Scenario: You see a child drowning in a pond and you are the only one around to help. You can save the child by jumping in, but doing so would ruin your clothes. If you decide not to jump in, the child will die.

What do you do?

What if the child was not directly in front of you? What if instead of drowning, the child was in mortal danger due to lack of food, water, or medical treatment? And what if instead of jumping into the water, the only way you can save the child’s life is to donate to charity?


What is Effective Altruism?

Effective altruism is “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world”. It is built upon a simple but profound idea: that living a fully ethical life means using your spare resources for the “most good you can do”.

The argument is that we can do much more to help others (i.e. save many more lives) if we simply take a more objective and rational approach to what we do with our abilities, time, and money. The Centre for Effective Altruism describes effective altruism as the “desire to make the world as good a place as it can be, the use of evidence and reason to find out how to do so, and the audacity to actually try”.

If the aim is to “do the most good” when it comes to our philanthropic endeavours, effective altruism argues that we should be unsentimental and only give to effective charities. Instead of allowing emotion, intuition, or brand loyalty to dictate our giving behaviour, we should think more scientifically about who and what we support.

Make-A-Batkid

In 2013, as the Christmas giving season approached, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco to watch a five-year-old boy dressed as “Batkid” ride around the city in a Batmobile with an actor dressed as Batman by his side. The boy, Miles Scott, had been through three years of chemotherapy for leukemia, and when asked for his greatest wish, he replied, “To be Batkid.” The Make-A-Wish Foundation had made his wish come true.

Make-A-Wish would not say how much it cost to fulfill Scott’s wish, but it did say that the average cost of making a child’s wish come true is $7,500. Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and maybe many more. Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid. If Scott’s parents had been offered that choice—Batkid for a day or a complete cure for their son’s leukemia—they surely would have chosen the cure. When more than one child’s life can be saved, the choice is even clearer. Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish, when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed nets to families in malaria-prone regions?

Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child like Scott from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. They know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs strongest at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have.

Source: https://bostonreview.net/forum/peter-singer-logic-effective-altruism

The arguments in favour of effective altruism:

  • If we decide only give to charities that drastically improve a large number of lives and create a measurable difference, effective altruism will incentivise organisations to be more transparent and demonstrate their effectiveness.
  • Effective altruism inspires critical thinking by applying evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. It requires us to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.
  • Effective altruism can add meaning to our lives and can help us in finding fulfilment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. While effective altruists directly benefit others, they often benefit themselves indirectly as well.
  • Effective altruists are extending our knowledge of the possibilities of living less selfishly, and of allowing reason, rather than emotion, to determine how we live. In doing so, it encourages global empathy by forcing us to look beyond our own interests and value all sentient life, regardless of nationality, creed, ancestry, religion, or species.
  • Effective altruism is an approach that encourages utilising spare time and money (usually of amounts that are virtually negligible to us) in a more effective manner to reduce suffering, extend lives, and improve the quality of living.

The arguments in opposition of effective altruism:

  • Effective altruism asserts that there is a single correct thing to do in any situation. It paints decisions as black and white when the world is messy and complex.
  • Effective altruism isn’t sustainable as it assumes that charity is the solution and that we can ‘give’ our way out of the problems that we have helped to create.
  • Sometimes it is impossible to know in advance how important a donation will turn out to be.
  • Effective altruism does not address broken value systems, debt, imperialism, corruption, and power inequality. At the end of the day, effective altruism doesn’t change the status quo and fails to call for radical change in the world. It simply makes a broken system a little bit better.
  • Since many people are driven by emotion when donating to charity, pushing them to be more judicious might backfire. Overly analytical donors might act with so much self-control that they end up giving less to charity.
  • Effective altruism is akin to charitable imperialism by claiming the moral high ground in giving decisions and weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. As such, it incites a more concentrated form of giving where ‘the experts’ decide where money goes instead of individual donors.

Is effective altruism a new form of philanthropy? Is it the best way to do the most good? Or is there room to donate and give to all of ones interests and concerns? Is effective altruism actually effective?

