Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that advocates "using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis". People who pursue the goals of effective altruism are labeled effective altruists.
Common practices of effective altruists include significant charitable donation, and choosing careers based on the amount of good that the career achieves, which may include the strategy of earning to give. An estimated $416 million was donated to effective charities identified by the movement in 2019, representing a 37% annual growth rate since 2015. Famous philanthropists influenced by effective altruism include Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Sam Bankman-Fried, Dan Smith, and Liv Boeree.
Prominent cause priorities within effective altruism include global poverty, animal welfare, and risks to the survival of humanity over the long-term future.
The philosophy of effective altruism applies more broadly to the process of prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives that can be estimated to save lives or otherwise improve well-being.: 179–195 Philosophical principles of effective altruism emphasize impartiality, cause neutrality, cost-effectiveness, and counterfactual reasoning. One prominent philosophical debate is about how effective altruism relates to institutional or structural change.
The movement developed during the decade of the 2000s, and the name effective altruism was coined in 2011. Several books and many articles about the movement have since been published, and the Effective Altruism Global conference has been held since 2013.
People practice effective altruism in different ways, such as donating to organizations like Deworm the World, using their career to make more money for donations or directly contributing their labor, and starting new non-profit or for-profit ventures. For example, Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster conducted many randomized controlled trials in Kenya to find out the best way to improve students' test scores. They tried new textbooks and flip charts, as well as smaller class sizes, but found that the only intervention that raised school attendance was treating intestinal worms in children. Based on their findings, they started the Deworm the World Initiative, which is rated by GiveWell as one of the best charities in the world for cost-effectiveness.
An aristocratic woman giving alms
Many effective altruists engage in significant charitable donation. Some believe it is a moral duty to alleviate suffering through donations if other possible uses of those funds do not offer comparable benefits to oneself, and some lead a frugal lifestyle in order to give more.
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is an organization whose members have pledged to donate at least 10% of their future income to the causes that they believe are the most effective. GWWC was founded in 2009 by Toby Ord, a moral philosopher, who lives on £18,000 ($27,000) per year and donates the balance of his income. In 2020, Ord said that people had donated over $100 million to date through the GWWC pledge.
Founders Pledge is a similar initiative, founded out of the nonprofit Founders Forum for Good, whereby entrepreneurs make a legally binding commitment to donate a percentage of their personal proceeds to charity in the event that they sell their business. As of February 2022, roughly 1,700 entrepreneurs had pledged over $7 billion and over $500 million had been donated.
An estimated $416 million was donated to effective charities identified by the movement in 2019, representing a 37% annual growth rate since 2015. Two of the largest donors in the effective altruist community, Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, who had become wealthy through co-founding Facebook, hope to donate most of their net worth of over $11 billion for effective altruism causes through the private foundation Good Ventures. Other prominent philanthropists influenced by effective altruism include Bill and Melinda Gates,Warren Buffett,Sam Bankman-Fried, as well as professional poker players Dan Smith and Liv Boeree. One researcher estimated in 2021 that effective altruism has roughly $46 billion committed to effective charities.
Effective altruists have argued that one's career is an important determinant of the amount of good one does, both directly (through the services one provides) and indirectly (through one's consumption, investment, and donation decisions).
80,000 Hours is an organization that conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact and provides career advice based on that research. It considers both direct and indirect kinds of altruistic employment.
Earning to give is a prominent approach to career choice among effective altruists. It involves choosing to work in high-paying careers with the explicit goal of donating large sums of money to charity. Earning to give has been a subject of debate. For example, high profile individuals and institutions within the movement have disagreed on when it is appropriate to work in morally controversial jobs. William MacAskill argued in 2014 that sufficient donations might justify an otherwise morally controversial career, since the marginal impact of taking an unethical job is small if someone else would have taken it regardless, while the impact of the donations could be large. In 2017, 80,000 Hours recommended that it is better to avoid careers that do significant direct harm, even if it seems like the negative consequences could be outweighed by donations. This is because the harms from such careers may be hidden or otherwise hard to measure, and because they think it is important to account for moral uncertainty—for example, not knowing to what degree one should minimize the negative consequences that one hopes to outweigh by donations.
