An introduction to Effective Altruism

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, can be a difficult and disheartening challenge.

Effective altruism is a response to this challenge. It is a research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Many attempts to do good fail, but the best are exceptional

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 1,000 times more than an identical model. Yet we are not always so discerning when we work on global problems.

It’s important to work on the right problems

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. The Cold War saw thousands of nuclear weapons trained across the Atlantic, but we survived without a single nuclear strike. Over the last few centuries, we have criminalised 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 700 million people live on less than $2 per day. Climate change and disruptive new technologies have the potential to harm billions of people in the future. Billions of animals, who may deserve serious moral concern, spend their lives suffering in factory farms. There are so many problems that we need to think carefully about which ones we should prioritise 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 animals), or where there just aren’t any good ways to solve the relevant problems, you will significantly limit the amount of impact you can have.

On the other hand, if you choose a cause where you can provide a lot of help, using tested solutions, you may have an enormous impact. For instance, some attempts to reduce the suffering of animals appear to be incredibly effective. By thinking carefully and acting strategically, a small group of campaigners with limited budgets have helped to improve the living conditions of hundreds of millions of chickens who were suffering in US factory farms.

Many people are motivated to do good, but have already chosen a cause before they do any 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. We can do more good if we carefully consider many causes, rather than stopping at the first one we’re drawn to.

peter singer

Promising causes

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 highly impactful to the extent that the cause is:

  • Great in scale (it affects many lives, by a great amount)
  • Highly neglected (few other people are working on addressing the problem), and
  • Highly solvable or tractable (additional resources will do a great deal to address it).

On the basis of this reasoning, several cause areas appear especially likely to be highly impactful.

Some causes suggested by this article are:

  • Fighting extreme poverty
  • Animal suffering
  • Improving the longterm future

All of the above can be found within the foundations and content of Caring for Life Education. A lesson that if incorporated into the national curriculum of Greek schools, could impact on the lives of countless people and animals as well as the environment. Please make the smart choice and use your resources to support a worthy cause – choose to be effective in your altruism! 

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