Understanding Effective Altruism: Applying Strategy to Charity

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SEATTLE — Most people are moved by the plight of those who are suffering; most are hesitant to help. This uncertainty around charity is the product of different ethical priorities, a loss of hope and a lack of concrete proof that their money actually makes a difference.

The magnitude of the world’s most pressing problems seems unresolvable, creating apathy around the action. Some charities only give an infinitesimal fraction of their donations to those they promise to help.

Effective altruism promises a solution. Through careful reasoning and evidence-based decision-making, this philosophy aims to do the best with the resources provided — in other words, using every donation dollar effectively.

Effective altruism aims to improve the world in high-impact ways by applying strategy to altruistic actions. Instead of giving more, it advocates for giving more effectively.

Unlike utilitarianism, effective altruism doesn’t see helping others as a moral duty, nor does it believe that the violation of human rights is acceptable in the name of the greater good.

The primary goal is to accomplish as much good for the world as possible by determining the potential scope, efficaciousness and outcomes of an action, such as a donation to a charity. To qualify as effectively altruistic, an action needs to substantially help many people, help those who are overlooked and help practically and successfully.

Giving What We Can is an organization that evaluates charities under these criteria, defining the top charities as those that ceaselessly provide high-impact, cost-effective solutions for those in need. As a community, the members each pledge to donate 10 percent of their incomes to effective charities.

Giving What We Can have titled the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and the Schistosomiasis Control Foundation, which provides assistance and funding for programs that treat people with parasitic worms, as the most effective organizations.

If an average citizen in a developed country gave 10 percent of his or her income to the Against Malaria Foundation, he or she could prevent 190 cases of malaria, save two lives and distribute 700 mosquito nets, every single year.

Based on an individual’s ethical priorities, some may believe that proven remedies do the largest scale of good, such as the consistent treatment of parasitic worms. Others may believe that the investment in political advocacy or vaccine development is more effectively altruistic, for although those have a smaller chance of success, they have the potential to create immense systemic change. Both of these viewpoints are valid under effective altruism.

Many wealthy members of society spend millions towards their own communities, or on one project, without the knowledge of how many lives they could save if their money was used otherwise. For example, a $100 million donations to improve the Met could have substantially funded universal coverage of malaria nets.

Effective altruism helps donators to understand the most effective use of their money, by emphasizing personal priorities and the potential impact of their charity.

Above all else, people need to understand that their actions and their donations can actually make a tangible difference in improving peace, health, education and overall welfare.

Effective altruism applies empirical and ethical strategy to charity, aiming to create the best per dollar spent. The philosophy is in place, now all it needs is action.

Larkin Smith

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Larkin Smith

Larkin writes for The Borgen Project from Chicago, where she studies at the University of Chicago. She is an improvisational actor and sings in an a cappella group.

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