Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that advocates using evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.:2:4–7 Altruism refers to improving the lives of others—as opposed to egoism, which emphasizes only self-interest.:4–5:12 Effectiveness refers to doing the most good with whatever resources are available—as opposed to only doing some amount of good—as well as determining what is the most good by using evidence and reasoning—as opposed to only doing what feels good or appears intuitively appealing.:6–7:12
People who embrace effective altruism are often called effective altruists. While many effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies more broadly to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save lives, help people, or otherwise have the biggest benefit.:179–195
Philosophers played an important role in creating effective altruism (see § History of the social movement below), and much of the published literature about effective altruism poses philosophical questions about why and how to use evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others, and then tries to figure out the most plausible answers to those questions, so that people can take action on the basis of those answers. Such philosophical questions shift the starting point of reasoning from "what to do" to why and how to do it.
The "guiding question":14 of effective altruism is: How can we, individually and collectively, do the most good?:5 Other questions that quickly follow include:
There is reasonable disagreement, among philosophers and other people, about the answers to such questions. But the minimal philosophical core of effective altruism involves at least having some reason to benefit all others, that is, reason to promote their well-being, "and more reason to benefit them more, and most reason to benefit them as much as possible, at least defeasibly and all other things being equal". This minimal philosophical core of effective altruism is likely to be supported by a wide variety of views about morality and meta-ethics. For example, the moral theory of consequentialism, including utilitarianism, supports the aim of using resources to benefit others as much as possible, but effective altruism is not necessarily, as has sometimes been said, the same as consequentialism.
There are different views about whether effective altruism entails normative ethical claims such as "we should do the most good we can".:12–15 One view says that effective altruism is not a set of normative claims (telling what people "should do") but instead is a project, intellectual and practical, of "trying to figure out how to use resources in whatever way will do the most good with a given unit of resources" and of putting what has been learned into practice.:15 According to this view, the normative ethical theories of consequentialism, egalitarianism, prioritarianism, contractualism, deontological ethics, virtue ethics, as well as many traditional religious teachings on altruism, can all be compatible with the project of effective altruism. Effective altruism is not a complete philosophy of how to live morally, but effective altruism may be relevant for any view that assumes some reason to promote the good and that assumes that the well-being of others is part of the good.:19
Some people have reported that the questions and answers posed by the philosophy of effective altruism have helped them learn more about complex problems and gain a deeper sense of meaning as well as a feeling of satisfaction about helping others more effectively.
The following subsections describe important ideas that are discussed in the published literature about effective altruism.
Altruism, or benefitting others, can be driven by various kinds of motivation and justification, including impartial or impersonal reasoning and sentiments such as sympathy and compassion. Much of the published literature on effective altruism emphasizes impartial or impersonal reasoning and concludes that, all other things being equal, everyone's well-being (and suffering) counts equally, without regard to the individual identities of others.:85–95:17–19
Impartiality about benefitting others combined with seeking to do the most good is compatible with prioritizing benefits to those who are in a worse state, because anyone who happens to be worse off will benefit more from an improvement in their state, all other things being equal (see § Global poverty alleviation below).
Impartiality is also the basis of what is called the cause neutrality of effective altruism (see § Cause prioritization below): choosing among possible altruistic activities or causes (problems) based on whether they will do the most good with limited resources—as opposed to choosing among them based on other factors such as personal connections.
Some effective altruists have argued that there will be many more members of future generations than there are members of current populations, so the way to do the most good is to focus on promoting long-term well-being by, for example, reducing existential risks to humanity (see § Long-term future and global catastrophic risks below).:165–178
Some effective altruists think that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded equal moral weight as similar interests of humans, so they work to prevent the suffering of animals (see § Animal welfare below), especially animals raised in factory farms.
There are many kinds of motivation and justification for impartiality, as for altruism. An argument for impartiality that has been influential among effective altruists was expressed by philosopher Peter Singer in his 1972 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", in which he wrote::231–232, 237
It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. ... The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, ... this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.
This argument for impartiality was later repeated in other books by Singer and expanded in the 1996 book Living High and Letting Die by philosopher Peter Unger.
