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Illustration by Darya Sukhova

Navigating Effective Altruism

"A true effective altruist knows that charity can’t stay in your community — it's about where the greatest impact lies."

Oct 14, 2018

How can an individual or organization make a difference in the world? With the continued prevalence of both global poverty and human suffering, academics, philanthropists and large corporations are asking this question alongside everyday people. If you’ve ever wondered how to do the most good with your time and money, the practical philosophy of Effective Altruism might hold the answers.
The Center For Effective Altruism defines EA as “a research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible. It is also a community of people taking these answers seriously, by focusing their efforts on the most promising solutions to the world's most pressing problems.”
The guiding principles of EA are mostly agreed upon within its respective community: a commitment to fellow humankind, as well as rational thinking and integrity. On the Center for Effective Altruism’s website, another core value is listed as openness, demonstrating that the EA community is committed to principles of effectively doing good rather than sticking to one cause. Expanding on their guiding principles, the CEA states, “Our goal is to do as much good as we can, and we evaluate ways to do that without committing ourselves at the outset to any particular cause.”
Liam Meier, Class of 2018, has been involved with the EA community in recent years, and shared his thoughts on the matter.
“I think it's one of the most welcoming communities I’ve ever seen or been a part of for several reasons. Everyone's sort of united by doing good … the purpose is clear and everyone has the same end goals in mind.”
“The reason that so many people have helped me and I'm willing to help others in thinking about these sorts of ideas and … changing their career plans is because we all recognize there's a sort of social role that can magnify the impact any individual can have,” said Meier.
Several components and arguments of EA have been popularized by moral philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. Singer went on to create a nonprofit of the same name.
The nonprofit’s website they state that their mission “is to help change the culture of giving in affluent countries and to generate donations to highly impactful nonprofits that reduce suffering and premature death, and improve life and livelihoods, for people living in extreme poverty.”
In his TED Talk Singer argues for an expanding moral circle and posits a persuasive argument. Singer raises a specific situation to exemplify his argument. “It costs about 40,000 USD to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between 20 and 50 USD to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. So you do the sums, and you get something like that. You could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it’s clear what’s the better thing to do.”
A true effective altruist knows that charity should not always be only about one’s own community — it's about where the greatest impact lies. The site for Singer’s nonprofit states, “Everything we do aims to expand awareness of the concept of effective giving and grow revenue for our recommended nonprofits.”
EA spans several non-governmental organizations and larger philanthropic ventures. A few key players are the Against Malaria Foundation, the Givewell Foundation and Giving What We Can. In line with EA’s commitments to scientific analysis and transparency, the results and progress can be found on all of their websites.
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, President of philanthropic foundation Good Ventures, received a significant amount of publicity when they teamed up with Givewell to figure out how to best utilize the 8.3 billion USD they collectively manage.
But the EA community exists beyond the incredibly wealthy. Data on an online EA forum suggests that the EA community is growing steadily and is gaining traction among young people entering the job market.
80,000 Hours, a company started by Will MacAskill, Associate Professor in Philosophy and Research Fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford, seeks to give these new job hunters well-researched career advice into how they can have the most impact. Meier has had first hand experience with this advice.
“In 2015 and 2016 I received career advice and one-on-one coaching from 80,000 Hours,” said Meier. “They put me in touch with some professors whose research they thought was especially impactful and is a strain of research I hope to pursue later on.”
MacAskill and the 80,000 Hours team are working to make the company the go-to career consulting option for students.
“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,” said MacAskill.
Pursuant to this goal, several universities have seen the development of EA related groups, including NYU Abu Dhabi.
“We’re hoping to do lots of things, the ultimate best case scenario for EA in the university context is to change people's minds, you change how they think about doing good, so they spend the rest of their lives doing so,” said Meier.
“One of the things we'll be doing is a weekly discussion over a meal, probably a dinner. Very informal, open to all. The idea is that people just sit down and talk about these sorts of things... We’ll also be hosting workshops on things like career planning. I think we’ll do one specifically for the seniors. We’ll also hopefully be doing things on animal welfare, effective charities, maybe our unique position as NYUAD students to do good.”
EA Student Interest Group President Scarlet Ng, Class of 2022, also weighed in. “We’re hoping to do this by meeting regularly — possibly at D2 or the Marketplace at a fixed time in the week — to identify shortcomings of current systems, discuss ways to maximize impact in our local community and beyond. We also hope to partner with like minded groups such as ADvocacy, the Career Development Center and the Office of Social Responsibility to coordinate larger community events such as the Giving Game, or panels with speakers from the global EA community.
“Ultimately, we hope to grow a high-impact community of individuals who are committed and equipped to make the world a better place by knowing what, where and how to give,” commented Ng.
Effective Altruism is not without its critics. Some of the arguments against EA are that it promotes a hierarchical idea of charity and takes away from the well-intentioned notion of giving.
“This approach amounts to little more than charitable imperialism, whereby ‘my cause' is just, and yours is — to one degree or another — a waste of precious resources,” wrote Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator. Similarly, other critics argue that in trying to calculate the greatest good, you risk privileging those charities whose causes are easier to measure.
“You know, if you’re this person who’s working on something that no one has heard of before, but you seem like a reasonable person, EA would be supportive because certain research could be extremely impactful. We’re definitely in this exploratory phrase,” Meier commented.
For those looking for a more philosophical critique of some of EA’s ideas, Meier suggests reading Stop the Robot Apocalypse by Amia Srinivasan, a critique of MacAskill’s perspective. The criticisms expressed in the article have sparked debate within the EA community.
At its heart, EA represents a rising aspiration to help fellow humanity and to have an impact on the world. In a society that can reap the benefits of data-driven thinking, science and reasoning can be crucial for determining the best way to move forward. Contributing to this process does not have to be limited to academic or economic elites — NYUAD students should feel just as compelled to participate as everyone else.
“Every NYUAD student has tremendous opportunity for impact and I hope that each student considers that opportunity seriously and acts,” concluded Meier.
Taj Chapman is a columnist. Email him at
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