Most of us want to make a difference. We see suffering, injustice and death, and are moved to do something about them. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone actually doing it, is a difficult problem.
Effective altruism is about working out how we should help others, using evidence and reason. And it’s about acting on the basis of what we find: focusing on the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems.
History contains many examples of people who have had a huge positive impact on the world.
Irena Sendler saved 2500 Jewish children from the Holocaust by providing them with false identity documents and smuggling them out of the Warsaw ghetto. Norman Borlaug’s research into disease-resistant wheat precipitated the ‘Green Revolution’. He has been credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives. Stanislav Petrov prevented all-out nuclear war simply by being calm under pressure and being willing to disobey orders.
These people might seem like unrelatable heroes, who were enormously brave, or skilled, or who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But many people in developed countries can also have a tremendous positive impact on the world, if they choose wisely.
The most straightforward way many people can have a large impact is with their money. For example, a person earning the typical income in the US, who donates 10% of their earnings each year to the Against Malaria Foundation will probably save dozens of lives over their lifetime.
This is such an astonishing fact that it’s hard to appreciate. Imagine if, one day, you see a burning building with a small child inside. You run into the blaze, pick up the child, and carry them to safety. You would be a hero. Now imagine that this happened to you every two years - you’d save dozens of lives over the course of your career. This sounds like a bizarre world. But current evidence suggests that this is the world that many people live in. People earning average developed-world incomes can probably save dozens of lives by donating to effective global health charities.
But the world appears to be even stranger, because many people have opportunities that look even better than this. How? First, many talented people can have a greater impact by working directly on important problems than by donating. Second, other causes might prove even more important than global poverty and health, as we’ll discuss below.
But how much better than effective donations might the best interventions be?
In most areas of life, we understand that it’s important to base our decisions on evidence and reason rather than guesswork or gut instinct. When you buy a phone, you will read customer reviews to get the best deal. Certainly, you won't buy a phone which costs 1000 times more than an identical model.
Yet we are not always so discerning when we work on global problems.
Below is a chart from an essay by Dr Toby Ord, showing the number of years of healthy life you can save by donating $1,000 on a particular intervention to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. The chart shows figures for five different strategies.
The first intervention, surgical treatment, can’t even be seen on this scale, because it has such a small impact relative to other interventions. And the best strategy, educating high risk groups, is estimated to be 1,400 times better than that. (It’s possible that these estimates might be inaccurate, or might not capture all of the relevant effects. But it seems likely that there are still big differences between interventions.)
We suspect that the difference in intervention effectiveness is similarly large in other cause areas, though we don’t have as clear data as we do in global health. Why do we think this? Partly because, of projects which are tested, most don’t appear to have a significant positive impact. And, more optimistically, because there appear to be some interventions which have an enormous impact. But without knowing which experts to trust, or which techniques to trust in one’s own research, it can be very hard to tell these apart.
Which interventions are highest impact remains an important open question. Comparing different ways of doing good is difficult, both emotionally and practically. But these comparisons are vital to ensure we help others as much as we can.
The media often focuses on negative stories.
But in many ways, the world is getting better. Concerted efforts to improve the world have already had phenomenal success. Let’s consider just a few examples. The number of people living under the World Bank’s poverty line has more than halved since 1990. We lived through the Cold War without a single nuclear weapon being used against another country. Over the last few centuries, we have abolished chattel slavery, dramatically decreased the oppression of women, and, in many countries, done a great deal to secure the rights and acceptance of people who are gay, bi, trans or queer.
Nevertheless, many problems remain. Around 800 million people live on less than $2 per day. Climate change and disruptive new technologies have the potential to negatively impact billions of people in the future. Billions of animals spend short lives in inhumane conditions on factory farms. There are so many problems that we need to think carefully about which ones we should prioritize solving.
The cause that you choose to work on is a big factor in how much good you can do. If you choose a cause where it’s not possible to help very many people, or where there just aren’t any good ways to solve the relevant problems, then you will significantly limit the amount of impact you can have.
