Introduction to Effective Altruism
Why good intentions are not enough
Many people strive to do good. Good intentions alone can lead to unexpectedly bad outcomes.
A true story: PlayPump was a brilliant invention to provide drinking water for sub-Saharan Africa. Children played on a merry-go-round – designed to pump water simultaneously from a local well. It would unburden women of the village.
Celebrities and politicians promoted the PlayPump charity drive.
Media chipped in with headlines like ‘Why Pumping Water Is Child's Play’. Millions of donated euros poured in.
Yet, the actual practicalities were not taken into consideration! Author Will MacAskill explained the disconnect:
‘Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they have gained sufficient momentum – that’s what makes them fun. But to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted.’
UNICEF reported children falling off, breaking limbs, or vomiting from the spinning motion. Mothers and grandmothers took on pushing the merry-go-round instead – a demeaning task. The PlayPump yielded five times less water than a conventional pump, assuming it had not yet broken down from lack of repairs.
Headlines reverted to pessimism about the world's state of affairs, as a well-intentioned initiative faded out.
Why Effective Altruism?
Effective Altruism represents a shift in how we approach giving.
Most charity programmes appear to have weak or no positive effects.
Why such a disconnect between how we claim to help others and the actual benefits? Why do we let marketing that happens to reach us dominate our decision to give, over evidence and reason?
Despite our human shortcomings to doing good in an uncertain world, it's getting better! Since 1990, the number of people living under the poverty line has halved. Child mortality declined from 23% in 1950 to 5% in 2015.
Over the last centuries, we criminalised slavery, dramatically reduced oppression of women, and started improving rights and acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people.
So why do we let poverty and other global issues persist? We have the knowledge and means to actually improve situations that lead to needless suffering. Why aren't we doing it?
What is Effective Altruism?
Effective Altruism combines the heart (compassion) with the head (reason and evidence). We dig into evidence and arguments to figure out which causes most need our support.
To start, consider three factors:
- How big in scale is this issue? How many individuals are affected, and how intensely?
- How much traction can we make on this issue if we devote more resources here?
- How neglected is current work on this issue? How much time and money is already being directed here?
Working on a larger scale, more solvable, more neglected cause tends to lead to higher impact.
But to make sustainable impact, you've got to consider yourself:
- How good is my personal fit to furthering this work? Where can I specialise and contribute my skills?
Who is Effective Altruism?
You don't need to consider all by yourself. Join forces with diverse thinkers and collaborators in the Netherlands at local meetups, dedicated projects, lean charity startups, philanthropic foundations, and academic hubs. Or reach out for a cup of coffee!
Some set up tested programs to make more traction fighting extreme poverty. Some advocate changes in how neglected animals are treated. Some research large-scale technological risks to safeguard generations to come.
Binding our international community is our dedication to doing good better.