Effective altruism asks the question: how can we do the most good with our limited time and resources?
While those who have spent a lot of time thinking about this question have come up with some general guidelines for choosing charities, causes, and careers that are particularly impactful, there is no one right way to answer it. It’s the asking that’s most central to effective altruism.
In other words, effective altruism is a project rather than an ideology or set of assumptions/answers. As such, there is a lot of variation in how people aligned with this project operate and the beliefs they hold; it’s not a monolith (see #4). This can be confusing; for example, when one belief or perspective within effective altruism is mistakenly interpreted as representing all effective-altruist aligned individuals or organisations, misconceptions start.
Additionally, it’s natural (and justified) to be sceptical when encountering new perspectives or beliefs — to raise concerns and/or question approaches. Sometimes, the concerns we raise get ingrained in our psyches and accepted as truth rather than fully investigated/examined.
While we (like many other effective-altruist aligned people!) value scepticism and uncertainty very highly, we think it’s important to attempt to investigate open questions and thoroughly evaluate reservations before letting them get in the way of action. As such, we’ve created this page to examine and address some common misconceptions and concerns about effective altruism and the cause areas/schools of thought within it. This page also looks at some misconceptions and concerns related to charity evaluation.
Note: Some of the listed assumptions on this page are unambiguously misconceptions and some are valid concerns/objections that may warrant further discussion. We’ve done our best to treat each with proper care and attention while also not getting too far in the weeds! If you have feedback about this page, please share it with us.
While measurable impact is definitely valued by many in the effective altruist community — as it provides greater certainty that one’s actions are truly helping — this is far from the only type of work effective altruism encourages.
Because the world’s problems are complex, it is not always possible to measure the impact of a particular intervention right away; perhaps any positive outcome would take years to show up or is simply difficult to measure.
As an example, some effective altruism inspired funders take what’s called a “hits-based” approach to giving — essentially, trying to fund projects that, if successful, could have an enormous impact. This generally leads to prioritising evidence of impact less; rather, “hits-based” giving is more akin to a startup investor mindset.
The concept of expected value is often used within effective altruism to weigh this type of work; if the potential impact of certain initiatives is very large, they may be worth pursuing even if there is greater uncertainty about their likelihood of success. (Examples include the work being done by many organisations to safeguard the long-term future.)
There are also several examples of organisations associated with effective altruism or funded by effective altruism funders that work on policy change, in addition to or instead of more concrete, measurable interventions. Here’s a few:
Finally, it’s worth noting that many seemingly short-term, measurable interventions also have long-term consequences. (See: Is charitable giving just a temporary solution? and Isn’t poverty just a symptom?)
People who adopt effective altruist principles have a range of philosophical leanings; some are utilitarians and some are not.
In fact, many in the effective altruist community reject certain tenets that are sometimes associated with utilitarianism — for example, that the ends justify the means, or that doing good should be obligatory.
The desire to help others, which can be derived from a wide range of philosophical schools of thought (including virtue ethics and deontology/rule-based ethics) is a primary driving force behind effective altruism, which asks the question: how can we best realise this desire?
It’s certainly true that many members of the effective altruism community will come up with answers that seem utilitarian (ex. “improve as many lives as possible”). However, there is also an emphasis within the EA community on cultivating certain habits and principles of thought and action — for example, fostering a mindset that lends itself to good epistemic hygiene, critical thinking, humility, integrity, collaborative spirit, and careful analysis to be sure our efforts truly help. Additionally, being involved in the project of effective altruism can also help cultivate radical compassion that transcends the boundaries of distance, species membership, and time (ex. valuing the lives of people living far away from you; valuing the lives of non-human animals; valuing the lives of people who may live after you). Thus, people who look at living life through the lens of virtue/character cultivation are likely to appreciate the elements of effective altruism that encourage better habits of mind and better habits of giving, as well as the push to live up to one’s own set of virtues/values through careful thought and deliberate action.
Additionally, even the idea of “maximising” one’s impact isn’t necessarily a solely utilitarian pursuit — Oxford’s Andreas Mogensen, a member of the effective altruism community who rejects consequentialism, explains why, making a deontological case for adopting effective altruist principles.
There are currently a variety of cause areas prioritised within effective altruism; these include improving human wellbeing, helping animals, safeguarding the long-term future, and changing social norms regarding charitable giving. However, because effective altruism asks the question: how can we do the most good with our time, money, and resources? it is necessarily cause-neutral.
In other words, to answer this question properly, it’s important to remain open-minded about which causes to work on since the best ways of helping others right now might not always be the best ways of helping others. As such, analysing which causes to focus on is an important part of the effective altruism project, and the current priority cause areas are certainly not static!
Currently, many people aligned with effective altruist principles do focus on global poverty, since it is the cause of so much suffering, and also happens to be solvable! There are a great many poverty and disease alleviation initiatives that are highly effective at saving lives and improving well-being but which lack the funding to reach all the people who need them. If these initiatives were funded to their full capacity, many more people could live long and healthy lives rather than dying (needlessly) from preventable causes. So funding these initiatives is a great way to do a lot of good; the impact is known (and large) but the funding is lacking. (Read more about choosing a cause.)
