A movement known as effective altruism (E.A.) seeks to make us better do-gooders. Often called “generosity for nerds,” effective altruism uses data science to calculate how people can ensure that each dollar they give has the greatest impact on the lives of those in need. In doing so, effective altruism often directs our good will in counterintuitive ways. For example, someone might donate to the Susan G. Komen Foundation in memory of a relative lost to breast cancer, but E.A. givers reject such personal concerns. Instead, they consult think tanks like GiveWell to find the most efficient ways to reduce suffering — for instance, by combating the spread of parasitic infection in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s about dedicating a significant part of one’s life to improving the world and rigorously asking the question, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?”
William MacAskill says effective altruism starts with a Why and a How. This is how he determines the two:
The Why is to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Rather than merely aiming to make the world better than when we found it — “to make a difference” — we want to make the most difference. So, for example, rather than simply trying to find a development charity that “does good work”, Giving What We Can seeks to find those charities that do the very most to help people in developing countries with every pound or dollar they receive. In general, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.
The How — how to find those activities that do the most good — is by using good evidence and good reasoning. Where a question concerns a matter of fact, we try to find the best empirical evidence that is relevant to that question. (An anecdote is bad, a double-blind randomized controlled trial is better, a well-performed meta-analysis is best.) Where a question concerns values, we use clear arguments, rational reflection, and the latest insights from ethics, economics, and psychology to help us come to the right view. So, for example, rather than going with feel-good slogans like “follow your passion”, or passing on anecdotes about specific people, at 80,000 Hours we’re busy digging into all the available academic research related to doing good through your career, and getting clear, conceptually, on what making a difference involves.
Effective Altruist Values
- Open-mindedness: Consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.
- Critical thinking: Apply evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.
- Global empathy: Value all sentient life, regardless of nationality, creed, ancestry, religion, or species.
What Effective Altruists look for in a cause:
- Scale: Will progress on the cause drastically improve a large number of lives?
- Tractability: Can a dedicated effort in support of the cause create a measurable difference?
- Neglectedness: How much has the cause been overlooked or undervalued?