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Effective Altruism: Arguments For and Against

Jay

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11 comments

  • It’s really helpful to have a short summary of effective altruism like this. I’m not sure all of the criticisms are quite accurate though. The essence of effective altruism is that reason and rationality can help you work out how to do the most good. It doesn’t mean that we know the concrete, black and white answers of what does achieve the most good, it just means you feel that it is important to try and work it out.

  • The world certainly is complex, but somewhere there is a correct answer for whether option A or option B will be better. We might not know it, but we shouldn’t pretend that all answers are equivalent.

    I think most of the concerns can be covered by the notion that Effective Altruists are, in theory, rational and data driven. If those concerns are proven to be truly concerning, they would be acted on. For example, if it were shown that the best way to do good in the long term were to stop donating and spend all of ones time campaigning against some aspect of the system, I have no doubt that Effective Altruists would do that, assuming they could be convinced of that.

    In my opinion the most valid criticism is the last point about experts deciding where donations should go. I guess it depends on how much you trust the experts. On the whole, it’s useful to offload that decision making to specialised organisations, otherwise every donor would spend a lot of time working out where they should donate.

  • Thank you – this is a really clear and concise explanation of what effective altruism is and the arguments for and against it. I’m going to see if I can generate some discussion about these issues with my friends (without losing too many!).

    I’m not sure that I agree that Effective Altruists are, “rational and data driven”. I think I’m driven by a sense of justice and an emotional reaction to injustice. The rational bit of me just decides how to do try to do something about it.

    I was interested that the last section of the article refers to the issue of the “moral high ground”. It’s really hard not to sound too evangelist about effective altruism isn’t it? But it’s likely to be counter-productive. That’s a difficult challenge to overcome.

    • Hey Corinne, thank you for the kind words and discerning comments.

      Regarding “moral high ground”, check out ‘The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism’ in Stanford Social Innovation Review, as well as the healthy and robust comments section that follows.

      “The superficially enticing “logic” of effective altruism ultimately leads to a moralistic, hyper-rationalistic, top-down approach to philanthropy that can kill the very altruistic spirit it claims to foster.”

      http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_elitist_philanthropy_of_so_called_effective_altruism#sthash.WCkUdVQJ.dpuf

  • Good summary! Easy to read and concisely written.

    Effective Altruists do not claim that giving to charity is the *best* thing to do. They do argue that it is a *good* thing to do, and also that if you do it, then you ought to choose the charities more rationally.

    Giving to charities in a more rational way is probably the simplest change that a person can make, which is why that is the most common example you’ll hear about. But it is not the only current recommendation, e.g. 80,000 Hours is an organisation that provides career advice with a focus on maximising how much good one can do. One thing I remember reading is that they recommend going into politics, *if* you have the right skills for it. Another example is that one of the more famous effective altruists recommended participating in demonstrations/petitions when the Syrian refugee crisis was at peak media attention.

    Acting rationally will probably increase your charitable donations, since you will spend their money more efficiently, allowing you to donate more (and also increase your personal savings!). To exemplify this, over 1600 people have made the `Giving What We Can’ pledge to donate 10% of their pre-tax income to effective charities. Together, they have already donated over $3.6 million, so that’s averaging over $2000 donated per person.

  • […] EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM A philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world. It is built upon a simple but profound idea: that living a fully ethical life means using your spare resources for the “most good you can do”. :: Peter Singer, author of The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically […]

  • Stellar work there everoyne. I’ll keep on reading.

  • I think that part of Effective Altruism is seeing the whole value, the impact, in something that a charity does. Pitting charities against each other to see which one is ‘better’ is in some ways in opposition to the spirit of giving in the first place. All the causes listed above are worthy. People will give to a cause they feel a connection to, which is different for everyone. Rationality and measuring the effectiveness come secondary to that. Once you have an emotional connection to a cause you the choose the organisation addressing that that uses it’s resources effectively.

    The mission statement of Make-A Wish is: We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.

    I think that the amazing lengths they go to to make a dying child’s wish come true has a profound affect on everyone who witnesses that. We need these stories, the joy and wonder to uplift us all.You cannot really measure that in a way that you can effectively compare. The human experience cannot be quantified like that.