If, on the other hand, you choose a cause with great prospects and tested solutions, you may have an enormous impact. For instance, some attempts to reduce the suffering of animals appear to be incredibly effective. Just since 2015, a small group of campaigners - with relatively small budgets - have helped improve the conditions of hundreds of millions of chickens who were suffering in US factory farms.
Many people are motivated to do good, but already have a cause of choice before beginning research. There are lots of reasons for this, such as personal experience with a problem, or having a friend who’s already raising money for a particular organisation.
But if we choose a cause that simply happens to be salient to us, we may overlook the most important problems of our time. Given that most interventions seem to have low impact, we’re likely to focus on something that is not very impactful if we don’t pick carefully. But it may be even worse than this: issues that are salient to us are probably also salient to others like us, so it’s likely there will be lots of other people working on those issues. This might mean that our additional efforts have even less impact. So going with whichever cause we’re first drawn to seems like a bad strategy.
By remaining open to working on different causes, we’re able to pivot to where we can make the biggest difference, without locking ourselves in too early.
How, then, can we figure out which causes we should focus on? Researchers have found the following framework to be useful: Working on a cause is likely to be high impact to the extent that it is:
Great in scale (they affect many people’s lives, by a great amount)
Highly solvable (additional resources will do a great deal to address the problem), and
Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing them).
(You can see a more in-depth discussion on cause-selection here.)
On the basis of this reasoning, there are several cause areas that have particular prominence amongst members of the effective altruism community.
These choices are not immutable. They simply represent best guesses about where we can have the most impact, given the evidence currently available. As new evidence comes to light that suggests different causes are more promising, we should consider working on those instead. It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if a person is motivated to choose a good cause rather than the best cause, their impact can still be much larger than it might have been.
Many of us care about the wellbeing of people, even if they haven’t been born yet. Because the future is so vast, the number of people who could exist in the future is probably many times greater than the number of people alive today. It may be that civilization is still in its infancy, even if its potential is great. This suggests that it may be extremely important to ensure that life on earth continues, and that people in the future have positive lives.
Unfortunately, there are many ways in which we might miss out on a very positive long-term future. Climate change and nuclear war are well-known threats to the long-term survival of our species. Many researchers believe that risks from emerging technologies, such as advanced artificial intelligence and novel designed pathogens, may be even more important to mitigate. These technologies have the potential to radically shape the course of progress over the centuries to come.
Yet existential risks stemming from these technologies have been surprisingly neglected - there are just tens of people working on AI or novel designed pathogen risks worldwide. US households spend around 2% of their budgets on personal insurance, on average. If we were to spend a comparable percentage of global resources on addressing risks to civilization, there would be millions of people working on these problems, with a budget of trillions of dollars per year. But instead, we spend just a tiny fraction of that amount, even though such risks may become substantial in the decades to come. If we value protection against unlikely but terrible outcomes individually, as our insurance coverage suggests we do, we should also value protection against terrible outcomes collectively. After all, a collective terrible outcome, like human extinction, is terrible for everyone individually, too. For this reason, many people in the effective altruism community think that it would be prudent for our civilization to spend more time and money mitigating x-risks.
Many people in the effective altruism community believe that we should be concerned about the welfare of nonhuman animals. In particular, the advent of industrialised agriculture means that billions of animals each year are kept in inhumane conditions on factory farms. Most have their lives ended prematurely when they are slaughtered for food. Advocates for their welfare argue that it is relatively cheap to reduce demand for factory farmed meat, or enact legislative changes that improve the welfare of farmed animals. Because of the huge numbers of animals involved, making progress on this issue could avert a very large amount of suffering.
Diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and parasitic worms, kill millions of people every year. Also, poor nutrition in developing countries can lead to cognitive impairment, birth defects and growth stunting.
Much of this suffering can be relatively easily prevented or mitigated. Antimalarial bednets cost around $2.50 each. But GiveWell, an independent charity evaluator, estimates that they can significantly reduce malaria rates. Even simply transferring money to people who are very poor is a relatively cost-effective way of helping people.
Not only does improving health avert the direct suffering associated with sickness and death, it also allows people to participate more fully in education and work. Consequently, they earn more money, and have more opportunities later in life.
