Effective Altruism

What’s the real purpose of our life and how can we maximize our beneficial impact and minimize the harm we cause?

There are 3 main motivations leading us to want to help others:

  1. The positive feeling that comes from directly helping others
  2. Being seen to be generous (giving as a way to gain status)
  3. Effectively helping others

All 3 motivations are important, and most of us help others for all 3 reasons at different times, but it’s important not to confuse the three. Helping your family, friends or co-workers, or performing simple acts of kindness for strangers is an example of the first. Almost any time we tell others directly or indirectly about having done something beneficial part of our mind is seeking acknowledgement and respect, which is an example of the second motivation. Together these two motivations drive an enormous amount of benefit and are powerful contributors to human unity, but they can also fool us into thinking that we are doing everything we can to help others when there are more effective means of helping others available.

There’s a wonderful online community developing around effective altruism. Effective altruism is the principle that you should make your altruism (giving) as effective as possible, and implies careful thought and measurement to ensure maximum benefit ensues from any act of giving. I was happy to stumble upon several online sites organized around this principle. The incredible paradox around effective altruism is that many of the most effective ways to bring benefit are extremely inexpensive and simple, but are nevertheless greatly under-appreciated and under-funded. One example is the distribution of mosquito nets: simple, inexpensive, but overwhelmingly effective in averting malaria. The Gates Foundation, the United Nations, and the Grameen Foundation all oversee an enormous range of projects that while not “sexy” are evidence-based methods to achieve social good.

A great general-purpose guide to what to do with the 80,000 hours you’ll likely invest in your career can be found at 80000hours.org. A central clearinghouse for effective altruism can be found at effectivealtruism.org. Another well-known resource for this is givewell.org which identifies the top charities making an impact on human wellbeing. While GiveWell focuses exclusively on human wellbeing Animal Charity Evaluators focuses on identifying how to maximize impact on animal wellbeing. For example, while there are over 6 million children who die each year of preventable diseases, there are over 140 billion land and sea animals killed each year by humans, mostly for food, despite there being dietary alternatives.

For this reason, I appreciate very much the approach of the Effective Altruism Funds which allows you to channel your giving to various charities and tune your contribution according to your personal convictions (more to humans, more to animals, etc.).

TED talk on effective altruism by Pete Singer

In evaluating the effectiveness of altruism it’s very helpful to take a fresh evidence-based look at the state of the world. News media focus on traumatic developments, so I’d recommend looking at the UN’s Human Development Index to recognize a dramatically positive upward trend in human wellbeing over the last century.

Video Summary of the UN’s Human Development Index over the last 25 years

At the same time, it’s clear that this human development has come at an enormous cost to animals and the natural world, which is why we should look at how to effectively benefit animals and avert cataclysmic risks to the ecosystem.