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.
To me, Effective Altruism (EA) is both deeply emotional and rational. The ‘why’ comes from your heart. The ‘how’ comes from thoroughly and fairly evaluating what action 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.
My commitment is to give to an effective charity (10% of income), be conscious about my personal impact (habits), and promote EA. My work should also be net-positive at the end of the day, adding happy years to the world.
EA covers many domains and can 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.
Finally, the effectiveness of different charities is widely different. The QALY (added positive years) of malaria nets or deworming is 100s of times greater than giving money to sponsor the opera, make a football court for kids, or even providing food for the homeless.
As I will argue in the end of the next session, it may still be good to give some to these charities, but most of it should go to where it’s most 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.
A few things that I think you can keep in mind when reading the following:
- Your giving can radically change (or save) someone’s life. For as little as a few thousand euro/dollars, you can prevent a child from dying.
- The wrong donation can accomplish nothing. Even many well-intentioned projects fail to deliver any QALYs.
- Your donation is most effective where people have the least. In a developing country it will solve ‘easy’ (read: neglected) diseases, prevent more hunger, save more lives.
- The time you take to consider where to give can be your most impactful hours spent. If you decide to donate, or donate more effectively, a few hours of research may translate into multiple lives saved, thousands of blind people prevented or kids dewormed.
- But, we don’t know all the (unintended) consequences of our giving. You could even say that we’re quite clueless about most of the effects of giving. For brevity, I’ve not highlighted the uncertainty much more below.
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.
GiveWell is the best authority on this account and their staff spends thousands of hours researching charities each year. Also worth reading are (very similar) recommendations by The Life You Can Save, Founders Pledge, and EA Funds.
Malaria sucks. It’s a mosquito-borne disease that comes from mosquitos. If you get malaria you will become ill, or die. Malaria mostly affects women and children. Each year 228 million people will get malaria, of which 400.00 will die (67% of whom are children under 5). (this used to be close to a million people in 2000, progress is being made)
Malaria can be prevented by long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (AMF), some medications (chemoprevention, Malaria Consortium), and vaccination (but currently only 40% effective in kids).
The estimated costs of malaria in Africa is $12 billion (health care costs, people not working, less tourism).
Deworming can prevent many bad outcomes. One of these is blindness (see the text at the top). Other outcomes are better school attendance (less absence due to illness of kids) and other outcomes later in life. A deworming treatment costs $1.
Other most-effective charities
Next to these two, other programs focus on vitamin supplementation and the distribution of cash. The latter is a good example of something that is very effective (if given to mothers) but still 10-15 times less effective as spending directly on malaria prevention.
The information above is (mostly) based on GiveWell.
Mental health accounts for 10% of the global disease burden. The costs can be felt by almost every person on this earth. If you haven’t dealt with mental health issues, you definitely know someone who has. The global costs are estimated at $2.5 trillion.
In many countries around the world, there is almost no money spent on mental health (less than $2 per person). In middle- or low-income countries there are almost no psychologists, there is a stigma on mental health disorders (everywhere), and no priority on fixing the problems.
Some charities are working on fixing this. They employ people from local communities (e.g. elder women) who learn basic talk therapy skills.
Note: The best estimate is that they prevent one year of depression (MDD) at $248 which is equal to 1-3 sessions with a therapist in Europe. If compared to AMF, the costs of adding extra good years (QALYs) are within an order of magnitude.
Note 2: I’m personally working on psychedelics and their potential for the improvement of mental health. My estimate (also see Founders Pledge) is that for many years it won’t be as effective as Strong Minds or similar organisations.
Animal welfare can be improved from two directions. Giving is most effective when done via campaigns that influence big companies. This is done effectively by the Humane League (recommended via Animal Charity Evaluators). Their corporate outreach campaigns have resulted in many improvements in (factory farm) animal care.
Another route is by reducing (eliminating) animal products (meat, milk, etc) use. Next to animal suffering, there are many other good reasons like fighting climate change, lowering the chance of a next pandemic, and many more (e.g. see this essay). A charity that is working effectively on offering meat/milk/etc alternatives is The Good Food Institute.
Personally, I’m less clear on the QALYs that these companies can add (there is more uncertainty, from how large their influence is to the level of (human-comparable) suffering animals have). But that doesn’t mean that these charities and your personal impact aren’t important.
Note: Effective animal charities offer a good example of how our first intuition and what is effective differ. Most money for animal care is spent on shelters for dogs and cats, whilst the same people continue eating live cooked fish, and pigs.
Within effective altruism, there is less focus on global warming. It’s my understanding that, how bad these effects may be, the bad effects of malaria and other areas are worse/cheaper to prevent.
