What is Effective Altruism? A Deep Dive [Early 2023 Update]

Effective Altruism is a philosophical and social movement that proposes evidence-backed and logically reasoned solutions to benefit others as much as possible. Those who follow its tenets are known as effective altruists, many of whom have chosen careers or donated to charities based on their goal of maximizing impact.

The concept originated during the 2000s and was given its official name in 2011 by well-known philosophers such as Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill. Since then, numerous books, articles, and public conferences have been dedicated to the establishment of effective altruist causes. As of 2022, billions of dollars have been contributed worldwide in support of those causes.

Cause Priorities

Effective altruism is especially passionate about global health and development, social inequality, animal welfare, and risks to humanity sustained in the far future. Its philosophy firmly prioritizes impartiality and equal consideration for those around the globe when selecting beneficiaries of the movement’s resources.

This includes but is not limited to creating safe environments for scientific projects, entrepreneurship ventures, and policy initiatives that can be estimated to save or reduce suffering optimally in order to benefit all those involved.

The History of Effective Altruism

In the late 2000s, several communities began to form around altruism, rationalism, and futurology. These included GiveWell and its offspring Open Philanthropy, Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours – focused on pledging and career selection for effective giving – the Singularity Institute (now MIRI) for researching AI safety, the LessWrong discussion forum, and an umbrella organization known as the Centre for Effective Altruism.

Furthermore, a Facebook group was created in 2012 dedicated to “Effective Altruists”, while the first Effective Altruism Global conference was held in 2013. Beyond these communities, there have been many influenced by Peter Singer’s work such as “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (1972), Animal Liberation (1975), The Life You Can Save (2009) with Singer himself introducing the term ‘effective altruism’ during a TED talk entitled “The Why and How of Effective Altruism“.

In 2015, Peter Singer released The Most Good You Can Do which explored what it means to live ethically via the principles of Effective Altruism. Alongside this, William MacAskill published his book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.

This was followed by Vox’s Future Perfect section setting up shop to discuss best practices for good in 2018 and 80,000 Hours’ identification of Yew-Kwang Ng as a precursory to many ideas of today’s effective altruism.

The following year saw Oxford University Press publish the volume Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues edited by Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer while Toby Ord released The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity in 2020 and MacAskill shortly followed with What We Owe To The Future in 2022.

How does Effective Altruism Relate to Family Offices?

Effective altruism and family offices can be related in a few ways. Family offices, which manage the wealth of high-net-worth families, may incorporate effective altruism principles into their investment and philanthropic strategies.

They may consider impact investing, which seeks to generate financial returns while also creating a positive social or environmental impact, or they may seek out high-impact philanthropic opportunities that align with effective altruism principles.

In addition, some family offices may be interested in using effective altruism as a framework for guiding their giving, to ensure that their donations are making a significant positive impact. Effective altruism principles can help family offices identify causes that are both important and neglected, and that have a high potential for impact. This can lead to more strategic and effective philanthropy and can help family offices maximize the positive impact of their charitable giving.

Philosophies of Effective Altruists

Effective altruists focus on philosophical questions related to how best to benefit others. There is no particular consensus on the answers, and arguments are made for doing the best one can with all of their resources or within a defined budget.

This outlook is compatible with various moral and meta-ethical understandings as well as religious teachings around altruism. Religion in contrast may emphasize spending resources on worship and evangelism instead. Popular figures promoting effective altruism include Peter Singer, William MacAskill, Nick Bostrom, Toby Ord, Hilary Greaves, and Derek Parfit.

Focusing on Impartiality

Effective altruism advocates for a moral standpoint that looks to benefit all regardless of distance or affiliation. This impartial logic extends to non-human animals and future generations when considering the well-being of others.

However, William Schambra has critiqued this approach, arguing that charity that is tied to reciprocity and personable interactions is more sustainable than detached altruism. Community-based charitable giving is seen as foundational to civil society and democracy in his view.

