Effective altruism is about the most effective ways to benefit others.
Most people I know are concerned about the world. Some care deeply about the environment and many are passionate about a variety of social issues. We support crowdfunding campaigns, attend public demonstrations, sign petitions, and generously donate to charity. But how effective is this?
I’ve been thinking about this question for some time. The search for answers led me to the Effective Altruism movement.
What is Effective Altruism?
Effective Altruism (EA) is a social movement based on the idea of doing the most good that you can do. It involves:
- Being open to all possible ways to do good and pursuing the path with the biggest positive impact
- Using evidence to figure out how to do the most good
- Choosing to make altruism a significant part of one’s life
Effective Altruism has four focus areas: animal welfare, global poverty, existential risks, and meta EA. I’ll review these, but first I need to give a little background and explain a couple of essential elements of EA.
The ideas behind EA have been present in practical ethics, particularly consequentialist ethics, for a long time. As a movement, it attracts a lot of utilitarians. There are a number of philosophers associated with EA including David Pearce, Toby Ord, Nick Bostrom, and, most notably, Peter Singer.
EA’s philosophical origins results in some unique features. First, EA applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. EA is about maximising outcomes. This means that decisions about which causes and charities to support require research, evidence, and rationality. You donate based on your head as well as your heart.
Second, EA is impartial. EA rejects the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. The person in a developing country has equal value to my neighbour and the interests of non-human animals are also accorded consideration.
Four focus areas of EA
Animal welfare, or animal liberation, is one of the four focus areas of EA for two reasons. One is that the single largest contributor to every known environmental ill – deforestation, habit destruction, ocean dead zones, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, world hunger – is animal agriculture.
The other reason is that factory farming causes extreme suffering to animals. Effective Altruists generally believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans. Non-human animals may not be as intelligent as the average, adult human, or have a sense of their future the way we do. However, among other things, they are capable of suffering.
EAs are often, but not always, vegetarians and vegans, and the primary intervention in the animal welfare cause is factory farming because this is the biggest culprit and where the biggest impact can be had.
Global poverty is one of the four focus areas because the value per unit money is greatest for international poverty alleviation and developing world health issues. For example, for less than a dollar (sometimes as little as ten cents), a child in Africa or India can be successfully treated for parasitic worm infection. Worms not only cause terrible health problems, they also affect education and productivity because these children are unable to go to school.
For some EAs, not only is space not a good reason to avoid helping another, neither is time. They believe the future is extremely important as are the astronomical numbers of people who could populate the future. Existential risks, or X-risks, are those with the potential to seriously damage human well-being on a global scale. These range from natural disasters such as asteroids and megatsunamis to pandemics and anthropogenic events such as catastrophic global warming, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, and bioterrorism. EAs interested in X-risks support science and research institutes.
Meta EA is about developing EA as a movement. That is, for example, working on the research areas that help improve our understanding of the causes mentioned above, or understanding how to effectively allocate future funds and resources, or advocating for EA in general.
Being an effective altruist
EA is about making the greatest impact. There are so many charities all competing for your attention and your dollars. We typically pick the ones we’re most familiar or one that sounds pretty good and support a cause we care about. When we donate to charity, we do so trustingly. Sometimes we end up scratching our heads wondering where the money went and are understandably angry when we learn that donated funds have been misused.
Researching charities is not easy. Thankfully, there are organisations that do just that, which makes it easy for the rest of us. EA recommends the charity evaluators Give Well and Animal Charity Evaluators. EA advocacy and educational outreach organisations Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save also have charity recommendations.
Another aspect of EA is giving a portion of your income. The average Australian and American full-time worker is in the richest 1% of the world’s population. We have an income that is more than 30 times the global average. In his book, The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer suggests giving away 1% of our income. Does it sound too hard to give away a portion of your income? I understand that. My partner and I have my student loan, credit card debts, a mortgage, and all the expenses that come with having a home, a family, a job, and we want to be able to indulge a little bit here and there. But I realised two things.
