What Is Effective Altruism?

[Author’s note: I am ab­solutely con­fi­dent I got this defi­ni­tion from some­where else, but I’ve looked for it ex­ten­sively and haven’t been able to find it, and I’d like to be able to refer­ence it, so I’m writ­ing it up. Sorry, origi­nal in­ven­tor of this defi­ni­tion, whom I have failed to credit.]

Defi­ni­tions of effec­tive al­tru­ism are of­ten very vague. The Cen­tre for Effec­tive Altru­ism defines effec­tive al­tru­ism as “us­ing ev­i­dence and rea­son to figure out how to benefit oth­ers as much as pos­si­ble, and tak­ing ac­tion on that ba­sis.” The Effec­tive Altru­ism Foun­da­tion defines effec­tive al­tru­ism as “a philos­o­phy and a so­cial move­ment which holds that ac­tively helping oth­ers is of cen­tral moral im­por­tance, and ap­proaches the choice of pos­si­ble strate­gies in a ra­tio­nal and sci­en­tific way.” Var­i­ous book ti­tles define it as Do­ing Good Bet­ter or The Most Good You Can Do.

I’ve talked to peo­ple who are con­fused by these defi­ni­tions. It seems like in prin­ci­ple feed­ing hun­gry peo­ple in Amer­ica or shel­ter­ing stray cats could be done in a ra­tio­nal and sci­en­tific way, and they cer­tainly in­volves ac­tively helping oth­ers; some peo­ple are con­fused that effec­tive al­tru­ists don’t tell them how to most effec­tively help stray cats or poor Amer­i­cans. Other peo­ple be­lieve that effec­tive al­tru­ism is solely about donat­ing to global health char­i­ties that have been shown to work in ran­dom­ized con­trol­led tri­als and are con­fused by the fact that many effec­tive al­tru­ists are in­volved in causes with scanty or no peer-re­viewed sci­en­tific back­ing.

I’d like to sug­gest a bet­ter defi­ni­tion. In many ways, effec­tive al­tru­ism is a big tent: it is clearly not limited to a sin­gle cause or way of ar­gu­ing. How­ever, I think there is a dis­tinc­tive effec­tive al­tru­ism ap­proach to do­ing good, which is worth defin­ing.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is sec­u­lar. It does not recom­mend char­i­ties that most effec­tively get peo­ple into Heaven, cause peo­ple to have a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Je­sus, or cause peo­ple to reach en­light­en­ment, de­spite the many re­li­gious peo­ple that be­lieve that these are more im­por­tant ways to benefit oth­ers than pre­vent­ing nu­clear war or erad­i­cat­ing malaria.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is out­come-ori­ented. When you jus­tify a course of ac­tion from an effec­tive al­tru­ist point of view, you must ex­plain why you be­lieve this course of ac­tion will cause some spe­cific good thing to go up or some spe­cific bad thing to go down– how it will re­duce deaths, make peo­ple healthier, im­prove ed­u­ca­tion, pre­vent hu­man ex­tinc­tion, or cause fewer an­i­mals to suffer tor­tur­ous lives. You can­not jus­tify the course of ac­tion by say­ing that it is what a vir­tu­ous per­son would do, or that there is some rule that says that ev­ery­one should do it, or that it re­spects hu­man dig­nity, or that it seems like the sort of thing some­one ought to be do­ing even if it has no effects what­so­ever.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is max­i­miz­ing. It is, as the book ti­tle says, about do­ing the most good you can do. An effec­tive al­tru­ist ap­proach does not in­volve list­ing off twenty things that we think pass a cer­tain thresh­old for good­ness. It in­volves say­ing what you think the sin­gle best thing is. Of course, there is un­cer­tainty, so you might say “I don’t know which of these five things are best.” And some things might be bet­ter for one per­son than for an­other. If try­ing to be ve­gan will put you in the hos­pi­tal, then ob­vi­ously be­ing ve­gan is not The Most Good You Can Do. If you’re an amaz­ing poli­ti­cal ac­tivist and a mediocre AI al­ign­ment re­searcher, then it might be best for you to be a poli­ti­cal ac­tivist, even if it’s best for an amaz­ing AI al­ign­ment re­searcher to be an AI al­ign­ment re­searcher.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is cause-im­par­tial. Many peo­ple choose which cause they work on for rea­sons other than try­ing to have the most pos­i­tive effect on the world. They choose a cause that they’re pas­sion­ate about, or that they have a per­sonal con­nec­tion to, or that makes them feel warm and fuzzy feel­ings. They donate to a par­tic­u­lar char­ity out of habit or be­cause some­one asked them to. Effec­tive al­tru­ism, how­ever, is im­par­tial be­tween causes: effec­tive al­tru­ism recom­mends that peo­ple do what­ever seems to be best, not what­ever gives them the warmest and fuzziest feel­ings.