However, global warming can be a multiplier for other bad outcomes. It could make the area that mosquitos live in larger, lead to mass migration (less stable world), lost harvest, and more.
Currently, we don’t have a good way out. Reduction and replanting are two things that we’re doing (not very well). Solutions like capturing carbon from the air and geoengineering are being developed.
One thing to consider with regard to climate change is the following two scenarios (about which I need to learn more). In the first scenario we limit economic growth (so the world is 200% richer in 2100) and we have 2°C degrees warming. In the second scenario we continue growing (300% richer) and there is 4°C degrees warming, which world would be better to live in?
A final note on climate change. Your most effective personal action here would be the money you donate to effective charities – not taking the train or flying less often. Or in other words, the CO2 (equivalent) that you can prevent with a donation is so much larger than taking a bike instead of a car (which you should still do). The next best thing to do personally, not having kids. See this great report by Founders Pledge for more.
We are currently creating minds that one day will bypass us. There is no physical law that says that we can’t make artificial intelligence (AI) that is more creative than us.
When this will happen is hotly debated. When that data/period comes, we should better make sure that we’ve created a benevolent ‘God’.
The AI safety community has been working on this problem for many decades and is (in some respects) now just part of the AI research agenda (as car safety research is in car development).
Besides reading a few books on this problem/challenge, I can’t say that I know what is best to do here as an individual donor (again, my uncertainty/lack of knowledge if a donation does any good).
In the future, many billions more people will roam this earth (and the universe). Their lives should be as valuable as life happening right now, but as there are many more (possible) people in the future, should we then not do our very best to make sure that the future is good?
Longtermism (which is a growing part of the EA movement) argues that interventions geared towards improving the change that our future will be good add the most QALYs.
Although I agree with the premise, I’m personally not familiar enough with the literature to say that I know if we (through charity) can be effective in helping here. I would need to do more research.
How to Give?
If you’re in The Netherlands, you can find out which charities have an ANBI (NGO) status here via ‘Doneer Effectief‘.
What I've given
My giving since 2014 has mostly been to Against Malaria Foundation. I have pledged to give 10% of my income via the Giving What We Can pledge. If I ever sell my company, then I will also donate a sustantial percentage (10%+) to effective charities (Founders Pledge). And with my new venture, I plan on giving a percentage of the revenue to effective charities.
*300 to Effective Altruism Netherlands (2017), **Birthday fundraiser & EA Rotterdam donations to AMF
Do Meaningful Work
Most of your productive time will be spent at your day job. A rough estimate of the hours you will spend doing this is 80.000 hours.
In my eyes, there are several ways (all good) through which your career can contribute to making the world a better place.
- Work directly on (global) issues (if you have the skills and motivation)
- Find the best organisation in your field (‘the best’ of course differs depending on your goals)
- Change the impact of the organisation you work at (e.g. yearly fundraiser, changing supply chain)
I personally always keep my eyes open as to how Queal can be more sustainable, and think that by replacing many meals that were previously meat-based, we are already having a large impact.
With Blossom, I plan to donate a percentage of revenue to mental health charities.
Have Healthy Habits
Note: these are actions that I recommend, but as stated before, the impact of your giving will be many times larger than your habits (unless you own a yacht).
Bike > Train > Car
Plants > Vegetarian > Meat
Sweater > Heater
Durable clothes > Fast fashion
Old phone > Newest phone
More on how your consumption impacts the world can be found in The Hidden Impact.
Promote Effective Altruism
A final part of maximizing my impact is the effort I make in promoting Effective Altruism. I do this via the monthly meeting in Rotterdam which attracts between 5-30 people each month.
Also find out more on our website (sign up for the newsletter there).
In future months I plan on also doing a fundraiser and making it easier for others to do fundraisers too.
Note: in the future I want to evaluate if my time doing this is worth it (does it even get others to donate? (yes I think) or make other significant changes (maybe))
Learn More About Effective Altruism
Some of the Effective Altruism Organisations:
- Effective Altruism (international)
- Effectief Altruïsme (The Netherlands)
- Doneer Effectief (information on how to donate in NL)
- GiveWell (evaluating which charity does the most good)
- Giving What We Can (motivating people to give 10%)
- Open Philanthropy (mega grants and research)
- Double Up Drive (doubling donations, $16 million raised so far)
Stuff I’ve read and found interesting:
- An evolutionary explanation for ineffective altruism (Nature Reviews, October 2020)
- Scientific article, argues that we give ineffectively because we can’t/don’t evaluate giving that way, we focus on social signals (and other reasons)
- The Rise of Rational Do-Gooders (Washington Post, September 2020)
- Expose of effective altruists, good intro, interviews
- Why we should donate more and better (Christiaan Broekman (personal friend), December 2018)
- Reasons for giving – giving more