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What is effective altruism?

Most forms of do-gooding start out with a What (“I want to promote microfinance!”), move to a How (“maybe I should do a sponsored marathon?”) and simply take the Why for granted (“because of course microfinance is good!”).

Effective altruism, in contrast, starts with a Why and a How, and lets them determine the What. Let me explain:

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.

From these two ideas, the What follows. Effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. I'll talk more about the reasons why these are generally thought to be the highest-impact cause areas in later posts, but in each case, the reasoning is that the stakes are very high, and there is the potential to make a lot of progress. Right now, within the Centre for Effective Altruism, the What consists of the organisations listed to the right: organisations that, for example, promote donating a good chunk of one's income to the causes that most effectively fight global poverty (Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save); or that advise individuals on which careers enable them to have the greatest positive impact (80,000 Hours); or that try to figure out how best to improve animal welfare (Effective Animal Activism). But these activities are just our current best guesses. If we had good evidence or arguments that showed that we could do more good by doing something else, then we'd do that instead.

Part of Introduction to Effective Altruism

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Comments (8)

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Comment author: Impact_discrepancies_persist_under_uncertainty_|_foreXiv 13 December 2013 01:51:08PM 0 points [-]

[…] deeply with wild animal suffering. His work has been a great resource of what is now called the effective altrusim community, and I have a lot of respect for his unflinching acceptance and exploration of […]

Comment author: Martijn 05 April 2014 12:26:00PM 1 point [-]

This might be the greatest idea ever. I can give you all the reasons why it's so good, but you have got them all figured out. My definate props for that!

I have a tip though. If you are interested, continue reading.

I like your story but I don't LOVE it. It's because it's written in an inpersonal style. In order to promote it more effectively, I'd like you to give a personalised WHY?

I.E: I was hiding from my friends for two years. I was failing in my study of philosophy and I didn't wanted to come out. I had a severe case of depression. I had everything I needed: A house, food, even a hot shower, and still I despaired. Life was way out of whack, something was deeply wrong!

Then, I remember the moment clearly: I was in the kitchen and I was going to stuff myself with yet another sandwich, when by chance a shadow of a man walked by, obviously a beggar. I looked at my extra bacon and egg sandwich, and something just clicked in my brain. I hurried outside and caught him on the street corner. I gave it to him, he murmbled something weird, but the look he gave me was etched into my soul.

That day I felt elated. I went out and started to do random acts of kindness. I bought flowers and gave it to an old lady and an anorexic girl. I joined a couple of young people to give free hugs. I donated all my pocket money to beggars. I even withdrew money to give more.

I was stunned: Living truly is giving! The depression lifted and I never looked back. I was able to finish my master in philosophy, and made more friends than i ever had. Since then I have been trying to help as much as I can. And as smart as I can!

~ I am sure you can write a terrific personal story. Continue what you are doing, and make it count!

Comment author: Martijn 05 April 2014 12:29:00PM 0 points [-]

Was that of any help?

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini2 22 April 2014 10:20:00PM 0 points [-]

Thanks, Martijn! Will is currently writing a book on effective altruism and is giving a lot of thinking to ways in which we can make EA ideas more appealing to a wider audience, without sacrificing precision or accuracy. Making such ideas more personal is a key way of accomplishing this, and for this reason the book will feature interviews with many prominent EAs and top researchers.

Comment author: Peter_Buffett:_Philanthropy_disguises_itself_as_a_fix_when_it’s_a_part_of_the_problem_–_Quartz 30 April 2014 02:02:45PM 0 points [-]

[…] altruism” — using my time and money to do the most good I can. (Descriptions here and here, and Peter Singer’s TED talk about it is here.) I personally would be very […]

Comment author: redslider 17 January 2015 12:53:30AM *  0 points [-]

just a small thought on the term "altruism" -- in an omoiyari* world there is really no need for altruism or charity. They are not required and hardly, if ever, occur. In an omoiyari world every success is reciprocal, every personal creative act is a shared success. By the same token, every wound one causes to another is a self-inflicted wound. In such a world, the terms 'altruism', 'charity' and the like simply drop away. Nor is there any conflict between the states of individuality and collective. Indeed, where the personal is shared and reciprocal, personal creativity, imagination and exploration are routinely encouraged and fostered.

