Effective altruism

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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.[1] It is this 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 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 Peter Singer,[3] Dustin Moskovitz[4] and Toby Ord.[5]


Effective altruism begins with a personal commitment to making a change in the world and caring enough to remain engaged in the long-term and focused on best practices that make a difference. The resources that a philanthropist then gives are directed toward efforts that bring the desired positive change to fruition. Effective altruism differs from other types of philanthropy in that the outcome maximizes social good. Many philanthropists do not give in the attempt to maximize social good. Obligatory giving such as Zakat, reciprocal giving, giving to an issue that has affected one's personal life and giving for notoriety may not be high impact because the emphasis is not consciously centered on social outcomes. Effective altruism focuses on the results of one's donations as well as other methods of accomplishing good, such as career and volunteer work.

Overhead costs[edit]

Traditional charity evaluation has often been based on prioritizing charities with minimal overhead costs and high proportional spending on projects. However, effective altruist organizations reject this standard as simplistic and flawed.[6][7] Dan Pallotta[8] argues that charities should be encouraged to spend more on fundraising if it ensures they increase the amount they can allocate to the charitable service overall. Additionally, a study by Dean Karlan "found that the most effective charities spent more of their budget on administrative cost than their less-effective competitors",[9] presumably because spending on administration costs may include analyses of whether a particular activity is effective or not. Thus, the extra spending on admin could lead to resources being focused on the best activities.


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 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.[10][11] This measure of disease burden is expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.

The primary method of measuring impact is the randomized controlled trial. 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 (like 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.[12] The following academic groups do randomized controlled trials on other types of interventions as well: Poverty Action Lab[13] and Innovations for Poverty Action.[14]

Effective giving is an important component of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others.[15] Some charities simply fail to achieve their goals. Of those that do succeed, GiveWell reports that some achieve far greater results with less money.[16] The health improvements of high impact projects can be 100 times more effective than low impact projects.[17]

Marginal impact[edit]

The effective altruist charity evaluator GiveWell has emphasized the importance of evaluating each charity's room for more funding.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20]

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".[19] Anyone with an income of above $52,000 PPP is in the 1% richest people globally.[21] 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.[22][23] 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.[24]

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.[25][26]

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.[27] Effective altruists, however, seek to compare the relative importance of different causes.[28]

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.[29][30]

The cause priorities of effective altruists include: poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals in factory farms, and humanity's long-term future.[28]


The cost of a guide dog for the blind is $42,000.[31] As an alternative, the cost of performing surgery to correct trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, often costs as little as $40 in developing countries.[32] This surgery is 80% effective. Therefore, sight can be restored to 840 people for the cost of one guide dog, and the guide dog does not restore sight.[33]



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 donating 10% of their income, and its top charity recommendations help people determine where 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.[19] Considering that anyone with an income of above $52,000 PPP is in the 1% richest people globally,[21] many effective altruists believe they have an opportunity to use their relative wealth to do enormous amounts of good. This leads some of them to lead a frugal lifestyle in order to give more. For instance Jeff Kaufmann and Julia Wise donate half their income.[34] Other effective altruists seek to donate more by increasing their earnings.

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).[35]

Cause priorities[edit]

Effective altruism is in principle open to helping in whichever areas will do the most good.[28][36] In practice, people in the effective altruist movement have prioritized a few specific focus areas:[1][28][37]

  1. Global poverty alleviation
  2. Animal welfare
  3. The far future, including global catastrophic risks.
  4. Building the effective altruism movement

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,[16] 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 we have 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 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.[37][38]

Animal welfare[edit]

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.[37]

There is significant variation in the degree to which effective altruists concern themselves with the welfare of non-human animals. Most oppose practices such as factory farming; many promote vegetarian or vegan diets. Some are additionally concerned about reducing wild animal suffering, even to the extent of the suffering of non-vertebrates such as insects.[39] On the other hand, some effective altruists are not concerned with the welfare of non-human animals at all, or are concerned but do not think that vegetarianism or veganism are necessarily required.[40][41] Some effective altruists support compassionate stewardship of Nature to prevent or reduce the suffering of free-living nonhuman animals.

