Last updated: 4th October, 2023
1. Ways to frame your introduction to EA
a. EA as a two-pronged approach
Effective altruism is a movement united by the question, “Using the resources I have, how can I do the most good?”. This requires two things: (i) working out how to do the most good, and then (ii) acting on your answers. Many people in EA are focused on research, be it academic or other, whilst many others in EA are focused on the doing. Some examples could be working in political advocacy, running an organisation or working in operations for a charitable organisation.
b. You probably already agree with EA
Here are four ideas that you probably already agree with. Individually, they each might seem a bit trite or self-evident. But taken together, they have significant implications for how we think about doing good.
- It’s important to help others;
- Everyone should be valued equally;
- Helping more is better than helping less;
- Our resources are limited, so we should prioritise how we use them.
So if we agree that these four ideas embody important values — and I think that they do — then there are big implications for how we should act. The best options for improving lives are sometimes hundreds of times better than the average. That might mean the difference between helping one person, and helping hundreds of people for exactly the same amount of time or money. Therefore, we should first focus on the causes where we can help the most people with our limited time and money, not just on those that we happen to have already heard about.
- From Sam Deere (Source)
- Or focusing more on the ‘final point’ - EA helps us prioritise: The reality of the above points is hard, we will always instinctively care more for the people we see, despite knowing that there are millions of people around the world dying of entirely preventable causes. Acknowledging that it makes no difference that they aren’t in front of us means we are always in triage. EA helps us decide where we can help the most first.
- Idea from Holly Elmore (Source)
c. EA is a response to our empathy, compassion and care towards others
Most of us want to make a difference - to do something - when we see suffering, injustice and death. But working out what that ‘something’ is, let alone actually doing it, is difficult, and the challenge can be disheartening. EA is a response to this challenge. It is a research field using high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. You could frame as EA as having three parts:
- Desire to make the world as good a place as it can be
- The use of evidence and reason to find out how to do so, and
- The willingness to take action.
d. EA is a much-needed ethical revolution
In terms of power to change the world, we live in an unprecedented time in human history - the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions transformed both our understanding of the world and our ability to alter it, but our ethical understanding hasn’t yet caught up with this. What we need is an ethical revolution so that we can work out how to use these resources to improve the world. There are many issues to address if you want to tackle this: whether to do good through charity, your career or political engagement, what programs to focus on, who to work with. But what I think is the most fundamental problem is; Of all the many problems that the world faces, which should we try to solve first? - From Will MacAskill (Source)
e. EA is about overcoming unawareness
Most people aren’t fully aware of the extent of global problems, or do know but aren’t sure how to address them; instead, they work on things they feel they understand better. EA is a response to this unawareness. Note: this naturally provokes questions about the extent of problems or how to address them, and doesn’t appear to blame others, since “not being aware” is morally neutral and not shameful to imply. - Aaron Gertler (Source)
f. EA is about overcoming indifference
All the major causes of suffering in the world seem to be the result of the absence of caring, or numbness to the suffering (i.e. indifference). For example, factory farming is not the result of human hatred towards non-human animals but of human indifference towards the intense suffering of these animals. EA is the serious attempt to overcome our collective indifference towards the major causes of suffering in the world. Note: If you use this framing, ensure you make it clear you are not insinuating the person you are talking to is indifferent, more that society is generally indifferent. - Darius Meissner (Source)
g. EA combines the head and the heart
Effective Altruism is important because it combines both the heart and the head. The heart, of course, you feel. But it’s really important to use the head as well to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed, and reason helps us to understand that other people, wherever they are, are like us, that they can suffer as we can, that parents grieve for the deaths of their children, as we do, and that just as our lives and our well-being matter to us, it matters just as much to all of these people - Peter Singer (Source)
2. Why is EA important?
a. Doing good is a major part of living a satisfying life
Emphasise doing good as an approach goal, rather than an avoidance goal (e.g. to avoid guilt, to avoid breaking moral obligations), based on a desire to improve the lives of others. Altruism is a major part of a truly worthwhile and well rounded life. - Will MacAskill, Roman Duda and Ben Todd
b. You are richer than you might think
Most people think that millionaires should give something back. But it may surprise you to learn that those of us on or above the median wage in the developed world are usually within the richest 5% of people in the world, and have more than 20 times the median income in the world. I feel very lucky/privileged to live in the developed world, to have been educated, to be literate, to have access to good food and medical care, etc. A lot of people aren’t as lucky, and it doesn’t seem fair that I should get to live in luxury, relative to almost everyone else, because I happened to be born lucky. I want to share my good luck with people who aren’t as fortunate, and EA helps me do that. - Sam Deere (Source) and Aaron Gertler (Source)
c. We have an amazing opportunity
Extreme global inequality, the ease with which we can move money/resources, and the technology that allows us to research the effectiveness of interventions provides those of us in the developed world an unprecedented opportunity to save lives and to prevent suffering. Almost no human who has existed in the generations prior to us will have had so much power to help others. Each of us could save the lives of tens or hundreds of children or prevent the suffering of thousands of people, without even making a significant difference to our own standards of living. - Sam Hilton based on ideas in talk by Toby Ord
d. We have an obligation to help others (the “Drowning Child” argument)
Note: Talk about obligation with care, the risk is that it can seem judgemental towards others. Consider talking about how you feel an obligation, rather than that we have an obligation. More discussion on this topic here.
