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'Effective Altruists' Are a New Type of Nice Person

These young rationalists are taking high-paid jobs and giving away their salaries.

A Centre for Effective Altruism event. Photo via their website.

Social campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge and No-makeup Selfie are becoming pretty inescapable. At any one time, I will have at least one person on my social media feed running the length of one country or another, or cycling to a foreign capital, with an accompanying plea to give money to charity. Obviously, all this selflessness is commendable and the effort involved catches people's imaginations, but you could be forgiven for wondering if there's an easier and more effective way to be charitable.

"Effective altruism" is a fast-growing social movement dedicated to maximising the potential of charity. 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 Oxford, stresses that the ultimate aim of effective altruism is simply 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 tells 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 urging people to, “make sure what you do is reasoned, effective and well-directed”. At the time of writing, the clip has had 1,100,050 views. Recently, 180 effective altruists "came together to learn from each other, collaborate and build friendships" at the Effective Altruism Summit in San Francisco. The UK has equivalent events. Clearly, the movement is gaining traction. 

Philosopher Peter Singer. Photo via Wiki 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, which explains the two modes of human thinking – the fast, emotional one that we tend to use, and the slow, logical one that we all too often ignore. The idea is that at the moment we place too much emphasis on irrational human judgement. Charity giving should be directed where the money will be spent best, not to whichever cause is tugging on your heartstrings at any given point.

The third reason for the growth of effective altruism, according to Bowerman, is “the expanding moral circle”, promoted by Peter 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 (£25,000) to train a guide dog for a blind American citizen, but between $20-50 (£13-30) 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 – is 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 percentWill MacAskill, a Research Fellow in Philosophy at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is currently writing a book – Effective Altruism – due out summer 2015, and is co-founder of the non-profit organisations 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can, based at the Centre for Effective Altruism. He’s pledged to give away everything he earns above £20,000 per year. As President of the 80,000 Hours movement, which takes its name from the scary amount of hours we work in our careers, he doles out alternative careers advice to new job-hunters.

“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,” explains Bowerman. “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.”

MacAskill aims for the organisation to become “the careers place”. “It’s a longer term aim, but we think it’s doable,” he says. “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.”

Head of the Cambridge Student Group, Matthew van der Merwe, 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 very well-paid work for a company not usually considered "ethical" – say, working in a high-paying job in finance – with the intention of earning to give away the money. “This isn’t really what many people think of as an ethical career choice,” admits 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, with half of his Wall Street salary reported to head straight for the Against Malaria Foundation. Meanwhile, 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 start-ups, Robbie Shade, who earns to give as a Software Engineer for Google, and Alex Foster, CEO of the "Race Yourself" app for Google Glass.

The second, closely affiliated organisation based at the Centre for Effective Altruism is Giving What We Can – co-founded by MacAskill and Dr Toby Ord in 2009 – and this takes as its aim the elimination of global poverty, committing its members to pledge at least 10 percent of their income over the course of their lives. This non-profit currently totals 614 members and an estimated £194 million pledged. Another, more complex aspect of the organisation – taking pointers from US-based pioneers GiveWell – is the research it conducts into evaluating how cost-effective the charities themselves are, as well as how much funding they can actually, profitably use.

While advocating some unorthodox approaches, Effective Altruism ends up pouring cold water on some of the current charity trends, such as the Ice Bucket Challenge. As MacAskill argued in a piece for Quartz, most participation can be explained by "moral licensing".“This is a term used by psychologists,” he expands. “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. It’s like they have a kind of sufficiency file, where they try to do only a certain amount of good”. 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 cannibalisation” – money flowing only to certain causes célèbres, at the same time bleeding the needier causes dry.

“I think young people have always wanted to be altruistic,” reckons 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.”

@HuwOliver

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