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If you have a question about effective altruism, you might be able to find a quick answer in this FAQ.

There are also brief responses to some of the most common objections to effective altruism. Working out how to help others effectively is extremely complex — many of these objections capture important points that can help us be more effective.

We want to make sure we’re representing objections fairly so we’ve linked to original sources where possible. We’ve also provided links to additional material if you want to find out more.

If you have a question that’s not answered here, feel free to contact us.

FAQs

What is effective altruism?

Effective altruism is about using evidence and careful reasoning to take actions that help others as much as possible.

The world has a lot of problems but we can’t work on them all at once. As a result, we need to prioritise the action that we take in order to maximise our impact. Our goal is to find ways to help others as much as possible with our limited time, energy, and resources.

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How does effective altruism compare different types of ‘good’?

Effective altruism focuses on improving lives. Everyone would agree that, all else being equal, reducing suffering and increasing happiness is good. There might be other things of value as well – promoting art, or preserving the natural environment – but that’s not what effective altruism is about.

It can be hard to impartially compare different benefits received by different people, but we attempt to be as neutral as we can when doing that too.

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What if I don’t think effective altruism’s practical suggestions are effective?

You might agree with the general idea of effective altruism (that is, finding and prioritising the most effective ways to do good), but think that some of the practical suggestions are misguided, because the interventions, careers or charities are not effective.

Effective altruism is about keeping an open mind, and responding to persuasive arguments and good evidence. If you have good reasons to disagree about what’s currently considered effective or a suggestion for something new, you should discuss it with people in the community — you’ll be helping other people take action more effectively.

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Are you saying what I’m doing right now isn’t the most effective thing?

Maybe.

We each have a lot of options for making a difference (different causes, different careers, different charities etc.). Some actions we take will help much more than others. If you haven’t actively tried to pick the option that has the largest impact, it’s unlikely that you would have ended up doing the best thing by chance. It’s hard enough to choose the best option even if you dedicate a lot of time towards figuring out the right answer.

Whatever it is you’re currently doing, you could probably do even more good if you rigorously evaluated and compared a range of different options and chose the one that came out on top.

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Does effective altruism only recommend things that are ‘proven’ to work?

No. But a higher likelihood of success is better, holding everything else equal.

Some people have a strong preference for approaches that have hard empirical evidence behind them, and are skeptical of those which don’t. This is because they think we have very limited ability to predict what actions will be effective and which won’t without rigorous testing.

But others think the most high-impact opportunities will involve more experimental or ‘speculative’ approaches, such as scientific research or political advocacy. For example, the Future of Humanity Institute researches the most effective ways to reduce catastrophic risks that might affect the whole of humanity very negatively. Even if there’s only a small chance of success, the potential impact is so great it has high expected value.

Across society as a whole there clearly needs to be a mixture of both.

I already pay my taxes. Why should I do more?

Even after paying our taxes, many of us find we still have plenty of capacity and desire to help people.

It’s important to recognise that governments either can’t or won’t solve all problems. For example, there isn’t a global redistributive tax, despite inequality being greater between countries than within them.

What if I don’t have enough money to donate?

You shouldn’t put yourself in a bad situation in order to donate. But keep in mind that most people are richer on a global scale than they think. If you live in the US and earn $30,000 before tax each year, your income is more than 17 times the global average. If you donated 10%, you would still earn 16 times the global average (even after adjusting for PPP). This is true for people in other rich countries too.

There are also many opportunities to help people that don’t involve donating money, like choosing a higher-impact career.

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Isn’t effective altruism obvious?

Many people find the idea of trying to maximise the amount of good they do fairly obvious and uncontroversial. However, it seems important to think hard about how to take action effectively, because most people don’t consciously make a choice to be as effective as possible . Either they don’t dedicate much of their efforts towards helping others, or they choose what problem to work on based only on what they find interesting, without doing proper research and comparing their different options first.

If it does seem obvious to you though, great! You’ll probably enjoy joining the community. The point is to improve the world – not define effective altruism to be controversial for the sake of it.

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What things are people in the community working on at the moment?

There’s a wide range. You should check out some of these organizations.

What difference has the community made so far?

Check out our impact page.

Why should I join the community?

Effective altruism has been built around a friendly, motivated, interesting, and interested group of people from all over the world. Participating in the community has a number of advantages over going it alone.

