It was in 2011 when leaders and members of the nonprofit organizations Giving What We Can and 80000 Hours coined and introduced the term “effective altruism” to describe an emerging philosophical and social movement that advocates the use of evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible while taking action on the basis.
The term might be newer but the concept or founding ideas were a product of the convergence of the different views and advocacies of diverse organizations and communities involved with evidence-based charitable operations, career selection for effective giving, existential risk thinking, and promotion of rational actions and decision-making.
Former hedge fund analysts Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld founded GiveWell in 2007 as a nonprofit organization tasked to evaluate and recommend the best-performing charities around the world. Philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill and physician-in-training Bernadette Young founded Giving What We Can at the University of Oxford in 2009.
The nonprofit research institute Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, now known as the Machine Intelligence Research Institute was founded in 2000 with an initial goal of accelerating the field of artificial intelligence. It later evolved to tackle the potential existential risks from advanced artificial intelligence systems such as general artificial intelligence.
An interdisciplinary research center at the University of Oxford called the Future of Humanity Institute was established in 2005 with a stated purpose of investigating big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects. Some of its largest funders include SpaceX and Tesla head Elon Musk, the European Research Council, and the Leverhulme Trust.
The Center for Effective Altruism was later established in 2011 as an umbrella organization of Giving What We Can and 80000 Hours. The first Effective Altruism Global Conference was held in 2013. It was around this time that effective altruism became an established movement arising from the convergence of the different advocacies of different communities.
Pros of Effective Altruism: Opportunities, Promises, and Applications
Highlights the Importance of Evidence in Progress-Related Advocacies
One of the obvious advantages of effective altruism is that it promotes the use of reason and evidence in supporting progress-related advocacies. This view stems from the fact that some philanthropic organizations are inefficient while others are far more effective when it comes to utilizing their resources to meet their stated goals and objectives.
A survey by P. Ohaei has suggested that fraud tends to remain prevalent across small charities. These organizations are less immune from fraud and tend to have a higher risk of suffering from losses due to to lack of segregation of duties and weak control systems when compared to larger charities with stronger control systems and better governance structures.
The use of evidence-based approaches in charities and other organizations involved in promoting advocacies is important because it aligns resource allocation strategies with the general mission or specific organizational goals and objectives while also maximizing the social return on investment using the most effective and cost-efficient solutions.
Several effective altruists have also founded nonprofit or for-profit organizations of their own to implement cost-effective approaches in pursuing beneficial undertakings. The missions and visions of these organizations are anchored on the concept of effective altruism and intended to advance it further through their operations and specific activities.
Encourages Organizations to Value Evidence Across Their Operations
Researchers B. S. Freeling, M. J. Dry, and S. D. Connell brought together findings from philanthropic research and climate psychology to determine the factors that can help increase engagement with donors. Their study revealed that evidence-based fundraising can inspire donors to contribute much-needed resources toward climate solutions.
It is also important to note that supporters of nonprofit organizations tend to value outcome and impact indicators more than output information according to a survey conducted by J. Bodem-Schrötgens and A. Becker. This means that the output of a particular organization and the impact of its activities help in encouraging donation and lending behaviors.
A systematic review by C. Greenhalgh and P. Montgomery identified three factors that help organizations attract more funding. These are improving knowledge transfer or making information more accessible, access to professional advisors and networks, and expanding the definition of what counts as credible evidence to attract more funding.
The aforementioned studies point to the fact that the rise of effective altruism also promotes a culture of using reason and evidence among philanthropic organizations. To be specific, to appeal to effective altruists and secure funding or support, these organizations are compelled to enhance their use of evidence in their approach to their advocacies.
Addresses Existential Risks and the Long-Term Impacts of Development
Progress is at the heart of effective altruism. Remember that it advocates the use of evidence and reason to determine solutions and specific courses of action aimed at benefitting the people and the entire society. However, because progress can have unintended consequences, the movement also tackles how to make progressive pursuits as sustainable as possible.
Another advantage of effective altruism centers on its specific application in developing ethical standards and laws or policies for tackling the risks and impacts of progressive pursuits. It can provide relevant frameworks to best approach progress that can benefit the current generations of people without harming the prospects of future generations.
The movement has been applied to scientific and technological progress. It promotes the ethical stance called longtermism which prioritizes the importance of positively influencing the future through science and technology while also addressing existential risks associated with rapid developments in the different scientific and technological domains.
A specific example of the application of effective altruism is in discussions surrounding artificial intelligence safety. Effective altruists in the field and other concerned observers have maintained that artificial intelligence should be approached with caution and have advocated that research and development should be gradual and moderate rather than exponential.
Cons of Effective Altruism: Limitations, Challenges, and Criticisms
Inclined to Neglecting Equally Important Causes of Smaller Organizations
One of the main problems or disadvantages of effective altruism and a prevailing criticism of effective altruists centers on purported inattention toward smaller organizations with important causes or advocacies. Some observers have argued that the movement and its adherents tend to focus on larger organizations or causes with global or wider implications.
Rebecca Ackermann, in her article for the MIT Technology Review, explained that effective altruists believe that a good cause is not good enough because only the very best should get funding in the areas most in need. Nevertheless, as the movement expands, this raises the question of why its affluent adherents get to decide where to channel funds.
