Introduction to Effective Altruism

Seeing suffering, injustice, and death around us makes most of us want to improve the situation. Finding the best way to help and then helping can be difficult and time-consuming.

One response to this challenge is effective altruism. The research field of effective altruism focuses on the question of how to help others as much as possible, using high-quality evidence and careful reasoning. Also, the effective altruism community takes helping others seriously and focuses its efforts on effectively solving the world's most pressing problems.

Translated from the article „Introduction to Effective Altruism” published on the Effective Altruism website.

An outstanding opportunity to do good

Throughout history, there are countless examples of people who have had a huge positive impact on the world:

Irena Sendler
Irena Sendler

These people can seem like heroes with whom it is impossible for us to identify. They were extremely brave, skilled or happened to be in the right place at the right time. But in fact, many others can make an extremely positive impact on the world if they'd only make wise choices.

This is such an amazing fact that it is hard to fathom. Imagine one day seeing a building on fire with a small child inside. You run into the flames, grab the child and take him to safety. This incident would make you a hero. Now imagine if the same thing happened to you every two years - you would save dozens of lives over the course of your career. It sounds strange, doesn't it?

Current data shows that this is the reality for many. For example, earning the average income of Estonia, you belong to the 6.3% of the richest in the world, and by donating 10% of your salary to the Against Malaria Foundation every year, you can probably save dozens of lives during your lifetime.

In fact, the world seems to be even stranger. Namely, donating is by no means the only way to help. For many, there may be even more impactful ways to help than donating to global charities. What would those possibilities be? First, it is possible to apply your talent directly in the workplace, which allows you to solve important problems. In this way, the world can be influenced to a greater extent than through donations. Second, there are issues that may turn out to be even more important than global poverty and health, as the following statement shows.

Many attempts to do good fail, but the best attempts are extraordinary

For the most part, we understand that it's important to make decisions based on evidence and reason, not guesswork or gut feeling. For example, when buying a phone, you probably read product reviews to find the best deal for you. You certainly wouldn't buy a phone that costs a thousand times more than its identical model. Yet we are not always equally aware and attentive when dealing with global issues.

Below is a graph from Dr. Toby Ord's essay showing the effectiveness of ways to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. Specifically, how many years of healthy life would you give if you donated $1,000 to implement these five different strategies.

The first strategy (surgical treatment) is not even visible on the scale, because it has such a small effect compared to the others. The best strategy, i.e. education of risk groups, has an estimated 1400 times greater impact. It is possible that these estimates are imprecise or do not take into account all relevant factors, but the differences in the impact of strategies are likely to be large.

It can be assumed that there is a large difference in the effectiveness of strategies for other topics as well, although in other areas (unlike global health) there is no such clear data. Why so? Partly because most of the projects for which data are available do not appear to have any significant positive impact at all. On the other hand, there is also a more optimistic point of view - namely, there are also strategies whose impact is enormous. However, it can be very difficult to distinguish between strategies with different effectiveness if one is not sure which experts or research methods to trust.

The question of which strategy has the greatest impact needs an answer. Comparing ways of doing good is both emotionally and practically difficult. However, comparison is vital so that we can help others as much as we can.

It is important to address the right issues

.The media often focuses on the negative. Yet, in some ways, the world is getting better. The collective efforts of people to improve the world have already been extraordinarily successful at times. Let's give some examples. The number of people living below the poverty line (according to the World Bank) has more than halved compared to 1990. During the Cold War, thousands of nuclear weapons moved across the Atlantic, but we escaped without a single nuclear attack. Over the past couple of centuries, slavery has been criminalized, the oppression of women has been greatly reduced, and the rights and acceptance of LGBTQ people have been fought for in many countries.

How much good you can do depends largely on the field you choose. If you choose a field that doesn't help many or doesn't have a good opportunity to do something useful, you significantly limit the impact you can have on the world.

However, if you choose a promising problem with already developed solutions, your impact can be enormous. For example, some efforts to reduce animal suffering have proven incredibly effective. In the US, a small group of people had helped to improve the living conditions of hundreds of millions of chickens suffering in factory farms through careful thinking and strategic action, without spending much money.

Many people are motivated to do good, but they cling to their favorite field before exploring other options. There can be various reasons behind this behavior: whether it is a personal encounter with a certain problem or, for example, a friend who already financially supports a certain organization.

