Effective Altruism : using reason and evidence to do the most good

Note : this is off-topic chat.

If you’ve never heard about Effective Altruism (EA) before, I highly recommend reading this introduction :

Introduction to Effective Altruism

Summary :
Most of us want to make a difference. The aim of the effective altruism movement is to figure out what is best for that purpose. If you don’t choose carefully the charities you donate money to or work for, you risk wasting money and time, or even worse have a negative impact.
If you’re a typical Westerner, then you can save dozens of lives in your working life, by donating money to the most effective charities.
If you’re still young, it’s likely that you can do even more with your career than donating. EA is also about finding the highest-impact career you can have.
What’s a good cause to work on ? It’s a cause that is :

  • great in scale (it affects many people’s lives, by a great amount)
  • highly solvable (additional resources will do a great deal to address the problem)
  • relatively neglected (so your contribution will have a high impact)
    The article mentions the best causes on the basis of this reasoning.

My impact with this forum post is admittedly going to be quite small, but writing it cost me little time so I think that was a rational thing to do.

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I’m not very familiar with that site, but I try to keep those things in mind. I think that human behavior is highly contagious, so even small changes in one’s own behavior can have a positive impact by spreading virally, even if we can’t observe the full, long-term effects (unless one has access to huge amounts of data like Google).

At least a few hundred people will read it, so it might not be that small. :slight_smile:

With regard to having the biggest impact…it reminds me of a story I heard. It goes something like this:…a boy was walking along the beach one day and picking up starfish one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean. A man came by and said “surely you don’t think that’s going to make any difference, just look at the thousands and thousands of starfish here!” The boy replied “tell that to him” as he threw in another starfish.

That reminds me of another saying: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

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Thank you Celtic and Josh for your interest in the topic. Doing a lot of good is better than doing only a little. But this fact must not make us forget that doing a little is better than doing nothing, as you pointed out. But I’d like to add: this fact must not make us forget that doing a lot of good is better than doing only a little! I agree that the consequences of our actions cannot be predicted. This is something I think about quite often.

Another must-read in my opinion: Why the long-term future of humanity matters more than anything else, and what we should do about it
This is from an organization linked to effective altruism and focused on career choices: 80,000 hours.

Programme :
– Why is the long-term future of humanity such a big deal, and perhaps the most important issue for us to be thinking about?
– Five arguments that future generations matter
– How bad would it be if humanity went extinct or civilisation collapsed?
– Why do people start saying such strange things when this topic comes up?
– Are there any other reasons to prioritise thinking about the long-term future of humanity?
– What is this school of thought called?
– How did past generations think about the long term future? Did they share this view?
– What are the views of other cultures, including hunter gatherers?
– Philosophical objection 1: The person-affecting view. What is it, and why doesn’t it work?
– Philosophical objection 2: Discount rates on the future, should we use them?
– Philosophical objection 3: Will the future actually be good?
– What about the welfare of farmed and wild animals?
– What if you’re not yet convinced or sure how good the future will be, or whether it matters?
– Doesn’t all this just mean that we should do the usual things like improving people’s education, health and governance?
– Can we do a lot more about this collectively than individually? Why it can make sense to show up to political protests.
– Who has had a huge impact on history? Scientific visionaries, nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis.
– Can you actually change the course of history (if you’re not president)?
– Broader and more reliable ways to improve the long term future of humanity. Are these more or less effective?
– Is it possible to create extremely large upsides rather than just prevent big downsides?
– Aren’t there plenty of people already working on these problems?
– How likely are the threats of human extinction? If they are really unlikely, does that defeat concern for the long-term?
– Exactly which risks are the most likely to take human civilisation off track?
– Should we colonise space to be safer?
– We could have a good future but also might destroy ourselves. Is the glass half full or half empty?

Personally, I don’t think I would be making my career choices based on what I could do for humanity. Rather, it would be based on what I want to do as a career. Not that the two are mutually exclusive; just that the future state of humanity wouldn’t be my focus.

Although rational altruism is an interesting idea, I don’t think it has much staying power. That is, in my view, altruism is at its heart a motivation for action, not a reasoned decision and I think it’s usually quite difficult to reason most people to action, especially if the payoff is in some nebulous future.

Is anyone really going to care about the future of humanity if they themselves and their family are on the street starving because of, let’s say, some government decision that eliminates your source of income?

I agree with your analysis Celtic.
The fact that few people will follow the principles of effective altruism makes each contribution all the more important.
And the fact that even fewer people will apply these principles to the long-term future makes contributions related to it even higher-impact.
This is consistent with the framework they have set up for selecting causes to work on (great in scale, highly solvable, neglected): the fact that effective altruism and caring about the long-term future of humanity are neglected makes them good candidates to put effort into.
In 80,000 hours’ list of the most urgent global issues, promoting effective altruism and global priorities research are equally ranked as second highest-impact fields.

Hi Rodent.
I can rationally appreciate the value of what you are promoting, but, I don’t believe rationality/logic can provide motivation since I think motivation (at its core) is an emotional issue. And, the fact that any results are in the distant future, to me means the argument will have very limited appeal (which requires emotion).
Some may be convinced that it’s a good idea, but translating that into action is problematic. So, logically, the fewer people involved, the less its chance of any real success despite any arguments as to its importance, necessity, or its imminent need (and to appreciate those three requires an emotional connection to the issue).

You’re right: Effective Altruism is not about motivating people, but about providing tools for already motivated people.

Further reading: 80,000 hours’ career guide.