The first thing is that I’ve been donating to charity for a long time. I just never really looked at how much or where my money went. I may already be giving 1% of my income, maybe more. EA encourages me to be more informed and mindful about my giving. The second thing is that people who will quickly say they don’t have money will just as quickly purchase a $300 wand. EA encourages us to examine our spending habits and our effect on the world we live in. Does that mean you have to sacrifice in order to give? That depends on whether you consider it a sacrifice to decline purchasing a piece of mass-market junk made in a third-world sweat shop that you won’t be nearly as excited about in two weeks’ time.
Questions and criticisms
A common criticism of EA is that it doesn’t address the systemic problems that lead to creating the conditions that EA does address. There is some truth to this. Changing structures is an incredibly long, slow, expensive, tedious process. EA seeks to relieve suffering. However, that doesn’t mean these two approaches have to be mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t be. Yes, we need to dismantle the patriarchy, but we also need to support rape victims right now. Yes, we need to dismantle racist structures, but we also need to support black people right now.
Another criticism of EA is that it often places the focus on issues in developing countries. What about the problems here at home? These two things are not mutually exclusive either. People gave generously for relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and the earthquake in Nepal earlier this year. Those same people are also volunteers, policy reformers, protesters, and support their local communities. This argument has never stopped people from helping out at home or giving to causes overseas. Also, the reality is that if we wait until we solve all our problems at home, we’ll be waiting forever.
Effective Altruism Global
Last weekend, I attended Effective Altruism Global in Melbourne. There are three gatherings, one at Google HQ in California, one here in Melbourne, and one in Oxford in England. It was a two-day event so I won’t go over everything that transpired. I do want to share one highlight and one low point.
A highlight was the presentation “The Role of Altruism in Policy Reform” by John Daley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Grattan Institute, an independent think tank in Australia. Daley discussed how and why government doesn’t leave room for effective altruism and where and how EA can be useful. Government, he said, isn’t very good at identifying local issues, it doesn’t like change, and politicians are increasingly reactive to media pressures. EA can shake things up by advocating for policy change that is in the public interest.
Unfortunately, identifying such issues is harder than most people realise. People, Daley said, are full of opinions, but not data and analysis. Governments can be influenced, but it takes a lot of high-quality work. Policy reform is a long, slow, tedious process that requires a lot of time and a lot of money.
The low point was the panel on EA and Christianity. EA is not easily compatible with Christianity. It’s a conflict for Christianity that EA believes the interests of animals deserve to be considered. As Aquinas said, “It matters not how man behaves to animals, because God has subjected all things to man’s power.” Similarly, we shouldn’t be that concerned about the Earth or about the future because Jesus is coming back any moment.
A major problem for me that was raised by one of the men on the panel is that the most good a Christian can do is spread the Gospel and bring people to Jesus.
I’ll point out that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Christian charities around the world, and many of them have unimpressive, even troubling, track records. Second, making conversion to Christianity a condition of receiving aid is unethical, and using altruism as a vehicle for gaining converts is not altruistic at all; it’s disgusting.
What about you?
I suppose it wouldn’t be very fair if I didn’t tell you how I’ve adopted EA.
I’ve been involved with volunteering and social justice issues since I was about 14. In high school, I was involved with Amnesty International (my mom “joked” I would probably need them one day), walked for the March of Dimes, I volunteered at a hospital and at a Salvation Army shelter for homeless women and children. In college, I was involved with the National Organisation for Women (NOW), wrote a feminist column for the school paper, and I attended a couple of pro-choice marches in Washington D.C. (where I even met Betty Friedan).
I’m still a feminist. I’m also a Pagan. I feel these two identities capture a lot of me: multiculturalist, seeking to establish equal opportunities, spiritual, environmentalist. Over the years, I’ve given to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, charity: water, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Planned Parenthood, Kindred Spirits Sanctuary, some Pagan projects, and some crowdfunding projects.
What’s different today? I work on reducing my meat consumption. I’ve switched my hair products and some cosmetics to cruelty-free options. I’ve pledged to give away 2% of my income. As my debts go down, I expect that percentage to go up. My EA charities are Mercy for Animals and Oxfam. I will continue to financially support some Pagan projects and some other causes as well, but I will be more discerning. I’ll continue to lend my voice to the issues I support, volunteer, sign petitions, demonstrate, and try to stay informed and involved in the political process.
What about you?