Philosophy of EA
“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.