 the following three focus areas:
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 was founded by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld in 2007 to address poverty and is currently a part of the effective altruism movement. Givewell has argued that the value of donations is greatest 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 is focused on causes related to the alleviation of global poverty and does in-house research evaluating causes and charities, but largely relies on research by other organizations such as GiveWell.
The organization The Life You Can Save, which originated from the book by the same name, also focuses on global poverty.
While much of the initial focus of effective altruism was on direct strategies such as health interventions and cash transfers, there has also been interest in more systematic social, economic, and political reform that would facilitate larger long-term poverty reduction. In September 2011, GiveWell announced GiveWell Labs, which was later renamed as the "Open Philanthropy Project", for exploration of more speculative causes such as policy reform. It is a collaboration between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a philanthropic foundation founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna.
Many effective altruists believe that reducing animal suffering should be a major priority and that, at the current margin, there are cost-effective ways of accomplishing this. Peter Singer quotes an activist estimate that over a hundred million chickens literally "suffer to death" each year in factory farms and argues that effective animal welfare altruists should prioritize factory farming over more overfunded popular causes such as pet welfare. Singer also argues that, if farms animals such as chickens are assigned even a modicum of consciousness, efforts to reduce factory farming (for example, by reducing global meat consumption) could be an even more underfunded and cost-effective way of reducing current global suffering than human poverty reduction. Philosophically, wild animal suffering may be an additional moral concern for effective altruists.
Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE, formerly called Effective Animal Activism) is an organization connected with the movement that evaluates and compares various animal charities based on their cost-effectiveness and transparency, particularly those that are tackling factory farming.
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. In particular, the importance of addressing existential risks such as dangers associated with biotechnology and the advanced artificial intelligence is often highlighted and the subject of active research.
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 mission of aligning advanced artificial intelligence.
The ideas behind effective altruism, such as consequentialism, have been present in practical ethics for a long time and have been reflected in the writings of philosophers such as Peter Singer and Peter Unger. A basic argument for altruism was defined in Singer's 1972 paper "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", in which he argued 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.
However, the movement identifying with the name 'effective altruism' itself only came into being in the late 2000s, centered around organizations such as Giving What We Can.
Effective altruism conferences have been held since 2013. In 2015, Peter Singer published The Most Good You Can Do, a book on effective altruism. The book describes the philosophy and social movement of effective altruism and argues in favor of it.
David Brooks has questioned whether children in distant countries should be treated as having equal moral value to nearby children. He claims that morality should be "internally ennobling". Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry warns about the "measurement problem", stating in some areas, such as medical research, or helping to reform third-world governance "one grinding step at a time", are hard to measure with controlled cost-effectiveness experiments and risk being undervalued by the effective altruism movement. In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator condemned effective altruism's practice of "weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another", calling this "moralistic, in the worst sense of the word".
In Jacobin magazine, Mathew Snow argues that effective altruism "implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place". However, Joshua Kissel argues that anti-capitalism is compatible with effective altruism in theory, while adding that effective altruists and anti-capitalists have reason to be more sympathetic to each other.
Notes and references
- MacAskill, William (31 January 2017). "Effective Altruism: Introduction". Essays in Philosophy. 18 (1): 2. doi:10.7710/1526-0569.1580. ISSN 1526-0569.
- Matthews, Dylan (April 24, 2015). "You have $8 billion. You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?". Vox. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
- Bennett, Nicole; Carter, Ashley; Resney, Romney; Woods, Wendy. "How Tech Entrepreneurs Are Disrupting Philanthropy". BCG Perspectives. Boston Consulting Group. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- MacAskill, William (2015). Doing Good Better. Avery. ISBN 978-1592409105.
- Walters, Helen. "The why and how of effective altruism: Peter Singer's talk visualized". TED Blog.
- "Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz: Young Silicon Valley billionaires pioneer new approach to philanthropy". The Washington Post. December 26, 2014.
- Thompson, Derek (June 15, 2015). "The Greatest Good". The Atlantic.
- "Peter Singer: "The Most Good You Can Do" | Talks at Google". YouTube.
- Matthews, Dylan (April 24, 2015). "You have $8 billion. You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?". Vox. Retrieved August 4, 2015.
- Jollimore, Troy (6 February 2017). "Impartiality". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Kristof, Nicholas (April 4, 2015). "The Trader Who Donates Half His Pay". New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Gabriel, Iason (2016). "Effective Altruism and Its Critics". Journal of Applied Philosophy. 33 (3). doi:10.1111/japp.12176. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Oliver, Huw. "'Effective Altruists' Are a New Type of Nice Person". Vice. Vox. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- MacAskill, William (May 20, 2013). "What is Effective Altruism?". Practical Ethics blog. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- "Causes". 80,000 Hours. Centre for Effective Altruism. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
- "GiveWell Labs Overview". GiveWell.
- "Your dollar goes further when you fund the right program". GiveWell.
- "Your Dollar Goes Further Overseas". GiveWell.
- Skelton, Anthony (2016). "The Ethical Principles of Effective Altruism". Journal of Global Ethics. 12 (2): 137–146. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (1998-11-16). A guide to the development, implementation and evaluation of clinical practice guidelines (PDF). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. p. 56. ISBN 1-86496-048-5. Retrieved 2010-03-10.
- Zhang, Linch (21 June 2016). "How Can You do the Most Good with Your Charitable Giving? This Expert's Answers Might Surprise You". Huffington Post. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
- Karnofsky, Holden. "We Should Expect Good Giving To Be Hard (SSIR)". Stanford Social Innovation Review. Stanford University. Retrieved 18 March 2017.
