We think you might already be a supporter of Effective Altruism, but just don’t know it yet. To find out, let’s go through four claims. These claims are based on Sam Deere’s article, “Four Ideas You Already Agree With.”
First, helping others is important.
We think most people agree that helping others is important. I mean, imagine defending the opposite position: helping others is not important! Of course, this doesn’t seem like a helpful or correct claim. This is a pretty simple assumption, but its implications might be deeper than many people notice in the real world.
Second, all people are equal.
Do all people matter, regardless of characteristics like age, skin color, gender, nationality, or religion? Should we use these characteristics to determine whether or not to help someone? If you think that none of these characteristics should bar someone from a claim to a happy, healthy and free life, then we think you’re in good company.
Third, helping more people is better than helping fewer people.
Well, in what world would it be better to help fewer people than to help more people? Sam Deere writes, “Imagine twenty sick people lining a hospital ward, who’ll die if you don’t give them medicine. You have enough medicine for everyone, and no reason to hold onto it for later: would anyone really choose to arbitrarily save only some of the people if it was just as easy to save all of them?” If you think we should try to do more to help people when we have the resources to help, then you’re in good company.
Fourth, we have limited resources.
If we had unlimited resources, then we’d be able to embark on every philanthropic venture we could imagine, from handing out malaria bed nets across all of Africa to distributing lollipops to all the children (and maybe adults too, why not?) of the world!
But if you agree with us that our resources are finite, meaning we can only devote so much money to each cause, then the idea of opportunity cost should help guide our actions. Fifty dollars to the Lollipop Charity might mean no money for the Against Malaria Foundation, which is estimated to save the life of someone who would have otherwise died, for about $3,464.
If your answers are similar to these, or if these answers line up with your thinking, then you just might be a fan of Effective Altruism!
Effective Altruism is a movement of people around the world who are seeking to answer this simple question: how can we do good, better? Aspiring EAs apply multiple disciplines to work on this question, employing reason and evidence under the assumption that taking a step back and thinking about the best path forward to help the most people is not an obvious answer. It requires careful thinking, and our actions, donations, and decisions will be better if we take time to think through the possibilities.
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To help reduce poverty, is it better to invest in malaria bednet distribution, deworming initiatives, or something else entirely? Does working with local governments for these projects improve the quality of the state, or does it potentially add strength and legitimacy to exploitative institutions?
Should we try to do things to prevent low probability events that could lead to the end of humanity, like nuclear war? How would we even know if we’re making progress on those causes?
Is factory farming a moral harm? And if so, what can we do to reduce the massive suffering animals experience everyday for our consumption?
Effective Altruism is a unique movement. It can be difficult to define: some people call it a community, others a philosophy, and yet others a research agenda. It’s a mix of all of these things, and it is constantly evolving.
This column exists for members of Effective Altruism Duke to share the ideas that EA explores, especially ideas about effective giving and pragmatic philanthropy. We’ll use this framework to explore diverse topics. For instance, we will analyze how to choose your major and career, make the case for vegetarianism, and discuss how to prevent promising technologies from being abused.
These ideas aren’t settled. Indeed, as Helen Toner from the Open Philanthropy Project wrote, “Effective Altruism is a question,” rather than a set of unchanging beliefs. Even within Effective Altruism, there is plenty of disagreement. And that’s good! If you disagree with some of the ideas or methods or assumptions, you could be a valuable contributor, and we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re interested in this approach to making the world a better place, we’d encourage you to keep up this column, and we’d love to hear from you too.
This column was written by David Wohlever Sánchez, a Trinity senior, with input from members of Effective Altruism Duke. If you have ideas, criticisms, or questions for Effective Altriusm, reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.