Defining Effective Altruism

Hilary Greaves and Theron Pum­mer have put to­gether an ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­says on effec­tive al­tru­ism, which will be com­ing out soon.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is still widely mi­s­un­der­stood in academia, so I took the op­por­tu­nity to write up my thoughts on how effec­tive al­tru­ism should be defined and why, and to re­spond to some of the most com­mon mis­con­cep­tions about effec­tive al­tru­ism. I hope that hav­ing a pre­cise defi­ni­tion will also help guard against fu­ture dilu­tion or drift of the con­cept, or con­fu­sion re­gard­ing what effec­tive al­tru­ism is about. You can find the es­say (with some ty­pos that will be cor­rected) here. Below I’ve put to­gether an abridged ver­sion, high­light­ing the points that I’d ex­pect to be most in­ter­est­ing for the Fo­rum au­di­ence and try­ing to cut out some philo­soph­i­cal jar­gon; for a full dis­cus­sion, though, the es­say is bet­ter.


The defi­ni­tion of effec­tive altruism

I sug­gest two prin­ci­pal desider­ata for the defi­ni­tion. The first is to match the ac­tual prac­tice of those who would cur­rently de­scribe them­selves as en­gag­ing in effec­tive al­tru­ism. The sec­ond is to en­sure that the con­cept has as much pub­lic value as pos­si­ble. This means, for ex­am­ple, we want the con­cept to be broad enough to be en­dorsable by or use­ful to many differ­ent moral views, but still de­ter­mi­nate enough to en­able users of the con­cept to do more to im­prove the world than they oth­er­wise would have done. This, of course, is a tricky bal­anc­ing act.

My pro­posal for a defi­ni­tion (which is mak­ing CEA’s defi­ni­tion a lit­tle more rigor­ous) is as fol­lows:

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is:
(i) the use of ev­i­dence and care­ful rea­son­ing to work out how to max­i­mize the good with a given unit of re­sources, ten­ta­tively un­der­stand­ing ‘the good’ in im­par­tial welfarist terms, and
(ii) the use of the find­ings from (i) to try to im­prove the world.

(i) refers to effec­tive al­tru­ism as an in­tel­lec­tual pro­ject (or ‘re­search field’); (ii) refers to effec­tive al­tru­ism as a prac­ti­cal pro­ject (or ‘so­cial move­ment’).

The defi­ni­tion is:

  • Non-nor­ma­tive. Effec­tive al­tru­ism con­sists of two pro­jects, rather than a set of nor­ma­tive claims.

  • Max­imis­ing. The point of these pro­jects is to do as much good as pos­si­ble with the re­sources that are ded­i­cated to­wards it.

  • Science-al­igned. The best means to figur­ing out how to do the most good is the sci­en­tific method, broadly con­strued to in­clude re­li­ance on care­ful rigor­ous ar­gu­ment and the­o­ret­i­cal mod­els as well as data.

  • Ten­ta­tively im­par­tial and welfarist. As a ten­ta­tive hy­poth­e­sis or a first ap­prox­i­ma­tion, do­ing good is about pro­mot­ing wellbe­ing, with ev­ery­one’s wellbe­ing count­ing equally. More pre­cisely: for any two wor­lds A and B with all and only the same in­di­vi­d­u­als, of finite num­ber, if there is a one to one map­ping of in­di­vi­d­u­als from A to B such that ev­ery in­di­vi­d­ual in A has the same wellbe­ing as their coun­ter­part in B, then A and B are equally good.[1]

The ideas that EA is about max­imis­ing and about be­ing sci­ence-al­igned (un­der­stood broadly) are un­con­tro­ver­sial. The two more con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of the defi­ni­tion are that it is non-nor­ma­tive, and that it is ten­ta­tively im­par­tial and welfarist.


Effec­tive Altru­ism as non-normative

The defi­ni­tion could have been nor­ma­tive by mak­ing claims about how much one is re­quired to sac­ri­fice: for ex­am­ple, it could have stated that ev­ery­one is re­quired to use as much of their re­sources as pos­si­ble in what­ever way will do the most good; or it could have stated some more limited obli­ga­tion to sac­ri­fice, such as that ev­ery­one is re­quired to use at least 10% of their time or money in what­ever way will do the most good.

There are four rea­sons why I think the defi­ni­tion shouldn’t be nor­ma­tive:

(i) a nor­ma­tive defi­ni­tion was un­pop­u­lar among lead­ers of the com­mu­nity; in a sur­vey of such lead­ers in 2015, 80% of re­spon­dents stated that they thought the defi­ni­tion should not in­clude a sac­ri­fice com­po­nent and only 12.5% thought it should con­tain a sac­ri­fice com­po­nent.

(ii) the nor­ma­tive po­si­tion is en­dorsed only by a sub­set of the com­mu­nity; in the 2017 sur­vey of 1843 mem­bers of the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity in­cluded the ques­tion, ‘Do you think of Effec­tive Altru­ism more as an “op­por­tu­nity” or an “obli­ga­tion”?’ In re­sponse, 56.5% chose ‘moral duty’ or ‘obli­ga­tion’, and 37.7% chose ‘op­por­tu­nity’ (there was no op­tion in that year to choose ‘both’).