- Imagine you are walking past a shallow muddy pond, and you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. You have to act immediately to save the child. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy, but it will mean that you get your expensive clothes and your fancy smartphone would be ruined. The question is - do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Most people say they do, as the importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of ruined belongings. Would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? We are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a relatively small cost to us. - Peter Singer (Source)
e. We need to consider cost-effectiveness
Most people give to nearby causes. Many people in wealthy nations usually donate to causes that are close to them, or causes that affect wealthy people (over 90% in the case of donations from the US stay in the US) - leaving little money for international issues. But, our money doesn’t go very far in very rich countries, while in low income countries people die of diseases that could be prevented or cured easily and cheaply.
The charitable sector lacks normal economic forces. Imagine two pizzerias in your town, each serving high-quality pizzas, but one for $500, and the other for $5. That sounds crazy, but what do you think would happen? No one would buy the expensive pizza and they would go out of business. Charities aren’t bound by the same economic forces, because the people donating aren’t the same people receiving the benefit. Even though some charities are hundreds of time more cost-effective (cheaper to do more good), it is the charities that are better at advertising that get the most money.
- Guide-dog example. The Blind Foundation can help someone with incurable blindness by providing a guide dog, for $50,000, who can provide service for about 9 years. However, The Fred Hollows Foundation can cure blindness from cataracts through a simple surgery, for about $1000 (in some low-income countries), Both The Blind Foundation and The Fred Hollows Foundation are helping people, but one is having a much bigger impact with the same resources. (Source)
- HIV/AIDS example. Surgery to treat Kaposi’s Sarcoma (a common cancer in people with AIDS) is an effective treatment, but it is expensive. In comparison, improving education for high-risk groups reduces the spread of HIV and AIDS - and it’s estimated to be 1,400 times more cost-effective than surgical treatment for Kaposi’s sarcoma. (Source)
g. EA encompasses a wide range of interventions
- To do the most good, we don’t want to restrict ourselves to a specific cause area, or only to actions we can rigorously study, so EAs look for actions that exist on a scale: (Source)
- At one end - very cost-effective, with strong evidence of their impact, e.g. insecticide treated bednets.
- At the other - actions that we don’t know will help but, if they do help, could be extraordinarily cost-effective, e.g. advocating for policy changes that could improve the lives of many.
h. Current Key Cause Areas
- Global health impacts billions, it is super solvable, and some interventions/areas are incredibly neglected. We have an amazing track record - rates of death from measles, malaria, diarrheal disease are down by over 70 percent, and in 1980 smallpox was eradicated. On our current best estimates, we can save a life by distributing just a few thousand dollars worth of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets.
- Factory farming impacts billions of non-human animals, is something we can easily impact and is super neglected. There are 70 billion land animals used every year for food, and the vast majority of them are factory farmed, living in conditions of horrific suffering. They’re probably among the worst-off creatures on this planet, and in many cases, we could significantly improve their lives for just pennies per animal.
- Existential risks are events like a nuclear war or a global pandemic that could permanently derail civilization or even lead to the extinction of the human race. This is highly neglected, mostly due to indifference toward less tangible problems, especially those affecting future generations, as well as scope insensitivity. These problems still seem reasonably tractable though - there are various ways you can contribute with your money, your career or your political engagement.
3. Explain how you got involved in effective altruism
If you can, tie in your own personal story of exploration of these ideas into the narrative.
- How did you come across EA ideas?
- What inspired you?
- What things do you do?
- What changed you?
If you cannot provide your own story, try telling the story of a friend or someone who inspired you. Here are some examples:
- “Why I love effective altruism” by Michelle Hutchinson
- “There’s a lot I want to say about why I love EA. But really, it all comes down to the people. Figuring out how I can best help others can be a difficult, messy, and emotionally draining endeavour. But it’s far easier to do alongside like-minded folk who care about the same goal. Thankfully, I found these people in the EA community.”
- “I made these major shifts in my life, I think, because I met other people who were really living out their values. When I was surrounded by people who typically give something like 10% of their income to charity rather than 3%, my sense of how much was reasonable to give started to change. When I was directly asked about my own life choices, I stopped and thought seriously about what I could and should do differently.”
- “What feels most salient to me having just been to EA Global though is how much I appreciate the extent to which people in the EA community are just really going out and helping people. They’re doing things that are difficult, emotional, tiring, and speculative. But they’re not letting those things hold them back. They’re mostly talking about ways to do them better — to get more done and help more people.”
- “Why I view effective giving as complementary to direct work” by Julian Hazell
- “Being able to donate makes me hopeful. No matter how rough of a day I have, or how unclear the impact of my work is, nothing can take donating away from me. There is no imposter: I can literally see a number on my Giving What We Can dashboard, and I can feel proud about knowing those funds are going to help others.”
- “I recently hit my two-year pledge anniversary, and I’m really happy I took it. I feel that the Pledge has been complementary to the direct work I’m doing, and it motivates me knowing that effective giving can raise the floor of how much good I’m doing in the world during times in which the ceiling is ambiguous.”
- “EA is three radical ideas I want to protect” by Peter Wildeford
- “These three radical views – radical empathy, scope sensitivity, and scout mindset – are so rare in the world that I rarely find people with just one of them, let alone all three. I think the effective altruism community has been amazing in cultivating a large group of talented and compelling people that hold these three views. I think that’s precious and I want to protect that as much as I can.”
4. Further reading
- Study results: The most convincing argument for effective donations by Aaron Gertler
- Introductory Presentations
- Responding to Objections & Controversies