Effective altruism

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Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions and to act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based upon their values. It is the broad, evidence-based and cause-neutral approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. Effective altruism is part of the larger movement towards evidence-based practices.

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  • The Roman historian Sallust said of Cato "He preferred to be good, rather than to seem so". The lawyer who quits a high-powered law firm to work at a nonprofit organization certainly seems like a good person. But if we define "good" as helping people, then the lawyer who stays at his law firm but donates the profit to charity is taking Cato's path of maximizing how much good he does, rather than how good he looks.
  • One of the founding beliefs of effective altruism is that when math tells you something weird, you at least consider trusting the math. If you’re allowed to just add on as many zeroes as it takes to justify your original intuition, you miss out on the entire movement.
  • I'm not much of an effective altruist – at least, I've managed to evade the 80,000 Hours coaches long enough to stay in medicine. But every so often, I can see the world as they have to. Where the very existence of suffering, any suffering at all, is an immense cosmic wrongness, an intolerable gash in the world, distressing and enraging. Where a single human lifetime seems frighteningly inadequate compared to the magnitude of the problem. Where all the normal interpersonal squabbles look trivial in the face of a colossal war against suffering itself, one that requires a soldier's discipline and a general's eye for strategy.
    All of these Effecting Effective Effectiveness people don't obsess over efficiency out of bloodlessness; they obsess because the struggle is so desperate, and the resources so few. Their efficiency is military efficiency. Their cooperation is military discipline. Their unity is the unity of people facing a common enemy. And they are winning. Very slowly, WWI trench-warfare-style. But they really are.
  • [Effective altruism is] the application of cost-effectiveness to charity and other altruistic pursuits. Just as some engineering approaches can be thousands of times more effective at solving problems than others, some charities are thousands of time more effective than others, and some altruistic career paths are thousands of times more effective than others. And increased efficiency translates into many more lives saved, many more people given better outcomes and opportunities throughout the world. It is argued that when charity can be made more effective in this way, it is a moral duty to do so: inefficiency is akin to letting people die.




  • Effective altruism is a growing social movement founded on 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.
    • Centre for Effective Altruism
  • For most people, the goal of any altruistic act is simply to do something helpful. Very few of us choose where to donate, where to volunteer, and how to live our lives based on the answer to the question, “How can I do the most possible good in the world?” And yet it is that calculating attitude that is crucial to helping as many animals (or people) as possible.
    • Nick Cooney, Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom (2014)


  • Humanity faces some big challenges in the 21st century, and I'm glad the effective altruism movement exists to tackle them.


  • The implication is that goodness can only come from selfless feelings, that goodness itself is nothing more than externalized character traits. Many, many people hold this view. I grew up getting this message indirectly in church and school. It's a common objection to effective altruism: we're "cold and calculating," we aren't "giving from the heart." And it makes me crazy, because I think viewing good acts merely as evidence of character is unbelievably narcissistic. This is what makes giving about the giver and not the receiver.
  • I know how it feels to think that pure motives and actions must somehow translate into good for the world. It's a natural way for humans to think, and the pathology of it only really becomes clear when someone takes moral behavior very seriously, which is tragic because caring about morality is a good thing.
    It's a hard thing to learn, but we have to learn to see moral actions mechanistically the way we see less charged issues. We have to demand to know *how* an action will affect the good outcome we want, and we have to be open-minded about weighing the various harms and goods that the various available options entail. We have to see moral problems as *problems to be solved* instead of just evils to oppose. This is why the Effective Altruism movement is so important to me.


  • There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. Unfortunately, our resources are limited. Time and money spent on one project is time and money that is missing elsewhere. If all lives count for the same, then it follows directly that numbers and cost-effectiveness matter. It pays to invest time and money into figuring out where resources can do the most.


  • At once pious and rational, comforting and selfless, effective altruism promises a life free from all the hokeyness involved in the business of finding ourselves and our deepest impulses. It promises to shield our do-gooding from the temptations of faddish causes and poignant advertising. It promises an unsoppy, no-bullshit morality. The fact that it seems to require an astonishing degree of self-abnegation, foresight and mathematical ability does not faze the effective altruist any more than it did the Victorian utilitarian. On the contrary, it poses just the sort of technical challenge likely to galvanize a movement spearheaded by graduates in philosophy, math and computer science, who are already disposed to want to do only what they ought, rationally, to do.