Omoiyari society (or civilization, if you prefer) is a "we" society. But there is no implication of "we" being at the expense of "you" or "me". It is a society which maximizes and distributes the surplus of our creativity and energy, rather than conscripting it. It does so with the minimum of distortion or dislocation of each person's self-directed initiatives. And there is plenty for an omoiyari society to recycle and share, because there is little need to accumulate, hoard or own for its own sake, nor out of fear-driven insecurity.

There is no "either/or" or "them/us" about an omoiyari society. Those are scripts for reality that have been written and handed to us by others to serve their own narrow, self-interested ambitions. There is simply no use for our current competitive, acquisition-driven, 'charity-fixated' societies or the compensations we try to make for them. We presently receive such reality scripts as if they were an unalterable part of "human nature". They are not. An omoiyarii society has no use for them. Why? Because, in an omoiyari-world, we all own and write the scripts of our own reality and we distribute them as a shared reality. We write them creatively and imaginatively and we share them reciprocally.

So, is that possible? Is there an "effective" way to bring about an omoiyari world? Yes, actually. It's quite simple and the tools to do it are already possessed by everybody. It is really nothing more than the realization that our reality is not something that can actually be owned by anyone, least of all those who presently claim a proprietary right to it (the ones who exclaim, "Reality is what we say it is" and by 'we' mean only themselves), the ones who can make reality seem unalterable only through the coercive use of power.

The effective end to that fiction is to simply begin rewriting that script. And that is not as difficult as it may seem. To begin with, we actually know what the real script for reality ought to be. We all know it -- even if our ways of expressing it may be different. It comes with our DNA, there's nothing extraordinarily complicated about it. It is a script which no longer has us settle arguments with ourselves by means of violence or war. It is a script in which hunger or homelessness or exclusion or other forms of neglect and deprivation are not possible simply because those wounds are self-inflicted wounds and no one (it's in our DNA) leaves their own wounds untended to fester.

It is a script in which there is really no distinction between work and play because the very act of using our energy and our bodies to do useful and creative things is a natural expression of ourselves, a yoga of living and a joy, even if the particular task may be difficult or routine. Our script would not turn people into interchangeable, expendable units of fuel for the engines of an economy or anything else. The human project would not be here to serve the economies it created, those economies would be here to serve the people. I could go on and on, but you see, you already know that don't you. It comes with our manual of operating a sane, healthy flourishing world. The one given to each of us when we were born. We just tend forget that at times.

So that's all I really came to say. A little food for thought, that's all. It may not happen in our lifetimes, maybe not for many generations (provided we survive the messes we've created for ourselves). When it does, those who rewrite our primitive reality will probably wonder at those first proto-humans who hadn't yet crossed the evolutionary rubicon from OMG to omoiyari, just as we wonder about the first hominids who stood at the edge of the Serengeti, but hadn't quite crossed the evolutionary bridge from thinking to minding.

But we can start now, preparing the way for those who will follow us. We can begin to reclaim small pieces of our reality and renew it as it should be. That we can do, and that will likely help make the Dark Ages to come a little bit shorter. That is all I have to say.


*omoiyari is a Japanese word that really has no equivalent in English. Roughly, it means "putting others first." It was first introduced to me by Charles Pellegrino in his book "Last Train from Hiroshima" (definitely an omoiyari, if tragic, book about events that should never have happened). Omoiyari was introduced to Charles through the writings and talks by Masahiro Sasaki, brother of Sadiko Sasaki, whom many of you will know as the girl who set about folding a thousand paper cranes in the interest of world peace and omoiyari. The girl who died of wounds received in the bombing of Hiroshima. -- omoiyari, Red Slider

Comment author: Patrizia 02 November 2016 07:38:39AM 0 points [-]

I totally agree. Altruism and egoism are the consequences of our intellettualistic occidental society. Does it really exist any difference between self and other? The logical analytic approach fails if it doesn't comprehend the dialectic aspects of the whole reality. When I am helping people I am doing something good not only for whom I help but also for me: i need to do good, that is my interior obligation that let me free only if I decide to obey it. To me we have to find out what human nature means.

Comment author: silvia_fromargentina 22 February 2017 05:50:09PM 0 points [-]

first of all i am from argentina so excuse my awful english ! I am a very concern sense i was a little girl about the animals rights, also the human right. i discover today this magnificent movement EA, and my heart is really relieved. i think the world is really in darkness right now, but also can see how every day the human society evolves every minute to an more ethics existence and is happening very fast so we must know that every little gesture we have for help others is going to be a enormus impact for change the world and make it a better place for all.