“Effective altruism — efforts that actually help people rather than making you feel good or helping you show off — is one of the great new ideas of the 21st century.” — Steven Pinker
I first came across the effective altruism movement during my existential crisis a few years ago. It was an incredible concept back then, and it’s only improved in the last three years.
Despite what you see in the daily news, the world (also known as Spaceship Earth) is getting better in many ways. But, there are still areas where we can all help. What I’ve learned from effective altruism is that all forms of helping and giving are not created equally. This is a critical realization if we want to do the most good to benefit the future evolution of humanity.
Life includes making choices (or, not making choices…which is itself a choice). As the sci-fi series Westworld questioned, “What is a person but a collection of choices?”
Making choices in life is important because we can’t do everything: you’ll never learn everything, read every book, pursue every passion, try every career, experiment with every life hack, or donate your time or money to every good cause. It’s just not possible. But, that’s quite alright. Once you begin living intentionally, you’ll start making the choices you want to make.
Before we get into effective altruism, let’s just start with altruism. I think this TED Talk from Matthieu Ricard, a monk and “world’s happiest person,” gives a nice introduction:
Humanity can still prosper for 150,000 years…but this depends on choosing a voluntary simplicity…growing qualitatively, not quantitatively. — Matthieu Ricard
What is Effective Altruism?
I first came across effective altruism in late 2015 through one of the movement’s co-founders, Will MacAskill. At the time, Will was in his late twenties and believed to be the youngest tenured professor of philosophy in the world (and likely an essentialist). I remember learning that he pledged to give away all of his income above $36,000/year. But, he wasn’t just randomly donating money—he was donating to the places he believed were doing the most good with every dollar.
You can see Will in action in his most recent TED Talk:
Check out this post if you’re interested in how Will and the other co-founders came up with the name “effective altruism.” Their goal was to build a movement around “ethical life-optimization” and effective giving, and they were looking for a name for “someone who pursues a high impact lifestyle.”
Here are some of the best definitions and descriptions I could find of effective altruism:
- “Effective altruism is about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?” — EffectiveAltruism.org
- “Combining Empathy with Evidence” — CentreForEffectiveAltruism.org
- “Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.” — 80000hours.org¹
- “Focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” — Effectivealtruism.org²
- “Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on. But it’s no use answering the question unless you act on it. Effective altruism is about following through. It’s about being generous with your time and your money to do the most good you can.” — EffectiveAltruism.org
Effective altruism’s guiding principles include: Commitment to Others, Scientific Mindset, Openness, Integrity, and Collaborative Spirit.
I particularly like the description of Commitment to Others:
We take the well-being of others very seriously, and are willing to take significant personal action in order to benefit others. What this entails can vary from person to person, and it’s ultimately up to individuals to figure out what significant personal action looks like for them. In each case, however, the most essential commitment of effective altruism is to actively try to make the world a better place. — CentreForEffectiveAltruism.org³
Why does Effective Altruism Matter?
- “Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone actually doing it, is a difficult problem. It would be easy to be disheartened by the challenge.” — Effectivealtruism.org²
- “Many people can also have a tremendous positive impact on the world, if they choose wisely.” — Effectivealtruism.org²
- “Many people are motivated to do good, but already have a cause of choice before beginning research. There are lots of reasons for this, such as personal experience with a problem, or having a friend who’s already raising money for a particular organization. But if we choose a cause that simply happens to be salient to us, we may overlook the most important problems of our time.” — Effectivealtruism.org²
What is the Effective Altruism Community?
- “The effective altruism community is a global community of people who care deeply about the world, make benefiting others a significant part of their lives, and use evidence and reason to figure out how best to do so.” — CentreForEffectiveAltruism.org
Effective Altruism Resources
One thing I think the effective altruism community could work on is streamlining all their affiliate organizations, websites, and resources. I still find it somewhat confusing, but my goal is to list some highlights and brief descriptions below that can point you in the right direction and get you started:
EffectiveAltruism.org & Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA): Springboards for the effective altruism community
- “The Centre for Effective Altruism helps to grow and maintain the effective altruism movement. Our vision is an optimal world. Our mission is to create a global community of people who have made helping others a core part of their lives, and who use evidence and scientific reasoning to figure out how to do so as effectively as possible.”
- “It aims to: promote and strengthen effective altruism as an idea and a community, help figure out how best to advance the wellbeing of all, and inspire people to take action based on that knowledge.”
80000 Hours: Career resources and guides to find a high-impact career
- “You have 80,000 hours in your career. Make the right career choices, and you can help solve the world’s most pressing problems, as well as have a more rewarding, interesting life. We’re here to give you the information you need to find that fulfilling, high-impact career.”
- “80,000 Hours is an organization dedicated to helping people figure out in which careers they can do the most good. They provide a guide to the most important considerations relevant to career choice, and a set of tools to help motivated people make decisions.”
- “Our aim is to help as many people as possible lead high-impact careers. We do this by providing career advice for talented young people who want to have a social impact. Over a third of young graduates want to make a difference with their careers, but they have little idea what to do—many think it’s a choice between working in the social sector or giving up and ‘selling out.’ Existing career advice either doesn’t address the question of how to have a social impact, isn’t based on much research, or doesn’t have much in the way of concrete, comprehensive advice. As a result, each year, much of the potential impact of our most talented young people is wasted, either because they end up in low-impact jobs or because they turn away from the idea of making a difference altogether. Our goal is to help our users get the meaningful careers they want, funneling more talent toward the world’s most pressing social problems.”
How to Donate Effectively to Do the Most Good:
If you’re reading this, you’re in the 50% of the global population who currently has access to the internet. You can have a big impact in the world. Did you know:
- “People earning professional salaries in countries like the US are usually in the top 5% of global earnings and fairly often in the top 1%. This gives them a disproportionate ability to improve the world.”— 80000hours.org4
- “If you earn the typical income in the US, and donate 10% of your earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation, you will probably save dozens of lives over your lifetime.” — Effectivealtruism.org²
While maximizing your money and avoiding lifestyle inflation are important, it’s just as important to optimize how you give your money away.
Here are some of the best ways to donate:
Effective Altruism Funds: Donate more effectively through philanthropic funds managed by experts
- “We designed Effective Altruism Funds to help individuals give in a way that is both effective and convenient. It’s kind of like a mutual fund, but for maximizing the effectiveness of your donations, rather than your investment returns. We’ve set up four funds which cover a set of problems that are important, tractable, and neglected. They are managed by experts in their respective fields, who will pool the community’s donations and research the most impactful ways to donate the money raised.”
Giving What We Can: Part of the Centre for Effective Altruism
- “Giving What We Can is a community of effective givers. We inspire people to donate significantly and as effectively as possible.”
- “Our Vision: A world in which giving 10% of our income to the most effective organisations is the norm.”
- “Our Mission: Inspire donations to the world’s most effective organisations.”
GiveWell: Nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities through in-depth analysis
- “High impact giving opportunities that are supported by in-depth charity research…Thousands of hours of research have gone into finding our top-rated charities. They’re evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded.”
- “GiveWell is a nonprofit dedicated to finding outstanding giving opportunities and publishing the full details of our analysis to help donors decide where to give. Unlike charity evaluators that focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we conduct in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent.”
Want even more Effective Altruism?
World-famous philosopher and author, Peter Singer, is also part of the effective altruism movement. He says it “combines both the heart and the head.”
You can check out his TED Talk below. Peter is affiliated with The Life You Can Save which wants to “change the culture of giving in affluent countries while dramatically raising annual donations to highly impactful nonprofits that reduce suffering and premature death for people living in extreme poverty.”
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