Most people in the effective altruism community value thinking carefully about how best to help others. As such, there are certainly some commonly-held ideals, ex. concern for the welfare of others, compassion, impartiality, analytical thinking, attention to impact/evidence, and questioning/scepticism.
That said, many people from many different walks of life/belief systems are engaged in the effective altruism project (we’ve collected some of their stories here) and there are a wide range of opinions and focus areas, as well as some lively debates within the community about cause prioritisation (and other hot topics).
In fact, the effective altruism project may comprise more diversity of belief than typical, given (ironically) the commonly-held values of questioning, pointing out limitations/problems, and seeking ways to do better. This diversity of opinions can sometimes slow progress (due to disagreement about the best course of action in a given situation) and can also be confusing to people who aren’t as familiar with effective altruism (and may mistakenly equate one belief as representative of the entire effective altruism project). However, overall, most people within the effective altruism community view diversity of belief as a strength, since discussion, open-mindedness, and the willingness to be wrong are valuable in the quest to do better.
And finally, a point of clarification: while there is significant variety in the beliefs of those engaged in effective altruism, the community is not as demographically diverse as it would like to be.
One path within effective altruism is called “earning to give,” whereby someone seeks out a high-paying career in order to donate a substantial portion of that income to particularly impactful charities.
Media coverage (this article is one example) often mistakenly equates effective altruism entirely with this one path even though only some people within the community take this route (See #4). (Incidentally, 80,000 Hours, an effective altruist aligned organisation offering career counselling, believes earning to give is only right for “a small proportion of people.”)
One criticism that is sometimes levied against those who do choose to earn to give is that these individuals are trying to justify “making money off the backs of others” by donating their earnings. This is likely due to some early articles attempting to introduce effective altruist principles by using extreme examples (like how working on Wall Street might be more impactful than doing direct nonprofit work) to call into question the conventional wisdom that if we can’t see and feel our impact, we probably aren’t really doing anything. Examples like these were used to illustrate the surprising impact of donating to highly-effective organisations.
Does this mean, though, that effective altruist aligned career advice would be to make money in very lucrative, but harmful, careers because the net good of donating to impactful charities will outweigh the harm done by one’s personal contributions to the industry? It does not. 80,000 Hours states explicitly that “we don’t recommend taking a job that does a lot of harm in order to donate the money.”
That said, because effective altruism is not a monolith (see #4), there will always be some disagreement about which roles are harmful. Some do not view jobs in the financial sector as inherently harmful, while others do. Those who want to earn to give end up in a variety of industries, from medicine, to finance, to software engineering.
Additionally, some people aligned with effective altruist principles may decide to take a high-paying job in a controversial industry (such as finance) and donate their earnings rather than leave the role open for someone else who wouldn’t be donating their earnings. Others, however, believe that contributing to harmful systems is always wrong.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, while some high profile billionaire philanthropists have adopted effective altruist principles, most people in the effective altruism community are simply average people earning a modest salary in a high-income country who want to use a portion of their income to improve the world. (You can read the stories of some Giving What We Can pledgers here.)
While one could question whether this type of giving does enough to change the status quo (that concern is discussed here and here), it doesn’t seem justified to view it as contributing to oppressive structures, especially since the international interventions encouraged by effective altruism focus primarily on basic public health and don’t attempt to exert any political influence. Rather, people who are donating a portion of their income to these basic public health interventions are attempting to mitigate the oppressive inequality in the world by improving daily life for people suffering now.
People applying effective altruist principles to animal welfare are usually animal lovers, caring deeply about all animals. However, they also recognise that, compared to dogs, cats, and other domestic animals, farmed animals are much more neglected (meaning far fewer people are focusing on their wellbeing) and typically live much worse lives. To illustrate this, consider the following:
So a focus on farmed animal welfare is less about excluding domestic animals, and more about extending the compassion we feel for our pets to all animals, recognising that we can better prevent animal cruelty and suffering by focusing on areas — like farmed animal welfare — that are neglected, large in scale, and relatively tractable. In addition to advocating for farmed land animals, some animal advocates within effective altruism also focus on wild animals and aquatic animals. (Read more about high-impact focus areas within animal welfare.)
It’s possible to value human wellbeing and animal wellbeing — they’re not mutually exclusive.
Those engaged in the effective altruist project have a wide range of values and beliefs — some value focusing more on human wellbeing while others believe that if we want to make the world a better place, we should try to alleviate suffering, no matter who is experiencing it!
This doesn’t mean that individuals who care about animal welfare don’t value human lives. Some regard species membership as an identity marker (like race or gender) that shouldn’t be a basis for discrimination and the deprioritising of needs, maintaining that human lives should not be given extra moral consideration. Others may value human lives more than they value the lives of nonhuman animals, but believe they can do more good by focusing on animal wellbeing (as it is so large in scale, neglected, and tractable.) Still others may believe that being complicit in the large-scale, extreme suffering that factory farming engenders (merely for the sake of cheaper meat) is inhumane and ethically untenable, a moral blindspot that will “haunt our legacy.”