Earning to give has faced criticism from commentators such as David Brooks and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. In 2013, Brooks published an article criticizing the earning to give approach. He wrote that most people who work in finance and other high-paying industries value money for selfish reasons and that working among such people will cause effective altruists to become less altruistic.Peter Singer responded to these criticisms in his book The Most Good You Can Do by giving examples of people who have been earning to give for years without losing their altruism. Separately, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued that the practice was "unsettling", explaining that "the implication seems to be that taking a high-paying job selling fraudulent mortgage-backed securities is more praiseworthy than taking a low-paying job at the local homeless shelter, so long as one buys enough anti-malarial bed nets". Singer responded to this kind of "ethical objection" by arguing that effective altruists who are not utilitarians may be able to find a high-paying job that is not complicit in causing such harm, but even those who take such a complicit job have at least several ways of dealing with the situation, such as by lobbying the organization to change its harmful practices, which may be easier to do from their position inside the organization, or by quitting and blowing the whistle on the organization, which might not have been possible without gaining information while on the job.: 50–54
Members of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project's Madagascar branch sample local paints to send to the lab to test for lead content.
Some effective altruists are entrepreneurs, starting non-profit organizations to implement cost-effective ways of improving well-being, for-profit organizations to earn to give, or for-profit organizations to make social impact. On the non-profit side, for example, the Happier Lives Institute conducts research on the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in developing countries; Canopie develops an app that provides CBT to women who are expecting or postpartum; Giving Green analyzes and ranks climate interventions for effectiveness; the Fish Welfare Initiative works on improving animal welfare in fishing and aquaculture; and the Lead Exposure Elimination Project works on reducing lead poisoning in developing countries. On the for-profit side, effective altruism supporter Sam Bankman-Fried founded the crypto currency exchange FTX with the explicit goal of amassing a fortune (currently more than $20 billion) and then donating most of his wealth to charity. An example of a for-profit company that aims to make social impact is Wave, a "radically affordable" mobile money service operating in Senegal that allows for free deposits and withdrawals, and charges a 1% fee for sending money.
This practice of "weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another" has been criticized by Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator for being "moralistic, in the worst sense of the word". MacAskill responded to Berger and Penna, defending the rationale for comparing one beneficiary's interests against another and concluding that such comparison is difficult and sometimes impossible but often necessary.
Global health and developmentEdit
Women and children receive anti-malarial nets in Malawi. The nets were provided by the Against Malaria Foundation, and distributed by a local organization.
The organization The Life You Can Save, which originated from Singer's book of the same name, works to alleviate global poverty by promoting evidence-backed charities, conducting philanthropy education, and changing the culture of giving in affluent countries.
While much of the initial focus of effective altruism was on direct strategies such as health interventions and cash transfers, more systematic social, economic, and political reforms meant to facilitate larger long-term poverty reduction have also attracted attention. The Open Philanthropy Project, in collaboration with GiveWell, does research and philanthropic funding of more speculative and diverse causes such as policy reform, global catastrophic risk reduction and scientific research.
A number of non-profit organizations have been established that adopt an effective altruist approach toward animal welfare. Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) evaluates animal charities based on their cost-effectiveness and transparency, particularly those tackling factory farming.: 139 Faunalytics focuses on animal welfare research. The Sentience Institute is a think tank founded to expand the moral circle to other species.
Long-term future and global catastrophic risksEdit
Some effective altruists subscribe to longtermism, an ethical stance that emphasizes the importance of positively influencing the long-term future. Longtermists believe that the welfare of future individuals is just as important as the welfare of currently existing individuals. Longtermist Toby Ord stated that he came to think that future risks are even more neglected than present suffering and "that the people of the future may be even more powerless to protect themselves from the risks we impose than the dispossessed of our own time".: 8
Peter Singer is one of several philosophers who helped popularize effective altruism.