Singer speculated in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" that whether people actually reason and act impartially is likely to be affected by social influence: "What it is possible for a man to do and what he is likely to do are both, I think, very greatly influenced by what people around him are doing and expecting him to do.":237 In his 2015 book The Most Good You Can Do, Singer admitted that even though he had argued in 1972 that "we ought to give large proportions of our income to disaster relief funds", nevertheless "even though I argued that this is what we ought to do, I did not do it myself".:13 He noted the role of social influence and psychological inertia as obstacles to acting altruistically.:13–14 Sociological research has shown that social influence can undermine altruistic activity. To support people's ability to act altruistically on the basis of impartial reasoning, the effective altruism movement promotes additional values and actions that are not part of the minimal philosophical core of effective altruism, such as a collaborative spirit, honesty and transparency, and publicly pledging to donate a certain percentage of income or other resources.:2
Many nonprofits emphasize effectiveness and evidence, but this is usually done with a single cause (problem) in mind, such as education or climate change. Effective altruists, however, seek to compare the relative importance of different causes and allocate resources among them objectively, a concept that is usually referred to as cause neutrality. One approach to cause neutrality, for example, is to choose the highest priority causes based on whether activities in each cause area could efficiently advance broad goals, such as increasing human or animal welfare, and then focus attention on interventions in those cause areas.
The information required for cause prioritization can be difficult to produce; it may involve collecting and processing complex data sets, comparing possible outcomes with what would have happened under other conditions (see § Counterfactual reasoning below), and identifying various kinds of uncertainty. These challenges have led to the creation of organizations that specialize in researching the relative prioritization of causes. Some common priorities among effective altruists have included poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals in factory farms, and risks to civilization, humans and planet Earth (see § Cause priorities below).
Effective altruist organizations have argued that some charities are far more effective than others, either because some do not achieve their goals or because of variability in the cost of achieving those goals. When possible, they seek to identify charities that are highly cost-effective, meaning that they achieve a large benefit for a given amount of money. For example, they select health interventions on the basis of their impact as measured by lives saved per dollar, quality-adjusted life years (QALY) saved per dollar, or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) averted per dollar. This measure of disease burden is expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.
Some effective altruism organizations use randomized controlled trials as a primary form of evidence, as they are often considered to be at the highest level of strong evidence in healthcare research. Others have argued that requiring this stringent level of evidence unnecessarily narrows the focus to only those issues on which this kind of evidence is possible, and that the history of philanthropy suggests that the most effective interventions have often proceeded without this level of evidence.
Effective altruist organizations make philanthropic recommendations for charities on the basis of the impact from marginal funding rather than merely evaluating the average value of all donations to the charity. Effective altruists would avoid donating to organizations that have no "room for more funding" – those that face bottlenecks other than money which prevent them from spending the funds they have already accumulated or are expected to receive. For example, a medical charity might not be able to hire enough doctors or nurses to distribute the medical supplies it is capable of purchasing, or it might already be serving all of the potential patients in its market. There are many other organizations which do have room for more funding, so giving to one of those instead would produce real-world improvements.
Effective altruists have argued that counterfactual reasoning is important to determine which course of action maximizes positive impact. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or providing social services, but since charities and social-service providers usually can find people willing to work for them, effective altruists would compare the amount of good somebody does in a conventional altruistic career to how much good would have been done had the next-best candidate been hired for the position. According to this reasoning, the impact of a career may be smaller than it appears.
The philosophical or intellectual part of effective altruism, described above, is about learning how to do the most good through the use of evidence and reasoning. The behavioral or practical part is about using what has been learned to try to do the most good through altruistic activities.:14
Effective altruism encourages significant charitable donation. Some believe it is a moral duty to alleviate suffering through donations if the purchases that one forgoes to donate do not cause comparable suffering to oneself, leading some of them to lead a frugal lifestyle in order to give substantially more than is typical in their society.
Giving What We Can (GWWC) is an organization whose members have pledged to donate at least 10% of their income for the remainder of their working lives to the causes that they believe are the most effective. GWWC was founded in 2009 by Toby Ord, a moral philosopher, who lives on £18,000 ($27,000) per year and donates the remainder of his income to charity.
