Effective altruism is widely misunderstood, even among its supporters.
A 2019 paper — The Definition of Effective Altruism by Will MacAskill — lists some of the most common misconceptions. It’s aimed at academic philosophers, but works as a general summary as well.
In short, effective altruism is commonly viewed as being about the moral obligation to donate as much money as possible to evidence-backed global poverty charities, or other measurable ways of making a short-term impact.
In fact, the core idea of effective altruism is not about any specific way of doing good.
Rather, the core idea is that some ways of contributing to the common good are far more effective than typical. In other words, ‘best’ is far better than ‘pretty good’, and that seeking out the best will let you have far more impact. (If I were writing a business book, I would say it’s the ’80/20 principle’ applied to doing good.)
Insofar as people interested in effective altruism do in practice focus on specific ways of doing good, donating to global health charities is just one. As I’ll explain below, a majority focus on different issues, such as seeking to help future generations by reducing global catastrophic risks, or reducing animal suffering by ending factory farming.
And they often do this by working on high-risk high-return projects rather than evidence-backed ones, and through research, policy-change and entrepreneurship rather than donations.
What unites people interested in effective altruism is they pose the question – how can I best contribute with what I’m willing to use to help others? – rather than how they answer that question.
What actually is effective altruism?
Effective altruism is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.
It’s both a research field that aims to identify the world’s most pressing problems and the best solutions to them, and a practical community that aims to use those findings to do good.
Effective altruism can be defined by four key values:
- Prioritisation: helping 100 people often makes us feel as satisfied as helping 1,000. But some ways of doing good achieve dramatically more than others. Effective altruism is about finding the best ways to help, rather than just working to make any difference at all.
- Impartial altruism: all people count equally — effective altruism aims to give everyone’s interests equal weight, no matter where or when they live. When combined with prioritisation, this often results in focusing on neglected groups who don’t have as much power to protect their own interests.
- Open truth-seeking: effective altruism doesn’t have any prior commitment to a certain cause, community, or approach. In order to prioritise effectively, effective altruism requires putting serious time into deliberation and reflection on one’s beliefs, being constantly open and curious for new evidence and arguments, and being ready to change one’s views quite radically.
- Collaborative spirit: it’s possible to achieve more by working together, and doing this effectively requires high standards of honesty, friendliness, and a community perspective. Effective altruism is not about ‘ends justify the means’ reasoning — rather, it is about being a good citizen, while ambitiously working toward a better world.
Anyone who shares these values and is trying to find better ways to help others is participating in effective altruism. This is true no matter how much time or money they want to give, or which issue they choose to focus on.
Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good. In this way, effective altruism can be compared to the scientific method. Science is the use of evidence and reason in search of truth — even if the results are unintuitive or run counter to tradition. The scientific method is based on simple ideas (e.g. that you should test your beliefs) but it leads to a radically different picture of the world (e.g. quantum mechanics). Likewise, effective altruism is based on simple ideas — that we should treat everyone equally and it’s better to help more individuals than fewer — but it leads to an unconventional and ever-evolving picture of doing good.
Read a longer introduction to effective altruism
Below, we excerpt more detail on these misconceptions from Will’s paper.
Misconception #1: Effective altruism is just about fighting poverty
The vast majority of the focus on effective altruism in the media, and in critical discussions, has been on the part of effective altruism that is about fighting poverty. For example, Judith Lichtenberg begins her article with the question, “How much money, time, and effort should you be giving to relieve dire poverty?” Jennifer Rubenstein describes effective altruism as “a social movement focused on alleviating poverty,” and Iason Gabriel describes effective altruism as encouraging “individuals to do as much good as possible, typically by contributing money to the best-performing aid and development organisations.”
It is, of course, true that fighting poverty is one core focus of those in the effective altruism community. In the 2017 EA survey, 41% of respondents identified extreme poverty as their top priority cause area, and some effective altruist organisations such as GiveWell are exclusively focused on poverty alleviation, just as some other organisations within effective altruism are focused exclusively on animal welfare, or existential risks. (Editor’s note: among the most involved ~40% of the community, only 14% are focused on poverty.)
But two core parts of effective altruism are cause-neutrality and means-neutrality: being open in principle to focusing on any problem (such as global health, or climate change, or factory farming) and being open in principle to using any (non side-constraint violating) means to addressing that problem. In every case, the criterion is just what activity will do the most good. Cause and means neutrality follows straightforwardly from the assumptions of maximisation and impartial welfarism. If, by focusing on one cause rather than another, or by choosing one means rather than another, one can do more to promote wellbeing (without violating any side-constraints) then someone who is committed to effective altruism will do so.
