Effective altruism

post by Holden Karnofsky (HoldenKarnofsky) · 2013-08-14T04:00:40.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · None comments


  What is effective altruism?
  Effective altruism is unusual and controversial
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We at GiveWell are proud to be part of the nascent “effective altruist” movement. Effective altruism has been discussed elsewhere (see Peter Singer’s TED talk and Wikipedia); this post gives our take on what it is and isn’t.

What is effective altruism?

To us, “effective altruism” means trying to do as much good as possible with each dollar and each hour that we have. It’s a way of thinking about morality that insists on maximization of good accomplished, and not just satisficing of rules and guidelines. To us, this implies

Effective altruism is unusual and controversial

To many readers of this blog, the above qualities might sound like self-evidently good ones. But we don’t believe that’s how most people see them.

As GiveWell and Good Ventures have explored what causes to get involved in, the single most common advice we’ve gotten has been to “choose what you’re passionate about.” When we’ve described our desire to do “strategic cause selection” – choosing causes based on how we can accomplish the most good – we’ve seen a good deal of pushback and skepticism. It’s common for people to emphasize the importance of “starting from the heart,” and to fear that our commitment to a cause won’t be genuine (and won’t be robust) if it comes from a strategic, analysis-based choice.

This concern is reminiscent of David Brooks’s reaction to the idea of “earning to give”:

If you choose a profession that doesn’t arouse your everyday passion for the sake of serving instead some abstract faraway good, you might end up as a person who values the far over the near. You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around … Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god.

…when most people pick a vocation, they don’t only want one that will be externally useful. They want one that they will enjoy, and that will make them a better person. They want to find that place, as the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I believe that these concerns misunderstand effective altruism. Effective altruism isn’t an alternative to having personal interests and passions; it is a personal interest and passion. Our next post will elaborate.

Crossposted from The GiveWell Blog

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