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Effective Altruism

What is it?

Have you ever heard of Peter Singer or Toby Ord?

If yes, then you probably already stumble upon the Effective Altruism concept.

If not, this post will help you understand what effective altruism is

and how you can join the movement.

Effective altruism is a philosophy and a movement

that aims to use reasoning to do the most good.

3 big ideas of effective altruism are:


Impartiality is about taking sympathy and compassion out of the picture when it comes to helping others, and instead use impartial and impersonal reasoning. This evidently leads to the conclusion that the ones that should be benefited are not the ones closer to us, or whose misfortune is closer to out hearts, but instead the ones who are in the worst conditions and suffering the most.

Cause prioritization

Most organizations and non-profits focus on a single cause. A true effective altruist is not concerned with a cause above other. Instead, they prioritize the causes based on if they can be advanced significantly in an efficient way. A cause that has a bigger benefit and affects more people is likely to be prioritized over another that produces less good.


Very connected to the last idea, is cost-effectiveness. When choosing a cause or organization an effective altruist will prioritize the one that can do the most good with the least amount of resources. This can be expressed for example in quality-adjusted life years (QALY) saved per dollar. The bigger this number the more cost-effective is the cause or organization.

An illustrative argument in favour of effective altruism

Let us say you are walking in a park by yourself and you see a child drowning in the nearby lake. What would you do? I am going to assume you would heroically jump into the lake and save the child. Now let’s say you just bought a new pair of shoes that you love and you know will be damaged if you go in the water. You have no time to take them off. Would you still save the child? Most likely yes. A life of a child is way more important than the cost of your new shoes. Now let us say the park is located in one country and the lake in the neighbouring country and there is a border (not a physical one) in between. Is that an impediment to save the child? Probably not. The life of a child from other nationality is as important as the life of the child from our own country. Now let us say this child, instead of in a lake right next to us, is dying in a country we cannot see. Would you still sacrifice the cost of a pair of new shoes to save this child? Most of us don’t. We distance ourselves from problems we cannot see, even when saving a life is relatively easy and inexpensive. Something simple like a mosquito net that can protect a child from contracting malaria costs some mere 30dkk (4eur).

How to donate?

You can be saving hundreds of lives if you become rational about your donations and start allocating resources, even if few, to cost effective organizations. And how do you find these causes? That is easy, there are organization dedicated to research the causes that do the most good. Give Well is just one example. And you can still choose what are your personal priorities. The movement focus on several causes like global poverty alleviation, animal welfare, long-term future and global catastrophic risks, among others.

But if we all donate of effective organizations, then all other organizations lose funding. Shouldn’t we diversify?

The answer is no. There will always be people donating for causes that are resonate with them in some emotional way, but for an effective altruist the priority is to do the most good possible with the resources they allocate. This implies to always donate to effective causes disregarding personal preferences. Once that cause is tackled and resolved, then we can move on and make other cause our new priority. And that is how you properly solve all the world’s problems, or at least you try.

A change in perspective

If you think your small donation will not make a difference, think again. In the big world that we live in, a small amount like 300dkk(40eur) can make a huge impact. This amount is more than the average monthly income per capita for a country like Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. We in the developed world have the added responsibility of contributing to help the problems of the world. This line of thought does not come from a place of superiority or pity charity, it comes from reasoning. If we have more resources and can apply them better somewhere else in the world then that is the rational thing to do.

And if you think you don’t have many resources - maybe you are just a student, eating noodles most nights - it’s time to change your perspective and check your own privilege. You are probably still on the top 20% of the richest people in the world. In fact you can check that here. So, giving the equivalent to a Spotify subscription every month to an effective charity can make a real change in the world without impacting your finances significantly.

Giving What We Can Pledge

If effective altruism is something for you, maybe you should check the Giving What We Can Pledge. In 2009, Oxford philosophers Toby Ord and Will MacAskill created the Giving What We Can Pledge based on the effective altruism philosophy. Similarly, to the Giving Plegde (a pledge taken by the world’s wealthiest individuals that commit to giving out the majority of their wealth to philanthropy) the Giving What We Can Pledge is also about committing to give a significant amount of your income to charity. Members that take the pledge commit to give 10% of their income to effective altruism causes for the rest of their lives. More than 5000 people already took the pledge. But if this sounds scary, they have a Try Giving Pledge, where you can commit to donate 1% or more of your income for a limited amount of time. And if you have no income? Then you can commit to donate 1% of your life expenses. There are no excuses to not give it a try.

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