What Is Effective Altruism

  • Altruism simply means improving lives of others
  • Determining whether something is effective means recognizing that some ways of doing good are better than others.

The 100x Multiplier

  • The extreme disparities between different people on Earth today give big opportunities to people in rich countries
    • Sometimes we look at the size of the problems in the world and think, “Anything I do would be just a drop in the bucket. So why bother?” But, in light of the research shown in these graphs, that reasoning doesn’t make any sense. It’s the size of the drop that matters, not the size of the bucket, and, if we choose, we can create an enormous drop.

Five Key Questions of Effective Altruism

  • The guiding question of effective altruism is: “How can I do the most good?”
    • These five questions help you find the right answer

Question #1: How Many People Benefit, and by How Much?

  • We need to make hard decisions about who we help and who we don’t
    • It’s often useful to take a rational approach based on statistics when making this decision
  • Ask:
    • How much does this activity cost, in terms of time or money?
    • How many people does it affect?
    • By how much does it improve their lives?


  • = Quality-adjusted life year
    • Pronounced “kwalee”
  • Useful in measuring effectivness of different health programs
  • How QALY works
    • One QALY represents a benefit equivalent to giving one person one year of life in perfect health
    • There are two ways you can give a health benefit to someone
      • The first way is to extend someone’s life
      • The second way is to improve their life while they are alive
      • The QALY combines these two benefits into one metric, using survey data about the trade-offs people are willing to make in order to assess how bad different sorts of illnesses or disabilities are

      • For example, people on average rate a life with untreated AIDS as 50 percent as good as life at full health; people on average rate life after a stroke as 75 percent as good as life at full health; and people on average rate life with moderate depression as only 30 percent as good as life in full health.

Question #2: Is This the Most Effective Thing You Can Do?

  • The effectiveness of different aid activities forms a fat-tailed distribution
    • The best programs are hundred times better than very good programs
    • E.g. compare smallpox eradication with other development aid programs
  • => We should strive to put most resources into the best programs

Question #3: Is This Area Neglected?

  • The law of diminshing returns
    • If a specific area has already received a great deal of funding and attention, then we should expect it to be difficult for us to do a lot of good by devoting additional resources to that area. In contrast, within causes that are comparatively neglected, the most effective opportunities for doing good have probably not been taken.

    • Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggests that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating. By all means, you should harness the emotion you feel when a natural disaster strikes, but remind yourself that a similar disaster is happening all the time—and then consider donating to wherever your money will help the most rather than what is getting the most attention. Diminishing returns also provides a powerful argument for focusing your altruistic efforts on people in poor countries rather than those in rich countries.

  • It’s useful to ask this question when choosing a career

Question #4: What Would Have Happened Otherwise?

  • Often we don’t know whether our actions will be successful, and, given the difficulty of knowing what would have happened otherwise, we will usually never know whether our actions really make a difference. When it comes to effecting political change, this problem becomes particularly severe. Even if you run a campaign and the policy you’ve campaigned for is put into place, there are usually other forces at work, making it difficult to measure your individual impact. We shouldn’t dismiss more speculative or high-risk activities out of hand, though, because when successful, they can have an enormous impact. We therefore need a way to compare higher-risk but higher-upside actions with actions that are certain to have an impact.

    • That’d be expected value as explained in the next segment

Earning to Give

  • In some careers, like medicine, you sometimes do good work that would be done otherwise
    • So to be more effective, it might make more sense to choose a career with high financial compensation and use that resources to make a difference that wouldn’t have otherwise occured

Question #5: What Are The Chances of Success, and How Good Would Success Be?

Expected Value

  • A concept from economics
  • How expected value works
    • (chance of success x value of success) + (chance of failure x cost of failure)
    • E.g.
      • To take a simple example, suppose I offer you a bet. I’ll flip a coin and if the coin lands heads, I’ll give you two dollars; if the coin lands tails, you give me a dollar. Should you take the bet? According to the idea of expected value, you should.

        • For each outcome, you take the monetary gain or loss and multiply it by the probability of the outcome. In this case, there are two possible outcomes, heads and tails. Each has a 50 percent chance of occurring. The expected monetary value of taking the bet is therefore (50% × +$2) + (50% × –$1) = $0.50. The expected monetary value of refusing the bet is zero. Taking the bet has the higher expected value, so you should take the bet.

  • Humans are often bad at assessing low-probability high-value events
    • We either give them too much value or ignore them altogether
    • That’s where working with expected value can be useful for example
  • Even in what seem like “unquantifiable” areas like political change and disaster prevention, we can still think rigorously, in an evidence-based manner, about how good those activities are. We just need to assess the chances of success and how good success would be if it happened. This, of course, is very difficult to do, but we will make better decisions if we at least try to make these assessments rather than simply throwing up our hands and randomly choosing an activity to pursue, or worse, not choosing any altruistic activity at all.

How to Start Implementing Effective Altruism in Your Life

  • Establish a habit of regular giving
  • Write down a plan for how you’re going to incorporate effective altruism into your life
  • Join the effective altruism community
  • Tell others about effective altruism