Charity Navigator chief executive Ken Borger and its consultant Robert M. Penna wrote that the movement is a top-down approach to philanthropy that negates the same altruistic spirit it claims to foster. Both also called the movement nothing more than a charitable imperialism because of its fixation on organizations and causes with wider implications.
It is important to underscore the fact that effective altruism does not discriminate against smaller or domestic organizations and their smaller causes at its core. However, because it advocates the use of evidence and reason in determining what causes with the greatest benefit to support, its adherents are prone to focusing their attention on larger causes or advocacies.
Potential for Adverse Consequences Due to Focus on Measurable Outcomes
Ethicist Ricky Mouser noted that effective altruism has a strategy problem. He argued that the movement is overdependent on a strategy of donating and supporting the most effective philanthropic organizations or progress-related advocacies in its incessant quest to pursue the next-highest quantifiable marginal gain. This is politically shortsighted.
A paper by philosophy professor Theodore Lechterman also argued that the movement has a political problem. The measurement-based methods that enable effective altruists to determine promising causes or advocacies do not translate into political reform. Channeling private wealth into politics can also worsen unequal opportunities for political influence.
Philosopher Timothy Syme also mentioned in his paper that critics have argued that the measure-driven focus of effective altruism to improve the well-being of impoverished communities also renders its adherents inattentive to the systematic causes of poverty. Effective altruists tend to consider systemic critiques and systemic reform as unhelpful and vague.
Nevertheless, based on the aforementioned problems of effective altruism, it has been suggested that the movement can do more harm than good or negate its positive impacts with its unintended negative consequences. Adherents are too focused on funding and supporting organizations and their causes but are also neglectful of the importance of reforms.
Likelihood of Stalling Significant Scientific and Technological Progress
Another disadvantage of effective altruism is the conservative and purported doomist tendencies of several of its adherents. Influential effective altruists have been criticized for their efforts in slating the phase at which science and technology progress. This can stall significant and impactful developments in various scientific fields and technological domains.
The most visible example of the aforementioned is the current divide in artificial intelligence. The specific subfield of safety and its subset called AI alignment is divided between effective altruists and those who adhere to the principles of effective accelerationism. The latter tends to have a more cautious and pessimistic approach to AI research and development.
It is worth noting that the longtermist view of effective altruism tackles existential risk from technologies such as artificial intelligence. Adherents believe that the moral obligation to future generations is greater than the obligation to the current population. Hence, when factoring in scientific and technological progress, caution supersedes development.
The expanding influence of effective altruists in the realms of science and technology has concerned various scholars, researchers, tech executives, and observers. Those who adhere to effective accelerationism advocate for rapid and unrestricted development because the benefits of scientific and technological progress outweigh the risks.
Rundown: Advantages and Disadvantages of Effective Altruism
The aforementioned advantages and disadvantages of effective altruism make it a polarizing and divisive philosophy and movement. Hence, on the positive side, it has been commended for promoting evidence-based approaches in philanthropy and advocacy, encouraging organizations to value evidence in their operations, and addressing existential risks associated with progress. However, on the negative side, it has been criticized for its restricted impacts in resolving or addressing various social issues while also promoting a cautious and pessimistic approach to scientific and technological developments.
It is also important to underscore that the scope of interest of effective altruists has expanded beyond charities. These adherents have reshaped how philanthropic organizations should operate and have also dipped their toes in various discourses in various fields and domains of science and technology. This renders effective altruism as a multifaceted concept with the potential to extend its influence to different areas and realms. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied the movement has its merits. The focus on using evidence and reason is its strongest suit, but its discriminatory tendencies expose its vital weakness.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- R. 2022. “Inside Effective Altruism, Where the Far Future Counts A lot More Than the Present.” MIT Technology Review. Available online
- Berger, K. and Penna, R. M. 2013. “The Elitist Philanthropy of So-Called Effective Altruism.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. DOI: 48558/fts4-6040
- Bodem-Schrötgens, J. and Becker, A. 2019. “Do You Like What You See? How Nonprofit Campaigns With Output, Outcome, and Impact Effectiveness Indicators Influence Charitable Behavior.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 49(2): 316-335. DOI: 1177/0899764019868843
- Freeling, B. S., Dry, M. J., and Connell, S. D. 2022. “Climate Donations Inspired by Evidence-Based Fundraising.” Frontiers in Psychology. 13. DOI: 3389/fpsyg.2022.768823
- Greenhalgh, C. and Montgomery, P. 2020. “A Systematic Review of the Barriers to and Facilitators of the Use of Evidence by Philanthropists When Determining Which Charities To Fund. Systematic Reviews. 9(1). DOI: 1186/s13643-020-01448-w
- Lechterman, T. M. 2020. “The Effective Altruist’s Political Problem.” Polity. 52(1): 88-115. DOI: 1086/706867
- Mouser, R. 2023. “Mutual Aid as Effective Altruism.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. 33(2): 201-226. DOI: 1353/ken.2023.a904083
- Ohalehi, P. 2019. “Fraud in Small Charities: Evidence from England and Wales.” Journal of Financial Crime. 26(1): 211-222. DOI: 1108/jfc-12-2017-0122
- Syme, T. 2019. “Charity vs Revolution: Effective Altruism and the Systemic Change Objection.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 22: 93-120. JSTOR: 45116555