  • Effective altruism drives a stake through common but ill-conceived notions about what 'doing good' means, and offers a real alternative in its place. The importance of this movement cannot be underestimated: it's going to be huge.


  • We should reward the charities that we believe do the most good, not those that have the best marketing strategy, otherwise the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place.
  • The challenge for us is this: How can we ensure that, when we try to help others, we do so as effectively as possible?
  • Effective altruism is about asking "How can I make the biggest difference I can?" and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what's true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be. As the phrase suggests, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what's best for the world, and a commitment to do what's best, whatever that turns out to be.
  • One additional unit of income can do a hundred times as much to the benefit the extreme poor as it can to benefit you or I [earning the typical US wage of $28,000 or ‎£18,000 per year]. [I]t's not often you have two options, one of which is a hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beet for $5 or buy someone else a beer for 5¢. If that were the case, we'd probably be pretty generous – next round's on me! But that's effectively the situation we're in all the time. It's like a 99% off sale, or buy one, get ninety-nine free. It might be the most amazing deal you'll see in your life.
  • Another common recommendation is to turn lights off when you leave a room, but lighting accounts for only 3% of household energy use, so even if you used no lighting at all in your house you would save only a fraction of a metric ton of carbon emissions. Plastic bags have also been a major focus of concern, but even on very generous estimates, if you stopped using plastic bags entirely you'd cut out 10kg CO2eq per year, which is only 0.4% of your total emissions. Similarly, the focus on buying locally produced goods is overhyped: only 10% of the carbon footprint of food comes from transportation whereas 80% comes from production, so what type of food you buy is much more important than whether that food is produced locally or internationally. Cutting out red meat and dairy for one day a week achieves a greater reduction in your carbon footprint than buying entirely locally produced food. In fact, exactly the same food can sometimes have higher carbon footprint if it's locally grown than if it's imported: one study found that the carbon footprint from locally grown tomatoes in northern Europe was five times as great as the carbon footprint from tomatoes grown in Spain because the emissions generated by heating and lighting greenhouses dwarfed the emissions generated by transportation
  • Responding to bereavement by trying to make a difference is certainly both understandable and admirable, but it doesn't give you good reason to raise money for one specific cause of death rather than any other. If that person had died in different circumstances it would have been no less tragic. What we care about when we lose someone close to us is that they suffered or died, not that they died from a specific cause. By all means, the sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one should be harnessed in order to make the world a better place. But we should focus that motivation on preventing death and improving lives per se, rather than preventing death and improving lives in one very specific way. Any other decision would be unfair on those we could have helped more.
  • When it comes to doing good, fat-tailed distributions seem to be everywhere. It’s not always true that exactly 80 percent of the value comes from the top 20 percent of activities—sometimes things are even more extreme than that, and sometimes less. But the general rule that most of the value generated comes from the very best activities is very common.
  • One additional unit of income can do a hundred times as much to the benefit the extreme poor as it can to benefit you or I [earning the typical US wage of $28,000 or ‎£18,000 per year]. [I]t's not often you have two options, one of which is a hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for $5 or buy someone else a beer for 5¢. If that were the case, we'd probably be pretty generous – next round's on me! But that's effectively the situation we're in all the time. It's like a 99% off sale, or buy one, get ninety-nine free. It might be the most amazing deal you'll see in your life.
  • Effective altruism is a growing social and intellectual movement at the intersection of academia and the public domain. It seeks to use insights from philosophy, economics, and related disciplines to identify the best means to improve the world. The ethical considerations that serve as a foundation for effective altruists typically involve a sensitivity to the different kinds of impacts our decisions about giving and spending can have, reflection on the values we place on helping others and spending on ourselves, and willingness to worry about the impacts of different kinds of career choices.
  • The primary goal of most of those who identify themselves as effective altruists is the prevention or alleviation of suffering and premature death resulting from poverty and disease in the areas of the world in which these problems are worst, or affect the greatest number of people. To the best of my knowledge, none of the philosophical critics of effective altruism reject this goal. It is therefore dispiriting to read their criticisms, which often ridicule people who are devoting their lives, often at considerable personal sacrifice, to the achievement of this shared goal, and are often gleeful rather than constructive in their attempts to expose the effective altruists’ mistakes in their choices among means.
  • One may think that I have harped excessively on the fact that the philosophical critics of effective altruism tend to express their objections in a mocking and disdainful manner. But this seems significant to me, as it is suggestive of bad faith. The issues that the effective altruists are addressing are of the utmost seriousness. They should not be occasions for the scoring of debating points or for displays of cleverness, rhetorical prowess, or moral exhibitionism (as when critics, while presenting their objections, pause to reveal parenthetically how much they have donated to charity despite their theoretical misgivings).
    • Jeff McMahan, "Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism", The Philosophers' Magazine, 5 Aug. 2016, pp. 92–99
  • Everybody knows that the same sum of money is of much greater value to a poor man that to a rich one. Give £10 a year to the man who has but £10 a year, you double his income, and you nearly double his enjoyments. Add £10 more, you do not add to his enjoyments so much as you did by the first £10. The third £10 is less valuable than the second, and the fourth less valuable than the third. To the possessor of £1,000 a year the addition of £10 would be scarcely perceptible; to the possessor of £10,000 it would not be worth slooping for. The richer a man is the less he is benefited by any further addition to his income. The man of £4,000 a year has four times the income of the man who has but £1,000; but does anybody suppose that he has four times the happiness?
  • One need not be a consequentialist to find something odd in a Kantian’s proposal to donate $100 to a famine relief organization she happens to know is especially inefficient when there is a more efficient organization that will save more people standing by.
    • Dan Moller, Should We Let People Starve: For Now? (2006), p. 244
  • Longitudinal or serial altruism, that is, altruism toward the generations in future time, arises, like lateral or space altruism, thru sympathy, that is, thru the imagination. The living sustain a vital relation to the unborn. Every one who recognizes and shows any regard for this relation, and there are very few who do, does so by putting himself in the place of the unborn billions, and by anticipation sharing their welfare and ill-fare.


