Effective altruism

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Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based on their values.[1] It is this broad, scientific 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 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.[2] Notable people associated with the movement include philosopher Peter Singer,[3] Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz,[4] Oxford based philosopher William MacAskill[5] and researcher Toby Ord.[6] The movement is made up of many chapters[7] and organizations[8] around the world.


Peter Singer is a prominent advocate of effective altruism.

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.[9]

Cause prioritization[edit]

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.[10] Effective altruists, however, seek to compare the relative importance of different causes.[11]

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 prioritization research.[12][13]

Some priorities of effective altruists include: poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals in factory farms, and humanity's long-term future.[11]


When possible, effective altruists 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. The DALY is a key measure employed by the United Nations World Health Organization in such publications as its Global Burden of Disease.[14][15] 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. Randomized controlled trials are considered to be a reliable form of scientific evidence in the hierarchy of evidence that influences healthcare policy and practice because randomized controlled trials reduce spurious causality and bias. Certain medical interventions, such as vaccination, are already backed by high-quality medical research, and so there is a lower burden of proof for charities doing these types of programs.[16] The following academic groups do randomized controlled trials on other types of interventions as well: Poverty Action Lab[17] and Innovations for Poverty Action.[18]

Effective altruism 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.[19][20] The health improvements of high impact projects can be 100 times more effective than low impact projects.[21]


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.[22]

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.[23]

Comparative wealth[edit]

Many effective altruists believe that, as formulated by Peter Singer, "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it".[22] Anyone with an income of above $52,000 PPP is in the 1% richest people globally.[24] Therefore, many effective altruists donate a significant portion of their income to highly effective charities, since doing so would not cause them to give up important purchases.

Counterfactual reasoning[edit]

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.[25][26] 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.[27]

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.[28][29]


Career selection[edit]

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).[30]


Effective altruism encourages significant charitable donation. Advocacy focuses on increasing the amount that people donate or identifying nonprofits that best meet the criteria of effective altruism. Charity evaluator GiveWell focuses largely on the latter issue, 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 donating 10% of their income, and it recommends particular charities to which to donate.

Many effective altruists donate substantially more than is typical in their society. 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.[22] This leads some of them to lead a frugal lifestyle in order to give more. Other effective altruists seek to donate more by increasing their earnings.

Cause priorities[edit]

Effective altruism is in principle open to helping in whichever areas will do the most good.[11] In practice, people in the effective altruist movement have prioritized the following four focus areas:[1][11]

Global poverty alleviation[edit]

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 greatest for international poverty alleviation and developing world health issues,[20] 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, The Life You Can Save and other organizations also focus on global poverty alleviation to greater or lesser extents, as did Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save (the origin of the organization), which argued that people have a moral imperative to donate more because of the existence of extreme poverty.

While much of the initial focus was on direct strategies such as health 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.[31]

Far future and global catastrophic risks[edit]

Further information: Global catastrophic risk

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:[1]

  • Nick Bostrom has written about the "astronomical waste" in terms of value lost to future generations due to delayed or botched technological development today.[32]
  • 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.[33]

Furthermore, the importance of addressing existential risks such as dangers associated with nanotechnology, biotechnology, the advanced artificial intelligence and global warming is often highlighted and the subject of active research. Bostrom states:[34]

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.


Some effective altruists seek to have a large impact by enhancing the capacity of the effective altruist community itself.[35] Common causes include outreach (increasing the number of people involved in effective altruism), movement enhancement (making effective altruist organizations more effective or capable), and cause research (doing research on which causes are the most effective.)



Further information: GiveWell

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.[36] GiveWell is a part of the effective altruism movement.[37]

In September 2011, GiveWell announced GiveWell Labs for exploration of more speculative causes[38] 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.[39][40]

Giving What We Can[edit]

Further information: 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.[41] Although GWWC does some in-house research evaluating causes and charities, it largely relies on research by other organizations such as GiveWell.[42] 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. Giving What We Can is run by the charity the Centre for Effective Altruism.

80,000 Hours[edit]

Further information: 80,000 Hours

80,000 Hours is an Oxford, UK-based organization that conducts research on careers with positive social impact and provides career advice. The group emphasizes that the positive impact of choosing a certain occupation should be measured by the amount of additional good that is done as a result of this choice, not by the amount of good directly done. It considers indirect ways of making a difference, such as earning a high salary in a conventional career and donating a portion of it, as well as direct ways, such as scientific research. 80,000 Hours is run by the charity the Centre for Effective Altruism. The name is taken from the 80,000 hours a healthy person will work in their career.

