- Published 23 Mar 2016
- Updated 18 Sep 2020
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:
- It's important to help others — when people are in need and we can help them, we think that we should. Sometimes we think it might even be morally required: most people think that millionaires should give something back. But it may surprise you to learn that those of us on or above the median wage in a rich country are typically part of the global 5% — maybe we can also afford to give back too.
- People are equal — everyone has an equal claim to being happy, healthy, fulfilled and free, whatever their circumstances. All people matter, wherever they live, however rich they are, and whatever their ethnicity, age, gender, ability, religious views, etc.
- Helping more is better than helping less — all else being equal, we should save more lives, help people live longer, and make more people happier. Imagine twenty sick people lining a hospital ward, who’ll die if you don’t give them medicine. You have enough medicine for everyone, and no reason to hold onto it for later: would anyone really choose to arbitrarily save only some of the people if it was just as easy to save all of them?
- Our resources are limited — even millionaires have a finite amount of money they can spend. This is also true of our time — there are never enough hours in the day. Choosing to spend money or time on one option is an implicit choice not to spend it on other options (whether we think about these options or not).
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:
- Helping others in need isn’t morally required, important, or even that good
- It’s OK to value people differently based on arbitrary differences like race, gender, ability etc.
- It doesn’t matter if some people die even if it doesn’t really cost us anything extra to save their lives
- We have unlimited resources
See what I mean?
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:
- What is Effective Altruism?
- This really quick summary of effective altruism
- The Wikipedia entry on effective altruism
- Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill
- The Effective Altruism Handbook
Some actions you can take that we think are really effective
- Donate to a charity recommended on the basis of its impact and cost-effectiveness — check out our Top Charities, and GiveWell’s recommendations. If you’d like to support charities that increase the welfare of non-human animals effectively, check out Animal Charity Evaluators.
- Pledge to keep donating over the course of your lifetime — 5,096 people (and counting) have pledged to donate 10% of their lifetime income to the most effective charities, and 564 have made pledges of 1% or more of their income for a custom period.
- Choose a career that’s really high-impact by reading career advice from 80,000 Hours
- Start a chapter or discussion group in your local area or at your university, and get other people interested in making a bigger difference
The number I’ve pre-loaded into the calculator ($32,140USD) is the median personal income for someone 25 or older in the US, but of course you should substitute in your own income, country, and household details. Some other generic values you could use for comparison are $24,062USD (median personal income for people in the US over 18), £21,100GBP (median personal income of the sixth decile in the UK), or $59,900AUD (median salary of full-time workers in Australia). ↩︎
I’ve used the word ‘people’ in this article for convenience, but of course if you’re concerned with the welfare of non-human animals, then you could read this as ‘animals’ or ‘sentient beings’ etc. — the arguments all still apply ↩︎
Charities Aid Foundation, UK Giving 2014, p12 <https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf-ukgiving2014>. Arrived at by multiplying the typical amount donated each month (£14) by 12 (to get yearly donations) and then by 40 (number of years someone is typically active in the workforce) ↩︎
This is using the figure of around $5 per bednet distributed by the Against Malaria Foundation, which is correct for most places in which they operate. Some countries (such as DRC) are more expensive to work in, but even at the higher figure of $7.50 per net, you could still distribute 1,000 bednets. ↩︎
White, MT. "Costs and cost-effectiveness of malaria control interventions …" 2011. <https://malariajournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2875-10-337> ↩︎
Charities Aid Foundation, UK Giving 2014, p14 <https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf-ukgiving2014> ↩︎