'Effective Altruists' Want to Be Nice in the Most Efficient Way Possible

Charity shouldn't begin at home, they say—it should begin wherever money will do the most amount of good.

|
Oct 6 2014, 2:26pm

A Centre for Effective Altruism event. Photo via the organization's website.

Social media charity campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge and No Makeup Selfie are becoming pretty inescapable. At any given time there's at least one person in my Facebook feed running, walking, or cycling across one country or another, always in order to raise money for the less fortunate. Obviously, all this selflessness is commendable and the effort involved catches people's imagination, but you could be forgiven for wondering if there's an easier and more effective way to help good causes.

"Effective altruism" is a fast-growing social movement dedicated to maximizing the effectiveness of charitable giving. It aims to persuade people to give a significant chuck of their time and money to improving the world—and to do so in the most cost-effective way possible. Effective altruists don’t see giving as merely "doing one’s bit." They ask, Where can we do the most good with our money, time, and effort? How can we choose our careers with this in mind? And how can we best use scientific data to back up our decisions? 

Niel Bowerman, co-founder and Director of Special Projects at the Centre for Effective Altruism in England, stresses that the ultimate aim of effective altruism is to look at all the problems in the world, then solve as many of them as possible.

“One way of talking about effective altruism is as ‘the last social movement that need ever exist,’” he told me. “We simply ask the question of, 'Where can we have the most impact?' We’re not tied down to any specific cause, or any specific area.” 

The movement earned some publicity last year when influential moral philosopher Peter Singer gave a TED talk  in which he advised, “Make sure what you do is reasoned, effective and well-directed.” (The clip has over 1.1 million views.) Recently, 180 of these data-minded do-gooders gathered at the Effective Altruism Summit in San Francisco, and similar events have been held in the UK. Clearly, the movement is gaining traction. 

Philosopher Peter Singer. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Bowerman, there are three key currents which gave rise to this movement. The first is the rise of data-driven development. The second is a burgeoning rationalist community, influenced by research on cognitive biases by Thinking, Fast and Slow author Daniel Kahneman, who divides thinking into two categories: the fast, emotional one that we tend to use, and the slow, logical one that we all too often ignore. The idea is that we tend to place too much emphasis on irrational human judgment. Charitable giving should be directed where the money will be spent best, not to whichever cause is currently tugging on your heartstrings.

The third reason for the growth of effective altruism, according to Bowerman, is “the expanding moral circle,” a concept promoted by Singer. This is “basically this idea that we should care not just about people in our local community, but also about people far away from us.” A convincing example was provided by Singer in his TED talk: If it costs $40,000 to train a guide dog for a blind person, but between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person with trachoma in a developing country, would you rather train that guide dog, or cure between 800 and 2,000 people of blindness? With Effective Altruism, charity no longer begins at home—it begins wherever you can have the most impact.

Peter Singer's TED Talk

Many effective altruists pledge to give away substantial portions of their income—the most common fraction being 10 percent (which parallels the old concept of tithing to one's church). Will MacAskill, a research fellow in Philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is currently writing a book—Effective Altruism—due out in the summer 2015, and is co-founder of the nonprofit organizations 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can, both based at the Centre for Effective Altruism. He’s pledged to give away everything he earns above £20,000 ($32,000) per year. MacAskill aims for 80,000 Hours (which takes its name from the estimated amount of time we spend working) to become “the careers place.” 

“It’s a longer-term aim, but we think it’s doable,” he told me. “In ten years’ time, as well as having a presence at all major universities, it’ll just become the default that you pursue a career in order to make an impact. Just in the same way that it’s the default that you want a good salary—no one ever questions that as an idea.” 

Bowerman agrees. “Recent surveys have suggested that approximately 75 percent of students about to graduate consider social impact to be one of the factors they use in weighing up their career choice,” he said. “Ultimately, ‘Which of these jobs will allow me to have more impact?’ is a difficult, but factual question. You can’t just answer by thinking about the world, you also need to go and collect data. And so that’s one of the things that 80,000 Hours does.”

Matthew van der Merwe, the head of the Cambridge Student Group, is certainly convinced. “Effective altruism has definitely influenced my career ambitions”, he says. “I'm choosing my career based largely on altruistic considerations, and I’ve drawn a great deal on 80,000 Hours’ resources to help figure out which career is best for me.”

One of the more left-field ideas is that people should do highly paid work in an industry that's not usually considered "ethical"—say, finance—with the intention of giving away nearly all of the money they earn.

“This isn’t really what many people think of as an ethical career choice,” admitted MacAskill. “It’s not something on their radar, and so we’ve made a lot of progress by just letting people know that this is actually an option.”

Notably, former programmer Jason Trigg hit the front page of the Washington Post last year—he reportedly sends half of his Wall Street salary straight for the Against Malaria Foundation. Previous 80,000 Hours advisees include Matt Gibb, who’s pledged to donate 33 percent of his income plus the value of the equity of his startups; Robbie Shade, who gives away major portions of what he makes as a software engineer for Google; and Alex Foster, CEO of the "Race Yourself" app for Google Glass.

Giving What We Can, which was co-founded by MacAskill and Toby Ord in 2009 aims to eliminate global poverty by getting its members to pledge at least 10 percent of their income over the course of their lives. This nonprofit currently has 614 members and an estimated £194 million ($310 million) pledged. Taking a page from US-based  GiveWell's book, the organization also conducts research into evaluating how cost-effective the charities themselves are, as well as how much funding they can actually, profitably use.

In the course of advocating some unorthodox approaches, Effective Altruism ends up pouring cold water on some of the current charity trends like the Ice Bucket Challenge. As MacAskill argued in a piece for Quartz in August, most participation can be explained by "moral licensing." 

“This is a term used by psychologists,” he told me. “There’s an effect where if someone does one good deed, that can make it more likely for them to do something unethical at a later date.” So people might do a charity run one day, allowing them to feel justified to do something shitty the next. This kind of giving is also prone to "the wrong donation," or what MacAskill dubs “funding cannibalization”—money flowing only to certain causes célèbres at the expense of other charities

“I think young people have always wanted to be altruistic,” said Bowerman. “With the internet now, research and ideas about high-impact routes as to how we can make a difference can be spread throughout the world much more easily. And what effective altruism tries to do is provide people with the tools, so that they can use that altruistic spirit to make the greatest impact they can.”

Follow Huw Oliver on Twitter.