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The history of the term 'effective altruism'

A few people have expressed interest recently in the origins of the effective altruism community. I realized that not that many people know where the term 'effective altruism' came from, nor that there was a painfully long amount of time spent deciding on it. And it was fun digging through the old emails. So here's an overview of what happened!

The need to decide upon a name came from two sources:

First, the Giving What We Can (GWWC) community was growing. 80,000 Hours (80k) had soft-launched in February 2011, moving the focus in Oxford away from just charity and onto ethical life-optimisation more generally. There was also a growing realization among the GWWC and 80k Directors that the best thing for us each to be doing was to encourage more people to use their life to do good as effectively as possible (which is now usually called 'movement-building').

Second, GWWC and 80k were planning to incorporate as a charity under an 'umbrella' name, so that we could take paid staff (decided approx. Aug 2011; I was Managing Director of GWWC at the time and was pushing for this, with Michelle Hutchinson and Holly Morgan as the first planned staff members). So we needed a name for that umbrella organization (the working title was 'High Impact Alliance'). We were also just starting to realize the importance of good marketing, and therefore willing to put more time into things like choice of name.

At the time, there were a host of related terms: on 12 March 2012 Jeff Kaufman posted on this, listing 'smart giving', 'efficient charity', 'optimal philanthropy', among others. Most of the terms these referred to charity specifically. The one term that was commonly used to refer to people who were trying to use their lives to do good effectively was the tongue-in-cheek 'super-hardcore do-gooder'. It was pretty clear we needed a new name! I summarized this in an email to the 80k team (then the 'High Impact Careers' team) on 13 October 2011:

We need a name for "someone who pursues a high impact lifestyle".  This has been such an obstacle in the utilitarianesque community - 'do-gooder' is the current term, and it sucks."
What happened, then, is that there was a period of brainstorming - combining different terms like 'effective', 'efficient', 'rational' with 'altruism', 'benevolence', 'charity'. Then the Directors of GWWC and 80k decided, in November 2011, to aggregate everyone's views and make a final decision by vote. This vote would decide both the name of the type of person we wanted to refer to, and for the name of the organization we were setting up.

Those who voted were as follows (I think, but am not certain, that this is complete):

  • Will MacAskill (then 'Crouch')
  • Toby Ord
  • Nick Beckstead
  • Michelle Hutchinson
  • Holly Morgan
  • Mark Lee
  • Tom Ash
  • Matt Wage
  • Ben Todd
  • Tom Rowlands
  • Niel Bowerman
  • Robbie Shade
  • Matt Gibb
  • Richard Batty
  • Sally Murray
  • Rob Gledhill
  • Andreas Mogensen
Tom Rowlands, who was then Director of Communications for both GWWC and 80k, sent round the following email on 3 December 2011:
I've been through all the suggestions on the umbrella name - thanks.The names that have arisen mostly reflect two components: an ethical position i.e. 'good' and optimizing this i.e. 'maximisation'We might also want a name for 'group'.[I've deliberately used the above words as they didn't arise in the suggestions, to avoid bias.]For these reasons, I've split the voting into three parts, based on these categories - to do otherwise would make it almost incoherent. The downside is this doesn't really account for acronyms and combinations (you might like three of the terms in isolation, but don't like them as a group).So, please consider the options in the three categories, before coming up with up to three names you like together:e.g. Good Maximisation Group

1:

a) altruist b) do-gooder c) utilitarian d) humanist e) empathetic f) philanthropist g) consequentialist h) positive i) benetarian

2:

a) hardcore b) dedicated c) rational d) professional e) optimal f) high impact g) evidence-based h) effective i) biggest

3:

a) alliance b) group c) centre d) community e) institute f) network g) association

You might not think all three components are necessary, in which case just use the ones you think are e.g. Good Maximisers.

If you completely disagree with the methodology, please say so and I'll come up with another. I did spend some time considering this!

Sorry we haven't got to the voting yet, but it seemed like this is a necessary step on the way there.