Effec­tive al­tru­ism is egal­i­tar­ian. Effec­tive al­tru­ism val­ues all peo­ple equally: that is, from the effec­tive al­tru­ism per­spec­tive, sav­ing the life of a baby in Africa is ex­actly as good as sav­ing the life of a baby in Amer­ica, which is ex­actly as good as sav­ing the life of Ozy’s baby speci­fi­cally. Effec­tive al­tru­ism does not value some be­ings more and other be­ings less be­cause they live in differ­ent places, or be­cause one is cuter or more sym­pa­thetic than the other, or be­cause one has a differ­ent skin tone than an­other. De­spite some difficul­ties about how to jus­tify it philo­soph­i­cally, effec­tive al­tru­ism gen­er­ally be­lieves that fu­ture peo­ple are as im­por­tant as pre­sent peo­ple. While there is con­tro­versy about to what ex­tent non­hu­man an­i­mals should be val­ued, effec­tive al­tru­ism is not speciesist: if effec­tive al­tru­ism should not value non­hu­man an­i­mals, it is be­cause they can’t feel pain, can’t suffer, are not con­scious, or are in­ca­pable of hav­ing long-term prefer­ences, not be­cause of their species mem­ber­ship.

I have been care­ful through­out this post to say “effec­tive al­tru­ism” rather than “effec­tive al­tru­ists.” Cer­tainly, it’s not an ac­ci­dent that effec­tive al­tru­ists are typ­i­cally athe­ists with con­se­quen­tial­ist eth­i­cal sys­tems. There’s a nat­u­ral har­mony be­tween sec­u­lar, out­come-ori­ented effec­tive al­tru­ism and athe­ist con­se­quen­tial­ism. If a per­son be­lieves that con­vert­ing peo­ple is so im­por­tant that it’s a waste of time to feed bel­lies in­stead of souls, or that out­comes don’t mat­ter at all, or that peo­ple in Amer­ica are mil­lions of times more im­por­tant than peo­ple in Africa, they are un­likely to benefit much from effec­tive al­tru­ism and can safely ig­nore our recom­men­da­tions. But many peo­ple who do not fully agree with all the val­ues of effec­tive al­tru­ism can de­rive value from an effec­tive al­tru­ism ap­proach.

For ex­am­ple, you might rule out cer­tain courses of ac­tion like kil­ling peo­ple, even if they lead to the best out­comes. How­ever, since As­sas­s­ins Without Borders is not very likely to be recom­mended as a top char­ity any time soon, an out­come-ori­ented ap­proach can still help you figure out your ca­reer and dona­tion de­ci­sions. You might be re­li­gious but be­lieve in an obli­ga­tion to help peo­ple in this world rather than just the next; per­haps you split your effort and dona­tions be­tween re­li­gious and sec­u­lar causes, and use effec­tive al­tru­ism to guide your sec­u­lar effort.

In fact, very very few effec­tive al­tru­ists ap­ply the effec­tive al­tru­ism ap­proach to ev­ery as­pect of their lives. Pro­fes­sional effec­tive al­tru­ists write a lot of fan­fic­tion, which would be weird if they were try­ing to max­i­mize the amount of good they’re do­ing with ev­ery mo­ment. And I for one am will­ing to spend much more money to save the life of my baby than I am to save the life of some un­re­lated baby. Nev­er­the­less, I find effec­tive al­tru­ism very valuable in figur­ing out how to do the most good with the time, effort, and en­ergy I’m will­ing to spend on that.