What actually is effective altruism?

Effective altruism isn’t about any particular way of doing good, like AI alignment or distributing malaria nets. Rather, it’s a way of thinking.

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Last summer, I wrote a new introduction to effective altruism for effectivealtruism.org. In it, I tried to sum up the effective altruism way of thinking in terms of four values. (I wrote this newsletter before FTX collapsed, but maybe that makes it even more important to reiterate the core values of EA.)

  1. Prioritisation. Resources are limited, so we have to make hard choices between potential interventions. While helping 10 people might feel as satisfying as helping 100, those extra 90 people really matter. And it turns out that some ways of helping achieve dramatically more than others, so it’s vital to really try to roughly compare ways we might help in terms of scale and effectiveness.
  2. Impartial altruism. It’s reasonable and good to have special concern for one’s own family, friends, life, etc. But when trying to do good in general, we should give everyone’s interests equal weight — no matter where or even when they live. People matter equally. And we should also give due weight to the interests of nonhumans.
  3. Open truth-seeking. Rather than starting with a commitment to a certain cause, consider many different ways to help and try to find the best ones you can. Put serious time into deliberation and reflection, be constantly curious for new evidence, and be ready to change your views quite radically.
  4. Collaborative spirit. We can achieve more by working together. This requires high standards of honesty, friendliness, and a community perspective. Effective altruism is about cultivating a good character while ambitiously working towards a better world.

Although effective altruism is better defined by these values rather than any particular project, these values can be illustrated by concrete applications. So the essay also has lots more detail on issues and projects that people inspired by effective altruism have worked on. Because the values can be applied in many ways, this includes a wide range of areas, including preventing pandemics, AI alignment, and ending factory farming.

I’d also say effective altruism is not about “doing the most good,” which sounds like saying you’re obligated to give all your money away and is effectively the same as utilitarianism.

Instead, the essay defines effective altruism as the ongoing projects of finding the best ways to help others and putting them into practice — part research field and part practical community. Anyone who is participating in these projects is participating in effective altruism, no matter how much time or money they want to (or can) give, or what issue they choose to focus on.

Effective altruism matters because it can enable anyone interested in doing good to achieve more.

Effective altruism can (somewhat grandiosely) 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 counter to tradition. Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good — even if the results are similarly surprising.

The values of effective altruism can sound obvious… and they are. But so are the values of science. It’s what science implies that’s interesting (quantum mechanics, evolution, and so on). And the same is true of effective altruism.

For instance, only something like 6% of US philanthropy is spent internationally, under 0.5% on reducing catastrophic risks, and only 0.02% on ending factory farming. So these issues — which effective altruism has shed light on — are far from obvious.

In the modern world, our actions can sometimes greatly affect hundreds of others — or even more. These consequences really matter. But we don’t factor them in nearly enough.

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