What is effective altruism (EA)?
Effective altruism is about using evidence and careful reasoning to take actions that help others as much as possible.
The world has a lot of problems but we can’t work on them all at once. As a result, we need to prioritise the action that we take in order to maximise our impact.
Our goal is to find ways to help others as much as possible with our limited time, energy, and resources.
How does effective altruism compare different types of ‘good’?
Effective altruism focuses on improving lives. Everyone would agree that, all else being equal, reducing suffering and increasing happiness is good. There might be other things of value as well – promoting art, or preserving the natural environment – but that’s not what effective altruism is about.
It can be hard to impartially compare different benefits received by different people, but we attempt to be as neutral as we can when doing that too.
Does effective altruism only recommend things that are ‘proven’ to work?
No. But a higher likelihood of success is better, holding everything else equal.
Some people have a strong preference for approaches that have hard empirical evidence behind them, and are skeptical of those which don’t. This is because they think we have very limited ability to predict what actions will be effective and which won’t without rigorous testing.
But others think the most high-impact opportunities will involve more experimental or ‘speculative’ approaches, such as scientific research or political advocacy. For example, the Future of Humanity Institute researches the most effective ways to reduce catastrophic risks that might affect the whole of humanity very negatively. Even if there’s only a small chance of success, the potential impact is so great it has high expected value.
Across society as a whole there clearly needs to be a mixture of both.
What if I don't have enough money to donate?
You shouldn’t put yourself in a bad situation in order to donate. But keep in mind that most people are richer on a global scale than they think. If you live in the US and earn $30,000 before tax each year, your income is more than 17 times the global average. If you donated 10%, you would still earn 16 times the global average (even after adjusting for PPP). This is true for people in other rich countries too.
There are also many opportunities to help people that don’t involve donating money, like choosing a higher-impact career.
Isn't effective altruism obvious?
Many people find the idea of trying to maximise the amount of good they do fairly obvious and uncontroversial. However, it seems important to think hard about how to take action effectively, because most people don’t consciously make a choice to be as effective as possible . Either they don’t dedicate much of their efforts towards helping others, or they choose what problem to work on based only on what they find interesting, without doing proper research and comparing their different options first.
If it does seem obvious to you though, great! You’ll probably enjoy joining the community. The point is to improve the world – not define effective altruism to be controversial for the sake of it.
Why should I join the community?
Effective altruism has been built around a friendly, motivated, interesting, and interested group of people from all over the world. Participating in the community has a number of advantages over going it alone.
- There are many skilled people who might join you to help with your projects.
- If you offer good criticism or suggestions, you have the potential to influence other people to adopt whatever approach you think is more effective.
- You can pool your resources with others to conduct research that can help everyone figure out how to have more impact.
- You can learn by talking with others in the community.
- It’s nice (and very motivating) to have like-minded friends, associates, and colleagues.
That said, you can help others effectively without joining the community. If you do a lot of good working on an important problem on your own, that’s great! Even if you don’t want to join the community, you might want to take a pledge to help yourself commit to helping others.
Doesn't charity start at home?
Many people agree that we should try to make a difference, but think that we should give our money or our time to people in our local communities.
There’s nothing bad about helping people you know, or even yourself. But often the opportunities to help people far away are far greater than the opportunities to help people near you, especially if you live in a wealthy country.
For example for $1,000 you could double the annual income of a family engaged in subsistence agriculture in Kenya. This can be life-transforming. If you live in a wealthy country, it’s hard for $1,000 to achieve anywhere near as much in your local community.
Example of this objection:
- David Brooks in the New York Times
Does charity and aid really work?
A lot of charity work is probably ineffective, and there are many examples of aid and development having no real impact. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some charities which achieve amazing outcomes. In fact, that’s exactly why it’s so important to find the best ones, and to use our best judgement when working out which causes we should spend money and time on supporting.
If you’re extremely skeptical of non-profits though, there are many other opportunities for having a big impact, including for-profit entrepreneurship, policy, politics, advocacy, and research.
If you think that it’s hopeless to do good through donating to non-profits then please let us know why! We’re always open to changing our minds.
Example of this objection:
- Angus Deaton in the Boston Review
Is effective altruism only about making money and donating it to charity?
In the past, the community made the mistake of becoming too closely associated with “earning to give”. Most of us still think this is a good strategy for some people, particularly those who have good personal fit with high-paying careers. But donating to charity is not the only way to have a large impact. A lot of people can do even better by using their careers to help others more directly. Many people in the community do both.
But we still believe that donating to the right charities is one way you can make a lot of difference. It’s also one where there’s relatively strong evidence available, because there was existing research to build on.
- How you can help others with your career
- How you can help others by donating to the most effective charities
- Should you “earn to give”?
Examples of this objection:
Visit https://www.effectivealtruism.org/faqs-criticism-objections to see more.