However, by choosing an area that just happens to catch our attention, we can miss the most important issues of our time. Since most solutions seem to have little impact, we are likely to focus on something with little impact as a result of careless selection. In addition, the topics that attract our attention are probably also salient to other thinkers like us, so an unnecessary number of people may end up dealing with the same topic. However, this would mean that our efforts would have even less impact. So we can do more good by carefully considering several topics rather than narrowing our attention to the first one that interests us.

By remaining open to different areas, we can constantly redirect our efforts to exactly where we can accomplish the biggest things.

Promising areas

How do we figure out which problem we should focus on? Researchers have found that the following framework can be useful for this. Addressing a chosen problem is likely to have a major impact if the problem is:

Based on this line of thinking, there are several areas of activity which appear to have a potentially large impact. The list of these activities is neither final nor immutable. Rather, it is a best guess, based on the available evidence, of where our actions might have the greatest impact. Accordingly, should new evidence emerge of more promising potential in another field, we should consider focusing on it instead. It's worth remembering that even if you choose a good (though not the best) cause, your impact will still be greater than it would have been without addressing the problem you chose.

Next, we will look at three areas. We'll start with global poverty alleviation, then focus on animal welfare. Finally, we'll look at a perhaps more surprising but potentially high-impact topic: far-future repair.

Fighting extreme poverty

Diseases associated with extreme poverty, such as malaria and parasites, claim the lives of several million people each year. In addition, poor nutrition in poor countries can lead to impaired cognitive function, birth defects and stunted growth.

Many such sufferings can be prevented or alleviated relatively easily. The cost of an anti-malaria bed net is $2/piece, and according to GiveWell's Charity Evaluation Committee, the nets can significantly reduce the spread of malaria. Also, for example, simply making financial transfers to very poor people is a relatively cost-effective way of helping.

The benefits of improved health are not only the direct avoidance of suffering from disease and death, but also fuller participation in education and work life. In this way, these people can also earn more money and improve their future life.

Animal suffering

With the advent of industrial agriculture, animals have started to be kept in cruel conditions. Most of them end their lives prematurely as they are killed for food. Animal welfare advocates argue that it would be relatively inexpensive to reduce demand for meat produced on industrial farms or to make legislative changes that would improve the welfare of farmed animals. Since we are talking about a huge number of animals here, promoting this area would mean avoiding a very large amount of suffering.

Considering the extent of the problem, the topic of animal welfare seems to be extremely neglected. In the US, only 3% of charity funding is allocated between the environment and animal protection, and the remaining 97% goes to helping people. And of the money spent on animal welfare, only 1% goes to support the welfare of farm animals, even though they are the ones who have to endure extreme suffering.

Fixing the distant future

Most people care about the current generation as well as preserving the planet for future generations. Since the future is immeasurable, the number of people who can exist in the future is probably many times greater than the current world population. Therefore, it would be extremely important to ensure the continuation of life on our planet and its good quality. Of course, this idea may seem counterintuitive - we don't often think about the future lives of our great-grandchildren, much less their grandchildren. But just as we shouldn't ignore the plight of the world's poorest people simply because they live far away from us, we shouldn't ignore future generations either.

Unfortunately, there are several scenarios that could threaten our distant future. Climate change and nuclear war are well-known threats to the survival of our species. Many scientists believe that even more worrisome may be the risk associated with technological advances, such as artificial intelligence or man-made pathogens. Of course, it is not possible to predict exactly what the development of technology and its impact may turn out to be. However, it seems that the new technology could radically shape the course of the coming centuries.

Due to the immeasurable nature of the future, it is likely that addressing this topic could have an even greater impact than the two aforementioned areas.

Yet the existential risks associated with new technology are a surprisingly neglected topic. There aren't many people in the world who deal with AI risks or pathogens.

In the average US household, about 2% of the budget is spent on accident insurance. If we were to spend a comparable percentage of global resources on dealing with the risks that threaten civilization, millions of people would be working on this topic and the budget would be trillions of dollars a year. In reality, we spend only a tiny fraction of that amount, even though the risks in question may turn out to be significant in the coming decades.

If we already value securing ourselves on an individual level, we should also value protection against dire outcomes on a collective level. After all, a collective catastrophe such as the extinction of the human race would be bad for everyone on an individual level as well. Therefore, it would make sense for our civilization to spend more time and money on mitigating existential risks.

