Five ways to become a really effective altruist

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu and Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

This is a cross-post of an article which was originally published in The Conversation

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which aims not only to increase charitable donations of time and money (and indeed more broadly to encourage leading a lifestyle which does good in the world), but also encourage the most effective use of these resources, usually by looking for measurable impacts such as lives saved per dollar.

For an effective altruist, the core question is: “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” It might be argued, for example, that charity work isn’t the best use of time; a talented financier may be better off working for a bank, and use their earnings to pay for others to work for charities instead.

To this end, those in the movement often perform complex calculations to determine which charities and careers do the most good – something that is frequently attacked. Charitable causes that effective altruists have argued should come lower in our list of priorities include charities like the ALS Association, which benefited from the viral ice bucket challenge, and the arts.

These comparisons are not based on the worthiness of the cause, the good it does or even the levels of suffering it alleviates, but the cost to benefit ratio. For example, Peter Singer, a moral philosopher and icon of the effective altruism movement, has argued that homelessness and infant mortality in the developed world should have a lower priority than equivalent causes in the developing world. It isn’t that these problems are trivial or undeserving, but because of a greater impact per dollar.

Effective Altruism is exciting and beneficial in many ways. It gets people to think about how to help others, and encourages people to act in ways that do help others. Many people don’t contribute as much as they should, maybe because of doubts about the difference it will make or where to put their efforts. But while we wholeheartedly support the movement, calculating which causes are better than others risks being oversimplified. So here are five practical ways to become a really effective altruist instead.

1. Don’t support useless or harmful causes

This is uncontroversial and already a central tenet of effective altruism. We all agree that waste and harm are bad, and many charitable causes do more harm than good – so let’s avoid them. However, there are lots of altruistic acts that do some good — often lots of good — even if they’re not the best. Different people can contribute in different ways, and diversity spreads benefits to many worthwhile causes. Aiming for only the best option leaves little leeway for individuality and experimentation, and can instead turn many people off.

2. Do what you enjoy and excel at

If people aren’t able to build sturdy houses, they shouldn’t volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. And if they don’t enjoy working with animals they don’t volunteer at the RSPCA. The same goes for financial contributions. If the most good that my money can do is to help free animals in factory farms but I really don’t care about these animals then I’m unlikely to give as much, as often, or for as long as I would for a cause that I deeply care about. The idea that we should work for or contribute to the most effective charity, regardless of what we care about, is self-defeating. Most people’s passions aren’t that flexible – they can’t or won’t start caring about a cause simply because a calculation tells them to. Better to follow a passion than be demotivated.

3. Spread the love

If you really are passionate about a cause, encourage others. If they are not passionate about your cause, encourage them to help others in their own way. We can do more to improve the world if we get other people to help out.

If we were to try to determine which person has done the most good in history, we’d get different answers. Effective altruism can come from inspiring others, by being a teacher or a good parent for example. Take Singer, he hasn’t prevented nuclear war or eradicated small pox, but he has led very many people to help others. In turn, these followers have followers themselves, who help others more than they otherwise would have.

A teacher should get some credit for the good that his students do but would not have done if not for his teaching. We can do good both directly and indirectly, by inspiring others.

4. Use carrots rather than sticks

If someone is doing good and more good than most but could still do more, then they deserve praise and encouragement. To encourage people to do better, we should be generous with praise for those who do more good than is common and add more praise for those near the top. Criticising those who fall short of the ideal only discourages others. If we’re right, then criticism should be reserved for those who fall well below what most people do to help the needy.

5. Avoid overconfidence

Really effective altruism aims to do the most good over all time. The world, present and future, is a very uncertain place. It is difficult to predict what will do the most good, either now or far in the future. Humility is necessary in the face of this uncertainty. Who would have thought that the invention of the mobile phone would have done so much good or knows what the final effect of the communications revolution will be.

As the philosopher John Stuart Mill recognised, originality, diversity, and experiments in living are necessary to discover what is the best life. The same applies to the well-being of others. Be willing to revise your goals in the light of new evidence and reflection.

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3 Responses to Five ways to become a really effective altruist

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I don’t see how this contribution rises above the level of a motivational poster or a managers’ seminar. It’s full of disputable assumptions about what constitutes ‘doing good’, but is there any point in looking at them in detail?

    • - - says:

      Most effective altruists are pretty radical and may end up not doing that much good after all. I take it as a constructive critique with concret proposition how to be, as in title, REALLY effective.

  • Paul Treanor says:

    I know that this blog has guidelines about ‘no personal attacks’, but in this context it would be wrong to avoid considerations of integrity. Advocacy of ‘effective altruism’ directly benefits a small number of organisations which offer measures of the effectiveness of the ‘altruism’. Whatever their legal status, these organisations are clearly entrepreneurial: they are private-sector organisations which offer a service, in competition with other similar organisations which offer a similar service. They are there to make money. And, in practice, the ‘altruism’ also consists of money, and the measures of effectiveness say who should get it. Given the large total sum of charitable donations in western countries, there are major financial interests at work. We must therefore consider whether academics such as Peter Singer are de facto representatives of particular financial interests, and especially whether there are links to specific organisations, which might influence their views.


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