Thanks to Ed for this Wikipedia reference.
Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists aim to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. While a substantial proportion of effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies much more broadly, e.g., to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save and improve the most lives. Notable people associated with the movement include Peter Singer, Dustin Moskovitz and Toby Ord.
Effective altruism begins with a personal commitment to making a change in the world and caring enough to remain engaged in the long-term and focused on best practices that make a difference. The resources that a philanthropist then gives are directed toward efforts that bring the desired positive change to fruition. Effective altruism differs from other types of philanthropy in that the outcome maximizes social good. Many philanthropists do not give in the attempt to maximize social good. Obligatory giving such as Zakat, reciprocal giving, giving to an issue that has affected one’s personal life and giving for notoriety may not be high impact because the emphasis is not consciously centered on social outcomes. Effective altruism focuses on the results of one’s donations as well as other methods of accomplishing good, such as career and volunteer work.
Traditional charity evaluation has often been based on prioritizing charities with minimal overhead costs and high proportional spending on projects. However, effective altruist organizations reject this standard as simplistic and flawed. Dan Pallotta argues that charities should be encouraged to spend more on fundraising if it ensures they increase the amount they can allocate to the charitable service overall. Additionally, a study by Dean Karlan “found that the most effective charities spent more of their budget on administrative cost than their less-effective competitors”, presumably because spending on administration costs may include analyses of whether a particular activity is effective or not. Thus, the extra spending on admin could lead to resources being focused on the best activities.
Effective altruists seek to identify charities that achieve a large amount of good per dollar spent. For example, they select health interventions on the basis of their impact as measured by lives saved per dollar, quality-adjusted life years (QALY) saved per dollar, or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) averted per dollar. The DALY is a key measure employed by the United Nations World Health Organization in such publications as its Global Burden of Disease. This measure of disease burden is expressed as the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability or early death.
The primary method of measuring impact is the randomized controlled trial. Randomized controlled trials are considered to be a reliable form of scientific evidence in the hierarchy of evidence that influences healthcare policy and practice because randomized controlled trials reduce spurious causality and bias. Certain medical interventions (like vaccination) are already backed by high-quality medical research, and so there is a lower burden of proof for charities doing these types of programs. The following academic groups do randomized controlled trials on other types of interventions as well: Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action.
Effective giving is an important component of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others. Some charities simply fail to achieve their goals. Of those that do succeed, GiveWell reports that some achieve far greater results with less money. The health improvements of high impact projects can be 100 times more effective than low impact projects.
The effective altruist charity evaluator GiveWell has emphasized the importance of evaluating each charity’s room for more funding. In general, effective altruists believe that selecting a cause to contribute to should be based on the marginal value that resources would accomplish at the margin, rather than based on what has already been accomplished.
Effective altruists reject the view that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. For example, they believe that a person in a developing country has equal value to a person in one’s own community. As Peter Singer notes:
It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. […] The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously […], this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.
In addition, many effective altruists think that future generations have equal moral value to currently existing people, so they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of non-human animals should be accorded the same moral weight as similar interests of humans and work to prevent the suffering of animals, such as those raised in factory farms.
Effective altruists argue that counterfactual reasoning is important to determine which course of action maximizes positive impact. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or providing social services. Since charities and social-service providers usually can find people willing to work for them, effective altruists compare the amount of good somebody does in a conventional altruistic career to how much good would have been done had the next-best candidate been hired for the position. According to this reasoning, the impact of choosing a conventional altruistic career may be smaller than it appears.
The earning to give strategy has been proposed as a possible strategy for effective altruists. This strategy involves choosing to work in high-paying careers with the explicit goal of donating large sums of money to charity. Benjamin Todd and William MacAskill have argued that the marginal impact of one’s potentially unethical actions in such a lucrative career would be small, since someone else would have done them regardless, while the impact of donations would be large.
Although there is a growing emphasis on effectiveness and evidence among nonprofits, this is usually done with a single cause in mind, such as education or climate change. Effective altruists, however, seek to compare the relative importance of different causes.
Effective altruists attempt to choose the highest priority causes based on whether activities in each cause area could efficiently advance broad goals, such as increasing human or animal welfare. They then focus their attention on interventions in high priority areas. Several organizations are performing cause prioritisation research.
The cost of a guide dog for the blind is $42,000. As an alternative, the cost of performing surgery to correct trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, often costs as little as $40 in developing countries. This surgery is 80% effective. Therefore, sight can be restored to 840 people for the cost of one guide dog, and the guide dog does not restore sight.
(To be concluded tomorrow.)