What is Effective Altruism? - Part I
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
Effective Altruism is a social and philosophical movement that consists of applying our best reasoning and evidence to determine what are the most important causes to improve the world, as well as acting in accordance with these ideals. As a social movement, we organize to try to achieve the greatest positive impact in the world. This distinguishes us from traditional philanthropic and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), since they often rely on feelings of empathy and other emotions to promote action, which often leads to decisions that are biased or not very effective in practice.
We understand “positive impact” as improving the well-being of people and other sentient beings, like animals, throughout their entire lives.
To achieve these objectives we use moral philosophy, empirical evidence in social sciences, interdisciplinary research, cost-benefit reasoning, and a social, moral, and practical commitment to actively achieve a greater positive impact in the world.
By Altruism we understand the act of helping others in a substantial way. We do not think of altruism as an act of irresponsible self-sacrifice. Instead, we aim to contribute to improving the lives of others in a considerable way, which requires taking care of our well-being as well.
By Effective, we understand the aim of optimizing our altruism to achieve the highest possible positive result towards others. In other words, we do not settle for simply "improving the lives of others". We want to improve the lives of others as much as possible and improve the lives of as many people as possible. This is because:
We do not have the required resources to pursue all causes that need help.
Some causes are hundreds or thousands of times more important than others.
And because we can have an effect that is hundreds of times more beneficial using the correct approaches or methods.
The combination of these factors results in the social movement of Effective Altruism, which combines moral behavior towards others with empirical evidence and careful reasoning to improve the well-being of all sentient beings, both human and animal.
Principles of Effective Altruism
We are aware that we have limited resources as well as a limited willingness to help others. So, morally speaking, it is not enough to generate a small benefit using a large number of resources. We must choose our goals, methods, and strategies carefully to have the greatest possible positive impact in the world. This is what is called cause prioritization, a trait that distinguishes Effective Altruism from other philanthropic methods and organizations.
For example, it has been empirically shown that to improve the quality of education in the developing world, as in some African countries, the action of deworming children has a greater positive effect on learning and education than increasing the number of books available or hiring more teachers. This is because:
The books offered are often too advanced for the students, and they are often provided in non-local languages.
Intestinal parasites affect more than one billion people around the world, including hundreds of millions of children. Reducing the number of these parasites has been shown to increase class attendance by 25%, avoiding health problems such as anemia and other diseases.
Treating parasites is extremely cheap. Every $100 spent on this health program provides weeks of extra education for each student, which, multiplied by the number of students, provides an additional ten years of classes in total. [i]
Many people first decide emotionally or subjectively to what cause they want to donate, and then they offer money to help out with a particular cause. For example, if they knew someone who died of cancer, they will become aware of this cause and possibly donate to cancer research. If someone in your family has diabetes, you might feel compelled to donate in order to eradicate diabetes.
Effective Altruism does the opposite. First, we ask ourselves, "what is the social issue that would improve the world the most, if we invested money or effort into solving it?" This question can be investigated in-depth and we can make progress on it in order to find results. This means that Effective Altruism is “neutral” with respect to what causes to follow: we simply follow those that have the greatest positive impact on the world. We do not focus on causes in which we have emotional or subjective reasons that lead us to act, but rather to try to improve the lives of as many people as possible, in the most rational and objective way possible.
Today, Effective Altruism has found that the most important causes we need to focus on are global poverty, global health, the long-term future of humanity, global risks, animal rights and welfare, and research. about values. These major issues, in turn, can be broken down as follows:
World poverty and global health.
Economic and social development.
Cosmopolitanism and international cooperation.
Long-term future of humanity and global risks.
Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.
Genetic engineering and transhumanism.
Possible paths of future development of humanity.
Animal rights and welfare.
Opposition to industrialized livestock ("factory farming") and trawling.
Wild animal welfare.
Research on values and normative questions.
Moral philosophy and moral psychology.
In future articles, we will develop our reflections, analysis, and reasoning for why effective altruists consider that these issues are the most important for the present and future of humanity, animals, and the planet.
Read Part 2.
[i] MacAskill, William (2015). Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. Guardian Faber Publishing, Introduction.
MacAskill cites the study by Kremer, M. (2003). "Randomized evaluations of educational programs in developing countries: Some lessons." American Economic Review, 93 (2), 102-106.