Effective Altruism

by Stephen M. Walker II, Co-Founder / CEO

What is Effective Altruism?

Effective Altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It encompasses a community and a research field dedicated to finding and implementing the best methods to assist others. EA is characterized by its focus on using resources efficiently to maximize positive impact, whether through career choices, charitable donations, or other actions aimed at improving the world.

EA is guided by several core principles:

  • Commitment to Others — EA emphasizes the importance of taking significant personal action to benefit others, with the understanding that what constitutes significant action may vary from person to person.

  • Scientific Mindset — EA advocates for using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and it encourages a willingness to change beliefs and actions based on new evidence.

  • Openness and Integrity — The movement values openness to focusing efforts on any group of beneficiaries and using any reasonable methods to help them. It also stresses the importance of honesty, trustworthiness, and good conduct.

  • Collaborative Spirit — EA recognizes that more can be achieved by working together, which requires high standards of honesty, friendliness, and a community perspective.

EA researchers use a framework of questions to guide their analysis of where to focus efforts:

  1. Is the issue large in scale?
  2. Is the issue highly tractable?
  3. Is the issue neglected?

Popular cause priorities within EA include global health and development, social inequality, animal welfare, and risks to the survival of humanity over the long-term future.

The movement is not about adhering to a fixed set of beliefs or policies but is united by a shared method of thinking that prioritizes issues based on their scale, tractability, and neglect. It includes a diverse range of people with different backgrounds and views, all united by the goal of doing the most good with the resources available to them.

What are the origins of Effective Altruism?

Effective Altruism (EA) is a movement that originated in the 2000s, with the term itself being coined in 2011. The movement was developed by a group of philosophers and organizations that were focused on maximizing the impact of altruistic actions. Key figures in the development of EA include philosophers Peter Singer, Toby Ord, and William MacAskill.

The movement was formed when several communities around the world came together, including Giving What We Can and the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, the rationality community in the Bay Area, and GiveWell (then in New York). The term ‘effective altruism’ was coined in Oxford in 2011 as part of the name for the Centre for Effective Altruism.

The origins of the movement can be traced back to a small group of people based at Oxford University. In November 2009, two philosophers at the university, Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, started a group called Giving What We Can. This group promoted a pledge to give a significant portion of one's income to the most effective charities. The Centre for Effective Altruism was founded in 2011 as an umbrella organization for Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, a career advice organization.

The movement was also influenced by the work of Peter Singer, who has argued for an obligation to help those in extreme poverty since the 1970s. His ideas, along with those of other philosophers and thinkers, helped shape the intellectual foundations of EA.

The movement has grown significantly since its inception, with numerous effective altruist nonprofits springing up over the past decade. These organizations research and implement ways to help others that they think will make a big difference, such as by providing people in low-income countries with malaria-fighting bed nets, safe water dispensers, and low-cost cataract surgeries to restore eyesight.

The term 'effective altruism' started to gain more widespread use after Peter Singer's TED talk in 2013, which helped solidify the term and the movement. Today, the movement continues to grow and evolve, with a focus on using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others.

How has the effective altruism movement evolved over time?

The Effective Altruism (EA) movement has evolved significantly since its inception in the 2000s. The term "effective altruism" was coined in 2011 by a group of Oxford philosophers, including Toby Ord and William MacAskill, who were influential in shaping the movement. The movement began as a set of evaluation techniques advocated by a diffuse coalition and has since evolved into an identity.

In its early stages, the movement was a small group based at Oxford University, with a focus on using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to do good. The movement blended intellectual sources from philosophy, with Peter Singer and Peter Unger's arguments that people in rich countries have a moral obligation to donate large shares of their income to charity.

Over time, the movement has grown and diversified, with the establishment of organizations such as 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can. The movement has also seen an increase in funding, with committed funds growing at approximately 37% per year since 2015.

The EA movement has expanded its focus areas over time. Initially, it emphasized global health and development, social inequality, animal welfare, and long-term risks to humanity. However, as the movement has grown, it has faced debates about its growth and direction, with concerns about rapid growth potentially leading to a shift in focus based on the interests of new members.

