March 24, 2017 Column
Effective Altruism: Doing the Most Good You Can
There is an exciting new movement developing. It’s called “effective altruism”.
Effective altruism is based on the very simple idea that we should do the most good we can. It is not enough to obey the usual rules about not stealing, or cheating, or hurting, or killing. This is no longer enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare.
According to the ideals of effective altruism, to live a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place.
To live a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.
Organizations are forming at universities around the world. People are engaging in lively discussions on social media and websites, and their ideas are being examined in serious newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
The development of effective altruism has been shaped to a large extent by philosophers of practical ethics. Their goal is to challenge our ideas about what it means to live an ethical life.
The wonderful thing about it is that philosophy is once more demonstrating its ability to radically transform the lives of those who study it, and in transforming their lives, it is also transforming the world.
This movement is taking hold especially among millennials—that generation which has come of age in the new millennium. Millennials are not saints; they are pragmatic realists who know they have to work to make a difference in a world which seems increasingly to be broken.
As pragmatic realists, they don’t spend a lot of time feeling guilty if they aren’t morally perfect. Some of them are content to know that they are doing something significant to make the world a better place. Many of them like to challenge themselves to do a little better this year than last year. In doing so, they are trying to change a culture.
As I perused some websites and read some literature, I noted the following elements.
First and foremost, it is making a difference in our world. Philanthropy is a huge industry. In the USA alone, there are almost a million charities, receiving a total of about $200 billion each year. Effective altruism provides incentives for charities to demonstrate how effective they are. Those charities which are most effective in reducing the suffering and death caused by extreme poverty, for example, are already seeing a large increase in donations.
Secondly, effective altruism is way to give meaning to our own lives and find fulfillment in what we do as we work with others to alleviate the suffering in our world. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. In other words, they not only benefit others, but also themselves.
Thirdly, effective altruism sheds new light on the age–old question of whether we are driven by our emotional needs or whether reason can play a crucial role in determining how we live. Many people give to causes because they have an emotional response. We instinctively want to help another person, or a pet, or a cause dear to our hearts. Effective altruists, on the other hand, research which charities uses their donations most effectively. They seek thereby to do the most good they can.
Finally, there is a great deal of energy and enthusiasm among effective altruists. Their intelligence and capacity to make a difference in the world offers grounds for hope in our world.
How do they do it?
Effective altruists do simple things like this: they live more modestly and donate a large part of their income—often much more than the traditional 10%—to the most effective charities. They research and discuss with others which charities are most effective. They choose a career in which they can earn more not so that they can live with greater affluence, but rather so that they can do more good in the world. They talk with others about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread.
What counts as the “most good”? Not all effective altruists would answer the question in the same way, but they do share some values. They agree that a world with less suffering and more happiness in it is better than a world with more suffering and less happiness. Most would say that a world in which people live longer and in better health is better than a world where life expectancy is shorter.
There has been a lot of skepticism lately about whether people can really be motivated to be more altruistic. These millennials give hope that we can indeed reach out to enrich the lives of others. Effective altruism provides evidence that we can expand our moral horizons to care about strangers, to be moved by suffering, no matter where it happens in the world.
Effective altruists know that living in this way requires some sacrifice; they also know that by living this way means that everyone flourishes, and that is the best outcome for everyone.
If you’re interested in following up on this, check out http://www.givewell.org/, There is also an excellent TED talk by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, as well as his book, The Most Good You Can Do.
This is exciting stuff. It’s worth checking out.