Expanding our “circle of concern” to animals could also foster a better culture of care — one with spillover effects into how we treat all sentient life, humans included.
Finally, the distinction between human wellbeing and animal wellbeing isn’t necessarily as clear-cut as it appears; factory farms increase the risk of pandemics and are a large contributor to climate change.
One highly-publicised area of focus within longtermism is AI risk. While concerns about artificial intelligence are now more widely acknowledged, longtermists started talking about them when they were easy to dismiss as something out of a science fiction movie: Do people really think evil robots are going to wipe out humanity? Come on!
While there is certainly no expert consensus on the topic, with plenty of room for reasonable debate about the severity of these risks, a 2022 survey of machine learning researchers found that nearly half (48%) estimated the probability that the overall impact of AI would be “extremely bad (e.g. human extinction” at 10% or greater. So, while reasonable people may disagree on how concerned we should be, it’s certainly far from crazy to worry about AI. (It’s also worth noting that AI technology poses many non-existential — but significant — risks that could materially affect our future.)
Additionally, AI is far from the only longtermist focus area. At its core, longtermism is a way of thinking that advocates the long view: what will humanity look like in the far future and what issues might future people face? Thus, “longtermist” work includes initiatives focusing on preventing natural and engineered pandemics, mitigating nuclear threats, and averting catastrophic climate change. This type of work is both about preventing existential risks (events or technologies that threaten our very existence as a species) and also about doing what we can to ensure that those who live after us have fulfilling and healthy lives. (Read more about creating a better future.)
It’s natural to worry that an increased focus on the future might cause the neglect of those living now. However, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper argues, this doesn’t have to be the case. Rather, individuals interested in effective altruism will choose to support the causes and priorities that best align with their worldviews, and many may give to more than one cause area.
Additionally, there is some overlap between research and interventions that benefit people today and people in the future; preventing pandemics and mitigating climate change are two examples. The fund prospectus for Founders Pledge’s Global Catastrophic Risks (GRC) Fund, which focuses on mitigating threats to humanity that could affect both future and current generations, offers an adjacent, and more specific, example: “In practice, however, the two approaches [prioritising tractable interventions today vs. prioritising humanity’s long-term future] often converge, both on problems and on solutions…To illustrate this, both longtermists and those who prioritize current generations care about risks from catastrophic pandemics (whether natural or engineered) and both may want to fund work on developing advanced personal protective equipment (PPE).”
Ultimately, choosing to support one cause over another always comes with a tradeoff, no matter the causes. That’s why it’s important to donate in accordance with your own worldview and values; some donors may choose to focus on exclusively longtermist causes, others may prioritise concrete interventions for people living today, and others may split their donations among more than one cause.
A common way to evaluate charities is to look at the ratio of its overhead costs to program spending. Intuitively, this makes sense. After all, we want our money to reach the programs/people we are trying to donate to so that we can be sure we are making a concrete difference!
That said, there’s a big problem with using charity overhead to determine whether your donations will make a difference. This is because a charity’s overhead spending doesn’t tell us anything about what the charity’s programs are and whether or not they work! Given that some charities’ programs are hundreds of times more effective than others, a very effective charity with higher overhead costs might actually be better than a very ineffective charity with lower overhead costs.
Additionally, overhead and program costs aren’t as separate as they may seem: if a charity has a great program but lacks the staff and resources to implement it well (overhead!) it certainly won’t achieve much. This, in part, explains why charities with low overhead are actually sometimes less effective.
A much better way to evaluate whether a charity is impactful is to look at what it’s actually doing rather than its spending habits. Is it doing work in a high-impact cause area? Is there evidence that its programs work? How cost-effective is it? (That last one actually factors in ALL spending, including overhead, to determine the impact to costs ratio.) Read more about choosing effective charities.
It’s true that determining impact can be subjective. However, it’s certainly possible (and one could argue, morally imperative) to develop metrics for comparing causes and charities, precisely because there are so many problems in the world. Much like triaging at an emergency room, attempting to work in areas where we can have the most impact (for example, problems that we know are solvable but dire) makes sense.
That said, it’s important to be transparent about the metrics and frameworks used to determine impact, and it’s certainly possible to disagree with these in some cases. However, the existence of disagreement about metrics, frameworks, or which causes to prioritise (and, in fact, there’s lively discussion/debate about all of these things within the effective altruism community) certainly doesn’t mean that all causes, charities, or interventions are equally impactful. Rather, it means that one’s worldview and values should influence the charity evaluators they rely on to maximise their impact (in accordance with their worldview!)
Here are some frameworks we think are useful for determining impact, as well as an overview of the charity evaluators we trust, why we use their research to inform our giving recommendations, and why different donors might choose to prioritise the recommendations of one over another. The charity evaluators we use as of August 2023, along with direct links to their criteria/approach, are also listed below: