doing more good vs. doing the most good possible

According to Wikipedia,

Effective altruism is a philosophical and social movement that advocates “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis”.

According to logic, if it’s good to do good, then it’s better to do more good, therefore you should try to do the most good possible. But I wonder if the social movement of Effective Altruism would be able to do the most good if it encouraged people to do incrementally more good instead of holding a gold standard of people dedicating their lives to the cause. Most people aren’t able to optimize their career for EA and/​or donate most of their income due to lack of motivation, executive function, resources, or other reasons, and even those who do are often trapped in guilty thoughts about whether or not they are doing enough. This is unhealthy.

Similarly, animal advocates such as the Good Food Institute and the author of How to Create a Vegan World believe that to improve animal welfare, the movement should reduce meat consumption by focusing on changing institutions to make dairy and meat substitutes that match the original in taste, appearance, and price. This would result in less meat being eaten in total, compared to the strategy of convincing people to become completely vegetarian or vegan by moral argument. Convincing the world to become vegan or vegetarian one by one is very difficult: while people generally believe in better treatment of animals, most find the barriers to vegetarianism too high to be able to do it for longer than a year, with a third stopping before the 3 month mark. Using a strategy of promoting incremental meat reduction in all individuals over total meat abstinence in some individuals makes the goal much more tractable.

Going a step further: I think that EA should be more actively welcoming of, not only people who forgo significant lifestyle change, but also people who want to donate to or work on causes that aren’t identified as effective by the EA community. As Julia Galef said in a 2017 talk at EA Global (yes, that’s JGL sitting beside her), there are three buckets in which people spend their money: personal expenses, donations to causes that they personally care about, and donations to improve the world, via causes identified to be cost-effective by the Effective Altruism community.[1] Messaging used to try to guilt people into switching money between these three buckets isn’t effective. Julia talks about how EA messaging should focus on the third bucket (giving to improve the world), and I think the next evolution in this movement is that there’s huge potential in promoting effectiveness in furthering personal charitable causes. People normally don’t think at all about effectiveness when they are donating, since they assume that charities have similar levels of effectiveness. In an ideal world, effectiveness would automatically cross someone’s mind whenever they are thinking of giving, no matter what they are giving their money or time to.

Does money spent more effectively on causes that aren’t popular in the EA community result in more money being available to spend on EA causes? It seems reasonable that it might, by raising the general awareness of effectiveness in charitable giving. When GiveDirectly (a non-profit that gives cash to help with poverty) started operating in the United States, they found that donors who started off donating to Americans would later also give money to people in extreme poverty developing countries.[2]

What could it look like if Effective Altruism was focused on making altruism more effective instead of practicing altruism in the most effective way possible? Maybe there would be a lot more global health and development material, since that’s the most common entry point into EA. People are often moved by a story from a specific country, or by people affected by a specific crisis, and could be linked to effective charities that operate specifically in those regions. Maybe effective altruists would get good SEO for more specific cause areas and situations, the way that Giving Green has ranked climate organizations for effectiveness, or like Vox’s article about effective giving for criminal justice reform.

More focus on effectiveness in other cause areas could also develop an area into becoming so cost effective that it becomes widely endorsed by the EA community. I think there is a shortage of effective organizations to give to, compared to the amount of money available. Benjamin Todd estimates that there are 50 billion dollars committed to EA. The money can be spent on anti-malaria nets and deworming medication and save a lot of lives (and billionaires do spend hundreds of millions in these areas), but that amount of money is meant to be leveraged to create new projects with the potential to be even more effective, perhaps even addressing some of the root causes of global inequities. For example, we now know that it’s much more effective to save lives by increasing economic growth (by doing things like opening up trade with a country or giving people jobs who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity) than to do public health interventions such as anti-malaria nets.

Finally, more thinking about effectiveness in cause-specific contexts could also lead to more people dedicating their lives to EA. After all, doing as much good as possible is the logical conclusion. But since it’s less effective to ask people to overhaul their career or lifestyle, I think the best thing we can do is to earnestly help people in making the change they want to see, effectively.


I think Founder’s Pledge already does a pretty good job of this, for rich people. I think EA should do a better job of doing this for regular people.

“What I was most surprised about is the level of support I received. The deployment team listened to what I was most passionate about—Mental Health and Sex Slavery of Women—went away, and then came back with a comprehensive research report that highlighted the best way I could support those charities. They identified the best charities in terms of outcomes, data-driven giving, and transparency.”

Quote from Forbes.

I emailed Founders Pledge about EA versus non-EA causes, and got this response:

Hi Ruth, Thanks for reaching out! Yes, you’re right—folks who sign with us are able to choose where they’d like to donate to, so some of that giving is going to be more EA aligned than the rest. Obviously, we are an EA aligned organisation—so our goal is that we’re increasing the proportion of the overall giving that flows through us that goes to our recommended charities over time. I will say, though, that our selection of recommended charities is pretty tight—just those which really represent maximum impact. So there may be giving which flows through FP which would be considered strongly EA aligned, but which isn’t represented in the figure of how much is donated to our recommended charities. You can check out our 2020 Impact Report for more updated figures on our giving, and keep an eye our for our 2021 Impact Report which should be out towards the end of January. Warmest, Carrie

Dan Wahl notes that this is reminiscent of Parfit’s Hitchhiker.

Further reading

  1. ↩︎

    Will MacAskill said in the same 2017 talk that the “causes I personally care about” bucket of spending can actually be broken down into even more buckets, such as reciprocity (e.g. giving to the college you attended), identity (e.g. giving to an LGBTQ+ group), and personal connection (e.g. donating to your brother, who’s running a marathon for charity).

  2. ↩︎