Other organizations[edit]

A number of other charitable organizations have been associated with the effective altruism movement:

  • Good Ventures, a private foundation co-founded by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz.[43] which has close ties with Givewell.[44]
  • Innovations for Poverty Action, a research non-profit which has carried out rigorous randomised control trials on several interventions recommended by GiveWell, including deworming, free mosquito net distribution, and unconditional cash transfers.
  • The Life You Can Save, a movement which advocates fighting extreme poverty by donating to 16 charities which it considers highly effective charities.

History as a social movement[edit]

The ideas behind effective altruism have been present in 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. However, a movement identifying with the name 'effective altruism' itself only came into being in the late 2000s.[45]

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" was settled upon in late 2011 when the "Centre for Effective Altruism" (CEA) was chosen as the name for an umbrella organisation that would cover both Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours.[46] This was a largely internal name, but those who had followed a similar approach increasing converged upon the name[46][47]

An effective altruism conference has been held every year since 2013, when Leverage Research initiated an Effective Altruism Summit[48][49]

In 2015, Peter Singer published The Most Good You Can Do, a book on effective altruism.[50]

Notable proponents[edit]

Peter Singer[edit]

Main article: Peter Singer

The philosopher Peter Singer has written several works on effective altruism, including:

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.[22]

He founded an effective altruist nonprofit, also called The Life You Can Save, which promotes giving to effective charities. He gives at least 33% of his income to a variety of cost-effective charities.[52][53][54][55]

Toby Ord[edit]

Main article: Toby Ord

Toby Ord is an ethicist at Oxford University. He promotes consequentialist ethics and is concerned with global poverty and catastrophic risks.[56] 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.[57]

William MacAskill[edit]

Main article: William MacAskill

William MacAskill is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is also the founder and president of 80,000 Hours,[58] and the co-founder and vice-president of Giving What We Can,.[59] MacAskill's pledge is to donate everything he earns above about $35,000 per year, adjusted using standard economic measures for inflation and cost of living, to the organizations that he believes will do the most good – his pledge means giving away 60 percent of his expected lifetime earnings.[60]


Much of the contemporary controversy about effective altruism is around the belief of some effective altruists (such as Peter Singer) 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.[61] Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds.[62] 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.[61]

In The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry cautiously welcomed the effective altruism movement, but like Brooks believes that taking an "unethical" job is fundamentally immoral, no matter the reason: "The idea of a moral offset is ridiculous." Gobry also 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.[63]

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".[64]