- "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (PDF). 1972. p. 231. Retrieved 2011-05-23.
- Pitney, Nico (16 July 2015). "Elon Musk To Address 'Nerd Altruists' At Google HQ". Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Rosato, Donna; Wong, Grace (November 2011). "Best jobs for saving the world". CNN. Retrieved 2013-02-28.
- Hosler, Aimee (14 June 2011). "10 "helping" professions and how to train for them". Schools.com. Retrieved 2013-02-28.
- Todd, Benjamin. "Which Ethical Careers Make a Difference?: The Replaceability Issue in the Ethics of Career Choice". University of Oxford. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Burton, Paul (October 13, 2015). "Family Gives Away Half Their Income To Help Others". Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Geoghegan, Tom (13 December 2010). "Toby Ord: Why I'm giving £1m to charity". BBC News. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
- "1000 people match Oxford philosopher's '10% of future income' charity pledge". University of Oxford. 15 July 2015. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- MacAskill, William (26 November 2015). "One of the most exciting new effective altruist organisations: An interview with David Goldberg of the Founders Pledge". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Prosser, David (10 June 2015). "Entrepreneurs Pledge Millions To Social Good". Forbes. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Butcher, Mike (June 9, 2015). "UK Tech Founders Take The Founders Pledge To 2%, Committing $28m+ To Good Causes". TechCrunch. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
- "Founders Pledge generates £90m in its first year". City Philanthropy. 17 May 2016. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- William, MacAskill, (2014). "Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. doi:10.1007/s10677-013-9433-4. ISSN 1386-2820.
- "Want To Make An Impact With Your Work? Try Some Advice From 80,000 Hours". TechCrunch. August 4, 2015. Retrieved October 31, 2015.
- Alcorn, Stan (4 June 2013). "How To Choose An Ethical Career (With Help From Oxford Philosophers)". Co.Exist. Fast Company Inc. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- "Meet the Team". Retrieved 2015-11-26.
- Matthews, Dylan. "Join Wall Street. Save the world.". Washington Post. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Brooks, David (June 3, 2013). "The Way to Produce a Person". New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
- "FAQ". 80,000 Hours.
- Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel (March 16, 2015). "Can Effective Altruism really change the world?". The Week. Retrieved March 21, 2015.
- Kissel, Joshua (January 31, 2017). "Effective Altruism and Anti-Capitalism: An Attempt at Reconciliation". Essays in Philosophy . Retrieved February 19, 2017.
- Konduri, Vimal. "GiveWell Co-Founder Explains Effective Altruism Frameworks". The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, Inc. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
- Karnofsky, Holden (August 13, 2013). "Effective Altruism". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Wolfe, Alexandra (24 November 2011). "Hedge Fund Analytics for Nonprofits". Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg LP. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- "Doing good by doing well". The Economist. Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
- Pitney, Nico (March 26, 2015). "That Time A Hedge Funder Quit His Job And Then Raised $60 Million For Charity". Huffington Post. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
- Espinoza, Javier (November 28, 2011). "Small Sacrifice, Big Return". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
- "Our sources". Giving What We Can. Retrieved 2012-12-09.
- Weathers, Scott (29 February 2016). "Can 'effective altruism' change the world? It already has.". Transformation. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Karnofsky, Holden (September 8, 2011). "Announcing GiveWell Labs". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Karnofsky, Holden (2012-06-28). "GiveWell and Good Ventures". GiveWell.
- Karnofsky, Holden (August 20, 2014). "Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs)". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Moses, Sue-Lynn (9 March 2016). "Leverage: Why This Silicon Valley Funder Is Doubling Down on a Beltway Think Tank". Inside Philanthropy. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Dylan Matthews, "You have 80,000 hours in your career. Here's how to do the most good with them", Vox, August 3rd 2015.
- Singer 2015, pp. 138, 146–147.
- ""Effective Altruism for Animals" Panel, Animal Studies". New York University Animal Studies Initiative. NYU. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Daniel Engber, "Save the Chicken", Slate, August 18th 2016.
- Singer 2015, p. 139.
- "The Importance of the Far Future". Effective Altruism Foundation. Effective Altruism Foundation. 5 August 2016. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Guan, Melody (19 April 2015). "The New Social Movement of our Generation: Effective Altruism". Harvard Political Review. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Basulto, Dominic (July 7, 2015). "The very best ideas for preventing artificial intelligence from wrecking the planet". Washington Post. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Matthews, Dylan (10 August 2015). "I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried.". Vox Media, Inc. Vox. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- Singer, Peter (April 1, 2015). "The Most Good You Can Do". The Life You Can Save. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- "Jaan Tallinn's Keynote - Effective Altruism Summit 2013". Exponential Times. November 13, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2015.
- Berger, Ken; Penna, Robert (November 25, 2013). "The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism". Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
- Snow, Mathew (August 25, 2015). "Against Charity". Jacobin. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
- Singer, Peter (2015), The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically, Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-18027-5
- Peter Unger (1996). Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. ISBN 978-0195108590
- Shelly Kagan (1991). The Limits of Morality. ISBN 978-0198239161
- Peter Singer (2009). The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. ISBN 978-1-4000-6710-7
- William MacAskill (2015). Doing Good Better - Effective Altruism And a Radical Way to Make a Difference . Guardian Faber, ISBN 978 1 78335 049 0