  • There are many skilled people who might join you to help with your projects.
  • If you offer good criticism or suggestions, you have the potential to influence other people to adopt whatever approach you think is more effective.
  • You can pool your resources with others to conduct research that can help everyone figure out how to have more impact.
  • You can learn by talking with others in the community.
  • It’s nice (and very motivating) to have like-minded friends, associates, and colleagues.

That said, you can help others effectively without joining the community. If you do a lot of good working on an important problem on your own, that’s great! Even if you don’t want to join the community, you might want to take a pledge to help yourself commit to helping others.

How do I get involved?

Learn more about effective altruism by:

Start making a difference by:

Meet like-minded people in the community by:

Help grow the community by:

Objections to effective altruism

Is effective altruism only about making money and donating it to charity?

In the past, the community made the mistake of becoming too closely associated with “earning to give”. Most of us still think this is a good strategy for some people, particularly those who have good personal fit with high-paying careers. But donating to charity is not the only way to have a large impact. A lot of people can do even better by using their careers to help others more directly. Many people in the community do both.

But we still believe that donating to the right charities is one way you can make a lot of difference. It’s also one where there’s relatively strong evidence available, because there was existing research to build on.

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Is effective altruism the same as utilitarianism? What if I’m not a utilitarian?

Utilitarians are usually enthusiastic about effective altruism. But many effective altruists are not utilitarians and care intrinsically about things other than welfare, such as violation of rights, freedom, inequality, personal virtue and more. In practice, most people give some weight to a range of different ethical theories.

The only ethical position necessary for effective altruism is believing that helping others is important. Unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism doesn’t necessarily say that doing everything possible to help others is obligatory, and doesn’t advocate for violating people’s rights even if doing so would lead to the best consequences.

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Does effective altruism neglect systemic change?

Some people think effective altruism is too concerned with ‘band-aid’ solutions like direct health interventions without seriously challenging the broader systemic causes of important global issues. Many people believe unfettered capitalism, wealth inequality, consumer culture, or overpopulation contribute significantly to the amount of suffering in the world, and that attempts to make the world better that don’t address these root causes are meaningless or misguided.

It’s certainly true that effective altruism started with a focus on approaches that are ‘proven’ to work, such as scaling up rigorously tested health treatments. These provide a good baseline against which we can assess other, more speculative, approaches. However, as we get more skilled in evaluating what works and what doesn’t, many in the community are shifting into approaches that involve systemic change.

It’s important to remember that opinion is heavily divided on whether systems like trade globalization or market economies are net negative or net positive. It’s also not clear whether we can substantially change these systems in ways that won’t have very bad unintended consequences.

This difference of opinion is reflected within the community itself. Effective altruism is about being open-minded — we should try to avoid being dogmatic or too wedded to a particular ideology. We should evaluate all claims about how to make a difference based on the available evidence. If there’s something we can do that seems likely to make a big net positive difference, then we should pursue it.

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If everyone followed the advice of effective altruism, wouldn’t that lead to a misallocation of resources?

If everyone took the same action, and never updated their views in response to changing circumstances, then yes, that would create problems. Effective altruism makes recommendations about the best available opportunities to help, taking what other people are already doing  into account.

As more people take the opportunities we recommend, they will stop being so neglected, and the value of allocating more resources to them will go down. At that point we would change our recommendations to encompass other opportunities.

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Is effective altruism calculating and impersonal?

Effective altruism is about taking a desire to do good, but using reason and evidence to guide our actions so we have the greatest chance of success. It’s true that this sometimes involves calculations of how effective certain actions might be. It’s also true that we don’t always know the people we are assisting.

Most people are drawn to effective altruism because they have a high level of compassion towards others, and think that we should help others regardless of whether we know them personally. In order to do this is the most effective way, it’s sometimes important to make calculations.

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Is effective altruism too demanding?

The lengths an individual should go to when attempting to make the world a better place is a difficult, personal question. A common minimum standard for effective altruism is to give 10% of your income, and/or shift your career path in order to have substantially more social impact.

For some, that might seem like a big sacrifice. But for many, spending your life working to improve the world provides a clear goal and a strong sense of purpose, and effective altruism provides a friendly, global community to collaborate with. Trying to help others as much as possible can be more purposeful, fulfilling and maybe even more fun, than any of the alternatives.

There’s nothing desirable about sacrifice in and of itself. You certainly don’t have to give up the things that make you happy, or neglect your personal relationships. The point is to help others, not to make yourself feel bad.

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Doesn’t charity start at home?