The movement has also faced criticism, both internally and externally. Some critics argue that the movement has failed to adequately consider potential failure modes and philosophical difficulties. Despite these criticisms, the movement has continued to grow and evolve, with a focus on self-criticism and questioning of assumptions.

In recent years, the EA movement has gained significant traction in Silicon Valley, with influential figures such as Elon Musk and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz backing the philosophy. As of 2022, the movement had approximately $26.6 billion in resources behind it.

How does Effective Altruism work?

Effective Altruism (EA) is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others and takes action based on these findings. It's both a research field and a practical community. The core principles of EA include a commitment to others, a scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and a collaborative spirit.

The commitment to others means taking the well-being of others seriously and being willing to take significant personal action to benefit them. The scientific mindset involves using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible. Openness refers to the willingness to focus efforts on any group of beneficiaries and to change beliefs and actions if evidence shows that current plans are not the most effective. Integrity involves striving to be honest and trustworthy, as trust, cooperation, and accurate information are essential to doing good. The collaborative spirit acknowledges that more can be achieved by working together.

EA is not about any particular way of doing good, but rather a way of thinking. It involves prioritizing actions based on their potential impact, impartially allocating resources to those who need them the most, and being open to changing strategies as new information becomes available. It's about finding the best ways to help, rather than just making any difference at all.

The EA community is a global network of people who care deeply about the world, make helping others a significant part of their lives, and use evidence and reason to figure out how best to do so. This community is not confined to one organization but is a broad group of people working on a diverse set of projects with a common goal: doing as much good as possible.

In practice, EA involves promoting the key ideas of EA and growing the community of people who take these ideas seriously and put them into action. This can involve working at organizations dedicated to EA, conducting research to identify the most effective interventions, and implementing projects aimed at doing the most good in terms of reducing suffering.

Impact assessment is a key part of EA, as it allows for the evaluation of the impact of interventions. This can involve quantitative measures, such as lives saved per dollar, and requires clear metrics and consensus on goals. The goal is to channel efforts into strategies that are many times more effective than others.

EA has been formalized by scholars at Oxford University and is now being applied by tens of thousands of people in more than 70 countries. It has the potential for a very large positive impact, with estimates suggesting that the EA community could eventually save hundreds of millions of lives or do good equivalent to reducing extreme poverty.

What are the benefits of Effective Altruism?

Effective Altruism (EA) is characterized by its strategic approach to philanthropy, using empirical evidence and analysis to maximize the positive impact of altruistic actions. This evidence-based method ensures that resources are allocated to interventions that offer the most significant benefits, often surpassing the outcomes of traditional charitable efforts. By focusing on well-being, EA promotes activities that not only aid recipients but also enhance the happiness and health of benefactors, fostering a virtuous cycle of giving. The community aspect of EA encourages a sense of belonging and connection, as individuals engage with like-minded peers to make a difference.

Moreover, the practice of helping others provides perspective, contributing to a more positive outlook on life. Ultimately, the kindness propagated through EA has the power to create a ripple effect, inspiring further acts of generosity and contributing to a more optimistic and resilient society.

What are some applications of Effective Altruism?

Effective Altruism (EA) influences various aspects of decision-making to maximize impact. It guides charitable giving towards the most life-saving and suffering-reducing causes, as evidenced by resources like GiveWell that evaluate charity effectiveness. Career choices are informed by the potential for positive impact, leading individuals to professions where they can do the most good.

EA principles shape scientific, entrepreneurial, and policy endeavors by prioritizing projects with the greatest potential to address pressing global issues. This approach extends to funding recommendations by EA Funds, which supports projects aligned with EA values to enhance their resource access.

Research on global priorities is another application, with institutes established by the EA community to strategize on tackling the world's most critical challenges. Advocacy efforts within EA also focus on mitigating risks associated with advanced AI, ensuring safer development and deployment.