And, in practice, members of the effective altruism community support many other causes, including animal suffering reduction, criminal justice reform, and existential risk mitigation. In the 2017 EA survey, in addition to the 41% of respondents who identified extreme poverty as their top priority cause area, 19% of respondents chose cause prioritization as the top priority, 16% chose AI, 14% chose environmentalism, 12% chose promoting rationality, 10% chose non-AI existential risk, and 10% chose animal welfare. These results were broadly similar to the 2015 and 2014 surveys: poverty is the most common focus area for individuals in the effective altruism community, but is not the focus for the majority of individuals in the community.
This is mirrored when we look at the distribution of grants by the Open Philanthropy Project. In 2017, they spent:
- $118 million (42%) on global health and development
- $43 million (15%) on potential risks from advanced artificial intelligence
- $36 million (13%) on scientific research (which cuts across other causes)
- $28 million (10%) on biosecurity and pandemic preparedness
- $27 million (10%) on farm animal welfare
- $10 million (4%) on criminal justice reform
- $9 million (3%) on other global catastrophic risks
- $10 million (4%) on other cause areas, including land use reform, macroeconomic policy, immigration policy, promotion of effective altruism and improving decision-making
(Editor’s note: If we also look at spending 2018-2019, the proportion to global health is lower – at around 32%.)
The amount of money received by the Effective Altruism Funds — where individual donors can give to a fund managed by an expert for regranting within a particular cause area — tells a similar story. In 2017 it received:
- $982,000 (48%) for the global health and development fund
- $409,000 (20%) for the animal welfare fund
- $363,000 (18%) for the long-term future fund
- $290,000 (14%) for the effective altruism community fund
So, in contrast to the equation of effective altruism with poverty reduction only, a more accurate description would be that the effective altruism community currently focuses on extreme poverty, factory farming, and existential risk, with a small number of other areas of focus.
Misconception #2: Effective altruism is entirely about donations or earning to give
Most media attention focuses on the part of effective altruism that focuses on effective altruism as applied to donations, and a significant proportion has focused on the idea of ‘earning to give’ — that people should deliberately pursue a lucrative career in order to be able to donate a large proportion of those earnings to effective charities.
This is also true for the criticism of effective altruism. Iason Gabriel described effective altruism as ‘a philosophy and social movement that aims to revolutionise the way we do philanthropy’, and focuses his discussion on effective altruism and charity. Similarly, Jennifer Rubenstein’s review of Doing Good Better and The Most Good You Can Do focuses on the charitable side of the effective altruism movement.
There’s no doubt that philanthropy is a major focus of the effective altruism community, and 80,000 Hours recognise that we promoted earning to give too heavily in our early marketing materials, and so it’s entirely reasonable for an article to focus on that aspect. But it means that a casual observer could think that this is all that the effective altruism community focuses on, even though it is not the only focus.
80,000 Hours is entirely focused on helping individuals to use their career as effectively as possible. And we recommend that only about 15% of altruistic graduates who would be happy in a wide variety of career paths should earn to give in the long term. Similarly, in large part because of the success of the EA movement at raising philanthropic money, the primary focus of the Centre for Effective Altruism is to encourage people to move into working in particularly important causes, rather than funding those causes. And in the 2015 EA survey, survey-takers were asked, ‘What broad career path are you planning to follow?’ Though earning to give was the most common response, receiving 36% of responses, 13% selected ‘non-profit’ work, 25% selected ‘research’, and 26% selected ‘none of these’. It seems that most members of the effective altruism community, therefore, do not plan to use donations as their main path to impact.
Misconception #3: Effective altruism ignores systemic change
Of all the criticisms of effective altruism, the most common is that effective altruism ignores systemic change. For example, Brian Leiter comments that: “I am a bit skeptical of undertakings like [effective altruism], for the simple reason that most human misery has systemic causes, which charity never addresses, but which political change can address; ergo, all money and effort should go towards systemic and political reform.” This objection is also discussed by Amia Srinivasan, Iason Gabriel, and Jennifer Rubenstein.
But effective altruism is clearly open to systemic change in both principle and practice. We can distinguish a broader and a narrower sense of ‘systemic change’. In the broader sense, a systemic change is any change that involves a one-off investment in order to reap a long-lasting benefit. In the narrower sense, ‘systemic change’ refers to long-lasting political change. Either way, the allegation is often that those in the effective altruism community have been biased by a desire for quantification away from difficult-to-assess measures such as political change.