Prioritizing Causes

Cause Prioritization is a core concept of Effective Altruism which prioritizes causes and beneficiaries based on the ‘importance’, ‘tractability’, and ‘neglectedness’ framework. This idea has been met with criticism for comparing one cause to another, though William MacAskill defended the rationale for such comparisons.

Ian David Moss proposed an alternative, “domain-specific effective altruism” which would focus on specific geographical locations or causes while still applying EA principles.

Cost Effectiveness

Effective Altruists seek to identify the most cost-efficient interventions with uncertain benefits and prioritize those with higher expected values. For health interventions this is measured by lives extended, quality-adjusted life years (QALY) added, or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) reduced per dollar spent.

Although some effective altruists prefer randomized controlled trials as a primary form of evidence, others have argued that such a stringent level of evidence could limit the scope of their research. Additionally, some have highlighted the measurement problem of finding reliable evidence for certain interventions and warned that they risk being undervalued by effective altruism.

Considering Counterfactual Reasoning

Counterfactual reasoning is used by effective altruists to compare the potential outcomes of different choices, such as career choice. This can help determine how much good one candidate can do compared to another.

It has been suggested that due to the high supply of candidates for charities and social services, the marginal impact of a career is likely to be smaller than the gross impact.

Deeper Looks into High-Priority Causes

Effective altruism is a broad movement that seeks to do the most good while being cause-neutral. It encompasses global development and health, animal welfare, and mitigating risks to human existence.

Global Development and Health

Alleviating global poverty and neglected tropical diseases has been a primary focus of Effective Altruism. GiveWell, founded by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, is a charity evaluator focused on tackling poverty by recommending donations to malaria prevention charities, deworming charities, and direct cash transfers to beneficiaries.

The Life You Can Save works to alleviate global poverty by educating donors and advocating for evidence-backed charities.

Animal Welfare

Improving animal welfare has been an important focus of effective altruism. According to Singer and Animal Charity Evaluators, factory farming should be prioritized over pet welfare, considering that billions of land animals are slaughtered for human consumption every year.

There are a variety of non-profits associated with effective altruism dedicated to improving animal welfare, such as Animal Charity Evaluators, Animal Ethics, Wild Animal Initiative, Faunalytics, and the Sentience Institute.

These organizations advocate for addressing farm animal suffering through cultured meat production and expanding people’s circle of concern so they care more about all kinds of animals.

Mitigating Risk to Human Existence

Longtermism, which emphasizes the importance of positively influencing the long-term future, is closely related to effective altruism. Under this ethical stance, the welfare of all humans – both current and future – should be considered equally important.

Active research and advocacy for improving the long-term future are being done by organizations such as the Future of Humanity Institute, Centre for Study of Existential Risk, Future of Life Institute, and Machine Intelligence Research Institute. These organizations focus on managing existential risks associated with biotechnology and advanced artificial intelligence to ensure a better future for everyone.

Approaches to Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is a philosophy that advocates for doing the most good possible. People who practice this philosophy may pursue various approaches to achieve this goal, such as donating money to effective charitable organizations, utilizing their careers to make more money for donations, contributing meaningful labor, and starting non-profit or for-profit ventures.

Altruism Through Donations

Many effective altruists prioritize charitable donations to alleviate suffering. For example, Giving What We Can (GWWC) is an organization with members pledging to donate at least 10% of their future income. Founders Pledge is a similar initiative founded out of the non-profit Founders Forum for Good, whereby entrepreneurs make a legally binding commitment to donate a percentage of their proceeds if they sell their businesses.

Estimates suggest that $416 million was donated in 2019 to effective charities within the movement and witnessed 37% annual growth since 2015. Notable philanthropists influenced by effective altruism include Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna who hope to donate most of their net worth through Good Ventures, as well as professional poker players Dan Smith and Liv Boeree.

Effective Career Choices

Effective altruism also pertains to career choice. 80,000 Hours is an organization that studies and provides advice on which careers offer the greatest positive impact. Through “earning to give”, individuals pursue a high-earning career in order to donate a substantial portion of their income to charities they deem effective.

This approach is often motivated by the desire to maximize the amount that can be donated and do good through such endeavors.