(iii) the non-nor­ma­tive defi­ni­tion is far more ec­u­meni­cal among moral views. Most plau­si­ble moral views would agree that there is some rea­son to pro­mote the good, and that wellbe­ing is of some value, and there­fore that the ques­tion of how one can do the most to pro­mote welfarist value with a given unit of re­sources needs to be re­solved as one as­pect of an­swer­ing the ques­tion of how to live a morally good life. In con­trast, any sort of claim about our obli­ga­tions to max­imise the good will be much more con­tro­ver­sial, par­tic­u­larly if we try to make a gen­eral state­ment cov­er­ing peo­ple of very differ­ent in­come lev­els and per­sonal situ­a­tions.

(iv) Fi­nally, it fo­cuses at­ten­tion on the most dis­tinc­tive as­pect of effec­tive al­tru­ism: the open ques­tion of how we can use re­sources to im­prove the world as much as pos­si­ble. This ques­tion is much more ne­glected and ar­guably more im­por­tant than the ques­tion of how much and in what form al­tru­ism is re­quired of one.


Effec­tive Altru­ism as ten­ta­tively im­par­tial and welfarist

The sec­ond con­tro­ver­sial de­ci­sion is about what we count as ‘the good’ that effec­tive al­tru­ism is try­ing to pro­mote; my pro­posed defi­ni­tion is ten­ta­tively im­par­tial and welfarist.

There is a wide spec­trum of al­ter­na­tives that I could have gone with. On the broad end of the spec­trum, we could define effec­tive al­tru­ism as the at­tempt to do the most good, ac­cord­ing to what­ever view of the good the in­di­vi­d­ual in ques­tion ad­heres to. On the nar­row end of the spec­trum, we could define effec­tive al­tru­ism as the at­tempt to do the most good on one very par­tic­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of the good, such as to­tal he­do­nis­tic util­i­tar­i­anism. Either choice faces se­vere prob­lems. If we al­low any view of the good to count, then white supremacists could count as prac­tic­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism, which is a con­clu­sion that we do not want. If we re­strict our­selves to one par­tic­u­lar view of the good, then we lose any claim to ec­u­meni­cism, and we also mis­rep­re­sent the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity it­self, which has vibrant dis­agree­ment over what good out­comes con­sist in.

My preferred solu­tion is ten­ta­tive im­par­tial welfarism, defined above. This ex­cludes par­tial­ist views on which, for ex­am­ple, the wellbe­ing of one’s co-na­tion­als count for more than those of for­eign­ers and ex­cludes non-welfarist views on which, for ex­am­ple, bio­di­ver­sity or art has in­trin­sic value. But it in­cludes util­i­tar­i­anism, pri­ori­tar­i­anism, suffi­cien­tar­i­anism, egal­i­tar­i­anism, differ­ent views of pop­u­la­tion ethics, differ­ent ac­counts of wellbe­ing in­clud­ing views on which be­ing able to en­joy art and a flour­ish­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment is par­tially con­sti­tu­tive of a good life, and differ­ent views of how to make com­par­i­sons of wellbe­ing across differ­ent species.

This welfarism is ‘ten­ta­tive’, how­ever, in­so­far as it is taken to be merely a work­ing as­sump­tion. The ul­ti­mate aim of the effec­tive al­tru­ist pro­ject is to do as much good as pos­si­ble; the cur­rent fo­cus on wellbe­ing rests on the idea that, given the cur­rent state of the world and our in­cred­ible op­por­tu­nity to benefit oth­ers, the best ways of pro­mot­ing welfarist value are broadly the same as the best ways of pro­mot­ing the good. If that view changed and those in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity were con­vinced that the best way to do good might well in­volve pro­mot­ing non-welfarist goods, then I’d think we should re­vise the defi­ni­tion to sim­ply talk about ‘do­ing good’ rather than ‘benefit­ing oth­ers’.

I be­lieve that this un­der­stand­ing is sup­ported by the views of EA lead­ers. In the 2015 sur­vey of EA lead­ers referred to ear­lier, 52.5% of re­spon­dents were in favour of the defi­ni­tion in­clud­ing welfarism and im­par­tial­ity, with 25% against. So the in­clu­sion of im­par­tial welfarism has broad sup­port, but not as con­vinc­ing sup­port as other as­pects of the defi­ni­tion. And, when we look at all the lead­ing EA or­gani­sa­tions, they are firmly fo­cused on pro­mot­ing wellbe­ing, rather than pro­mot­ing non-welfarist sources of value.

What’s more, this re­stric­tion does lit­tle to re­duce effec­tive al­tru­ism’s ec­u­meni­cism: wellbe­ing is part of the good on most or all plau­si­ble moral views. Effec­tive al­tru­ism is not claiming to be a com­plete ac­count of the moral life. But, for any view that takes us to have rea­sons to pro­mote the good, and that says wellbe­ing is part of the good, the pro­ject of work­ing out how we can best pro­mote wellbe­ing will be im­por­tant and rele­vant.



[1] Note that, read liter­ally, the use of ‘benefit oth­ers’ in CEA’s defi­ni­tion would rule out some welfarist views, such as the view on which one can do good by cre­at­ing good lives but that this does not in­volve benefit­ing those who would oth­er­wise not ex­ist. In this case, philo­soph­i­cal pre­ci­sion was sac­ri­ficed for read­abil­ity.