Four focus areas of effective altruism

It was a plea­sure to see all ma­jor strands of the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment gath­ered in one place at last week’s Effec­tive Altru­ism Sum­mit.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, 80,000 Hours, Giv­ing What We Can, Effec­tive An­i­mal Altru­ism, Lev­er­age Re­search, the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity, and the Ma­chine In­tel­li­gence Re­search In­sti­tute ei­ther at­tended or gave pre­sen­ta­tions. My thanks to Lev­er­age Re­search for or­ga­niz­ing and host­ing the event!

What do all these groups have in com­mon? As Peter Singer said in his TED talk, effec­tive al­tru­ism “com­bines both the heart and the head.” The heart mo­ti­vates us to be em­pathic and al­tru­is­tic to­ward oth­ers, while the head can “make sure that what [we] do is effec­tive and well-di­rected,” so that al­tru­ists can do not just some good but as much good as pos­si­ble.

Effec­tive al­tru­ists (EAs) tend to:

  1. Be globally al­tru­is­tic: EAs care about peo­ple equally, re­gard­less of lo­ca­tion. Typ­i­cally, the most cost-effec­tive al­tru­is­tic cause won’t hap­pen to be in one’s home coun­try.

  2. Value con­se­quences: EAs tend to value causes ac­cord­ing to their con­se­quences, whether those con­se­quences are hap­piness, health, jus­tice, fair­ness and/​or other val­ues.

  3. Try to do as much good as pos­si­ble: EAs don’t just want to do some good; they want to do (roughly) as much good as pos­si­ble. As such, they hope to de­vote their al­tru­is­tic re­sources (time, money, en­ergy, at­ten­tion) to un­usu­ally cost-effec­tive causes. (This doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that EAs think “ex­plicit” cost effec­tive­ness calcu­la­tions are the best method for figur­ing out which causes are likely to do the most good.)

  4. Think sci­en­tifi­cally and quan­ti­ta­tively: EAs tend to be an­a­lytic, sci­en­tific, and quan­ti­ta­tive when try­ing to figure out which causes ac­tu­ally do the most good.

  5. Be will­ing to make sig­nifi­cant life changes to be more effec­tively al­tru­is­tic: As a re­sult of their efforts to be more effec­tive in their al­tru­ism, EAs of­ten (1) change which char­i­ties they sup­port fi­nan­cially, (2) change ca­reers, (3) spend sig­nifi­cant chunks of time in­ves­ti­gat­ing which causes are most cost-effec­tive ac­cord­ing to their val­ues, or (4) make other sig­nifi­cant life changes.

De­spite these similar­i­ties, EAs are a di­verse bunch, and they fo­cus their efforts on a va­ri­ety of causes.

Below are four pop­u­lar fo­cus ar­eas of effec­tive al­tru­ism, or­dered roughly by how large and visi­ble they ap­pear to be at the mo­ment. Many EAs work on sev­eral of these fo­cus ar­eas at once, due to un­cer­tainty about both facts and val­ues.

Though la­bels and cat­e­gories have their dan­gers, they can also en­able chunk­ing, which has benefits for mem­ory, learn­ing, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. There are many other ways we might cat­e­go­rize the efforts of to­day’s EAs; this is only one cat­e­go­riza­tion.

Fo­cus area 1: Poverty reduction

Here, “poverty re­duc­tion” is meant in a broad sense that in­cludes (e.g.) eco­nomic benefit, bet­ter health, and bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion.

Ma­jor or­ga­ni­za­tions in this fo­cus area in­clude:

  • GiveWell is home to the most rigor­ous re­search on char­i­ta­ble causes, es­pe­cially poverty re­duc­tion and global health. Their cur­rent char­ity recom­men­da­tions are the Against Malaria Foun­da­tion, GiveDirectly, and the Schis­to­so­mi­a­sis Con­trol Ini­ti­a­tive. (Note that GiveWell also does quite a bit of “meta effec­tive al­tru­ism”; see be­low.)

  • Good Ven­tures works closely with GiveWell.

  • The Life You Can Save (TLYCS), named af­ter Peter Singer’s book on effec­tive al­tru­ism, en­courages peo­ple to pledge a frac­tion of their in­come to effec­tive char­i­ties. TLYCS cur­rently recom­mends GiveWell’s recom­mended char­i­ties and sev­eral oth­ers.

  • Giv­ing What We Can (GWWC) does some char­ity eval­u­a­tion and also en­courages peo­ple to pledge 10% of their in­come effec­tive char­i­ties. GWWC cur­rently recom­mends two of GiveWell’s recom­mended char­i­ties and two oth­ers.

In ad­di­tion, some well-en­dowed foun­da­tions seem to have “one foot” in effec­tive poverty re­duc­tion. For ex­am­ple, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion has funded many of the most cost-effec­tive causes in the de­vel­op­ing world (e.g. vac­ci­na­tions), al­though it also funds less cost-effec­tive-seem­ing in­ter­ven­tions in the de­vel­oped world.

In the fu­ture, poverty re­duc­tion EAs might also fo­cus on eco­nomic, poli­ti­cal, or re­search-in­fras­truc­ture changes that might achieve poverty re­duc­tion, global health, and ed­u­ca­tional im­prove­ments more in­di­rectly, as when Chi­nese eco­nomic re­forms lifted hun­dreds of mil­lions out of poverty. Though it is gen­er­ally eas­ier to eval­u­ate the cost-effec­tive­ness of di­rect efforts than that of in­di­rect efforts, some groups (e.g. GiveWell Labs and The Van­nevar Group) are be­gin­ning to eval­u­ate the likely cost-effec­tive­ness of these causes.

Fo­cus area 2: Meta effec­tive altruism

Meta effec­tive al­tru­ists fo­cus less on spe­cific causes and more on “meta” ac­tivi­ties such as rais­ing aware­ness of the im­por­tance of ev­i­dence-based al­tru­ism, helping EAs reach their po­ten­tial, and do­ing re­search to help EAs de­cide which fo­cus ar­eas they should con­tribute to.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions in this fo­cus area in­clude:

  • 80,000 Hours high­lights the im­por­tance of helping the world effec­tively through one’s ca­reer. They also offer per­sonal coun­sel­ing to help EAs choose a ca­reer and a set of causes to sup­port.

  • Ex­plic­itly, the Cen­ter for Ap­plied Ra­tion­al­ity (CFAR) just trains peo­ple in ra­tio­nal­ity skills. But de facto they are es­pe­cially fo­cused on the ap­pli­ca­tion of ra­tio­nal thought to the prac­tice of al­tru­ism, and are deeply em­bed­ded in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity.

  • Lev­er­age Re­search fo­cuses on grow­ing and em­pow­er­ing the EA move­ment, e.g. by run­ning Effec­tive Altru­ism Sum­mit, by or­ga­niz­ing the THINK stu­dent group net­work, and by search­ing for “mind hacks” (like the mem­ory palace) that can make EAs more effec­tive.

Other peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions con­tribute to meta effec­tive al­tru­ism, too. Paul Chris­ti­ano ex­am­ines effec­tive al­tru­ism from a high level at Ra­tional Altru­ist. GiveWell and oth­ers of­ten write about the ethics and episte­mol­ogy of effec­tive al­tru­ism in ad­di­tion to fo­cus­ing on their cho­sen causes. And, of course, most EA or­ga­ni­za­tions spend some re­sources grow­ing the EA move­ment.

Fo­cus area 3: The far future

Many EAs value fu­ture peo­ple roughly as much as cur­rently-liv­ing peo­ple, and there­fore think that nearly all po­ten­tial value is found in the well-be­ing of the as­tro­nom­i­cal num­bers of peo­ple who could pop­u­late the far fu­ture (Bostrom 2003; Beck­stead 2013). Fu­ture-fo­cused EAs aim to some­what-di­rectly cap­ture these “as­tro­nom­i­cal benefits” of the far fu­ture, e.g. via ex­plicit efforts to re­duce ex­is­ten­tial risk.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions in this fo­cus area in­clude:

Other groups study par­tic­u­lar ex­is­ten­tial risks (among other things), though per­haps not ex­plic­itly from the view of effec­tive al­tru­ism. For ex­am­ple, NASA has spent time iden­ti­fy­ing nearby as­ter­oids that could be an ex­is­ten­tial threat, and many or­ga­ni­za­tions (e.g. GCRI) study worst-case sce­nar­ios for cli­mate change or nu­clear war­fare that might re­sult in hu­man ex­tinc­tion but are more likely to re­sult in “merely catas­trophic” dam­age.

Some EAs (e.g. Holden Karnofsky, Paul Chris­ti­ano) have ar­gued that even if nearly all value lies in the far fu­ture, fo­cus­ing on nearer-term goals (e.g. effec­tive poverty re­duc­tion or meta effec­tive al­tru­ism) may be more likely to re­al­ize that value than more di­rect efforts.

Fo­cus area 4: An­i­mal suffering

Effec­tive an­i­mal al­tru­ists are fo­cused on re­duc­ing an­i­mal suffer­ing in cost-effec­tive ways. After all, an­i­mals vastly out­num­ber hu­mans, and grow­ing num­bers of sci­en­tists be­lieve that many an­i­mals con­sciously ex­pe­rience plea­sure and suffer­ing.

The only or­ga­ni­za­tion of this type so far (that I know of) is Effec­tive An­i­mal Ac­tivism, which cur­rently recom­mends sup­port­ing The Hu­mane League and Ve­gan Outreach.

Ma­jor in­spira­tions for those in this fo­cus area in­clude Peter Singer, David Pearce, and Brian To­masik.

Other fo­cus areas

I could per­haps have listed “effec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal al­tru­ism” as fo­cus area 5. The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment in gen­eral is large and well-known, but I’m not aware of many effec­tive al­tru­ists who take en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism to be the most im­por­tant cause for them to work on, af­ter closely in­ves­ti­gat­ing the above fo­cus ar­eas. In con­trast, the groups and peo­ple named above tend to have in­fluenced each other, and have con­sid­ered all these fo­cus ar­eas ex­plic­itly. For this rea­son, I’ve left “effec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal al­tru­ism” off the list, though per­haps a pop­u­lar fo­cus on effec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal al­tru­ism could arise in the fu­ture.

Other fo­cus ar­eas could later come to promi­nence, too.

Work­ing together

I was pleased to see the EAs from differ­ent strands of the EA move­ment co­op­er­at­ing and learn­ing from each other at the Effec­tive Altru­ism Sum­mit. Co­op­er­a­tion is cru­cial for grow­ing the EA move­ment, so I hope that even if it’s not always easy, EAs will “go out of their way” to co­op­er­ate and work to­gether, no mat­ter which fo­cus ar­eas they’re sym­pa­thetic to.