What is effective altruism?

Effective altruism is about prioritising our efforts when doing good, so we can help others as much as we can.

In 2012, the term "effective altruism" was coined by team members of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours when they founded the Centre for Effective Altruism. They were looking for a phrase that described the pursuit of finding better ways to help others and taking action on that basis.

Effective altruism has two parts:

  1. Using evidence and careful reasoning to work out how we can do the most good with our limited resources.
  2. Taking action based on what we discover.

Some examples of effective altruism include:

Below we further unpack what effective altruism means and how it has been applied.

Effective altruism as a question

First and foremost, effective altruism starts by asking how we can be more effective in our pursuit of doing good. This might be phrased as:

  • “How can we do the most good with our resources?”
  • “How can we maximise our impact?”
  • “How can we ‘do good’ better?”

Such questions are important to both ask and try to answer, because we live in a world of limited resources and we care about others. We want to make the world a better place, but we need to be effective in our actions in order to have the most impact.

Effective altruism as a research field

At its core, effective altruism research investigates how we can best use our resources to improve the world. But given this is such a large question, there are many narrower kinds of questions researchers in effective altruism work on, such as:

  • What are the world's most important problems, how neglected are they, and how tractable do they seem?
  • What are the greatest threats to humanity, and how can we prevent them?
  • Which charities improve human lives the most per dollar spent, and similarly, which charities improve animals' lives the most?
  • How can and should we weigh the interests of animals or future generations against humans alive today?

The above list only captures some of the questions often asked as part of effective altruism research, and even in this short list it's clear there are many disparate and difficult problems to work on. What unifies them, though, is that they each aim to provide insights that can help people in the real world do good better.

Effective altruism as a social movement

The effective altruism community is a growing and diverse group of people who share a commitment to using reason and evidence to figure out how to help others as effectively as possible, and taking action on that basis. The community includes people from all over the world, with a wide range of backgrounds and views. What unites effective altruists is a shared commitment to finding out how to help others as effectively as possible, and then taking action on that basis.

People in the effective altruism community try to improve the world in many different ways, such as:

  • Donating money to effective charities
  • Working on effective global health and development projects
  • Conducting research to figure out which interventions are most effective
  • Advocating for policies that have an impact on global problems
  • Supporting and building effective altruism organisations

Effective altruism in action

The effective altruism community is diverse, with many groups working on how to best help those alive today, protect future generations of humans, improve animal welfare, or grow the effective altruism movement itself. Each of these groups has made significant contributions to their respective causes since the effective altruism movement began.

Global health and development

Work in this area typically looks at how we can save and improve the lives of as many people as possible, regardless of where they live.

Community members work on interventions from direct aid programmes to influencing systemic change through policy at a governmental level.

Some examples of organisations in this area include:

  • GiveWell evaluates the cost effectiveness of global health and development charities in order to find the best donation opportunities to save lives
  • Against Malaria Foundation provides low-cost insecticide-treated bednets to protect people against malaria
  • Evidence Action runs several evidence-based programmes addressing key concerns in global health
  • Lead Exposure Elimination Project aims to influence policy to reduce lead in products like paint where it is still prevalent

Learn more about global health and development as a cause area.

Improving animal welfare

People in the effective altruism community often recognise the immense suffering of nonhuman animals, from factory farming to wild animals.

Organisations aligned with effective altruism work on meat alternatives, factory farming policy, and research into animal welfare.

Some examples of organisations in this area include:

Learn more about improving animal welfare as a cause area.

Safeguarding the long-term future

Many people in the community believe that it is important that we safeguard the long-term future, to ensure that the people who exist in the future will also lead happy lives. The philosophy associated with believing that protecting future generations is a key moral priority of our time is called longtermism.

People and organisations interested in this area often work on projects to reduce existential risks, such as preventing pandemics, mitigating climate change, promoting beneficial AI, and reducing nuclear threats.

Some examples of organisations in this area include:

Learn more about safeguarding the long-term future as a cause area.

Advocating for effective altruism

Effective altruism is a relatively small movement, so some people and organisations work on growing the community and reaching more people who might be interested in using their resources to do good.

Some examples of organisations in this area include:

  • Giving What We Can
  • 80,000 Hours provides advice on high-impact careers
  • The Centre for Effective Altruism aims to build a community around the ideas of effective altruism
  • Charity Entrepreneurship researches potential areas for new charities and incubates startups that could go on to have a large impact
  • Open Philanthropy conducts research and provides grants to potentially very projects across several cause areas

Learn more about advocating for effective altruism as a cause area.

Other areas

There are other areas that people in the community are interested in, such as criminal justice reform and scientific research. Most importantly, we expect that the focus of the community will change as new research is done and we find other effective ways to do good over time.

Being a more effective altruist

If you’re inspired by the ideas of effective altruism, there are many ways you can take action: