Why effective altruism?

So what is Effective Altruism anyway?  What is it that has inspired me to donate 5% of my income to a charity I’ve only just learnt to pronounce, to run a half marathon and to set up an Effective Altruism Brighton Meetups group?

Over the next 3 weeks I will be publishing three articles; Why Effective Altruism? Why Go Vegan? and Why Buy Ethically?  

Now that you’ve read how this blog started, I want to give you a bit more detail about the three main areas of ethics I am focusing on and why.

This is the first of that series: Why Effective Altruism?


Why effective altruism?

Imagine you are on the way to a job interview for the role of a life time.  You’ve got on an expensive new suit for the occasion and you’re sure you’re going to nail this.Purchase this image at http://www.stocksy.com/86229

You walk by a lake on the way and you notice a girl climbing in for a swim. To your horror you realise she is beginning to struggle, unable to keep her head above the water.  You look around frantically but no one else is around to help.

You could easily wade in and save her but what about your new suit? What about the job interview?

What do you do?

Would you save her life?

Which is more important the suit, the inconvenience or the life?

Modern philosopher Peter Singer asks, if we would save this little girl why not the thousands of little boys and girls across the world dying every day for want of money that is no more than a cup of coffee to us?

I found I could not answer this question.

What is effective altruism?

Effective Altruism is all about doing good, better.

It is a growing social movement founded on the desire to make the world a better place using evidence, reason and rationality.

This means, as Peter Singer puts it, combining both the heart and the head.  Emotionally if we see others suffering we want to do something about it and, rationally, we want to help as many of those people as possible as much as possible.

Why do some good when you could do more?  Especially with the same time and money spent.  Why not do the most good possible?

So how do we do that?

Altruism for all

Effective Altruism is very diverse so the issues covered range from poverty to climate change, impact of artificial intelligence to animal welfare.   At the heart of all of this is a desire to make the most impact possible.

Effective Altruists believe in equality for everyone, often including animals and future generations (I will talk about why you can’t exclude animals from this in my post Why Go Vegan).  We can all feel pain and joy, we all have wants, needs and hopes in life.  We all have the right to lead a happy, healthy life of our own.

If everyone is equal it also means our interests matter equally.   This doesn’t mean every desire has equal weight, but that every person does.  So my desire to have clean water and shelter matters just as much as my best friend’s, my neighbour, a woman living in a village in Ethiopia.

So does my desire to go to the cinema or buy that expensive coffee outweigh someone else’s desire to feed their family or to save their child from malaria?

What about people in future generations?  Should we be thinking about what we are doing to the planet they will inherit?  Are we damaging their future happiness for our short term gain?

Being effective with altruism

Not only do Effective Altruists recognise this need to help others but also that more people can be helped if that help is directed effectively.

Taking that cinema ticket example again I could donate the money to help train a guide dog for the blind.  It would take about £25,000 to do so I’ve got a life time of avoiding the cinema ahead.  Alternatively I could use that same money to pay for someone to have surgery to reverse the effects of trachoma in Africa and restore their sight.  In one donation of about £12, I’ve helped cure someone of blindness.  That’s amazing!

Choosing effective charities that use evidence based interventions to tackle issues affecting the most basic needs of millions of people means you can really change someone’s life.  Maybe you can save someone’s life.


All this gives a tremendous amount of hope.  When you start to look at the figures you realise poverty really could be solved if we all got on board and just gave a little more, more effectively.

It means that donating a small percentage of your income can really save lives.

It’s this that excites me so much about Effective Altruism.

What can you do?

The great news is there are loads of things you can do to be a more effective altruist.

You can find out which are the most effective charities to give to by looking at the research done by Give Well.

You could join me and try the Giving What We Can Try Giving Pledge.  This is a way to ease into the change of donating a percentage of your income by giving as much as you can before you commit to the full Giving What We Can 10% pledge.

The money I donate to one of the most effective charities, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, each month is enough to treat about 240 people for neglected tropical diseases for a year.

That’s worth every penny.

I also recently ran a half marathon to raise money for the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative so even if you can’t donate your income you can try a sponsored event to raise money.

There’s tonnes of other ideas and resources on my External Resources page.   And of course stay tuned on my blog for more tips and experiences of my own.

For now let me share with you one video that so well encapsulates all of this.

3 thoughts on “Why effective altruism?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s