Most of us want to make a difference and have a positive impact. Even the most selfish, money-and-status-seeking student has issues they care about. However, in such a complicated world it’s hard to know where to start. You may have a good heart, but without direction you might end up donating to the first charity fundraiser who approaches you on the street. While this is definitely well-intended, it’s not always the best option, as some charities can do far more good than others.
There are clearly other approaches to channelling your good intentions, and currently one of the most successful ones is effective altruism. Effective altruism is a movement that applies evidence and reason to look for the best ways of helping others. In other words, if altruism is the idea that you should do good, effective altruism is the idea that you should do as much good as possible, based on the best information available to you.
Effective altruists consider a variety of things when trying to achieve this lofty goal. It seems trivial to point out, but high-impact causes that make a bigger difference, all else being equal, are obviously preferable. Similarly, causes in which progress is easier to achieve are better than ones where the same achievements will take longer and cost more. In general, causes which are more neglected may be better opportunities to do good, as they will be further from the point of reaching diminishing returns.
A key theme here is that in order to do the most good, one must first ask how much good can be done “on the margin”, by adding another donation or hour of work on top of what each cause already receives. This is much more useful to individuals deciding what to do with their own contributions. It can be easy to assume that any do-gooding is good enough, but by taking the time to consider the options you can achieve so much more.
“Using scientific evidence to evaluate your donations can make a big difference”
For example, if you care about improving people’s health, it’s much easier to prevent well-understood conditions, and much cheaper to focus on doing so in the developing world where cheap medicine and health care aren’t already widely available.
For these reasons, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) here at Imperial is considered by many charity evaluators to be one of the most cost-effective charities in the world – 1000s of times more cost-effective than the average charity. They provide deworming pills donated by pharmaceutical manufacturers to the regions that suffer the most from this neglected tropical disease. This intervention has been the subject of multiple studies, and the SCI are committed to rigorously evaluating its effectiveness.
That’s not to say that donating to SCI is definitely the best way to do good: for example, the Against Malaria Foundation is also believed to have cost-effectiveness in the same order of magnitude, but it’s challenging to make these estimates precise and reliable enough to tell which charity is definitively better.
Both of these charities assume that our top priority should be the health and physical well-being of people alive today. Perhaps a key distinction between effective altruism and other social movements is that EA doesn’t dictate the values you should hold. Instead, the focus is on helping you to further your own values, whatever they may be.
If you think animal lives are also worth preserving and improving, then you may find that the best way you can do good is by working to end factory farming, which causes suffering on an industrial scale. Beyond persuading people to go vegetarian, one promising option is to develop better meat substitutes that can be produced much more humanely and outcompete the farmed equivalent.
On the other hand, if you think the lives of people in the future are also worth considering, in addition to everyone alive today, a common conclusion is that it is very important to preserve human civilisation. Depending on your evaluation of the different threats and your own talents, this could involve working with emerging technologies in order to guide their development, finding a job in government where you can improve prevention and responses to pandemics, or limiting catastrophic climate change through policy work.
In order to do the most good you possibly can, you must first decide on your goals. Once you’ve done that, using scientific evidence effectively to inform your decisions can make a big difference in how much good you do, whether it’s by considering which career paths can have the most impact, or by comparing the charities that attempt to achieve your goals. The effective altruism movement can allow you to save more lives and help more people than you could ever have managed otherwise.