What’s the Best Way to Do Good? Effective Altruism Explained


Where will your money, time and energy really have the most positive impact? Effective altruism is an attempt to provide an answer.

Author Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Translation Sarah-Indra Jungblut, 03.29.18

When it comes to making a charity donation, how do you choose where your money goes? How do you find out where you can make the wisest investment? In a world facing so many different ecological and social challenges, and with countless projects and initiatives trying to help, it’s no easy task. Often you go with your gut: because of some connection to your own life and experiences, or a personal belief about what issue you feel is the most urgent.

But some people believe there’s another way to pick the “best” charity or cause – by analysing as much data as possible and using it to work out which projects have the biggest positive impact. The movement behind this way of thinking is called “effective altruism” (EA) and here “effectiveness” means one thing: stopping as much suffering as possible. It’s been receiving more and more attention over the past few years: platforms and research institutes have been set up to look at it more closely and its followers meet at EA conferences.

But what is effective altruism exactly?

What is Effective Altruism (EA)?

Altruistic people are those who are concerned with the well-being of others and of society as a whole. People who commit selfless acts for the public good, like chefs who work at a soup kitchen in the evenings or students who volunteers to help schoolkids with their homework.

Effective altruists however, aren’t satisfied with “just” doing good deeds. They want to maximise the effect of their altruistic acts. From the view of an effective altruist, the volunteer students mentioned above would have been far more effective in their efforts if they’d placed all of their focus on their studies so that they could graduate as soon as possible, find a well-paid job and donate a part of their generous wage packet to organisations that allow kids to take part in free afterschool tutoring. That would help more kids gain access to a good education than individual volunteering could ever do.

So what is EA all about? Effective altruism is both a philosophy and a social movement at the same time. It was founded in the early 2010s and aims to optimise the use of time and money in order to improve quality of life for as many people as possible.

The key question at the centre of it all: Where can monetary donations help the largest possible number of people to a comprehensive improvement in their quality of life?

The answer to the question lies in empirical evidence and rational, scientific reasoning.

In order to explore the effectiveness of different projects, effective altruists try to find out ways of calculating what impact a certain sum of money actually has. Collecting the data that they base this on – such as Big Data, experimental field research and scientific control procedures – is the job of others, like for example MIT in Boston and other research institutions.

The data collected demonstrates the cost-effectiveness of aid organisations, e.g. how much good each unit of money can do, how many lives were saved or improved. Alongside the number of saved lives and the transparency of an organisation, one important category is “room for more funding”, or in other words, how effectively any additional donations can be used.

An index like this makes it possible to compare projects and initiatives with completely varying aims and evaluate them in terms of their effectiveness.

EA: Comparing Apples and Oranges

The non-profit charity assessment organisation GiveWell was set up by former hedge fund employees with the belief that doing good can be expressed in numbers. They’ve evaluated and compared various different projects, for example an initiative in New York that helps get people back into work, and various different projects in Africa. Getting one person in the USA back into work costs an estimated 40,000 USD. The same amount of money could save the lives of hundreds of people in Africa, by, for example, something as simple as distributing mosquito nets, which protect people from malaria.

At first glance these projects have completely different goals. It feels like comparing apples and oranges. But starting out with the basic assumption that all human beings have equal worth, it’s clear to the founders of GiveWell what cause they would want their money to go to.

Pixabay Is comparing the value of different altruistic acts a little like comparing apples and oranges?

Another example comes from William MacAskill, British philosopher at Oxford University, founder of several organisations within the field of effective altruism and a leading figure of the movement. It costs 50,000 USD to train a guide dog in the United States, which then goes on to help one individual improve their quality of life. In a country in the Global South, the same amount of money could be used to carry out many simple operations that could cure hundreds of people’s blindness.

In his book “Doing Good Better“” MacAskill describes another example from Kenya. In order to improve school education, one organisation gave pupils new books and employed more teachers, but their grades hardly showed any improvement. They tried another approach – giving the kids deworming medicine. The surprising result: after receiving the medication the kids were much less likely to miss school, and not only did their attendance rate go up, but they were better able to follow lessons, got better marks and at the end of it all, better jobs. The discovery of this link has wide-reaching consequences, because schistosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic flatworms) is one of the most widespread diseases in the world. Around 1.5 billion people are infected and the parasites can make children so weak that they’re unable to take part in lessons. It’s no surprise then that the “Deworm the World Initiative” has a place on GiveWell’s list of top charities.