Far future and global catastrophic risks[edit]

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][37]

  • Nick Bostrom has written about the "astronomical waste" in terms of value lost to future generations due to delayed or botched technological development today.[42]
  • 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.[43]

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:[44]

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.[37]

Building the effective altruism movement[edit]

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.[45]



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.[46] GiveWell is a part of the effective altruism movement,[47] and its ability to move funds has been improved by the promotional efforts of other effective altruist organizations.[48]

In September 2011, GiveWell announced GiveWell Labs for exploration of more speculative causes[49] 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.[50][51]

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.[52] Although GWWC does some in-house research evaluating causes and charities, it largely relies on research by other organizations such as GiveWell.[53] 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:

  • Animal Charity Evaluators, a charity evaluator for animal-related charities.
  • Charity Science, a charity that fundraises for GiveWell-recommended charities.
  • Future of Humanity Institute, a research centre focused on predicting and preventing risks to human civilization.
  • Good Ventures, a private foundation co-founded by Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz.[54] which has close ties with Givewell.[55]
  • 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.
  • Instituto Ética, Racionalidade e Futuro da Humanidade, a Brazilian organization that encourages effective giving and investigates how technology can help future generations.[56]
  • The Life You Can Save, a movement which advocates fighting extreme poverty by donating to 16 highly effective charities, including Against Malaria Foundation, Development Media International, Evidence Action, Fistula Foundation, Fred Hollows Foundation, Give Directly, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Innovations for Poverty Action, Iodine Global Network, Living Goods, Oxfam, Population Services International, Possible, Project Healthy Children, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Seva. .

While they do not all necessarily identify with the movement, a number of other organizations have also sought to establish metrics for determining social impact in a similar manner to effective altruism:

Recommended charities[edit]

Charity evaluator GiveWell recommends the following charities:[59]

Of these charities, AMF, SCI, and DtWI are also recommended by Giving What We Can.[60]

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.[61]

Four of the earliest organizations to embody the ideals of effective altruism were:

  • Center for High Impact Philanthropy, founded in 2006 at the University of Pennsylvania, conducting research and advice on maximizing the impact of charity donations.
  • 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.[62] This was a largely internal name, but those who had followed a similar approach increasing converged upon the name and began to identify as "effective altruists", especially after a public Facebook group titled "Effective Altruists" (not affiliated with CEA or any other organisation) was created in November 2012.[62][63]

Peter Singer gave a TED talk about effective altruism in March 2013, which led to a surge in interest in the term and the idea.[64]

An effective altruist conference has been held every year since 2013, when Leverage Research initiated an Effective Altruism Summit[65][66]

Two significant community websites were created in 2014. The Effective Altruism Forum was designed to be an effective altruist version of LessWrong, a community blog and forum for rationalists and those concerned with existential risk which had some overlap with effective altruism.[67] It used a similar codebase (derived from the source code for Reddit).[67] The Effective Altruism Hub 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.[68]

Four books about effective altruism are slated for release in 2015.[69] The first of these books, The Most Good You Can Do, was written by noted philosopher Peter Singer and reviewed by Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times.[70]

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.[19]

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.[72][73][74][75]

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.[76] 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.[77]


Many of the criticisms of effective altruism are the same as those that have historically been made of various forms of utilitarianism. These include questioning one's ability to make a full and accurate calculation of the consequences of any action, since we have only very limited ability to predict the future.

Much of the contemporary controversy about effective altruism is around 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.[78] Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds.[79] 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.[78]

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."[80]

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."[81] William MacAskill responded in the same magazine, defending the logic the movement uses to evaluate the effectiveness of different charities.[82]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]