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Effective altruism

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Effective altruism

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement[1] which applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact.[2][3] It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. Effective altruism sometimes involves taking actions that are less intuitive or emotionally salient. The philosopher Peter Singer is a notable supporter of effective altruism.[1]



Applied to charitable interventions, cost-effectiveness refers to the amount of good achieved per dollar spent. For example, the cost-effectiveness of health interventions can be measured in quality-adjusted life years. Effective giving is an important component of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others.[4] Some charities simply fail to achieve their goals.[5] Of those that do succeed, some achieve far greater results with less money.[6][7] Researchers at GiveWell have calculated that some charities are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than others.[6]

Though cost-effectiveness is a newer concept in charity, it is commonly used by economists. Many effective altruists have backgrounds in philosophy, economics, or mathematics, fields that involve rational and quantitative thinking.[6]

Effective altruists have also rallied behind the idea of room for more funding: the idea that selecting a cause to donate to should be based on the marginal value that future donations to that would accomplish at the margin, rather than based on what has already been accomplished.

Cause prioritization

Many effective altruists place a high degree of importance on working out what the most important cause to support is.[8] This is one way that effective altruism is distinguishable from other traditional altruism or charity.

For example, although there is a growing emphasis on effectiveness and evidence among nonprofits, this is usually done with a single cause in mind, such as education or climate change. It is uncommon for the cause itself to be critically analyzed.[9]

Effective altruists attempt to choose the most effective causes based on broad values such as preventing suffering. They will then put their time and money into actions and organizations that pursue these goals efficiently. Several organizations are doing research on cause selection.[10][11] Most effective altruists think that the most important causes to focus on are currently poverty in the developing world, the suffering of animals on factory farms, and humanity's long term future.[8]


Effective altruists reject the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. For example, they believe that a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one's own community. As Peter Singer notes:

It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour'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.[12]

In addition, many effective altruists think that future generations have equal moral value to currently existing people, so they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans and work to prevent the suffering of animals, such as those raised in factory farms.[13]

Thomas Pogge argues against this view, saying, "What matters morally is not merely how we affect people, but how we treat them through the rules we impose."[14] Thomas Nagel makes a similar point, referring to Derek Parfit's terminology of "agent-neutral" and "agent-relative" reasons.[15]

Counterfactual reasoning

Effective altruists argue 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.[16][17] Since charities and social-service providers usually can find people willing to work for them, effective altruists 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 choosing a conventional altruistic career may be smaller than it appears.[18]

The earning to give strategy 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. Some effective altruists have argued that the marginal impact of one's potentially unethical actions in such a lucrative career would be small, since someone else would have done them regardless, while the impact of donations would be large.[19][20]

Some, however, dispute this principle. For example, Bernard Williams uses a similar example about a job at a chemical weapons factory to argue against utilitarianism.[21] According to Williams, act utilitarianism unreasonably requires that people act in ways that violate their own integrity.[22]

Views on supererogatory acts

Several influential philosophers in effective altruism, including Peter Singer and Peter Unger, reject the common belief that donating to charity is supererogatory. A supererogatory act is one that is good but not morally required. These philosophers argue that donating to effective charities that help the poorest people in the world is morally required. In other words, they hold it is morally wrong not to do so. Effective altruists do not necessarily reject the existence of supererogatory goods but are more likely to deny that a particular action is supererogatory. Singer and Unger both use various thought experiments to illustrate this point. The basic structure of the thought experiment is that one encounters a person in fatal danger and one could help at little cost to oneself. If one does not help, the person would die. Most people say it would be morally wrong not to help. Singer and Unger conclude that it is therefore morally wrong to fail to donate to charities that can save lives at little cost. This argument assumes that physical distance does not affect the morality of an action, a key principle in effective altruism. Several individual effective altruists donate large proportions of their income each year to causes such as global poverty and animal welfare.[23]

Notable proponents

Peter Singer

The philosopher Peter Singer has written several works on effective altruism, including The Life You Can Save, in which he argues that people should use charity evaluators to determine how to make their donations most effective,[24] and the paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality", in which he argues that people have an obligation to help those in need:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.[25]

He founded a nonprofit, also called The Life You Can Save, which promotes giving to effective charities. He is a member of Giving What We Can, a board member of Animal Charity Evaluators, and gives at least 25% of his income to charity.[26][27][28]

Toby Ord

Toby Ord is an ethicist at Oxford University. He promotes consequentialist ethics and is concerned with global poverty and catastrophic risks.[29] He founded the organization Giving What We Can, which encourages people to pledge ten percent of their income to charity. He lives on £18,000 ($27,000) per year and donates the remainder of his income to charity.[30]

Thomas Pogge

A student of John Rawls, Pogge approaches effective altruism from a less consequentialist viewpoint. Pogge is a member of Giving What We Can, as well as the Health Impact Fund, which seeks to make advanced medicines available at low cost to those living in poverty,[3][31] and Academics Stand Against Poverty, an organization that helps academics have a greater positive impact on world poverty.

Pogge's book World Poverty and Human Rights argues that people in wealthy democracies are actively hurting those in the developing world: "Most of us do not merely let people starve, but also participate in starving them."[32] Therefore, unlike Singer and Unger who argue that we should help those in need because of positive obligations, Pogge believes that the responsibility to help the world's poor comes from the fact that people in the first world, by lending money to corrupt governments, are actively harming people.[33]

Peter Unger

In his book Living High and Letting Die, Unger presents several arguments that people in the developed world have a strong moral obligation to others.[34] An example thought experiment is "The Vintage Sedan":

Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.