It’s clear that effective altruism is open to systemic change in principle: effective altruism is committed to cause-neutrality and means neutrality, so if improving the world in some systemic way is the course of action that will do the most good (in expectation, without violating any side constraints), then it’s the best course of action by effective altruism’s lights. More importantly, however, effective altruists often advocate for systemic change in practice, even in the narrower sense. An incomplete list of examples is as follows.
- International labour mobility has been a focus area of members of the effective altruism community for some time. Openborders.info, run by a member of the effective altruism community, collates research on and promotes the option of dramatic increases in migration from poor to rich countries. Open Philanthropy has made grants in this area, including to the Center for Global Development, the US Association for International Migration, and ImmigrationWorks. The reason for this focus is that one of the structural reasons why people in poor countries are poor is that they are unable to move to countries where they could be more productive. In effect, they are being incarcerated in the country into which they were born by the joint migration restrictions of all other countries. For this reason, there are economic arguments that the benefits to people in poverty from greater freedom of movement across borders would be enormous.
- The Center for Election Science promotes alternative voting systems, in particular approval voting; it’s run by a member of the effective altruism community, and received a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project at my recommendation.
- The Centre for Effective Altruism has provided advice for the World Bank, the WHO, the Department for International Development, and Number 10 Downing Street.
- 80,000 Hours’ list of recommended careers includes party politics, policy-oriented civil service and think-tanks, and has an employee entirely dedicated to advising people who wish to work in policy and government in the area of technological risk.
- The animal welfare wing of the effective altruism community, including Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, has had astonishing success by lobbying large retailers and fast food chains to get them to pledge to no longer use eggs from caged hens in their supply chain.
- Organisations such as the Future of Humanity Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk are actively working on policy around developments of new technology, and advising organisations such as the US government, UK government and the UN.
- The Open Philanthropy Project has made numerous grants within the areas of land use reform, criminal justice reform, improving political decision-making, and macroeconomic policy.
Once we consider the broader sense of systemic change, then an even larger proportion of effort from the effective altruism community is focused on systemic change. For example, all work addressing existential risks is in this category, as is the focus on scientific research and on improving science (such as through encouraging preregistration of trials).
Of course, it’s perfectly plausible that there are ‘systemic’ interventions that those in the effective altruism community are neglecting. Perhaps campaigning to create an international law banning the purchase of natural resources from dictatorships is an even more effective activity than any of the current activities of effective altruists. But this is an in-house dispute, rather than a criticism of effective altruism per se. One could argue that it’s in the nature of the way of thinking of those in the effective altruism community that this idea is neglected.
But there are ready alternative explanations: the chance of such a campaign being successful is astronomically low and, even if it were successful, even in the best case scenarios the legal change would occur decades hence, when the problem of extreme poverty will probably be far smaller than it is today. Given this, and given the commitments to systemic change listed above, it’s hard to see why we should think of this as a criticism of effective altruism per se, rather than simply a disagreement about the best ways of promoting wellbeing.
Misconception #4: Effective altruism is just utilitarianism
Effective altruism is often considered to simply be a rebranding of utilitarianism, or to merely refer to applied utilitarianism. John Gray, for example, refers to ‘utilitarian effective altruists’, and in his critique does not distinguish between effective altruism and utilitarianism. Giles Fraser claims that the ‘big idea’ of effective altruism is ‘to encourage a broadly utilitarian/rationalist approach to doing good.’
It is true that effective altruism has some similarities with utilitarianism: it is maximising, it is primarily focused on improving wellbeing, many members of the community make significant sacrifices in order to do more good, and many members of the community self-describe as utilitarians.
But this is very different from effective altruism being the same as utilitarianism. Unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism does not claim that one must always sacrifice one’s own interests if one can benefit others to a greater extent. Indeed, on the above definition effective altruism makes no claims about what obligations of benevolence one has.
Unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism does not claim that one ought always to do the good, no matter what the means; indeed, as suggested in the guiding principles, there is a strong community norm against ‘ends justify the means’ reasoning. This is emphasised strongly, for example, in an 80,000 Hours blog post by myself and Ben Todd.
Finally, unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism does not claim that the good equals the sum total of wellbeing. As noted above, it is compatible with egalitarianism, prioritarianism, and, because it does not claim that wellbeing is the only thing of value, with views on which non-welfarist goods are of value.
In general, very many plausible moral views entail that there is a pro tanto reason to promote the good, and that improving wellbeing is of moral value. If a moral view endorses those two ideas, then effective altruism is part of the morally good life.
If you’re interested in how effective altruism is defined, you might like to read the whole article — or for a less academic intro, try reading this introduction to effective altruism.
If you’d like to see more academic research about effective altruism, see publications by the Global Priorities Institute.