What is an effective altruist?

80,000 Hours is built around the idea of effective altruism. What does that mean?

At its most basic, effective altruism is based on two simpler concepts: effectiveness and altruism. So far so good. Altruism means wanting to help other people. It means thinking that other people’s welfare matters.

Effectiveness is a more fiddly idea. It’s about doing something well. Say I’m in the business of making match-sticks. It’s all well and good to take a whole tree and whittle away at it until all that remains is a match-stick. You’ve done what you set out to do, but you could have done much more with your time.

That idea doesn’t just apply to making things. It applies to your friendships too. Suppose a friend comes to me looking for support. For me, it’s very tempting to try to analyse and solve their problem. But that’s often actually not a particularly helpful thing to do. Here, being a good friend means taking the time to think about what will help the most, and doing it.

An effective altruist doesn’t just do what feels most helpful. They pause a moment and think about what will work best, and then they do it. This site has lots of examples of the sorts of conclusions you might reach.

The important point is that an effective altruist will often reach conclusions that someone who is just an altruist might never reach. Suppose, for example, Jim is a massive programming geek. He loves writing software and wants to found a tech start-up. But he also wants to do good, because he’s an altruist. The altruistic conclusion he might reach is that helping people matters enough to him that he’ll give up his career as a programmer in order to be a (not particularly good) full-time campaigner against climate change. There are pretty good reasons to think that he might actually be able to do more good with his start-up, by donating much of his profits to causes he cares about.

That’s one way things could go. In that example, it seemed like Jim had to choose between doing something he loved and something he cared about. Once he thought about it, he could do both what he loves and what he cares about.

But couldn’t it go another way? Maybe for Jim, what he cares about isn’t avoiding climate change, but the campaigning itself. Or consider Lizzie. Like Jim, Lizzie really cares about climate change. She wants to be a climate scientist, but she’s realised that although she would enjoy it she’s probably not going to make too much difference as a climate scientist. She’s realised she’s just not outstanding, and it’s a very attractive field for researchers. She figures she could probably make a bigger difference working for a hedge fund and donating to fund the best climate science. But the thought of working at that sort of institution fills her with dread.

Does her calculation mean she should suck it up and go work at the hedge fund? Of course not. An effective altruist is still a person. Everybody has things they just don’t want to do. Often it’s because we think that it actually is bad in the long run. But Lizzie actually doesn’t think working for a hedge fund does that much harm. She’s actually just not comfortable with the idea – it’s not something where any sort of impact estimate could change her mind.

Does that mean she’s not an effective altruist? Again, of course not. Life choices are an immensely complicated balance of thoughtful argument and heartfelt intuitions. An effective altruist wants to harness their heartfelt desire to do good by taking the consequences of their choices seriously. That’s all.

An effective altruist doesn’t need to calculate every outcome and pick the one that scores highest. Sometimes the calculations are just too hard. Sometimes it’s just about something you shouldn’t be calculating about. And sometimes the issue just matters enough to you that you won’t be swayed. That’s fine, but as an effective altruist you should probably be aware of the choice you’re making and understand why it matters to you.

Consider two charities. One prevents blindness in hundreds of children for the same amount that it costs to train a seeing-eye dog. If you think that, on balance, you’d rather give to the charity that does more with your money, you’re an effective altruist.

Or think about two jobs. In one, you’ll be directly helping feed hungry children by handing them grain. In the other, you’ll be organising the food delivery infrastructure for a country, enabling hundreds of people to do the job you would have done. If you’d rather make it possible for more people to get fed, you’re an effective altruist.

Effective altruism is really a very intuitive idea. It’s about doing good well.