Introduction to Effective Altruism
The goal of Effective Altruism is doing as much good as possible for the world. It’s a personal commitment to improving the lives of others. And it’s a global movement of other altruists who are also doing good.
Effective Altruism (EA) is both deeply emotional and rational. The ‘why’ comes from your heart. The ‘how’ comes from deeply and fairly evaluating what does the most good.
EA asks of you to make a commitment to doing good. Yet at the same time it doesn’t require you to devote your whole life to charity. You can live a normal life. It will be a life that is just a little more fulfilling, just, and fair.
EA covers many domains and can at sometimes be overwhelming. Altruists in the (global) community have worked on everything from effective donations to career advice. Just start with one of the areas below and take your time to discover what is out there.
This page covers my understanding of EA and aims to give you a window into what it’s all about and how you can contribute. See this as an invitation to explore the world of effective altruism, and always feel free to shoot me an email.
Philosophy of Effective Altruism
“Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone from going blind later in life.
How much would you pay to prevent your own child from becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.”
This argument from the eminent philosopher Peter Singer illustrates many of the underlying principles of EA. According to my interpretation, they are the following.
EA asks of you to think about how you can do good. This is a bit of an open door and at the same time a profound question. How can you use a part of your resources (e.g. time and money) to do the most good?
Utilitarianism (or consequentialism) is the philosophical way of thinking that most closely aligns with EA. This ethical theory promotes actions that maximize happiness and well-being. Or put the other way around, reduces suffering the most.
Impartiality means that decisions (about doing good) should be based on objective (often measurable) criteria.
But, as the example above shows, we do care about our children/family/friends more than strangers. And that is normal, that is how our brains are wired. And we should care about the people close to us.
At the same time, we live in an age of affluence. If you have a new smartphone, get coffee outside the house, or vacation to the other side of the world. Then you should be able to give a little to others, and when thinking about how to do this, impartiality should be the starting point for this.
The ‘veil of ignorance‘ thought experiment asks you a simple question: What if you were born at a random place on this earth, how would you want the world to look? If you could have been born anywhere, would you want the affluent to give to those in need?
Thinking about impartiality also brings up questions around caring (as much) for animals and people who will live in the future, I hope to answer these in later parts.
Measure What Matters
A company would be crazy not to measure how much profit they were making. They aren’t perfect at it, but they try their best to do so. So, what if I told you that until relatively recently most charities didn’t measure the outcomes of their actions.
GiveWell, one of the key EA organisations, in 2007 started researching how much good charities were doing. At that time data on how much charities were helping was scarce.
I do need to make two clarifications here. Charities do work, and as you will see some do much more than you expect. At the same time, not everything can be measured and it can be difficult to compare between charities.
Two terms that you may hear in the EA community are the following:
- DALY: disability-adjusted life year: the number of years lost to ill-health, disability or death
- QALY: quality-adjusted life year: the number of healthy years lived
DALY is mostly used as a societal measure (the total burden of a disease), QALY measures the benefits (the added good years by an intervention like bednets against malaria).
Using these terms, it becomes possible to compare the impact between charities, and (a bit more abstractly) broader actions like your career choice and behaviours like food and travel choices. What will become clear below is that giving usually has a much larger effect than individual actions.
EA considers the effectiveness of charities among a variety of factors. Here are so of them:
- Neglected: Is there (a lot of) room for improvement?
- Scalable: If you add more funding, can you do more good?
- Tractable: Is the impact measurable? (see above)
Neglected as a term can also be explained by the concept of counterfactual reasoning. This poses the question: What would have happened if I didn’t do X? For instance, if I didn’t donate, would someone else have taken my place?
When asked about your career, a counterfactual may lead to surprising results. What if I give up the high paying job that allows me to donate much and do direct charity work (where I’m ‘average’ in doing the work), would that bring extra good to the world?
And through this lens, you can also better evaluate the following statement:
Giving money to a charity that is promoted by someone handsome on the street or at your door is most likely not effective.
Why You Should Give Money
Up to this point, I’ve explained some of the philosophy behind effective altruism and introduced a few of the concepts. I think that I should have everyone on board at this point, so here comes the conclusion of the above: You should give away a part of your money.