Development of Effective Organizations

Effective altruists may also create non-profit or for-profit organizations in order to implement cost-effective ways of doing good. An example of this is the Deworm the World Initiative, founded by Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster after they conducted randomized controlled trials in Kenya and discovered deworming children as the only intervention that raised school attendance.

GiveWell designated Deworm the World as a top charity due to its generally high cost-effectiveness, although there is some uncertainty around long-term impacts. Other effective altruist organizations include:

  • The Happier Lives Institute: Researching CBT in developing countries
  • Canopie: Providing CBT to expecting and postpartum women
  • Giving Green: Analyzing and ranking climate interventions for effectiveness
  • Fish Welfare Initiative: Improving animal welfare in fishing and aquaculture
  • Lead Exposure Elimination Project: Reducing lead poisoning in developing countries

Incremental and Systemic Change Compared

While much of its initial focus was on direct interventions such as health services and cash transfers, effective altruists have also looked toward more systemic strategies involving social, economic, and political reform.

However, this has brought criticism from those who say it neglects the kind of structural change that is needed to make a long-term impact. Others refute this point, arguing that movements focused on systemic or institutional change are compatible with effective altruism; practitioners would be obligated to both donate to charities and seek reform for structures responsible for poverty.

Open Philanthropy has given grants for progressive initiatives in areas like criminal justice, economic stabilization, and housing reform – despite labeling the success of such political reforms as “highly uncertain.”

Common Criticism of Effective Altruism

Critics of effective altruism argue that its focus on distant problems fails to consider more local needs, and suggests that it has a culture of elitism and ignores the need for societal change.

Ross Douthat of The New York Times echoed these arguments, noting the movement’s “telescopic philanthropy” directed at populations far away from where decisions are made. However, he also praised it for offering “useful rebukes to the solipsism and anti-human pessimism that haunts the developed world today”.

The Drowning Child Analogy

Kwame Anthony Appiah asked whether a man in an expensive suit confronted with a drowning child should not save the child, but rather sell the suit and donate the proceeds to charity. Appiah concluded that he “should save the drowning child and ruin my suit”.

Similarly, when presented with a scenario of either saving a child from a burning building or saving a Picasso painting to sell and donate the proceeds to charity, MacAskill responded that the effective altruist should save and sell the Picasso, much to psychologist Alan Jern’s surprise. Despite this, Jern believed that effective altruism raises questions “worth asking”.

Combatting a Lack of Diversity

There has been some criticism of the lack of diversity amongst effective altruism’s proponents, with Nitasha Tiku of The Washington Post calling it a “community of roughly 7,000 adherents—largely young, White men connected to elite schools in the United States and Britain”.

Philosophers such as Susan Dwyer, Joshua Stein, and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò have expressed concern that effective altruism may be furthering the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals in areas that should be regulated by democratic governments or organizations.

Hostility Towards Women

There have been claims that the effective altruism movement has a hostile culture toward women. In a 2023 Time magazine article, seven women reported various types of misconduct and controversy involving men in the movement, such as grooming younger women for polyamorous sexual relationships.

It was argued that white males have created an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, excused, or rationalized away. The article also reported that action has already been taken on some of the incidents and further allegations will be addressed.

The Sam Bankman-Fried Effect

In 2019, Sam Bankman-Fried, an investor and entrepreneur associated with the effective altruism movement, announced his intention to “donate as much as [he] can”. As a result, he founded the FTX Future Fund, from which William MacAskill’s Centre for Effective Altruism received $13.9 million.

However, after the collapse of the company in late 2022, Bankman-Fried’s relationship with effective altruism was called into question. Publications such as The Washington Post questioned whether or not the movement was complicit in FTX’s downfall.

Leaders within the movement including William MacAskill and Robert Wiblin responded by condemning FTX’s actions and stressing that good consequences do not justify infringing on rights or integrity.

Summarizing Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that aims to use evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to improve the world and alleviate suffering.

It encourages individuals to consider the impact of their actions and donations and to focus on causes that are high-impact and neglected. Effective altruists often prioritize global health and poverty, animal welfare, and existential risks.

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