  • Any intelligent person will ask themselves a simple question: should I pay up to 80p more for my bananas when only 5p will end up with the grower; or should I just buy the regular ones and give the difference to a decent development charity?


One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. (...) Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth.
  • Why do we save the larger number? Because we give equal weight to saving each. Each counts for one. That is why more count for more.
  • One thing that greatly matters is the failure of we rich people to prevent, as we so easily could, much of the suffering and many of the early deaths of the poorest people in the world. The money that we spend on an evening’s entertainment might instead save some poor person from death, blindness, or chronic and severe pain. If we believe that, in our treatment of these poorest people, we are not acting wrongly, we are like those who believed that they were justified in having slaves. Some of us ask how much of our wealth we rich people ought to give to these poorest people. But that question wrongly assumes that our wealth is ours to give. This wealth is legally ours. But these poorest people have much stronger moral claims to some of this wealth.
  • We live during the hinge of history. Given the scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries, the world has never changed as fast. We shall soon have even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings, but ourselves and our successors. If we act wisely in the next few centuries, humanity will survive its most dangerous and decisive period. Our descendants could, if necessary, go elsewhere, spreading through this galaxy.
  • What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.
    Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche's words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.
    If we are the only rational beings in the Universe, as some recent evidence suggests, it matters even more whether we shall have descendants or successors during the billions of years in which that would be possible. Some of our successors might live lives and create worlds that, though failing to justify past suffering, would give us all, including some of those who have suffered, reasons to be glad that the Universe exists.
  • What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back—forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.
  • 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 twenty-first century.
  • Charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, It’s giving people what they need to get.


  • The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments. The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.
  • Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.


Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. (...) Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.
  • We live in a complex age where many of the problems we face can, whatever their origins, only have solutions that involve a deep understanding of science and technology. Modern society desperately needs the finest minds available to devise solutions to these problems.
    • Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), p. 350
  • Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the great good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.
    • Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (2015), Preface, p. vii
  • My students often ask me if I think their parents did wrong to pay the $44,000 per year that it costs to send them to Princeton. I respond that paying that much for a place at an elite university is not justified unless it is seen as an investment in the future that will benefit not only one’s child, but others as well. An outstanding education provides students with the skills, qualifications, and understanding to do more for the world than would otherwise be the case. It is good for the world as a whole if there are more people with these qualities. Even if going to Princeton does no more than open doors to jobs with higher salaries, that, too, is a benefit that can be spread to others, as long as after graduating you remain firm in the resolve to contribute a percentage of that salary to organizations working for the poor, and spread this idea among your highly paid colleagues. The danger, of course, is that your colleagues will instead persuade you that you can’t possibly drive anything less expensive than a BMW and that you absolutely must live in an impressively large apartment in one of the most expensive parts of town.
  • There is a growing movement called effective altruism. It's important because it combines both the heart and the head.
  • [T]he evolution of superior intelligence in humans was bad for chimpanzees, but it was good for humans. Whether it was good or bad “from the point of view of the universe” is debatable, but if human life is sufficiently positive to offset the suffering we have inflicted on animals, and if we can be hopeful that in future life will get better both for humans and for animals, then perhaps it will turn out to have been good. Remember Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, which refers to the annihilation not of human beings, but of “Earth-originating intelligent life.” The replacement of our species by some other form of conscious intelligent life is not in itself, impartially considered, catastrophic. Even if the intelligent machines kill all existing humans, that would be, as we have seen, a very small part of the loss of value that Parfit and Bostrom believe would be brought about by the extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life. The risk posed by the development of AI, therefore, is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting wellbeing in general, for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included.
    • Peter Singer, Doing the Most Good: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically (2015), p. 176
  • A lot of people don’t think enough about choosing their career. [M]ost people spend 80,000 hours in their career, yet they don't spend such a lot of time in their choice. You would think that it's worth spending perhaps 1% of those hours to decide how you're going to spend the other 99% of those 80,000 hours. 1% of 80,000 hours is 800. How many people do you think actually spend 800 hours thinking about which career they're going to choose? That's quite a lot of time really. So it suggests that we make this very important choice perhaps without enough reflection. People ought to reflect on which career would do the most good.
  • Suppose that I do apply for a job as an aid worker. How much good will I do as an Oxfam employee? Certainly I'll do some good. But in getting that job for Oxfam, the marginal difference that I will make not is all the good that I will do in that job at Oxfam. It's all the good that I will do at that job at Oxfam minus all the good that the second best applicant for the job would've done. Because if I wasn't in the field at all, Oxfam would have appointed the person they considered the best applicant, presumably the second best applicant. So that person would've done almost as much good as I would've.
  • In general, effective altruists recognize that breaking moral rules against killing or seriously harming an innocent person will almost always have worse consequences than following these rules. Even thoroughgoing utilitarians, who judge actions to be right or wrong entirely on the basis of their consequences, are wary of speculative reasoning that suggests we should violate basic human rights today for the sake of some distant future good. They know that under Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, a vision of a utopian future society was used to justify unspeakable atrocities, and even today some terrorists justify their crimes by imagining they will bring about a better future. No effective altruist wants to repeat those tragedies.
  • While the ideas of effective altruism may seem calculating and abstract, we should never forget that the suffering of millions of sentient beings is real. In order to alleviate as much suffering as possible, it is crucial that we combine our empathy with rational thinking.


  • Humanity currently spends more money on cigarette ads than on making sure that we as a species survive this century. We've got our priorities all wrong, and we need effective altruism to right them.
  • The mathematical challenge of finding the greatest good can expand the heart. Empathy opens the mind to suffering, and math keeps it open.


  • [C]onsider the practical implications of the following two moral principles: 1) we will not allow the creation of a single instance of the worst forms of suffering [for] any amount of happiness, and 2) we will allow one day of such suffering for ten years of the most sublime happiness. What kind of future would we accept with these respective principles? Imagine a future in which we colonize space and maximize the number of sentient beings that the accessible universe can sustain over the entire course of the future, which is probably more than 1030. Given this number of beings, and assuming these beings each live a hundred years, principle 2) above would appear to permit a space colonization that all in all creates more than 1028 years of [extreme suffering], provided that the other states of experience are sublimely happy. This is how extreme the difference can be between principles like 1) and 2); between whether we consider suffering irredeemable or not. And notice that even if we altered the exchange rate by orders of magnitude — say, by requiring 1015 times more sublime happiness per unit of extreme suffering than we did in principle 2) above — we would still allow an enormous amount of extreme suffering to be created; in the concrete case of requiring 1015 times more happiness, we would allow more than 10,000 billion years of [the worst forms of suffering].


  • [O]ur moral obligation is not to live out a set of values that we like to see — it's to improve life for others as much as we possibly can. This is what Effective Altruism has to offer — a rigorous, tough minded approach to doing good that isn't content with aspiration.


  • You know what? This isn't about your feelings. A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of decades, is worth far more than your brain's feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan. Does computing the expected utility feel too cold-blooded for your taste? Well, that feeling isn't even a feather in the scales, when a life is at stake. Just shut up and multiply.

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