Let me explain why.
You are rich!
You can calculate your own ‘richness’ with this calculator from Giving What We Can. The median income in the world is about €2.000.
Giving away money buys happiness
Spending money on yourself brings you happiness, it makes possible great experiences and beautiful things. But spending everything on yourself isn’t effective.
For instance, buying high-quality food at €10 will for instance add one unit of happiness (utilon) to your life. But somewhere around the world, that same €10 will buy a whole family of five, one unit of happiness, for two weeks, totaling 70 units of happiness.
This is but a very course example. Still, I hope it gets the point across that money somewhere else will have a larger effect on happiness than spending everything on yourself.
Giving away money buys you happiness
Experiments show that giving away money also ‘buys’ you happiness. When participants in the study spent the money on others, they reported higher levels of happiness than those who spend everything on themselves.
Just like caring about the people close to us, altruism is also something that is baked into our genes. All EA asks of you, is to take a global and impartial perspective.
Just give away a little
Giving What We Can, is an organisation that promotes giving to effective charities. They recommend giving 10% of your income. Or put the other way around, to spend 90% on yourself and loved ones.
This means that you can still go on vacation, have a caramel latte, drink beers at the pub, etc.
I have three tips for starting giving:
- Try Giving, start at 1%
- Make it automatic, don’t make it an ‘active’ choice every month/year
- Scale up the giving when your income increase, so you don’t feel any ‘pain’ from it
It doesn’t all have to be effective
Giving effectively isn’t the perfect way to buy happiness for yourself. Helping out at a soup kitchen (and not working those hours at your high-paying job) feels much better than donating the money you could have made in those hours. Giving to that handsome guy who wrangles people for donations feels like the right thing to do.
So, here are my suggestions for thinking about giving effectively, based on the essay ‘Purchase Fuzzis and Utilons Separately‘:
- Buy the warm feelings (fuzzies) by doing something very local like supporting a soup kitchen a few hours or helping elderly do their taxes (a small part of your time or money)
- Buy status among friends and family by donating to your nephews fundraising effort for charity X, help out a few hours at your children’s school event (again, a small part of time or money)
- Then with the rest of your giving, be a rationalist and give it to the most effective charities there are (see below)
Where To Give To
Giving money away can be very personal. It’s based on your preferences, perspective on the world, personal experience, and more. So this section will only give a short overview of top charities and their QALY (or other relevant) indicators.
Another interesting essay that speaks to this question of where to give is ‘Scope Insensitivity‘ by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Here he argues that the amount of money we are willing to give is not coupled to the amount of good it does. Or at least not when we haven’t thought about it much. Recommended reading.
A (qaly but also other improvements), AMF, Deworming, compare AMF with other similar interventions
(self-recommending EA community?)
An extra two or three years of deworming treatments in school translates to 13 percent higher hourly earnings, 14 percent higher consumer spending, and significantly increased odds of working outside of agriculture (in jobs that largely pay better and offer more opportunity for growth). The researchers calculate that the investment in deworming Kenya’s children has so far had a 37 percent annualized rate of return.
WHAT I've GIVEN, LOG, expand thingy
Do Meaningful Work
80k advice, my take, have positive impact
Have Healthy Habits
Give 10% and shift career to do more good. Buy more happiness elsewhere, log
Promote Effective Altruism
include text on how to do that
What I do, what you can do, what time it takes? ROI?
Learn More About Effective Altruism
Some of the Effective Altruism Organisations:
Learn/think, global health, AI, global warming (rational optimist/deutsch), animal welfare (if not covered earlier)
ADDENDUMS HERE? STUFF TO DO? CTA? (repeat top points?)
Very quick intro to EA (when started, not a crazy idea right)
Rationality and compasssion
What I do and think
Do, give 10%, log here on the website
- reasoning behind it, give even more? uncertaintly, so stick to this?
Do, promote EA, link to local group
- also with time analysis?
Do, read and learn more (link to books list)
Think, global health, AI, global warming? (rational optimist/deutsch), animal welfare (bees, but don't really think?)
Page with links, amongst which: https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/09/23/effective-altruism-charity/