Here are four ideas that you probably already agree with. Three are about your values, and one is an observation about the world. Individually, they each might seem a bit trite or self-evident. But taken together, they have significant implications for how we think about doing good in the world.
The four ideas are as follows:
I think that these four ideas are all pretty uncontroversial. I think it seems pretty intuitive that we should help people in need if we can; that we shouldn’t arbitrarily preference some groups of people over others; that we would prefer to help more people if given the option; and that we don’t have infinite time and money.
In fact I’d go further — I’d say that we’d feel pretty uncomfortable trying to defend the alternative positions if we were talking to someone, namely:
See what I mean?
We don't have infinite money, so we always need to choose which worthy cause to support.
So if we agree that these four ideas embody important values — and I think that they do — then there are big implications for how we should think about doing good. In fact, it means that the way we typically think about doing good is wrong.
In order to be true to these values, we need to think about how we can help the most people with our limited resources.
This is important, because there are some causes where we can make a big impact for a small amount of money. In fact the best options are much, much better than the average — sometimes hundreds of times better. That might mean the difference between helping one person, and helping hundreds of people for exactly the same amount of time or money.
Because a charity chosen at random is almost certainly not making as big an impact as the most effective charities (and let’s face it, many causes we choose to support tend to be the result of either random chance, or systemic factors that mean we’re only exposed to certain causes).
And this matters, because if we don’t choose well, then we’re either not giving people equal consideration (that is, implicitly discriminating against some groups of people), or we’re not helping as many people as we can (that is, allowing extra people to suffer or die, even though we could potentially help them).
So, at first, every worthy cause — from cancer research, to climate justice, to animal sanctuaries, to preventing easily treatable but unpronounceable diseases in places that we'll probably never visit — should be on the table... except that we also think it's better to help more people and we understand that we don’t have the resources to help everyone. So we should first focus on the causes where we can help the most people for our limited time and money, not just on those that we happen to have already heard about.
Trying to be cause-neutral can be a really hard thing to do. Most people have first-hand experience of loss: I’ve lost two relatives to leukaemia; watched as the disease consumed their bodies and the pain meds fogged their minds; lived through the shared grief of their passing. It’s entirely reasonable that this makes us want to donate to organisations trying to solve the specific problem or cure the particular disease that has robbed us of our loved ones. We’re empathetic creatures, and we don’t want other people to experience the same suffering, or for their loved ones to experience the same grief.
But if we care about treating people equally, we should also care about treating their experiences equally. There’s not a really good reason that I should prefer averting the death, disability, and suffering caused by a particular disease (like leukaemia) any more than I should care about suffering caused by malaria, tuberculosis, traffic accidents, or anything else. What matters is that lives are cut short, parents are deprived of their children, people are living in pain. Caring about equality means treating all death and suffering as a tragedy, not just that caused by specific diseases that we — by cruel twists of fate that thrust them into our field of view — happen to notice.
Making these decisions is really, really hard. But there is a set of thinking tools we can use to help us. This way of thinking is called effective altruism. It's basically the same as regular altruism (in that it emphasises the importance of helping other people) — the word 'effective' just means trying to think clearly about how your actions can help the most people, or do the most good.
I see effective altruism as a way of being able to better live up to values that we already hold.
This way of thinking is applicable to any way that we might want to do good — whether that be agitating for political change, choosing where we donate our money, or how to have a big impact with our careers.
In a world where there are so many worthy causes we could work on, it gives us a way out of decision paralysis, by systematically looking for ways to do the most good with our limited time and money.
It asks us to face up to some hard choices. But remember, we’re making these choices anyway, whether we think about them or not. So even though it might be hard to not donate to something that seems really important — whether for personal reasons, or because you’re convinced by a charity’s marketing pitch — remember that you’re always trading off against other worthy causes.
Here’s an example of this in action. The typical person in the UK donates around £6,700 ($9,600USD) over the course of their working lifetimes. For this money we could fund the distribution of around 1,900 mosquito nets (likely preventing around 200children from becoming really, really sick from malaria, and probably saving at least two or three lives). However, most voluntary donations go to domestic medical charities. The UK’s National Health Service considers it good value to save one year of healthy life for around £25,000. It’s highly unlikely that a domestic charity will beat this figure, so the typical donor’s impact is going to be many, many times less than it could otherwise be. Remember, just because we don’t think about these choices, doesn’t mean that they’re not there.
So please, think carefully about these ideas — the importance of altruism, equality, and doing as much as we can with our scarce resources — and see if they make sense to you.
If they do, then the next time you think about how to make the world a better place, give voice to these values by thinking effectively, as well as altruistically.
Some resources for learning more about effective altruism:
Some actions you can take that we think are really effective