Many people agree that we should try to make a difference, but think that we should give our money or our time to people in our local communities.

There’s nothing bad about helping people you know, or even yourself. But often the opportunities to help people far away are far greater than the opportunities to help people near you, especially if you live in a wealthy country.

For example for $1,000 you could double the annual income of a family engaged in subsistence agriculture in Kenya. This can be life-transforming. If you live in a wealthy country, it’s hard for $1,000 to achieve anywhere near as much in your local community.

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Does charity and aid really work?

A lot of charity work is probably ineffective, and there are many examples of aid and development having no real impact. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some charities which achieve amazing outcomes. In fact, that’s exactly why it’s so important to find the best ones, and to use our best judgement when working out which causes we should spend money and time on supporting.

If you’re extremely skeptical of non-profits though, there are many other opportunities for having a big impact, including for-profit entrepreneurship, policy, politics, advocacy, and research.

If you think that it’s hopeless to do good through donating to non-profits then please let us know why! We’re always open to changing our minds.

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Does donating to charity just subsidise billionaires?

It’s plausible that if individuals stopped donating to the most effective charities, larger philanthropic organizations would step in to fill in the gap. So, in the end, the effect of the individual donations would just be to free up money for the larger philanthropic organizations.

This is a difficult question to resolve. On the one hand, it’s likely that, if individual donors didn’t exist, larger donors would take up some of the slack. On the other hand, if money is freed up for large and effective philanthropic organizations, they can then fund other effective interventions,including those that are important but that individual donors would be less likely to support.

But there are some highly effective charities which can productively absorb a lot more funding. For instance, GiveDirectly transferred $2m in 2013 to the poorest people in the world, and are expected to transfer $77m in 2016. Donating to charities with a large funding gap is less likely to displace funding from others sources.

Hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to fund effective interventions in the next fifteen years. This gap cannot be fully covered by big foundations. For example, Good Ventures and the Gates Foundation have endowments of around $8bn and $41bn respectively.

As above, if you’re skeptical about donating to charity, then there are many other ways that you could use the principles of effective altruism to help you make a difference more effectively, such as helping you to choose which cause to work on.

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How are the people you’re trying to help involved in the decision-making?

The possibility that we don’t actually understand and address the needs of the people we are trying to help is real, and a risk we have to remain constantly vigilant about. If we don’t listen to or understand recipients we will be less effective, which is the opposite of our goal.

Some people support the charity GiveDirectly because it gives cash to people in poverty, leaving it entirely up to them how they spend the money. This might empower people in poverty to a greater extent than choosing services that may ultimately not be desired by the local community.

Other charities we support provide basic health services, such as vaccinations or micronutrients. These are so clearly good that it’s very unlikely the recipients wouldn’t value them. Better health can empower people to improve aspects of their own circumstances in ways we as outsiders cannot.

In cases where the above don’t apply, we can conduct detailed impact evaluations to see how the recipients actually feel about the service that purports to help them. Of course, such surveys won’t always be reliable but they’re often the best we can do.

In other cases, such as when we’re trying to help non-human animals or future generations, these issues can be even more difficult, and people do their best to predict what they would want if they could speak to us. Obvious cases would include pigs not wanting to be permanently confined to ‘gestation crates’ in which they cannot turn around, or future generations not wanting to inherit a planet on which humans cannot easily live.

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Does effective altruism neglect effective interventions when the impact can’t be measured?

Some of the actions that we recommend are ones that have been tested and shown to have a high impact. But there are many actions that seem promising which would be infeasible to evaluate using experimental methods such as randomised controlled trials. However, when high-quality evidence is available, we take it very seriously.

Several effective altruist organizations work on more ‘speculative’ projects, which are very difficult to quantify. For example, Open Philanthropy Project works on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development.

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Is the effective altruism community too homogeneous?

The effective altruist community could stand to be more diverse. We’re aware of this and trying hard to improve. And if you have suggestions about ways we can improve, please do let us know. While the community first emerged among people in richer nations, as it grows, it’s drawing in people from many different backgrounds. We’ve been excited to see  cities across the globe hosting EA conferences, from Hong Kong to Nairobi.

In terms of our beliefs and practices, we’re very diverse. Some are vegetarians, others aren’t. The community as a whole is secular, but some members are religious. And there’s a wide range of political beliefs. While many people have strongly-held beliefs and values, there is a strong emphasis on building a community that is respectful of difference, and open to listening to criticism. What unites us is a shared passion for helping others as much as possible.
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