  • Nice piece, thank you for writing. Full disclaimer. I’m a leader at a local University EA group

    “Since many people are driven by emotion when donating to charity, pushing them to be more judicious might backfire. Overly analytical donors might act with so much self-control that they end up giving less to charity.”

    This isn’t so much an argument against Effective Altruism as it is an argument against being overly analytical. The movement is called Effective Altruism, not Effective Analyticalness. Altruism and its drivers such as empathy and being driven by compassion are absolutely fundamentally important and the EA community actively searches for organizations it can support that can teach people empathy at scale (e.g. CFAR because being rational entails having empathy). In fact, I know many Effective Altruists who Give *even more* precisely because after being driven to be more analytical they conclude its the best thing to do. Fun-fact, I’ve met many people who when first introduced to Effective Altruism think it is too emotional. We just cant make everyone happy can we! Which is to be expected 🙂

    “Effective altruism asserts that there is a single correct thing to do in any situation. It paints decisions as black and white when the world is messy and complex.”

    If anything, I think Effective Alruism asserts the world is even more complex than most believe it to be. A lot of people seem to be content with “do this because it feels good” or “do that because it will cause systemic change” while the reality of the situation once you consider the evidence is far far more complicated than most people appreciate. The actions that the movement recommends are simplified to try and get people to act on them. But we’re not hiding anything, if you do a bit of digging you’ll find uncertainties in even the strongest recommendations made by the EA community. Not only are we not hiding anything, we encourage everyone to read the research papers with the evidence and understand the shortcomings of EA recommendations.

    “Effective altruism isn’t sustainable as it assumes that charity is the solution and that we can ‘give’ our way out of the problems that we have helped to create.”

    It doesn’t assume charity is the solution. Effective Altruism has nothing to do with charity. It is about finding the best possible way to do good in the world. It just happens to be the case that most evidence suggests that in the 21st Century the best thing we can do is support effective charities. If the evidence wasn’t so strong in favour of highly effective charities then Effective Altruism would not talk about charities at all. Analogously, feminism has nothing to do with voting. After voting equality was established feminism stopped making that a core issue they focused on and instead moved into other areas where females do not have equal rights.

    If we’ve helped to create a problem and giving money is the best way to actually solve the problem permanently then many in Effective Altruism would say it is our moral responsibility to help fix the problem we’ve caused in the way that is most effective. Many might feel uncomfortable with “buying” your way out, but that’s not the point. It’s not about you, it’s about the cause and people suffering. If you’re uncomfortable with spending money as a way of doing good this might be because you have a moral bias against using money for good? A concern here might be moral licencing – i.e. people will give to effective charities and then feel justified in not doing good in other areas and Effective Altruism therefore leads to moral licencing – but just because you give money to effective charities doesn’t mean you will be more immoral in other ways. In fact, if you assume Effective Altruists do act more immoral in other ways because they donate to effective charities you would be discriminating without evidence.

    “Sometimes it is impossible to know in advance how important a donation will turn out to be.
    Effective altruism does not address broken value systems, debt, imperialism, corruption, and power inequality. At the end of the day, effective altruism doesn’t change the status quo and fails to call for radical change in the world. It simply makes a broken system a little bit better.”

    This is simply false and a persistent myth with no solid justification. Firstly, the EA community is weary of becoming a “White in Shining Armour” so it generally does not recommend charities in third world countries that work on economic growth, education, gender equity etc. precisely because those are the types of things that people actually living in third-world countries are for more suited to drive themselves. These issues are complex and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing we understand them better than the people living in them. This is why the EA community recommends we instead focus on what we, the first world, are provably good at providing, such as vaccinations or micronutrients. These are so clearly good that it’s very unlikely the recipients wouldn’t value them. Better health can empower people to improve aspects of their own circumstances (equality and freedom) in ways we as outsiders cannot.