Other areas

There are many other promising areas that are not currently at the forefront of the effective altruism community, but could also have a major impact. Among them are:

Of course, it may happen that some very important areas are left out of this list. You can also do a lot of good if you find an area that is important and that others have overlooked. Therefore, the study of global priorities in itself is also one of the most important areas.

What to conclude from all this?

Which career to choose?

Most of us spend a significant portion of our productive waking hours (an average of 80,000 hours) working. This time is a huge resource that can be used to make the world a better place. If you manage to increase your impact by just 1%, it is already equivalent to 800 extra working hours.

First, you might want to consider which problem to focus on. Some promising problem areas are developing safe artificial intelligence, improving biosecurity strategy or ending the era of industrial farms.

As the next step, you should consider what is the most effective way for you to deal with the chosen problem. At this point, it makes sense to consider different approaches. Organizations dealing with these issues may need more policy analysts, researchers, managers, and other employees in their ranks. On the other hand, you can also consider more unusual approaches, such as working as an assistant to some influential person. Finally, you could consider whether your impact could be greatest if you did outreach work, that is, you would convince your community to deal with the chosen problem.

If you can't directly deal with an important issue at this moment, you might consider developing yourself in such a way that you can do it later. You can also join the earning to give way of thinking - by doing a high-paying job and donating a large part of your income to charity.

Which role could be the most suitable for you? When you donate to charity, your personal characteristics do not play a role in determining the value of the donation. However, when choosing a career, your personal suitability for the chosen job is extremely important. However, this does not mean that you should follow the usual career advice, i.e. listen to your heart and calling. Passion for work is perhaps not as important as you think. However, it is important to find a job that you are great at. The best way to find it is to experiment with several jobs and get feedback on what you are really good at.

The core business of 80,000 Hours is to help people find the kind of career in which they can do the most good. They've created a guide to what's important to consider when choosing a career, and also provide tools to help those interested narrow down their choices. They have also made numerous reviews of careers in different fields.

Read more about career options on our careers page.

Which charity to donate to?

One of the easiest ways to make a positive contribution to the world is to donate to organizations that work in the most important areas. Financial donations allow them to increase their positive contribution. In favor of financial donations, there is also greater flexibility compared to donating your time by doing voluntary work, for example.

Most of us are unaware of how rich we really are. If you earn a professional salary in a high-income country, you are likely to be in the top 5% of earners in a global context. With such relative wealth comes the opportunity to do a great deal of good if one uses one's wealth effectively.

Effective donation

Some organizations associated with the effective altruism movement have identified the most effective areas for giving, basing their recommendations strictly on scientific evidence.

One of the easiest ways to give effectively is to donate to Effective Altruism Funds. There are four main areas to choose from when donating through this organization. Then an expert in your chosen field will decide to which organization it would make the most sense to distribute the donations of that fund. However, through EA Funds, donations can also be made directly to various associations with promising potential.

It's also worth checking out GiveWell's in-depth research on global health and education charities.

Another way to find a suitable area for effective giving is to look at the list of organizations that have received support from the Open Philanthropy Project. The aforementioned organization uses the principles of effective altruism to find effective donation opportunities and distribute grants accordingly.

Make a pledge to donate

It's easy to think you're going to start donating, but it can be harder to stick to that plan. One way to stick to your plan is to make a public donation pledge.

An organization called Giving What We Can brings together people who pledge to donate at least 10% of their lifetime earnings to organizations that make the biggest positive changes in the world. An organization called The Life You Can Save works on a similar principle, but starts from donating 1% of annual income and directs donations to fight extreme poverty.

Read more about effective donation on our donating page.

Get involved in community activities

There is an ever-growing community in the world that shares the above-described way of thinking and acts accordingly. Thousands of people have pledged to donate 10% of their income to the most effective organizations improving the world as part of Giving What We Can. Hundreds of people have made major career changes towards more effective work based on the ideas of effective altruism. In addition, there are numerous groups united by an interest in effective altruism.

Estonia also has such a group of active people interested in effective altruism. Read about our activities on our About page and consider joining us!

Further recommendations

If you are inspired by the ideas of effective altruism, there are several ways to move forward with it: