Frequently Asked Questions About EA
Does EA only recommend things that are ‘proven’ to work?
Effective altruism is about doing as much good as we can, which may include actions that are yet to be empirically proven. We research actions that exist on a scale between:
Cost-effective and evidence-based, such as scientifically proven health care interventions, e.g. anti-malaria nets, or vitamin A supplementation.
Uncertain impact, but with a high potential upside, such as conducting research to improve our understanding of disease, or advocating for policy changes that could improve the lives of many. We consider these actions to have high expected value.
Isn’t it obvious?
Many people find the idea of trying to maximise the amount of good they do fairly obvious and uncontroversial. But most people don’t dedicate much effort towards helping others, or are swayed on how to channel their efforts by personal interests or biases, without thoroughly comparing their options first.
If it does seem obvious to you though, great! You’d probably enjoy joining the community.
What actually does the most good is far from obvious - our intuitions can be very wrong and indeed some things that sound great actually have no impact or do harm.
Is it just about donating money?
In the past, the community made the mistake of over-emphasising “earning to give” as an effective way to help. Most of us still think this is a good strategy for some people, particularly those who are well-suited to high-paying careers.
But donating to charity is not the only way to have a large impact. A lot of people can do even better by using their careers to help others more directly. Many people in the community do both.
It could also be that there are lifestyle changes you might make, like reducing the amount of meat or dairy you consume, applying rationality to more aspects of your life, or volunteering your time towards EA work outside of your career.
What about systemic change?
Approaches that are ‘proven’ to work, such as scaling up rigorously tested health treatments, provide a good baseline against which we can assess other, more speculative, approaches. However, as we get more skilled in evaluating what works and what doesn’t, many in the community are shifting into approaches that strive for systemic change.
If everyone followed the advice of EA, wouldn’t that lead to misallocation of resources?
If everyone took the same action, and never updated their views in response to changing circumstances, then yes, that would create problems. Effective altruism makes recommendations about the best available opportunities to help, taking what other people are already doing into account. However, general recommendations within the EA community are made with the actions of others in mind. When enough people take certain recommended actions to lower their worth below those of other actions, general EA recommendations change accordingly.
What do you think about volunteering?
Volunteering is a bit like donating. It can be harmful if you do it wrong, but it could also make a huge difference. Volunteers take time to train and manage, so be sure to only volunteer if you are able to commit, otherwise you may create more costs than benefits to the charity. Another thing to be careful about is if you volunteer in countries where you don’t understand the community well, or doing a job you aren’t adequately trained for - you could be doing a worse job than the locals would do, or even causing harm. For example, working with children in orphanages can be particularly bad, as the demand for orphanage tourism has resulted in children being taken off their parents to pretend to be orphans, and the lack of consistency with adult carers causes psychological problems.
But volunteering can be an excellent way of gaining useful skills and a deeper understanding of the world, which can help you make more of a difference in the future.
Additional general FAQs
There are a few more general FAQs from CEA in this article.
Cause Area Specific FAQs
Global Poverty FAQ including FAQs about GiveDirectly, the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
Existential-risk FAQ from the Future of Humanity Institute
S-risk FAQs from Tobias Baumann. S-risks are events that would bring about suffering on an astronomical scale.
AI Safety FAQ from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute