Disagreeing about what’s effective isn’t disagreeing with effective altruism


Lately I have had the uncanny experience of reading supposed ‘rebuttals’ of effective altruism that just say a bunch of things that I and most of my colleagues agree with. As we are some of the most involved people in the effective altruism movement, this is strange to say the least.

What is going on here is that effective altruism is both a narrow core idea, and a bunch of associated ideas. Some of these associated ideas happen to be widely held by people who describe themselves as effective altruists – others don’t even meet that standard.

What is the core idea?

  • Effective altruism is the use of evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible.

Many of my colleagues would want to add here that you ‘should’ use evidence and reason to help others as much as possible. But there is no consensus on whether engaging in ‘effective altruism’ is a moral duty, or just something we should be enthusiastic about because we care about others.

What about the associated ideas? I could listed dozens, but some are:

  • It’s highly effective to give to GiveWell recommended charities;
  • Randomised controlled trials are a great way to figure out what works in development;
  • Animal welfare is an important thing to worry about;
  • Humans run a serious risk of a horrible catastrophe in the next century;
  • Earning a lot of money and giving it away is a good career path;
  • And many others.

Now, notice that none of these are inevitably entailed by the core idea.

One could easily think that you should use evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible, and think that GiveWell’s recommended charities completely stink. Or want to do as much good as possible, but think the evidence is that randomised controlled trials are too expensive to justify their cost most of the time.

While I am passionate about helping others as much as possible, I personally do not give to GiveWell’s recommend charities any more, because I think better options are being uncovered, for example by GiveWell’s sister project, the Open Philanthropy Project.

Does that mean I don’t agree with ‘effective altruism’? No.

A lot of vegetarians like kale, but just because you don’t like kale doesn’t mean you eat meat.

Similarly, I can think some scientific paper reached the wrong conclusion, without disagreeing with the goal of expanding our understanding of the natural world, let alone the scientific method.

What makes this even worse is that many of the claims attributed to effective altruists are not even that widely held.

Effective altruists are often cited as believing that only giving to GiveWell’s classic ‘proven’, ‘scalable’, ‘transparent’ charities is a good idea, or that these options are much more effective than everything else. My experience is that only about 10-20% of people who identify as effective altruists actually endorse this view with any confidence – a subgroup that for a while were being referred to as ‘skeptical altruists’ for their insistence on especially strong empirical evidence of impact. Most are receptive to other options being as effective as these recommendations, or even better.

Effective altruists are often cited as being skeptical of attempting to ‘change the system’, but a snap poll on the ‘Effective Altruists’ Facebook group – admittedly an imperfect sample – showed systemic change was actually more popular than any of the alternatives.

80,000 Hours is often cited as claiming ‘earning to give’ is clearly the best career option for most. A quick perusal of our career guide would show that is far from what we believe, though the misunderstanding is partly our own fault for not pushing back enough against massive media coverage of the ‘earning to give’ concept.

So next time someone says they disagree with effective altruism because they don’t go along with some very specific conclusion, you can put their mind to rest: they probably don’t disagree with ‘effective altruism’. Rather they just disagree with some fellow effective altruists about how to help others the most. But that’s also true of me, and in fact true of everyone. If we never disagreed, we would never make any progress figuring out how to do better! And as the above shows, even that disagreement may be illusory.

Have I now defined ‘effective altruism’ to be so obvious that nobody could challenge it? I find the idea of doing as much good as possible in the world to be very compelling. However, many people do actually disagree with the core concept! Some because they don’t believe there is a ‘right and wrong’ and are not personally excited about the idea of helping others. Some because they believe that trying to ‘maximise’ how much you help others is the wrong way to go about it. Some because they think using evidence and analysis detracts from your ability to actually help people by having a nurturing and irreplaceable relationship with them. Such people can correctly say they are indifferent to, or dislike, effective altruism.

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