A philosophical introduction to effective altruism

This is the sec­ond post in a short se­ries where I share some aca­demic writ­ing on effec­tive al­tru­ism I’ve done over the last cou­ple of years.

I’ve writ­ten a short and ac­cessible philo­soph­i­cal in­tro­duc­tion to effec­tive al­tru­ism for the Nor­ton In­tro­duc­tion to Ethics, available here. It’s pretty stan­dard stuff, but it puts to­gether some of the core ideas in a way that I don’t be­lieve is done el­se­where. I’m hop­ing that it could be use­ful for uni­ver­sity or high school courses on effec­tive al­tru­ism.

In the in­tro­duc­tion, I make the case for two claims:

Duty of Benefi­cence:​ Most mid­dle or up­per class peo­ple in rich coun­tries have a duty to make helping oth­ers a sig­nifi­cant part of their lives.

Max­imis­ing Benefi­cence:​ With re­spect to those re­sources that we have a duty of benefi­cence to use to im­prove the world, and sub­ject to not vi­o­lat­ing any­one’s rights, it is im­per­a­tive that we try to use our re­sources to do the most good, im­par­tially con­sid­ered, that we can.

I take some time to ar­gue against the idea that it’s per­mis­si­ble to be par­tial to par­tic­u­lar cause-ar­eas on the grounds of per­sonal at­tach­ments. I then give a short sum­mary of the scale, ne­glect­ed­ness and tractabil­ity frame­work, and a short overview of the causes of farm an­i­mal welfare, global health and de­vel­op­ment, and ex­is­ten­tial risk re­duc­tion.


I’ve writ­ten two other en­cy­clo­pe­dia en­tries, too: one for the Pal­grave Hand­book of Public Policy, and an­other (forth­com­ing, co-au­thored with Theron Pum­mer) for the In­ter­na­tional En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Ethics. They cover much of the same ground, but I don’t think these will be as gen­er­ally use­ful as the Nor­ton In­tro­duc­tion, which is both shorter and a bit clearer.