Effective altruists have pondered philosophical questions about the most effective ways to benefit others. Such philosophical questions shift the starting point of reasoning from "what to do" to why and how. Effective altruists have yet to reach consensus on the answers to all such questions, but the minimal philosophical core of effective altruism involves having some reason to promote the well-being of all others, and "more reason to benefit them more, and most reason to benefit them as much as possible", a principle of effective altruism that some philosophers have called maximizing altruism. Some effective altruists believe that they should do the most good they possibly can, while other effective altruists try do the most good they can within a defined budget.: 15
Important principles that are discussed in literature about effective altruism include impartiality, cause prioritization, cost-effectiveness, and counterfactual reasoning.
An allegorical image of equality by Jean-Guillaume Moitte, 1793
Altruism can be motivated by different reasons. Some reasons are impartial, and others are sentimental, stemming from sympathy and compassion. Much of the published literature on effective altruism emphasizes impartial reasoning and concludes that, other things being equal, everyone's well-being counts equally, without regard to individual identities.: 85–95 : 17–19 Impartiality combined with seeking to do the most good leads to prioritizing benefits to those who are in a worse state, because anyone who happens to be worse off will benefit more from an improvement in their state, all other things being equal. Philosopher Peter Singer, in his 1972 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" that has been influential among effective altruists, wrote:
It makes no moral 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.: 231–232, 237
Impartiality is the basis of cause neutrality, which means choosing to distribute resources based on what will do the most good and not based on biased factors such as personal connections. Some effective altruists argue that because there will be more people in the future than there are now, the way to do the most good is to focus on promoting the long-term well-being of humanity by, for example, reducing risks to civilization, humans, and planet Earth.: 165–178  Some effective altruists think that non-human animals should have the same moral weight as that of humans, so they advocate for animal welfare issues such as ending factory farming.
Singer speculated in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" that whether people think and act impartially is affected by social influence—what other people are expecting one to do.: 237 In his 2015 book The Most Good You Can Do, Singer admitted that even though he had argued in 1972 that "we ought to give large proportions of our income to disaster relief funds", he did not do it himself.: 13 He also noted personal psychological inertia as an obstacle to impartial altruism.: 13–14 Some sociological research has corroborated that social influence can undermine altruistic activity. To support people's ability to act altruistically on the basis of impartial reasoning, the effective altruism movement promotes additional values and actions, such as a collaborative spirit, honesty, transparency, and publicly pledging to donate a certain percentage of income or other resources.: 2
Many nonprofits emphasize effectiveness and evidence with a single cause in mind, such as education or climate change. In contrast, effective altruists seek to compare the relative importance of different causes and allocate resources among them objectively, adopting cause neutrality. One approach to cause neutrality is to identify the highest priority cause areas based on whether activities within a cause area efficiently advance broad goals, such as increasing human or animal welfare, and then focus attention on interventions in the prioritized cause areas.
Effective altruist organizations such as 80,000 Hours and Open Philanthropy prioritize causes by evaluating each cause for its importance, tractability, and neglectedness. Importance is the amount of value that would be created if a problem were solved, tractability is the fraction of a problem that would be solved if additional resources were devoted to it, and neglectedness is the quantity of resources already committed to a cause. These three criteria help estimate the marginal benefit of allocating more resources, such as money or people, toward addressing an issue.
The information required for cause prioritization may involve data analysis, comparing possible outcomes with what would have happened under other conditions (counterfactual reasoning), and identifying uncertainty. The difficulty of these tasks has led to the creation of organizations that specialize in researching the relative prioritization of causes.
Some charities are far more effective than others, as charities may spend different amounts of money to achieve the same goal, and some charities may not achieve the goal at all. Effective altruists seek to identify charities that are highly cost-effective. For example, health interventions are selected based on their impact as measured by lives extended per dollar, quality-adjusted life years (QALY) added per dollar, or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) reduced per dollar.: 34
Some effective altruist organizations prefer randomized controlled trials as a primary form of evidence, as they are commonly considered the highest level of evidence in healthcare research. Others have argued that requiring this stringent level of evidence unnecessarily narrows the focus to issues where the evidence can be developed, and that historically many effective interventions have proceeded without this level of evidence. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and others have warned about the "measurement problem": Issues such as medical research or government reform are worked on "one grinding step at a time", and results are hard to measure with controlled experiments. Such interventions risk being undervalued by the effective altruism movement.