The Founders Pledge is a similar initiative run by the nonprofit Founders Forum for Good where startup founders make a legally binding commitment to donate at least 2% of their personal proceeds to charity in the event that they sell their business. By January 2019, three years after launch, more than 1400 entrepreneurs have pledged an estimated total value of $700 million based on the founders' equity and the companies' valuation and at least $91 million were raised.
Effective altruists have argued that selection of one's career is an important determinant of the amount of good one does, both directly (through the services one provides to the world) and indirectly (through the ways one directs the money earned based on the career).
80,000 Hours is an organisation in the effective altruism community that conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact and provides career advice based on that research. It considers indirect methods of altruistic employment, such as earning a high salary in a conventional career and donating a portion of it, as well as direct practices, such as scientific research. It was co-founded by William MacAskill and Benjamin Todd.
Earning to give has been proposed as a possible strategy for effective altruists. This strategy involves choosing to work in high-paying careers with the explicit goal of donating large sums of money to charity. MacAskill argues that it might even be worth earning to give in morally controversial careers, since the marginal impact of taking an unethical job is small if someone else would have taken it regardless, while the counterfactual impact of the donations would be large. However, 80,000 Hours have more recently argued that it is better to avoid careers that do significant direct harm, even if it seems like the negative consequences would be outweighed by donations. This is because there are often hidden harms in following unethical careers, and because they think it is important to take moral uncertainty into account.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized earning to give. He wrote that most people who work in finance and other high-paying industries value money for selfish reasons and that being surrounded by these people will cause effective altruists to become less altruistic. Peter Singer responded to these criticisms in his book The Most Good You Can Do by giving examples of people who have been earning to give for years without losing their altruistic motivation. In The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued that the practice was "unsettling".
Since effective altruism aims for cause neutrality (see § Cause prioritization above), it is in principle open to helping in whichever causes (problems) allow people to do the most good, impartially considered. Such causes may include, for example, providing food for the hungry, protecting endangered species, mitigating climate change, reforming immigration policy, researching cures for illnesses, preventing sexual violence, alleviating poverty, eliminating factory farming, or averting nuclear warfare. Many people in the effective altruist movement have prioritized global poverty, animal welfare, and risks to the survival and flourishing of humanity and its descendants over the long-term future.
Global poverty alleviation has been a focus of some of the earliest and most prominent organizations associated with effective altruism.
Charity evaluator GiveWell was founded by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld in 2007 to address poverty and is part of the effective altruism community. GiveWell has argued that the value of donations is greatest for international poverty alleviation and developing world health issues, and its leading recommendations have been in these domains (including malaria prevention charities Against Malaria Foundation and Malaria Consortium, deworming charities Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World Initiative, and GiveDirectly for direct unconditional cash transfers).
The effective altruism organization The Life You Can Save, which originated from Singer's book by the same name, also works to alleviate global poverty by promoting evidence-backed charities, conducting philanthropy education, and changing the culture of giving in affluent countries.
While much of the initial focus of effective altruism was on direct strategies such as health interventions and cash transfers, there has also been interest in more systematic social, economic, and political reform that would facilitate larger long-term poverty reduction. In 2011, GiveWell announced GiveWell Labs, which was later renamed as the Open Philanthropy Project, for research and philanthropic funding of more speculative and diverse causes such as policy reform, global catastrophic risk reduction and scientific research. It is a collaboration between GiveWell and Good Ventures, a philanthropic foundation founded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna.
Many effective altruists believe that reducing animal suffering should be a major priority and that, at the current margin, there are cost-effective ways of accomplishing this. Singer quotes estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the British organization Fishcount according to which 60 billion land animals are slaughtered and between 1 and 2.7 trillion individual fish are killed each year for human consumption. He argues that effective animal welfare altruists should prioritize factory farming over more overfunded popular causes such as pet welfare. Singer also argues that, if farm animals such as chickens are assigned even a modicum of consciousness, efforts to reduce factory farming (for example, by reducing global meat consumption) could be an even more underfunded and cost-effective way of reducing current global suffering than human poverty reduction.:138, 146–147 Philosophically, wild animal suffering may be an additional moral concern for effective altruists. In 2018, the book The End of Animal Farming by Jacy Reese Anthis discussed animal welfare issues from an effective altruism perspective, with a specific focus on the potential for cultured meat to address farm animal suffering and the importance of expanding the moral circle to help people care more about future beings, wild animals, invertebrates, and artificial sentience.
Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) is an effective altruism organization that evaluates and compares various animal charities based on their cost-effectiveness and transparency, particularly those that are tackling factory farming.:139 Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) is an organization loosely affiliated with the effective altruism community that conducts independent research on important animal welfare topics, provides resources for advocates and donors, and works with animal protection organizations to evaluate their work. The Sentience Institute is a new effective altruism think tank founded in 2017 to address the expansion of the moral circle.
Focusing on the long-term future, some effective altruists believe that the total value of any meaningful metric (wealth, potential for suffering, potential for happiness, etc.) summed up over future generations, far exceeds the value for people living today. Some researchers have found it psychologically difficult to contemplate the trade-off; Toby Ord has stated that "Since there is so much work to be done to fix the needless suffering in our present, I was slow to turn to the future.":8 Reasons Ord gave for working on long-term issues include a belief that preventing long-term suffering is "even more neglected" than causes related to current suffering, and that the residents of the future are even more powerless to affect risks caused by current events than are current dispossessed populations.:8
Philosophically, attempts to reduce the suffering of future populations (given they exist) depend on attitudes toward pure time discounting, and initiatives focused on preventing human extinction (as opposed to preventing other dystopian futures) additionally depend on attitudes toward population ethics in order to compare with scenarios where future populations do not exist. Peter Singer has argued that existential risk should not be "the dominant public face of the effective altruism movement" as doing so would drastically limit the movement's reach.
In particular, the importance of addressing existential risks such as dangers associated with biotechnology and advanced artificial intelligence is often highlighted and the subject of active research. Because it is often infeasible to use empirical science (such as randomized control trials) to measure the probability of an existential risk, researchers such as Nick Bostrom have used other methods such as expert opinion elicitation to estimate their importance. Ord develops probability estimates for a number of existential risks in his 2020 book The Precipice.
Some organizations that work actively on research and advocacy for improving the long term future, and have connections with the effective altruism community, are the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, and the Future of Life Institute. In addition, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute is focused on the more narrow mission of aligning advanced artificial intelligence.
Key figures in the effective altruism movement have included:
In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator condemned effective altruism's practice of "weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another", calling this "moralistic, in the worst sense of the word".
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry warns about the "measurement problem", stating that some areas, such as medical research, or helping to reform third-world governance "one grinding step at a time", are hard to measure with controlled cost-effectiveness experiments and therefore risk being undervalued by the effective altruism movement. Jennifer Rubenstein also hypothesizes that effective altruism can be biased against causes that are not straightforward to measure.
In Jacobin magazine, Mathew Snow argued that effective altruism "implores individuals to use their money to procure necessities for those who desperately need them, but says nothing about the system that determines how those necessities are produced and distributed in the first place". Various critics have similarly objected to effective altruism on the basis of the fact that its proponents tend not to support political causes such as anti-capitalism that change "the existing global institutional order". Joshua Kissel has replied that anti-capitalism is compatible with effective altruism in theory, while adding that effective altruists and anti-capitalists have reason to be more sympathetic to each other. Brian Berkey has also argued that support for institutional change does not contradict the principles of effective altruism, because effective altruism is open to any action that will have the greatest positive impact on the world, including the possibility of changing the existing global institutional order. Elizabeth Ashford argues that we are separately obligated to donate to effective aid charities and to reform the structures that are responsible for poverty.
Since the future is big, there could be far more people in the future than in the present generation. This means that if you want to help people in general, your key concern shouldn't be to help the present generation, but to ensure that the future goes well in the long-term. Previously, we called this the 'long-term value thesis', though it is now most commonly called 'longtermism'. This thesis is often confused with the claim that we shouldn't do anything to help people in the present generation. But the long-term value thesis is about what most matters—what we should do about it is a further question. It might turn out that the best way to help those in the future is to improve the lives of people in the present, such as through providing health and education.
Strategic philanthropists like Paul Brest seek only to apply metrics to the selection of groups once a cause has been selected. But, altruist critics note, this foolishly leaves the choice of the cause itself willy-nilly to the all-too-often idiosyncratic, short-sighted, selfish impulses of the donor.