What is Effective Altruism?

Today, Peter Singer’s TED Talk on effective altruism went live. But what is effective altruism?

Most forms of do-gooding start out with a What (“I want to promote microfinance!”), move to a How (“maybe I should do a sponsored marathon?”) and simply take the Why for granted (“because of course microfinance is good!”).

Effective altruism, in contrast, starts with a Why and a How, and lets them determine the What. Let me explain:

The Why is to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Rather than merely aiming to make the world better than when we found it — “to make a difference” — we want to make the most difference. So, for example, rather than simply trying to find a development charity that “does good work”, Giving What We Can seeks to find those charities that do the very most to help people in developing countries with every pound or dollar they receive. In general, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.

The How — how to find those activities that do the most good — is by using good evidence and good reasoning. Where a question concerns a matter of fact, we try to find the best empirical evidence that is relevant to that question. (An anecdote is bad, a double-blind randomized controlled trial is better, a well-performed meta-analysis is best.) Where a question concerns values, we use clear arguments, rational reflection, and the latest insights from ethics, economics, and psychology to help us come to the right view. So, for example, rather than going with feel-good slogans like “follow your passion”, or passing on anecdotes about specific people, at 80,000 Hours we’re busy digging into all the available academic research related to doing good through your career, and getting clear, conceptually, on what making a difference involves.

From these two ideas, the What follows. Effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. In each case, the reasoning is that the stakes are very high, and there is the potential to make a lot of progress. Right now, within the Centre for Effective Altruism, the What consists of the organisations that promote donating a good chunk of one’s income to the causes that most effectively fight global poverty (Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save), that advise individuals on which careers enable them to have the greatest positive impact (80,000 Hours), and that try to figure out how best to improve animal welfare (Effective Animal Activism). But these activities are just our current best guesses. If we had good evidence or arguments that showed that we could do more good by doing something else, then we’d do that instead.

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2 Responses to What is Effective Altruism?

  • Matthew Newton says:

    One thing you could do at the CEA is provide a link to some of the organizations looking at existential risk reduction, (such as the Oxford FHI or the new one at Cambridge) in case people want to donate to that cause, with the caveat that of course the value of these organizations’ work is much more difficult to assess reliably.

  • http://ceu.academia.edu/EricJBrown says:

    From this post it seems to me that you overlook the need for massive political reform–that is the establishment of effective and reliable rule of law—in many, many countries so that corruption and state capture do not prevent and subvert efforts to establish measures against existential risks that are ignored because corporations and cartels control the legal and regulatory environment.

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