Effective altruist organizations consider the expected impact of a funding increase rather than evaluating the average value of all donations to the charity. This avoids donations to organizations that lack room for more funding because they face bottlenecks other than lack of money. For example, a medical charity might not be able to hire enough doctors or nurses to distribute more medical supplies, or it might already be serving all of the potential patients in its market.
Counterfactual reasoning involves considering the possible outcomes of alternative choices. It has been employed by effective altruists in a number of contexts, including career choice. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or providing social services. However, since there is a high supply of candidates for such positions, it makes sense to compare the amount of good one candidate does to how much good the next-best candidate would do. According to this reasoning, the marginal impact of a career is likely to be smaller than the gross impact.
Anti-capitalist and institutional critiquesEdit
Writing for the American socialist magazine Jacobin, Mathew Snow said in 2015 that effective-altruist methodology is specifically biased against efforts for systemic change: "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". Snow advocated overturning capitalism completely. Joshua Kissel argued 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. Brian Berkey argued that support for institutional change does not contradict the principles of effective altruism, because effective altruism is open to any action that will have the greatest positive impact on the world, including the possibility of changing the existing global institutional order. Elizabeth Ashford argued that people are separately obligated to donate to effective aid charities and to reform the structures that are responsible for poverty. Timothy Syme summarized and critiqued various objections to anti-capitalist and institutional critiques of effective altruism.
Open Philanthropy has given grants for progressive advocacy work in areas such as criminal justice, economic stabilization, and housing reform, despite success being "highly uncertain" according to Open Philanthropy.
The movement that later adopted the name effective altruism was created in the late 2000s as a community formed around Giving What We Can, a group founded in 2009 by philosopher Ord with help from MacAskill, co-founder of 80,000 Hours in 2011.: 16–19 Those two groups, while planning to incorporate as a charity under a new umbrella organization, held a vote in 2011 to name the organization; the name "Centre for Effective Altruism" won.: 18 The "Effective Altruists" Facebook group was set up in November 2012, and the movement gained wider exposure with Peter Singer's TED talk "The Why and How of Effective Altruism" in May 2013. Other contributions were the writings of philosophers such as Singer on applied ethics and Bostrom on reducing the risk of human extinction, the founding of organizations such as GiveWell and The Life You Can Save, and the creation of internet forums such as LessWrong,: 110  part of the rationalist community that has attracted some effective altruists.
In 2018, American news website Vox launched its Future Perfect section, led by journalist Dylan Matthews.Future Perfect has published written pieces and podcasts on the mission of "Finding the best ways to do good", including topics such as effective philanthropy, high-impact career choice, poverty reduction through women's empowerment, improving children's learning efficiently through improving environmental health, animal welfare improvements, and ways to reduce global catastrophic risks.
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^The quoted definition is endorsed by a number of organizations at: "CEA's Guiding Principles". Centre For Effective Altruism. Retrieved 2021-12-03.
^The term effective altruists is used to refer to people who embrace effective altruism in many published sources such as Oliver (2014), Singer (2015), and MacAskill (2017), though as Pummer & MacAskill (2020) noted, calling people "effective altruists" just means minimally that they are engaged in the project of "using evidence and reason to try to find out how to do the most good, and on this basis trying to do the most good", not that they are perfectly effective nor even that they necessarily participate in the effective altruism community.
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^MacAskill (2019a) said of the emphasis on well-being in effective altruism: "This welfarism is 'tentative', however, insofar as it is taken to be merely a working assumption. The ultimate aim of the effective altruist project is to do as much good as possible; the current focus on wellbeing rests on the idea that, given the current state of the world and our incredible opportunity to benefit others, the best ways of promoting welfarist value are broadly the same as the best ways of promoting the good." (p. 18)
^Crisp, Roger; Pummer, Theron (August 2020). "Effective justice". Journal of Moral Philosophy. 17 (4): 398–415. doi:10.1163/17455243-20193133. According to Maximizing Altruism, among those others you have reason to benefit, you have more reason to benefit them more, and most reason to benefit them as much as possible, other things being equal.
^Singer (2015) expressed a clearly normative view: "Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can." (p. vii)
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