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".[65]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c 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. 
  2. ^ "The Global Priorities Project | Prioritisation and policy research". Global Priorities Project. 
  3. ^ Walters, Helen. "The why and how of effective altruism: Peter Singer's talk visualized". TED Blog. 
  4. ^ "Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz: Young Silicon Valley billionaires pioneer new approach to philanthropy". The Washington Post. December 26, 2014. 
  5. ^ Thompson, Derek (June 15, 2015). "The Greatest Good". The Atlantic. 
  6. ^ "Peter Singer: "The Most Good You Can Do" | Talks at Google". YouTube. 
  7. ^ "Effective Altruist Groups". Effective Altruism Hub. Retrieved 4 December 2015. 
  8. ^ "Organizations". Effective Altruism. Retrieved 4 December 2015. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Karnofsky, Holden. "Strategic Cause Selection". The GiveWell Blog. GiveWell. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c d MacAskill, William (May 20, 2013). "What is Effective Altruism?". Practical Ethics blog. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Causes". 80,000 Hours. Centre for Effective Altruism. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  13. ^ "GiveWell Labs Overview". GiveWell. 
  14. ^ Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, "Global Burden of Disease Study 2010", The Lancet, December 14, 2012
  15. ^ World Health Organization, "Global Burden of Disease"
  16. ^ "GiveWell". 
  17. ^ "Poverty Action Lab". Retrieved 24 June 2011. 
  18. ^ "Innovations for Poverty Action". Retrieved 24 June 2011. 
  19. ^ "Your dollar goes further when you fund the right program". GiveWell. 
  20. ^ a b "Your Dollar Goes Further Overseas". GiveWell. 
  21. ^ Learnvest, "Why Your Charitable Donations Probably Aren't Doing Much Good", Forbes, December 14, 2012
  22. ^ a b c d "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (PDF). 1972. p. 231. Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  23. ^ "Animal Charity Evaluators". 
  24. ^ Milanovic. The Haves and the Have-nots. ISBN 9780465019748. 
  25. ^ Rosato, Donna; Wong, Grace (November 2011). "Best jobs for saving the world". CNN. Retrieved 2013-02-28. 
  26. ^ Hosler, Aimee (14 June 2011). "10 "helping" professions and how to train for them". Schools.com. Retrieved 2013-02-28. 
  27. ^ Todd, Benjamin J. "Just What Is 'Making a Difference'? - Counterfactuals and Career Choice". 80,000 Hours. Centre for Effective Altruism. Retrieved 17 July 2013. 
  28. ^ Todd, Benjamin. Which ethical careers make a difference? (Master's thesis). 
  29. ^ William MacAskill (2013). "Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 
  30. ^ Todd, Benjamin (July 25, 2013). "How to assess the impact of a career". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  31. ^ Wiblin, Robert. "Effective altruists love systemic change". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  32. ^ Bostrom, Nick (2003). "Astronomical Waste: the Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development" (PDF). 
  33. ^ Beckstead, Nick (April 11, 2015). "Research". 
  34. ^ Bostrom, Nick (2001). "Existential Risks - Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards" (PDF). 
  35. ^ Grace, Katja (August 20, 2014). "Conversation with Paul Christiano on Cause Prioritization Research". 80,000 Hours. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  36. ^ 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. 
  37. ^ Karnofsky, Holden (August 13, 2013). "Effective Altruism". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  38. ^ Karnofsky, Holden (September 8, 2011). "Announcing GiveWell Labs". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  39. ^ Karnofsky, Holden (2012-06-28). "GiveWell and Good Ventures". GiveWell. 
  40. ^ Karnofsky, Holden (August 20, 2014). "Open Philanthropy Project (formerly GiveWell Labs)". GiveWell. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  41. ^ Espinoza, Javier (November 28, 2011). "Small Sacrifice, Big Return". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 12, 2014. 
  42. ^ "Our sources". Giving What We Can. Retrieved 2012-12-09. 
  43. ^ Gose, Ben (November 3, 2013). "A Facebook Co-Founder and His Wife Use Effective Altruism to Shape Giving". Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 
  44. ^ Karnofsky, Holden. "GiveWell and Good Ventures". GiveWell. Retrieved 27 June 2015. 
  45. ^ Singer, Peter (April 1, 2015). "The Most Good You Can Do". The Life You Can Save. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  46. ^ a b MacAskill, William (March 11, 2014). "The history of the term 'effective altruism'". The Effective Altruism Forum. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  47. ^ "Effective Altruists". Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  48. ^ "Peter Thiel's Keynote - Effective Altruism Summit 2013". Exponential Times. November 8, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  49. ^ "Jaan Tallinn's Keynote - Effective Altruism Summit 2013". Exponential Times. November 13, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  50. ^ Kristof, Nicholas (April 4, 2015). "The Trader Who Donates Half His Pay". New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  51. ^ Singer, Peter (2009). The Life You Can Save: Acting now to end world poverty. New York: Random House. 
  52. ^ "List of Members". Retrieved 2015-02-18. 
  53. ^ "Board of Directors". Retrieved 2014-09-19. 
  54. ^ "How to Live an Ethical Life". Big Think. Retrieved 31 December 2014. 
  55. ^ "Peter Singer's Effective Altruist Profile". Retrieved 2015-05-15. 
  56. ^ Ord, Toby. "Academic Site". A Mirror Clear. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  57. ^ Geoghegan, Tom (13 December 2010). "Toby Ord: Why I'm giving £1m to charity". BBC News. Retrieved 2 March 2013. 
  58. ^ "Meet the Team". Retrieved 2015-11-26. 
  59. ^ "The Team". Retrieved 2015-11-26. 
  60. ^ "Should You Give Away 60%". Retrieved 2016-04-07. 
  61. ^ a b Brooks, David (June 3, 2013). "The Way to Produce a Person". New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015. 
  62. ^ "FAQ". 80,000 Hours. 
  63. ^ Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel (March 16, 2015). "Can Effective Altruism really change the world?". The Week. Retrieved March 21, 2015. 
  64. ^ Berger, Ken; Penna, Robert (November 25, 2013). "The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism". Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved November 26, 2013. 
  65. ^ Snow, Mathew (August 25, 2015). "Against Charity". Jacobin. Retrieved September 5, 2016. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]