What is effective altruism?

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Effective altruism is the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to best contribute to helping others, and taking action on that basis.

In his 2019 paper[1], Will MacAskill unpacks this definition further:

Effective altruism is:
(i) the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources, tentatively understanding ‘the good’ in impartial welfarist terms, and
(ii) the use of the findings from (i) to try to improve the world.

The first part of the definition (i) refers to effective altruism as an intellectual project (or ‘research field’); and the second part (ii) refers to effective altruism as a practical project (or ‘social movement’).

The effective altruism community (the 'social movement') is a collection of people and organisations who use their resources (e.g. money, time, social capital) on the project of trying to effectively improve the world.

Giving What We Can is one of the organisations formed in the early effective altruism movement (read more about our history) and continues to remain very active within it.

Read An Introduction To Effective Altruism

Etymology of effective altruism

The term effective altruism was coined by the team who founded The Centre For Effective Altruism. They were looking for a phrase that described the persuit of finding better ways to help others and taking action on that basis.

Defining altruism

What does it mean to be altruistic?

Altruism is all about selflessly helping others. It is taking actions to help others, even at an immediate cost to ourselves. For example, giving your lunch to someone who is hungry is altruistic because it helps someone who is hungry, but at a cost of being hungry yourself.

However, research shows that while altruism may "cost us" in a material sense, it often enriches our lives because giving makes us happier. Therefore being an altruist is often actually a "positive sum game" where both parties benefit.

Defining effective

What does it mean to be effective?

Being effective simply means that we are being successful at producing a desired or intended effect (or result). For example, if we desire to help someone but it hurts them then we are not being effective. If we can spend $10 to buy food for one person, or $10 to buy equally healthy food for ten people then the second is more effective.

Being a more effective altruist

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


  1. William MacAskill, The Definition of Effective Altruism. In: Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues. Edited by Hilary Greaves and Theron Pummer, Oxford University Press (2019). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198841364.003.0001 ↩︎