In the past nine weeks as a fellow for the MIT Effective Altruism Club’s Arete Fellowship, I’ve been given a crash course in the movement known as Effective Altruism. I initially applied to the fellowship because it sounded like it had something to do with moral philosophy - an interest of mine - and I wanted to get involved as a first year at Wellesley College. After I was accepted, however, I did some research into the movement. It was then, and after a few weeks of the program, that I started to feel a bit wary about Effective Altruism.
At this point, I was mostly looking at the surface of the movement. Essentially, it emphasizes trying to be effectively altruistic (as the name implies). Being effective, however, includes setting aside personal biases, and passing up the opportunities to help groups deemed less effective or important to the future of humanity.
In high school, I was a member of Key Club, a community service organization. One of my region’s preferred charities is called Camp Sunshine. It’s a summer camp in Sebago, Maine that is specifically equipped to give terminally ill children and their families the positive experience of participating in a summer camp, and it also helps families who had lost children grieve in bereavement sessions. I attended a bereavement session last November, and volunteered my time as a caretaker for young children as their parents attended counseling sessions. While I was there, another volunteer from my school made the point that the money being donated to keep Camp Sunshine running would do much more in cancer research. This now strikes me as something that EA might posit. However, I personally think that more “frivolous” charities have value. We cannot just donate all of our money to research to cure and prevent disease, because like it or not, people will still live with and die from this disease as we work toward curing it, and those people (or in this case children) are allowed to have fun and live their lives as normally as possible through organizations such as Camp Sunshine. Though, I might have some personal biases about this.
This specific example aside, Effective Altruism has opened my eyes to topics I had not normally considered as possible threats to humanity or as problems to be solved. I rarely considered artificial intelligence, the impacts of having children, or the far future in general. I also appreciated applying the theories of consequentialism and deontology, which I was already familiar with, to the issues at hand.
In conclusion, I am not going to be a diehard Effective Altruist. However, I find the movement to be well-meaning, and I think that if it grows in numbers (with myself likely to be included in the future) it will make a big difference in the world. Its logic and emphasis on the most pressing and solvable issues facing the international community will lead to the eradication of diseases and the preservation of many quality life years. Additionally, humanity could become prepared for global catastrophes and problems that may arise in the future. This organization is intelligent and intentional about doing good, and I find that admirable and inspiring.