HSV Lecture 2019 – Effective Altruism – Philosophy and practice

Photo of Vanessa Thompkins

HSV Public Lecture by Vanessa Thompkins, President, Effective Altruism Melbourne, at Balwyn Library on 24 April 2019

The philosophy of effective altruism underpins a social movement that is now world-wide, with thousands of participants. It aims rigorously to explore the question, how can we do the most good in our world, with research underpinning its recommendations about the most effective charities. As Vanessa said, if you buy a computer you are likely to compare brands and outlets and want your choice to provide value for the money you spend. Similarly, effective altruism weighs causes and their beneficiaries against one another, using a scientific approach, so that donors are not merely relying on what intuitively feels appropriate.

Three key principles guide effective altruism.

Egalitarianism – in deciding which cause to support, all people are to be considered equal and deserving of equal assistance. The same principle holds for animals.

Cause neutrality – that the choice of a cause is, first and foremost, that which can be shown to achieve the most good.

Epistemic humility – that everything we believe about the most effective way to donate may be shown by further evidence or experience to be incorrect and should be reviewed.

Some of the aspects that need to be considered include whether the project will deliver value for the money expended, combined with the knowledge that an Australian dollar will go further in a Third-World country, and that the benefits may not be evident in the present, but rather in the future.

Effective altruism endeavours to research which causes matter the most and which interventions are the most effective using three key parameters, scaleneglectedness and tractability or solvability – that is, how amenable is the situation to assistance.

Using this framework, the analysis of three areas of general need could be summed up along the following lines.

1. Global poverty

The need in this area is undeniable, in that approximately 10% of the world’s population is living in conditions of extreme poverty, and many others are in poverty of a lesser order. There are already hundreds of interventions in place, many of which can be shown to be effective.

2. Animal welfare

There are about 60 billion domesticated animals in the world, some of which are pets, while others are grown for food. In this category, fewer donations are currently available to help improve their plight. Advocacy for farmed animals, like that of the Humane League, is seen as an effective resource for change. And laboratory-based alternatives to animal products are being developed by The Good Food Institute. The work of other organizations in this field can be reviewed at Animal Charity Evaluators.

3. Global catastrophic risks

This category includes the impact of climate change around the world and infectious epidemics. The benefit of any intervention in this field can only be gauged by future trends and events. While there are some notable bodies undertaking research in this area at present, such as Future of Humanity Institute, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and Machine Intelligence Research Institute, there is, nonetheless, a dearth compared with the scale of the problems. Furthermore, the prospect of success is seen as limited.

Returning to the key question, which interventions are the most effective, Vanessa discussed several current projects.

As an example of aid that addresses global poverty, she cited the provision of bed-nets that had been impregnated with insecticide. This strategy has been shown to be effective in reducing the incidence of malaria. The formula used to assess effectiveness showed that the cost of saving a human life would be $3,000. She explained that although the bed-net only cost $2.50, the number of people treated in order to save one life would amount to the larger figure. Improvement in well-being was not assessed as part of the equation.

Similarly, de-worming programs show that simple medication given to children under the age of five is highly beneficial, costing about $1,000.

GiveWell, a non-profit organization that independently researches options for charitable donations, has recommended both of these projects.

Other independent evaluators are Giving What We Can and The life You Can Save. They probe beyond the administrative costs of the targeted charity, looking at the cost of the intervention, and its scale, against the likely degree of effective change.

The notion of effective altruism extends beyond donations of money. It also includes time, skills and energy. It may involve retraining to learn new skills that can benefit others in a professional capacity or a voluntary one. Skills may make a direct contribution to a charity or research or may facilitate communication or movement-building. It may mean choosing a job that provides a high income, with a view to donating a portion to effective charities, either privately or through the pledge, Giving What We Can. Volunteering for an effective altruism outreach organization or an effective charity is another avenue to help make the world a better place.

All this fancy ethics and decision science stuff is actually about the unexpected possibility of all of us to become superheroes. Think about it, who would have thought that it is within the power of all of us to actually save hundreds or even thousands of lives just by making better, more rational everyday decisions?Adriano Mannino, co-founder of Effective Altruism Foundation

Further information:

Learn more about effective altruism:

Find highly effective charities to donate to:

Make tax-deductible donations to highly effective charities:

Discover career paths that can help you do good:

Get involved with effective altruism locally:

Download Presentation Slides [PDF 1.3MB]

Report by Jennie Stuart (edit)