Thoughts on Effective Altruism

Yesterday, when I was stalking someone on Facebook (as usual) when I saw that he was going to Effective Altruism Global 2015 at Googleplex in a few days. My first impression of the phrase “effect altruism” wasn’t a positive one. I have an intrinsic dislike for all the words that end in “-ism”. Why must people put a name on everything to define everyone? Living in Bay Area, I have encountered too many “-ism’s” that sometimes I just want to flip the table on someone and say: “Screw you and your ideologies”. But again, because I’m living in Bay Area, I just smile the brightest smile and come up with an excuse for a gracious exit.

I don’t like the word “altruism”. I don’t believe that there exists true altruism, or true selflessness. Everything that we do is driven by a motivation that comes from inside of us. You donate 10% of your salary to help African kids fight against malaria not because you put these poor kids above yourself, but because this action makes you feel good about yourself. This “feel good” can leads to the superiority complexity. “Look at me. I’m helping other people. I’m a better person than you are.”

The self-descriptive prefix “effective” also threw me off. If a car-seller constantly refers to the car he’s trying to sell as the good car, I imagine that all other cars he sells are shitty cars, so why should this one car be any different?

Once I have gotten over myself and the hard feelings I harbor for some innocent English lexicon, I decided to look it up. Wikipedia defines effective altruism as:

a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruists aim to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact. It is this broad evidence-based approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity.

I went on to the TED talk in which Peter Singer, one of the most notable advocates of the movement, talked about the why and how of effective altruism. His key idea, if I’m not mistaken, is that we should use our rationality to do the most good for other people, e.g. donating to the most effective charity. Even though I consider it a good talk — I recommend that you watch it — I finished the talk feeling like I have been emotionally manipulated. He started the talk with a video of a 2 year old kid who got hit by a van and was left bleeding in the street by passersby. He made a legitimate analogy that linked the video back to his argument: people die every day around the world and it doesn’t matter that we do not see them right in front of us, we should do something.

In the talk, he endorsed Bill and Melinda Gates as some of the most effective altruists in history. However, I doubt that the Gates started out thinking of themselves as part of the effective altruism movement. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was launched in 2000 while the phrase “effective altruism” was coined in the late 2000s.

Effective altruism is a brilliant idea, but I have trouble with the promotion of it as a movement. Defining it as a movement means that someone can define themselves as part of the movement. You do good and then people call you an effective altruist. It’s not the other way around. You don’t just go to effective altruism meetings and call yourself an effective altruist. But I might have got it all wrong. You tell me.

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Thoughts on Effective Altruism

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Effective Altruism

  1. I kind of agree with you that the video of the kid dying in the street is so emotionally intense that it feels manipulative. I’ve been to several events where we played that video and I always look away. I also agree that you can’t become an effective altruist by saying “I identify as effective!” – it’s what you do, not how you feel about it – but I still think the movement is helpful. First of all, most of us do give a lot to charity – I have signed a pledge to give 30% of my income, and I think about half of the effective altruists I know have signed a similar pledge – and we also do research and advocacy work to try to figure out where our money goes the farthest. A couple years back, when people interested in evidence-based action to change the world started trying to come up with a name, we had a big debate about this – should we call it “high-impact giving”? “charity science”? “data-driven philanthropy”? Would you have liked any of those names better, or do you think they have weird connotations too?

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  2. Hey Chip,
    I appreciated this post, but I’ll have to disagree with you that Effective Altruism as a movement isn’t useful. I first started identifying as an EA after being exposed to Peter Singer’s ideas, and it quickly became clear to me that there wasn’t a moral difference between a child dying in front of you and a child dying in a foreign country. Of course, not knowing about EA at the time, I knew literally no one else who thought the same way. People have a misconception that moral behavior is always lauded, but my opinion is that this is rarely the case. The reactions that I saw towards Peter Singer from my peers were disdainful and contemptuous, as if the seriousness with which he approached altruism was an offense rather than a virtue. Having actions I considered extremely moral and respectable ridiculed by people who were doing literally nothing to help was intensely frustrating, and as a result I mentioned to very few people that I thought Singer was right.

    Becoming more involved in EA has been a great experience, not only because it’s given me more insight concerning where to give, but because I’ve met people who think like I do. So I’m generally fine with people self-defining as EA because believing in EA’s central ideas can be an alienating experience.

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