These examples are a great illustration of the key assumptions of EA: it’s about relieving as much suffering as possible using the limited resources that we have at our disposal. And because EA judges all human life to be of equal worth, doing an effective altruistic act isn’t a question of morals or gut feeling, it’s a decision based on cold, hard data.

EA hardliners don’t care too much about where the money comes from, as MacAskill’s article To Save the World Don’t Get a Job at a Charity, Go Work on Wall Street, shows. Followers of EA have come to the conclusion that it’s better to earn a lot of money (in any profession) and subsequently donate as much as possible of it to the most cost-effective charities (a path he calls “earning to give“) rather than trying to find a “worthwhile job” which lets you help others directly.

Pexels EA’s “earning to give” approach says having a high-paying career is a way for some people to do a lot of good.

The concept behind it is simple: If I don’t take on the job as a stockbroker (or insert other well-paid job here), someone else will do it. But unlike me, that other person won’t donate a large part of it. And the more money I earn, the more I can donate. Another initiative founded by MacAskill, called “80,000 hours” (based on the idea that this is how many hours each person has on average in their careers) gives students advice on how best to make a difference through their work life.

Is It Possible to Rationalise Charity Giving?

Some people see Effective Altruism as a revelation, a way of organising good deeds into a clear framework and replacing moral questions with verifiable figures. In a world that seems to be full of crises, wars and catastrophes, organisations like Giving What We Can and GiveWell give clear answers to those who want to help but don’t know where to start. And EA also gets rid of the “none of this will change anything anyway” attitude, by finding the best possible proof for the effectiveness of projects and giving clear recommendations.

But the movement has come in for criticism too, of course. Critics have accused it of being a feel-good philosophy (told by individualists who are doing nothing more than sharing consumption tips) of being completely unpolitical, and for not tackling the real reasons for people’s suffering – like capitalism, post-colonialism, climate change etc.

And we shouldn’t forget one important thing: effective altruism isn’t able to give us any absolute numbers – we can only take a thorough look at the issues that have adequate data available and we can only ever have answers to questions that we are able to clearly formulate.

Tom Parsons To what extent are altruistic acts quantifiable? And does proving their impact encourage us to avoid the real issues?

More than a few might feel uncomfortable with the idea that an altruistic act, an act of charity and brotherly (or sisterly) love, can ever really be measurable and quantifiable. And yes, the logic of effective altruism tells us that art and culture should only really be supported by donations when the evils of the world – whether they be poverty, hunger, under-development or epidemics – have all been eliminated. The same is true for sports clubs, local community groups and any other organisations that make the world a nicer, more interesting or more likeable place for individuals or for a group of people, but not objectively better for everyone.

Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and ethicist, who specialises in approaching ethical issues from a utilitarian perspective, and is one of the fathers of effective altruism, has a pretty clear opinion about that: “In a world free from poverty, I’d have no problem with people making donations to the arts. But as long as six million children are dying every year from the consequences of poverty, then we should focus our attentions on other tasks.” Effective altruism is about humanity as a collective, not individual humans – an attitude that, for most of us, takes a little getting used to.

MacAskill has a slightly less radical attitude. For him, EA is just one of many instruments that can help us change the world. His book “Doing Good Better” has one clear point to make: living a good life means helping the world’s most vulnerable people.

What Can We Conclude From All This?

The EA movement can teach us a few valuable lessons without us having to agree completely with all that it says. Like for example, that it’s important to make sure that any organisations we donate to are doing truly useful work. And organisations themselves should concentrate on making sure that each individual aid programme has real impact. So it’s always a good idea for them to put as much effort as possible into planning and weighing up each aid effort, considering alternatives and checking the effectiveness of each.

And we should always ask ourselves what “effective” actually means. A project with high administrative costs can still be very effective. The “worm medication” example can teach us a lot here. While many people choose charities that keep admin costs low, because they feel like that means more money will “end up with the people that it’s going to help”, that’s not actually always a failsafe way of choosing a project: less money for administrative costs doesn’t necessarily mean that a project has more impact.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t forget that good deeds and projects that aren’t measurable in terms of effectiveness aren’t necessarily ineffective or lacking in impact. Effective Altruism doesn’t give us any absolute numbers, because we’re only able to do a detailed analysis of things that are backed up by good data and we can only ever find answers to questions that we are able to formulate. And projects that (still) operate on a small scale shouldn’t necessarily instantly be ruled out. At the end of the day it’s up to each individual to decide how much influence an Effective Altruism approach will have on their next attempt at doing good.

Author: Sarah-Indra Jungblut / RESET Editorial (2018)

Translated by: Marisa Pettit

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