Unger points out that most people have the response that this behavior is morally reprehensible, and you should be willing to accept the steep monetary cost of re-upholstering your car if it will save the man's life. He contrasts this with our responses to "The Envelope":

In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.

Unger argues that to react to this thought experiment differently is to be morally inconsistent, and hence our obligation to donate to UNICEF is as strong as our obligation to the hypothetical trespasser in "The Vintage Sedan." Unger says that a relatively affluent person, "like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups, like Oxfam and Unicef, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future."[34][35]

Shelly Kagan

Shelly Kagan argues in The Limits of Morality that people do not have moral options to act in a way that will produce a suboptimal outcome. He opens the book with the claim that "Morality requires that you perform—of those acts not otherwise forbidden—that act which can reasonably be expected to lead the best consequences overall."[36] He attempts to defend this claim with a detailed analysis of different possible views about moral options and moral constraints, and how these might be defended. He observes that there is a connection between a belief in the existence of moral options and a belief in the existence of moral constraints; a person who believes that there are options to act suboptimally will almost certainly also endorse some constraints on how we may behave.


The principles of effective altruism can imply significant lifestyle changes.[34] Many effective altruists attempt to live frugally by the standards of wealthy countries so that they can donate more. An effective altruist couple profiled by the Washington Post lived on $10,000 in 2012. In an average month, they spent less than $200 on groceries and about $300 on non-essential purchases.[37] Some effective altruists also pursue high-earning careers in order to have more money to donate.[5] Another effective altruist profiled by the Washington Post works as a quantitative analyst for a financial firm and donates half his salary.[37]

Other effective altruists place less emphasis on being frugal, believing that it is more important to maintain a lifestyle that will make effective altruism look appealing to others, keep it practical to continue donating for the rest of their lives, or facilitate them doing good directly through their work.


A number of organizations consider themselves to be part of the effective altruist movement. These organizations are:

  • Animal Charity Evaluators, a nonprofit dedicated to finding and advocating highly effective opportunities for improving the lives of animals.[38]
  • Giving What We Can, an international society for the promotion of the most cost-effective poverty relief charities. It researches the most cost effective charities, encourages intelligent giving and is building up a community of people who give a significant proportion of their income to the most cost-effective causes.[40]
  • The High Impact Network, an organization that spreads effective altruist ideas by starting local meetup groups.[41]
  • Instituto Ética, Racionalidade e Futuro da Humanidade, a Brazilian organization that encourages effective giving and investigates how technology can help future generations.[42]
  • The Life You Can Save, a movement which advocates fighting extreme poverty by donating to highly effective charities. It was started by the philosopher Peter Singer following the publication of his book The Life You Can Save.[43]
  • 80,000 Hours, an ethical careers advice service for people who want to use their careers to have a positive impact in the world.[44]

Peter Singer considers the following to be effective charitable organizations:[45]


Much of the controversy about effective altruism is due to the idea that it can be ethical to take a high-earning career in a potentially unethical industry if this allows one to donate more money. David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, criticized effective altruists who adopt the earning to give strategy, i.e., they take high-earning careers in order to have more money to donate. He believes 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.[4] Some effective altruists also mention this possibility, and aim to reduce this risk through online communities, public pledges, and donations through donor-advised funds.[46] He also questions whether children in distant countries should be treated as having equal moral value to nearby children. He claims that morality should be "internally ennobling", a position similar to virtue ethics.[4]

In a response to criticism of this aspect of effective altruism, the National Review questioned whether industries commonly believed to be unethical, such as finance, are actually unethical. The writer claimed that often these industries produce more benefits than harm.[47] The business magazine Euromoney has praised effective altruism for its emphasis on individual charitable action.[48]

Paul Brest of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (one of GiveWell's funders) wrote an article for Stanford Social Innovation Review and concluded by writing: "All things considered, my unsolicited advice to proponents of effective altruism is to stay the course."[49] In contrast, Ken Berger and Robert Penna of Charity Navigator wrote a lengthy critique of the philosophy of effective altruism in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Their critique, published on the website in November 2013, alleges that effective altruists moralistically select a few causes as worthy and deem all others "a waste of precious resources."[50] The critique provoked strong responses from effective altruists, both in the comments on SSIR's website and elsewhere, including a response piece (also published in SSIR) in which William MacAskill defended the utilitarian logic the movement uses to evaluate the effectiveness of different charities.[51][52][53][54]

Some people sympathetic to effective altruism have also written critiques of it, partly to voice criticisms they believe in and partly as an ideological Turing Test.[55][56]

See also

External links

  • TED talk on effective altruism by Peter Singer
  • Introduction to Effective Altruism on the EA Forum


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  19. ^ Todd, Benjamin. Which ethical careers make a difference? (Master's thesis). 
  20. ^ William MacAskill (2013). "Replaceability, Career Choice, and Making a Difference". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 
  21. ^ Williams, Bernard (1973). "A critique of utilitarianism". Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. pp. 97–99. 
  22. ^ Cox, Damian; La Caze, Marguerite; Levine, Michael (2013). "Integrity". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2013-03-07. 
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  55. ^ Kuhn, Ben (December 1, 2013). "A critique of effective altruism". Retrieved March 25, 2014. 
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