    This point is expanded on in GiveWell’s article here: http://blog.givewell.org/2012/04/12/how-not-to-be-a-white-in-shining-armor/

    Also, it is blatantly obvious that the Effective Altruism community cares about fixing broken value systems. One of the primary recommendations made by the Effective Altruism community is veganism and ending factory farming which includes large scale social change through advocacy. This is systemic change the movement is pushing for since the meat industry is a broken value system and requires changes be made to virtually all levels of our legal structure and moral upbringing. i.e. a radical change of the status quo is needed and EA advocates for such a change.

    But EA also works in areas of policy (e.g. https://eapolicy.wordpress.com/). Policy abroad is generally out of the question due to the White Saviour problem, but problems at home Effective Altruists care about and work on, *despite the uncertainties inherent in how donations to policy interventions will affect outcomes.*

    Namely, the Open Philanthropy project (an EA organization – http://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus) offers grants and gives recommendations in a variety of cause areas, including US criminal justice reform, immigration policy, macroeconomic stabilization policy, land use reform and global catastrophic risk reduction. Since 2012 over $87 million dollars have been moved by EA to interventions and movements in these areas that the Open Philanthropy Project’s research has found high evidence to suspect they are highly cost-effective.

    These are issues that are massive in scale and require massive reform so clearly the EA community is fundamentally concerned with issues such broken value systems, debt, imperialism, corruption, and power inequality – but only where solutions to solving such issues is evidence-driven rather than ideologically driven, which sadly, is why I think many still say the EA community doesn’t care about these things.

    Some people think effective altruism is too concerned with ‘band-aid’ solutions like direct health interventions without seriously challenging the broader systemic causes of important global issues. Many people believe unfettered capitalism, wealth inequality, consumer culture, or overpopulation contribute significantly to the amount of suffering in the world, and that attempts to make the world better that don’t address these root causes are meaningless or misguided.

    It’s certainly true that effective altruism started with a focus on approaches that are ‘proven’ to work, such as scaling up rigorously tested health treatments. These provide a good baseline against which we can assess other, more speculative, approaches. However, as we get more skilled in evaluating what works and what doesn’t, many in the community are shifting into approaches that involve systemic change.

    It’s important to remember that opinion is heavily divided on whether systems like trade globalization or market economies are net negative or net positive. It’s also not clear whether we can substantially change these systems in ways that won’t have very bad unintended consequences.

    This difference of opinion is reflected within the community itself. Effective altruism is about being open-minded — we should try to avoid being dogmatic or too wedded to a particular ideology. We should evaluate all claims about how to make a difference based on the available evidence. If there’s something we can do that seems likely to make a big net positive difference, then we should pursue it.

    “Effective altruism is akin to charitable imperialism by claiming the moral high ground in giving decisions and weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another. As such, it incites a more concentrated form of giving where ‘the experts’ decide where money goes instead of individual donors.”

    I’ve already covered this with the “How not to be a White Saviour” point or via this link: http://blog.givewell.org/2012/04/12/how-not-to-be-a-white-in-shining-armor/

    But I’ll expand further:
    The possibility that we don’t actually understand and address the needs of the people we are trying to help is real, and a risk we have to remain constantly vigilant about. If we don’t listen to or understand recipients we will be less effective, which is the opposite of our goal.

    Some people support the charity GiveDirectly because it gives cash to people in poverty, leaving it entirely up to them how they spend the money. This might empower people in poverty to a greater extent than choosing services that may ultimately not be desired by the local community.

    Other charities we support provide basic health services, such as vaccinations or micronutrients. These are so clearly good that it’s very unlikely the recipients wouldn’t value them. Better health can empower people to improve aspects of their own circumstances in ways we as outsiders cannot.

    In cases where the above don’t apply, we can conduct detailed impact evaluations to see how the recipients actually feel about the service that purports to help them. Of course, such surveys won’t always be reliable but they’re often the best we can do.

    In other cases, such as when we’re trying to help non-human animals or future generations, these issues can be even more difficult, and people do their best to predict what they would want if they could speak to us. Obvious cases would include pigs not wanting to be permanently confined to ‘gestation crates’ in which they cannot turn around, or future generations not wanting to inherit a planet on which humans cannot easily live.

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