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What is Effective Altruism?
The Basics

What is Effective Altruism?

What do Sam Bankman-Fried, Hot Fuzz and philosophical quandaries have in common?
13th Dec 2023

What’s the best way to make a positive difference in the world? Is it through loving your neighbour? Giving to charity? Creating meaningful change through work? Some combination of the above?

For many, how one goes about making a positive difference in the world is deeply personal, and not formulaic. But a group of prominent academics and business people believe that there is a ‘right’ way (and also a ‘wrong’ way) to do good.

What is effective altruism?

Effective altruism (EA) is a philosophical and social movement that began in the 2000s. The term was coined in 2011, but the concept itself is not an organisation or specific group; it’s a much broader term to encompass a way of thinking that has been increasingly adopted by those wanting to do good, better. But many organisations have evolved out of the mindset, including The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), 80,000 Hours and the Future of Humanity Institute

It rests on the belief that there are more effective ways to maximise positive impact, noting that traditional approaches to charity can be clunky, underfunded and inefficient in how funding is actually used. 

Joshua Hobbs, lecturer and consultant in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, UK, explains that “many effective altruists believe that rather than slog away in a soup kitchen, you can create a greater impact by working in say, investment banking, earn higher wages and donate greater sums to charity.”

“Many effective altruists believe that rather than slog away in a soup kitchen, you can create a greater impact by working in say, investment banking, earn higher wages and donate greater sums to charity.”

Joshua Hobbs

According to the CEA website, EA is “an intellectual project, using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible.” Maximising the way we can do good sounds – well, good. Right? 

But there are many cautionary tales about the prioritisation of ‘the greater good’ – Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz satirises the utilitarian idea, while classic moral quandaries – like whether to let a train kill five people or switch the track and kill one – distil it. 

The key figures who built the foundations of this way of thinking include Toby Ord, Will MacAskill and Peter Singer, while proponents of the movement have since stretched from Elon Musk to Sam Bankman-Fried. Infamously, the latter’s subsequent arrest for $8bn financial fraud and involvement in the movement has tarnished EA’s reputation – or, as some argue, exposed the hard-to-swallow pill of the movement’s contradictions and moral difficulties. As a result, EA has become increasingly controversial.

What are the movement’s beliefs? 

The CEA has some guiding principles for the global EA community to follow: 

  • Commitment to others. This principle details community members being willing to take “significant personal action” in order to benefit others. What this looks like, however, is left up to the individual. 
  • Scientific mindset. This tenet is a key foundational part of the EA movement: foregrounding reason and pragmatism when it comes to doing good. It’s perhaps one of the most defining parts of this philosophical bent – and also perhaps the strangest. Shake off your sentimentalities when it comes to helping others. It’s time to get logical. 
  • Openness. For EA, this principle manifests itself as a freedom from commitment to a cause. If new evidence suggests there is a more efficient way of doing good for humanity, then the EA community will change tack. 
  • Integrity. Accurate information is important to the EA movement. When you revolve your philanthropic endeavours around evidence-based methods, it’s good to ensure that evidence is credible. 
  • Collaborative spirit. It’s about pooling collective resources and aiming them at the most efficient place. It’s not about individual opinions, causes or cares. 

The EA movement has certainly made positive changes across the world, including preventing deaths from neglected diseases, founding an institute to research global priorities and supporting work that ensures AI benefits humanity rather than posing risks.  

What are the criticisms? 

The core question of the movement – how can we use our resources to help others the most? – seems so simple. Yet, a quick Google of the movement brings up a sizeable list of articles and news stories delving into tricky moral quandaries. 

The difficulty that many have begun to pick up on is that in order to make ‘doing good’ a logical process that maximises efficiency, trade offs have to be made. As the guiding principles allude to, if evidence comes to light suggesting that there is a more efficient way to benefit the world, one cause will be dropped in order to prioritise another. 

It also hinges on the definition of ‘doing the most good’. In a world of over 8 billion people, there are many different needs and priorities. So what constitutes ‘doing good’? And what determines which type of ‘good’ is better? 

The movement has garnered particular attention recently due to former cryptocurrency billionaire Bankman-Fried’s alleged $8bn financial fraud. And at the centre of his defence to the allegations is the claim that he was doing it for the greater good. To many, Bankman-Fried has become a perfect example of the dangers of the EA philosophy. When moral complexities are stripped down to their most logical, pragmatic and effective iterations, many point out that we lose what it means to be compassionate humans. 

Perhaps the complexity of ‘doing good’ is there for a reason. There is no answer to what the best way to make a positive difference in the world is – and maybe that’s a good thing. 

Further reading on EA:

  • Sam Bankman-Fried, Effective Altruism and the Question of Complicity – The New Yorker
  • What is effective altruism? – BBC Worklife
  • Transcending Time: The Hidden Cost of the Greater Good – The Beautiful Truth
  • How effective altruism went from a niche movement to a billion-dollar force – Vox