Legal Topics in Effective Altruism

Course title

Legal Topics in Effective Altruism

Time Zone



13 March - 7 May 2023

Contact email

Applications to this course have closed

This virtual reading group will bring together law students, practising lawyers, and legal researchers to discuss emerging ideas and long-standing legal doctrines that inform how the law creates opportunities for — and constrains — potential policy interventions and activities across cause areas that are of interest to many people who aim to make a significant positive difference in the world. Core themes will include:

  • improving institutional decision-making,
  • international coordination to address problems requiring collective action,
  • the promise and limitations of legal personhood,

regulating artificial intelligence and advanced biotechnology,

  • legal advocacy for animals,
  • career opportunities for lawyers and policymakers, and
  • next steps for people interested in engaging more deeply with these ideas.

This program might be a good fit if you:

  • Already have a good understanding of core ideas in effective altruism.
  • Are pursuing or considering a legal career and are interested in exploring ideas about how to use law to make a significant positive difference in the world.
  • Can commit at least 2 hours per week to readings and exercises.
  • Can attend at least 7 out of the 8 weekly discussion sessions.

Here are the topics we’ll cover each week:

Week 1: International Coordination and Nuclear Policy - It’s difficult to regulate technology in an increasingly globalised and competitive world. Passing the “right” law in one place may not matter if unrestricted development continues in other places. To avoid this outcome, and meet this century’s most pressing challenges, we’ll need to understand how governments and other organisations interact and reach consensus. During our first week, we’ll explore these kinds of coordination problems, using nuclear policy as a jumping off point for our discussion.

Week 2: Improving Institutional Decision-Making - To make a positive difference in the world, we have to make choices under uncertainty and other constraints. During our second week, we’ll explore questions like: How can institutions make such choices effectively? How can researchers, advocates, and policy professionals help some of the world’s leading decision-makers — whose actions affect millions of people — approach difficult problems more effectively?

Week 3: New Holders of Legal Rights - Extending our moral concern beyond traditional groups and categories has been a central theme in effective altruism, but it is an area in which the law has historically lagged far behind leading academic and philosophical consensus. During our third week, we’ll explore how the law might eventually come to recognize and respect the interests of groups such as people living in other countries, animals, future people, and artificially intelligent agents.

Week 4: Regulating Artificial Intelligence - Many researchers and policy professionals are concerned that advanced artificial intelligence could radically (and permanently) alter our world. Given that the coming decades might bring about systems capable of that kind of transformation, how can we establish effective rules and regulations around AI development and deployment? We’ll explore this question and others like it during our fourth week.

Week 5: Regulating Advanced Biotechnology - Like advanced AI, cutting-edge biotechnology appears to have the potential to cause serious harm, for example by enabling bad actors to create genetically engineered pathogens that cause a pandemic even more destructive than COVID-19. During our fifth week, we will explore the extent to which the law may be able to constrain potentially harmful uses of these technologies and discuss some of the tradeoffs involved.

Week 6: Animal Law - People in the effective altruism community have long valued the experiences of non-human animals, who vastly outnumber humans and suffer terribly in many contexts (from farms to wild environments). Various legal systems have sometimes taken animals’ interests into account, though rarely on a consistent or coherent basis. During our sixth week, we’ll explore the history and possible future trajectory of laws as they apply to animals.

Week 7: Promising Career Opportunities for Lawyers - During our second-to-last week together, we will take a step back to consider several potentially promising career opportunities for people with legal training who are aiming to make a significant positive difference in the world.

Week 8: Putting it into Practice - During the final week’s discussion, we will reflect on the reading group and share our plans for putting the ideas we have discussed into practice.