Animal welfare is a significant concern, with initiatives like the Animal Welfare Fund seeking to enhance the lives of nonhuman animals. Additionally, the Long-Term Future Fund concentrates on shaping civilization's trajectory positively, addressing existential risks from AI and pandemics.

Is Effective Altruism a form of ideological capture?

Effective Altruism (EA) is not typically considered a form of ideological capture, but rather a social movement and philosophical framework focused on using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. The concept of ideological capture implies that a group or movement is being manipulated or controlled by a particular ideology, often to the detriment of its original goals or values. In contrast, EA is characterized by its commitment to critical thinking, openness to new evidence, and a willingness to revise beliefs and strategies in light of new information.

According to the EA Forum, EA is best thought of as a question: "How can I do the most good, with the resources available to me?". This approach emphasizes that EA is not about adhering to a fixed set of beliefs or policies but about continually seeking the most effective ways to achieve positive outcomes. The movement is united not by specific solutions but by a shared method of thinking that prioritizes issues based on their scale, tractability, and neglect.

Effective altruists aim to be impartial and consider the global equal consideration of interests when choosing beneficiaries, and the movement includes a diverse range of people with different backgrounds and views. While EA has been influential, particularly in Silicon Valley, and has been associated with various cause priorities, it is fundamentally about prioritizing efforts to maximize good.

Critics have raised concerns about certain aspects of EA, such as the potential for a narrow focus on quantifiable outcomes or the influence of wealthy donors on the movement's priorities. However, these critiques do not necessarily equate to ideological capture but rather point to challenges and debates within the movement about its direction and implementation.

Is Effective Altruism anti AI Safety?

Effective Altruism (EA) is not inherently anti-AI safety; in fact, many within the EA community are actively engaged in promoting AI safety and alignment research. The movement is concerned with using evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others, and for some, this includes addressing potential risks associated with artificial intelligence.

The Wall Street Journal article indicates that effective altruists are interested in building safer AI systems through alignment research, which aims to ensure that AI behaves in accordance with human values. However, the article also notes that there has been division within organizations like OpenAI over the approach to AI safety, which has caused internal conflicts.

The 80,000 Hours problem profile discusses the potential risks of AI-related existential catastrophes and the value of working on AI safety, suggesting that the EA community does see AI safety as an important issue, albeit with some skepticism about the effectiveness of certain approaches.

Reddit discussions and articles from Wired and Forbes highlight skepticism and criticism within the EA community regarding the prioritization of AI safety, with some arguing that it may detract from other pressing issues or that the movement's focus on AI safety could be seen as less credible or "goofy."

The EA Forum post argues for a more pragmatic approach to AI safety that doesn't rely on extreme scenarios like AI destroying humanity, suggesting that there are other benefits to AI safety research that are aligned with EA principles.

The EA Global talk reflects a balanced view, acknowledging skepticism but also recognizing plausible pathways for impact by working on AI safety, indicating that the community does not dismiss the importance of the field.

The Semafor article and the EA Forum topic discuss the interweaving of AI safety with the EA movement and the challenges of aligning the field with broader societal concerns.

How did Effective Altruism elect Sam Bankman-Fried and Elizer Yudkowsky to be leaders of the movement?

The Effective Altruism (EA) movement did not formally elect Sam Bankman-Fried and Eliezer Yudkowsky as leaders. Their influence within the movement arose organically due to their significant contributions and the respect they garnered within the community.

Sam Bankman-Fried was a well-regarded member of the EA community and a major donor. He publicly supported EA and pledged to donate all his wealth to longtermist causes. He was introduced to EA as an undergraduate at MIT and was recruited by EA leaders as someone likely to make a lot of money that he might then give to the movement. However, his association with EA was tarnished following allegations of fraud and the collapse of his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, is a highly influential thinker, especially among effective altruists. His writings and views have significantly shaped the worldview of many within the EA community.

It's important to note that the EA movement is not a hierarchical organization with elected leaders. Instead, it's a loosely organized community of individuals and organizations committed to using evidence and reason to figure out how to best contribute to helping others. Influence within the EA community is typically gained through contributions to the movement's goals, intellectual leadership, and the respect of peers.

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