Please send me your ideas by 2100 Sunday. I'll then send another email with a shortlist to vote on. [Michelle - I hope this meets the deadline; sorry if not)

From non-snowy Val Thorens,

Tom And on 5 December 2011 there was a vote, for what the name of the new umbrella organization should be. The shortlist was:

  • Rational Altruist Community RAC
  • Effective Utilitarian Community EUC
  • Evidence-based Charity Association ECA
  • Alliance for Rational Compassion ARC
  • Evidence-based Philanthropy Association EPA
  • High Impact Alliance HIA
  • Association for Evidence-Based Altruism AEA
  • Optimal Altruism Network OAN
  • High Impact Altruist Network HIAN
  • Rational Altruist Network RAN
  • Association of Optimal Altruists AON
  • Centre for Effective Altruism CEA
  • Centre for Rational Altruism CRA
  • Big Visions Network BVN
  • Optimal Altruists Forum OAF
(There was actually two other votes, too: one on whether to use 'Effective' rather than 'rational' or 'strategic'; and one on whether to use 'Centre' rather than anything else. Tom expressed how arduous the name-decision process had been - after this list he said "Again, apologies for the way this process has gone. I'll try to keep the last couple of days relatively pain-free."  I remember Matt Wage commenting that he thought that this whole process was a really ineffective use of time. But it seems to have been worth it in retrospect!)

In the vote, CEA won, by quite a clear margin. Different people had been pushing for different names. I remember that Michelle preferred "Rational Altruism", the Leverage folks preferred "Strategic Altruism," and I was pushing for '"Effective Altruism". But no-one had terribly strong views, so everyone was happy to go with the name we voted on. GiveWell was using "rational altruism" for a while after that point (e.g. here and here), before switching to "effective altruism".

We hadn't planned 'effective altruism' to take off in the way that it did. 'Centre for Effective Altruism' was intended not to have a public presence at all, and just be a legal entity. I had thought that effective altruism was too abstract an idea for it to really catch on, and had a disagreement with Mark Lee and Geoff Anders about this. Time proved them correct on that point!

After that, the term was used progressively more, as 80,000 Hours started using it (e.g. this was the go-to page on effective altruism for quite a while, published 5th March 2012) and THINK was set up to promote effective altruism specifically. Ruairí Donnelly set up the Effective Altruists Facebook group in November 2012. Then I think what really solidified the term was Peter Singer's TED talk, which was filmed in March 2013, and posted on-line in May 2013.

Comments (7)

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Comment author: Michael_Dickens 11 March 2014 02:51:00AM 1 point [-]

I think it's funny that I have been involved in EA since before the term came into popular use, but I can't remember it ever *not* being called "effective altruism."

Comment author: Sebastian_Farquhar 11 March 2014 02:38:00PM 1 point [-]

I remember one of my favourites for the name of CEA as the Federation for Effective Altruism Research. Or the Society for the Progress of Empathetic Consequentialism Through Reasoned Evaluation. I think the first may have been yours, Will. ;)

Comment author: William_MacAskill2 12 March 2014 02:59:00AM 1 point [-]

Hahaha. Another one of mine was "Institute for the Development of Effective Altruism" (IDEA - which came second to CEA... I'm glad it did!) As was "The High Impact NetworK" (THINK), which I was pleased to see got taken on.

Comment author: Austen_Forrester 13 March 2014 03:54:00AM 0 points [-]

Fascinating! I've always wondered about the genesis of effective altruism, including the name. You definitely chose the best name; one that will survive the ages. The name makes it easier to explain to people why I think I'm helping others by working at an oil plant. As soon as I use the word "effective", people STHU. How can you argue with effectiveness?. Rational is accurate, but a little dry, and somewhat off-putting for the faithful.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini2 15 March 2014 12:08:00AM 2 points [-]

See this post by Jeff Kaufman for a list of names that were in use before 'effective altruism' became established.

Comment author: Dale 03 December 2014 12:34:31AM 4 points [-]

Interesting history!

However, I think you are being unfair to MIRI. Eliezer was using the term as as far back as 2007, four years before you mention it first being used in Oxford. So it wasn't originated in Oxford. And given that many CEA members have read LessWrong, including Toby Ord, it's seems a stretch to even say it was independently re-invented.

Comment author: EliezerYudkowsky 31 May 2015 05:02:02AM *  7 points [-]

There's only so many things you can call it, and accidental namespace collisions / phrase reinventions aren't surprising. I was surprised when I looked back myself and noticed the phrase was there, so it would be more surprising if Toby Ord remembered than if he didn't. I'm proud to have used the term "effective altruist" once in 2007, but to say that this means I coined the term, especially when it was re-output by the more careful process described above, might be giving me too much credit - but it's still nice to have this not-quite-coincidental mention be remembered, so thank you for that!