There are many other promising causes that, while not currently the primary focuses of the effective altruism community, are plausible candidates for having a big impact. These include:
- Improvements to the scientific establishment, such as greater transparency and replication of results
- Researching mental health and neurological disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, and improving access to treatment in developing countries
- Tobacco control
- Prevention of road traffic injuries
- US criminal justice reform
- International migration and trade policy reform
Of course, it’s likely that we have overlooked some very important causes. So one way to have a huge impact might be to find an opportunity to do good that’s potentially high-impact, but that everyone else has missed. For this reason, global priorities research is another key cause area.
For most of us, a significant amount of our productive waking life — on average over 80,000 hours — is spent working. This is an enormous resource that can be used to make the world better.
Often, typical ‘ethical’ career advice is basically unhelpful. The most common advice is simply to work at a non-profit. But since not all non-profits are working on the most promising causes, simply working for a non-profit isn’t enough to guarantee that your career is impactful.
It seems that scientific research, entrepreneurship, work in policy, and work for highly effective organisations (both for-profit and non-profit) are very promising career paths. Early in your career, it can also be useful to engage in skill-building: taking a job with the primary aim of building up skills, experiences, credentials and a network that will help you to have an even bigger impact later on in your life. For some people, “earning to give” - taking a high-earning career and donating most of their salaries - might also be a good option. But many people can probably do better by working directly on important problems, especially neglected ones.
You can donate to any charity, and your personal attributes don’t affect the value of your donation. But when it comes to choosing a career, your personal fit with a job is very important. That isn’t to say that evaluating personal fit is a simple matter. The standard career advice of “follow your passion” often doesn’t make much sense, especially if your passion doesn’t fit with any of the most important causes. But figuring out an area where you can do work that you’ll be able to excel at is very important. Passion is also much less important than you might think — it turns out that other factors affect your job satisfaction significantly more.
80,000 Hours is an organization dedicated to helping people figure out in which careers they can do the most good. They provide a guide to the most important considerations relevant to career choice, and a set of tools to help motivated people make decisions. They have also conducted a large number of career reviews across a wide range of fields.
One of the easiest ways that a person in the developed world can make a difference is by donating money to organizations that work on some of the most important causes. Monetary donations allow effective organisations to do more good things, and are much more flexible than time donations (like volunteering).
Most of us don’t realise just how rich we are in relative terms. People earning professional salaries in the US are normally in the top 5% of global incomes. This relative wealth presents an enormous opportunity to do good if used effectively.
Some organisations associated with the effective altruism movement seek out the most effective causes to donate to, backing up their recommendations with rigorous evidence.
One of the easiest ways to give to effective charities is through Effective Altruism Funds. (Note that this is a project that we run, so we might be biased in its favor!) EA Funds allows you to donate to one of four major cause areas. An expert in that cause area will then decide which organization could most effectively use the fund’s donations. EA Funds also allows you to donate directly to a range of promising organizations.
Yet another place to search for promising donation targets is to organizations which have received a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project - a large grant-maker and sister organization to GiveWell which uses effective altruist principles to find promising giving opportunities.
It’s easy to intend to give a significant amount to charity, but it can be hard to follow through. One way we can hold ourselves to account is to take a public pledge to give.
Giving What We Can has a pledge that asks people to give 10% or more of their lifetime income to the organisations that will make the biggest improvements to the world. The Life You Can Save has a similar pledge, starting at 1% of annual income, to organisations fighting the effects of extreme poverty.
There’s already a growing community of people who take these ideas seriously, and are putting them into action. More than 3,000 people have taken the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of their lifetime income to the most effective organisations. Hundreds of people have made high-impact career plan-changes on the basis of effective altruism. And there are over a hundred local effective altruism meet-up groups.
If you’re inspired by the ideas of effective altruism there are many ways you can take action:
- Read more
- Find a fulfilling career that does good
- Attend an effective altruism conference
- Find your local meet-up group
This is the first of a series of articles setting out the key ideas in effective altruism. Click "next" to keep reading.
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