Introduction to Effective Altruism

Many of us aspire to make a meaningful impact in the world. Witnessing suffering, injustice, and death prompts us to want to take action. Yet, finding a tangible solution to these issues, and more importantly, implementing it, is not straightforward. This challenge can test our resolve and commitment.

Effective altruism offers a solution to this challenge. It is a research field dedicated to maximizing the impact of our efforts to aid others. By employing rigorous evidence and thoughtful reasoning, effective altruism seeks to address the question of how we can help others most effectively. The community engaged in effective altruism is deeply committed to resolving the world’s critical problems efficiently and effectively.

An outstanding opportunity to do good

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

  • Norman Borlaug’s research on disease-resistant wheat led to the so-called Green Revolution, which is estimated to have saved hundreds of millions of lives.
  • Stanislav Petrov prevented the outbreak of a nuclear war by remaining calm under pressure and choosing to disobey orders.
  • Grace Eldering, Pearl Kendrick, and Loney Gordon developed a vaccine during the global economic crisis that has prevented millions of deaths from whooping cough.

Irena Sendler and Paul Rusesabagina risked their lives to save thousands of people from genocide.

Irena Sendler

These individuals may appear as heroes, seemingly beyond our ability to relate to them. They were extremely brave, skilled, or happened to be in the right place at the right time. But in fact, many of us can make an extremely positive impact on the world if we make smart choices.

This is such an amazing fact that it is hard to fathom. Imagine you’re on your way home, when you see 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’d save dozens of lives over the course of your career.

Current data shows that making such a significant impact is a reality for many. For example, by earning the median income in Denmark, you are among the richest 1.6% of the world. By donating 10% of your salary to the anti-malaria association Against Malaria Foundation , you can save dozens of lives during your lifetime.

Donating is by no means the only way to help. There may be even more impactful ways to help than donating to global charities. Firstly, you can use your talent in your job, enabling you to address global issues. 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

Generally, we understand the importance of making decisions based on evidence and reason, rather than on 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. However, we are not always as aware and attentive when it comes to global issues.

Below is a graph from Dr. Toby Ord’s essay that shows 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.

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.

How much good you can do depends largely on the field you choose. By choosing a field that doesn’t help many or doesn’t have a good opportunity to do something useful, you greatly 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 make a positive impact, yet often they become attached to their preferred area of interest before exploring other options. There can be various reasons behind this behaviour: be it a personal encounter with a certain problem or, for example, a social network which is invested in a particular problem. 

However, by choosing an area that just happens to attract 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 greatest deeds.

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 purpose. Addressing a chosen problem is likely to have a major impact if the problem is:

    1. Importance: This aspect evaluates how significant the problem or issue is. It considers the scale of the problem, the number of individuals affected, and the degree of impact on their lives. For example, a problem affecting millions of people severely would be considered highly important.
    2. Tractability (or Solvability): This refers to how easily the problem can be solved or mitigated. A problem is considered tractable if there are clear and effective ways to make a significant positive impact. For instance, a disease is tractable if there are known, effective treatments or preventive measures.
    3. Neglectedness: This looks at how many resources or how much attention is already being devoted to the problem. A problem is considered neglected if it isn’t receiving much focus or funding relative to its importance. The idea is that more neglected areas might offer more opportunity to make a unique or substantial impact.
Based on this line of thinking, several areas of activity can be cited as examples, 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. 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 cheap to reduce the demand for meat produced in industrial farms or to make changes to the law that would improve the welfare of farm 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. Given the vast potential of the future, the number of people who may exist, could far exceed 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 can 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 dealing with this topic can 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 2% of global resources were allocated to addressing existential risks, it would involve millions of people working on these issues, with an annual budget in the trillions of dollars. 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.