What I like about effective altruism

The purpose of this blog is to say what I do not like about effective altruism, in order to help guide positive change within the movement. But it is important to say at the outset that there are many things I like about the movement. In fact, there are at least ten things about the movement which I admire a great deal.

  1. Altruism: Effective altruists are altruists. They want to use their time and resources for the benefit of humanity. And they do this on a staggering scale. The most generous country in the world gives 2% of its GDP to charity every year. A tithe of 10%, once a standard practice, is now considered unthinkably generous. But many effective altruists aim to devote the majority of their time and money to the benefit of others. That is an admirable goal.
  2. Support for academic research: Foundational academic research can tell us what is worth doing and how to do it. For this reason, it is important for philanthropy to be governed by the latest academic research. Effective altruists have generously endowed research centers at many of the world’s leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, NYU, and UT-Austin. This is a remarkable level of support for academic research.
  3. Engagement with academic research: I am continually surprised by the degree to which effective altruists engage with academic research. I have given talks about my research to audiences of over a hundred effective altruists. I have posted about my work on the EA forum and received detailed and constructive engagement with my research. I often receive emails from effective altruists who have read about my research and want to engage with it further. This level of engagement with academic research warms my heart.
  4. Youth: Youth drives change. Thus it is, has been, and always will be. Effective altruism is in many ways a youth-driven movement. It gives ambitious young people the opportunity to make their mark on the world. That is something to be encouraged.
  5. Openness to criticism: Effective altruists are remarkably open to criticism. I have received prizes from effective altruists for my work criticizing the movement. My institute permits me to write and present a series of academic papers critical of longtermism. Those papers are read, heard and engaged with. Critics of effective altruism are treated with an unusual degree of tolerance that I am ashamed to say many of us, including myself, often fail to achieve.
  6. Poverty and global health: It is important to feed the poor and heal the sick. That is something almost all of us can agree on. Effective altruists have done a good deal to improve global health and combat extreme poverty. Moreover, they have done this in an evidence-based way that helped to raise the evidential standards of the field. In my opinion, effective altruists have often made wise and evidentially-backed choices of how to allocate their money to combat poverty and improve global health. And they have donated a great deal of money to these causes.
  7. Long-term vision: In a world of quarterly earnings reports and short election cycles, many of us are too focused on the present. A five-year plan is considered by many to be a form of long-term thinking, and twenty-year plans are often not even attempted. It is important to plan for the long term in order to make sure that what we do today will lead the world in a good direction for a sustainable period of time.
  8. Ambition: Effective altruists dream big. They do not want to make small changes to the world, or to experience the warm glow of giving. They want to leave behind a world that is profoundly different from the world they inherited. When combined with a good vision for the world, ambition can be healthy. The goal of philanthropy is to make the world better, and there is a lot of work to be done on this front.
  9. Funding: While I am not always thrilled about the sources of funding for effective altruism, I am continually impressed by the movement’s ability to raise funds. I think that effective altruists often do not get enough credit for this success.  Vision alone is not enough. Ambitious change takes money, and lots of it. One of the main reasons why effective altruism has been so impactful is because of its fundraising success. If those funds are appropriately sourced and well used, they can make the world a much better place.
  10. Follow-through: Altruism is not something we talk about. It is something we do. Effective altruists are remarkably successful and following through to get things done. In a few years, they have produced scores of research institutes, conferences, forums, podcasts, books,  papers, and research agendas. They have exerted growing levels of political influence, building networks throughout many sectors of society. Those who disagree with the movement’s goals may find its capacity for follow-through frightening, and I must confess I sometimes feel this way myself. But it is genuinely important for a philanthropic movement to have the ability to follow through on its commitments in order to enact positive change. Effective altruists are admirably good at following through.

What about you? Surely, dear reader, there must be something you admire about effective altruism. What is it?





6 responses to “What I like about effective altruism”

  1. Nathan Young Avatar
    Nathan Young

    On the follow through point, can we add:

    and have donated 10,00,000s of anti-malaria treated bednets

    And if we are being more accurate

    donated $100,000 mns to antimalarials, deworming, contributed to significant changes to EU animal welfare policy, aided big shifts in measuring charity impact, predicted the pandemic and did an $8bn fraud.

    If all EA had done was “research institutes, conferences, forums, podcasts, books, papers, and research agendas” I think i’d want to disavow myself.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Yes! Bednets save lives, and EAs have bought a lot of bednets. Even many non-EAs have noticed. I.e. Regina Rini says, “It’s hard to doubt that MacAskill and his band of merry utilitarians have done more good for needy people than you or I have.”

  2. Wyman Kwok Avatar

    My two cents:

    As a hub for altruism: In the EA movement, many altruists have interacted with one another, resulting in many constructive instances — learning from one another, unifying and coordinating forces, and so on.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Agreed! EAs are great at building community, and more generally very good at movement-building.

  3. Diego Oliveira Avatar
    Diego Oliveira

    Thanks for your writing! I’ve been focused on reading and documenting criticisms of EA.

    In your points (1) and (2), you talk about EA’s relationship to academia. I’ve read two popular forum posts that criticize how EA engages with academia. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those critiques. The posts are:
    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/54vAiSFkYszTWWWv4/doing-ea-better-1 (Section Expertise & Rigour)
    https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/DxfpGi9hwvwLCf5iQ/objections-to-value-alignment-between-effective-altruists (Paragraph that begins with “EAs give high credence to non-expert investigations”)

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Diego – these are great links! I’ll make sure to discuss them in my series on epistemics. I also tweeted them out here: https://twitter.com/ReflectiveAlt/status/1654462259039444992.

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