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Sarah Lincoln

In this post, I will analyze the effectiveness of donating blood according to GiveWell’s top charity criteria.


Evidence of effectiveness

Red blood cell (RBC) transfusions are common practice in intensive care units; nearly half of patients receive one during their stay to increase oxygen delivery to tissues. This is unquestionably effective at increasing the survival rate of patients with profound anaemia, circulatory shock, or other conditions which result from critical impairment of tissue oxygenation.

That being said, those cases only make up a minority of blood transfusions. Most RBC transfusions are given to patients with otherwise high chances of survival, in the hopes of speeding up their recovery. The benefits of RBC transfusions for these patients are less documented, and it’s difficult to calculate how many QALY’s are actually saved.


Cost-effectiveness

To estimate the cost-effectiveness of blood donations, we can use the price of a unit of red blood cells in the UK - the equivalent of 156 US dollars - as a stand-in for its true value. Using this approach, red blood cell donations are 2 orders of magnitude less than an equivalent monetary donation to the Against Malaria Foundation in terms of cost-effectiveness.

However, many would argue that the cost of donating blood is not $156, it’s just 30 minutes of your time. The time-cost of that half hour is miniscule for most people, so blood donations could easily be on par with GiveWell’s top charities in terms of cost-effectiveness.


Room for more funding

As stated earlier, most blood transfusions go to patients who don’t necessarily need them for survival. Hospitals typically keep a store of O- red blood cell units for emergencies, and the existing group of dedicated blood donors generally produce enough donations to maintain these stores. Thus, additional donations from members of the EA community would likely go towards speeding up the recovery of patients with non-life-threatening conditions. While this is still a desirable outcome, some may argue that the marginal returns are too small to make donating blood a primary objective of effective altruism.

It’s important to note that there are some times when blood donations are more marginally effective, such as during the winter or holidays, when some core donors are unable to donate due to illness.


While the effectiveness of donating blood is almost certainly lower than donating money to GiveWell’s top charities, it comes at so little cost to the donor that many should at least consider it.


Sources:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jqCCM3NvrtCYK3uaB/blood-donation-generally-not-that-effective-on-the-margin

https://www.givewell.org/how-we-work/criteria

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2782802/

Jakob Walter

Economic Empowerment: Providing Sustainable and Effective Help to Poor Countries

Most generally, effective altruism philosophy is using evidence and logical reasoning to determine the most efficient ways of helping others. Economic empowerment is a central component of that. For instance, the American charity-assessment organization GiveWell ranks GiveDirectly, which distributes cash to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda, among the best ways to improve the living condition of the poor in these countries. While this seems to be a good and immediate solution in the short-run, economic research suggests that significant effort should be directed to more long run solutions.

In their famous paper "The Colonial Origins Of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation", Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson (AJR) find (by means of an instrumental variables regression) that institutions are a decisive factor with respect to economic growth and thus economic empowerment. More specifically, they measure the effect of institutions on income differences by introducing an exogenous source of variation in institutions: settler mortality. AJR start by arguing that the history of colonization resulted in different institutions: extractive (in the sense of enabling the settlers to extract all resources without promoting growth or sustainable living) on the one and inclusive institutions on the other hand. The decision for that mainly depended upon the ability to settle. In countries with high settler mortality, e.g. due to diseases, colonizers did not wish to live in these places but simply take as many resources as possible and then leave (This was the fate of many African colonies). In contrast to that, countries with low settler mortality such as the Americas and Australia, the European settlers decided to build colonies with the best possible conditions for sustainable living leading to inclusive institutions in these areas. AJR argue that these institutions then persisted, and the effects can still be felt today. (The precise empirical strategy AJR use is omitted for the sake of simplicity).

From an EA perspective, one of the most interesting implications of this research is about the effectiveness of help in such countries: If countries are poor (in terms of GDP per capita), then this is largely a result of their bad institutional framework. To help economically empower the poor in these countries most effectively, resources should thus be directed towards working changes to move from bad to good institutions. But what makes a good and what a bad institution?

Broadly, good institutions shape human interaction and incentives in a way to align private and social returns. They roughly correspond to the following: (i) Functioning and largely competitive markets, (ii) Functioning fair and legal enforcement systems and an (iii) Government with checks and balances, i.e. sufficiently centralized state power but also accountability and broad participation. On the other hand, bad institutions largely fall into two broad categories: (1) Weak states (lack of centralized state power, e.g., Somalia) or (2) Extremely strong states with few checks and balances (e.g. North Korea). They are often associated with (i) dysfunctional or noncompetitive markets and (ii) dysfunctional or unfair courts. These institutions imply that people do not have the right incentives wither because markets are not competitive or because people have to worry about expropriation by others.

To sum up, current economic research suggests that the EA movement should increasingly focus on how to support and design institutional changes from bad extractive ones to good inclusive ones. The main reason for this is that good institution to align social and private returns leading to higher average incomes (higher GDP per capita), which, on average is associated with increases in living standards. Improving institutions can be a powerful tool in helping to raise the living standards in poor countries.

Swochchhanda Shrestha

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As I have learned about the ideas and methods of effective altruism over the course of the Arete Fellowship, I have become very interested in how these ideas can relate to systemic change. In particular, I think it is interesting to question Effective Altruism’s relationship with systemic change because systemic change is often hard to prove or provide definitive evidence of in the short term, such as through a Randomized Control Trial (RTC). It is much easier to prove that a non-profit organization is saving lives directly by providing the cure to a given widespread and dangerous disease than it is to prove a non-profit’s success in changing fundamental aspects of a society. In addition, many EA charities or movements rely on funds coming in from the developed world to help the developing world, and it could be argued that this can make those most in need very dependent on those in better positions.

However, as I have engaged with more readings and discussions regarding effective altruism, I have found that the movement as a whole is also directly concerned with systemic change and evolving to address it more directly. For example, many EA movements in developing countries have some goal of helping to spread Creative Capacity Building among people living in poverty. Furthermore, although EA is fundamentally concerned with evaluating the objective effectiveness of non-profit organizations, cultural considerations are also now considered and charities which partner with local organizations in order to effectively reach their beneficiaries are preferred. As a result, effective altruists all around the world work to implement not only proven and existing methods of saving and improving lives of those most in need, but also come up with new innovations that could possibly make the world a better and fairer place. These innovations can come in the developing world, by increasing the agency of poor individuals and giving them greater control of the quality of their lives, or it can come in the developed world, by making affluent people more aware of their privilege and the opportunity they have to make a significant positive impact in someone else’s life (often cited as an important motivator but not as often actually followed up on).

Ultimately, the idea that Effective Altruism does not address issues of systemic change at all is an outdated one. Instead, it is true that EA prefers for people with more expertise in cultures where systemic change innovations are attempting to be made, be the ones who work on such movements. In reality, this may lead to more effective systemic change in the long run, as well as allowing the contributions of less specialized altruists to go to less risk-averse causes.

Guang Cui

Our Future

Guang Cui.jpg

Hey. My name is Guang. I’m just a college kid, typing in my dorm room—pondering our world, trying to decide what to pursue in my future. Having just completed a fellowship on effective altruism, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the movement, its ideas, and its direction.

Effective altruism is great. Growing up, I wondered why things were the way they were, feared a huge asteroid hitting us or a black hole swallowing us up, and tried to figure out how to make our home a better place. These are things we all speculate about, at least once in a while, and effective altruism gives a great framework for valuing these risks, opportunities, and ways of helping out.

As someone who loves math and understands its power, I appreciate EA’s focus on building up axiomatically and using numbers: we want to maximize some utility that measures human happiness, and use Bayes’ theorem and expected value to calculate benefits. The philosophy experiments about the drowning child and the fat man were super interesting to think about, and I believe there is value in looking past our emotional and evolutionary instincts to think “rationally”. I found Sam Harris’ talk to be a convincing argument for using science to solve moral issues. And I think EA is able to see the risk in artificial intelligence that most people overlook from analyzing things scientifically and mathematically: our brains are only a result of evolution (a slow process), and everything is made of an atomic structure that we can understand, so it’s very possible for us to simulate that artificially and produce something much smarter than we are.

There’s great insight in analyzing things quantitatively—in just “shutting up and multiplying”. I would say that it’s a way of thinking that everybody should learn.

However, I also believe that it’s not the only way we should think. EA is a young and potentially powerful movement, but there are plenty of people critical of it. Some arguments against EA seem ridiculous, but I think there are some valid points.

To me, “thinking mathematically” or what we typically term “rationally” is just one way of thinking. It helps us understand things better as human beings, but it’s not quite enough. We also need things like social and human skills and the ability to think artistically or historically. All of these are lenses through which we can view the world, and the more we have in our toolkit, the clearer our vision becomes. “Shutting up and multiplying” won’t solve everything.

There has been a stigma around rational thinking and effective altruism in that it’s ineffective or ridiculous, and that’s something we need focus on changing. Our numbers and theories aren’t perfect: there’s no “equality” factor built into our utility functions, and the perfect saint as measured by our standards doesn’t actually make for a model to aspire to. The introduction of “non-moral goods” means our theory is somewhat incomplete.
To expand effective altruism, we need to bring together people of more diverse backgrounds. We need people who work in arts, sales, and law, in addition to people in math, science, and philosophy. The good news is that our foundational movements are sound—we all want to improve the world—and we have a great framework and promising theories.

But the idea of improving the world is something that every human being on the planet thinks about, and should be able to give valuable input. Effective altruism should be a movement that encompasses all of us. By having diverse conversations and accepting the viewpoints of everyone, we will have a better sense of what constitutes a better world, and we can all work together to improve our future.

Phoebe Woodruff

Trade-offs are a critical consideration for effective altruists. However, from what I have seen, EA literature generally focuses on trade-offs between methods (research vs. advocacy vs. earning to give etc) rather than trade-offs within a technique. In my experience, as an animal rights advocate and activist, I have experienced unexpected conflict between the different ways to approach advocacy itself. In particular, I feel torn between the seemingly more effective approach of “meeting people where they are” to have an impact on others’ immediate actions and firmly upholding my own values at the risk of alienating those I wish to convince. In the following, I will explain this conflict I feel further. In no way do I intend to present a prescriptive claim about how we should act. Rather, I want to simply encourage deeper considerations of the trade-offs involved in something as seemingly straightforward as advocacy.

First and foremost, I hold that, to some degree, no one can ever be fully convinced to change their world view. Perhaps an ideal, perfectly rational person would be receptive to all new perspectives and would always employ unbiased reasoning to judge them. However, this ideal person does not exist. We are all stubborn and stuck fixed in some understanding of the world. Given this, we are more easily convinced of something that confirms our preexisting understandings. This phenomena is commonly known as confirmation bias.

Secondly, to state the obvious, we are obligated to do the most good possible.

From these two claims, it follows that we must “meet people where they are” to achieve the most good and the most effective outreach. In this case, “doing the most good” means changing other’s immediate actions. To use my own case as an example, “doing the most good” might mean convincing people to give up meat on the spot.

The reasoning is frequently regurgitated advice for advocates in all domains and may seem obvious. I believe there is far more to consider, though. First of all, I believe “meeting people where they are” generally involves intentionally setting aside our own values in favor of those understandings and values of the person with whom we are engaging. In my own experience, this means emphasizing environmentalist or health-focussed arguments against animal agriculture rather than animal welfare. Is it right that we should sacrifice our own ideals and consistency with our values to affect the better actions of others? What does it mean for the movement of effective altruism as a whole if we do not build up from the foundational philosophy and give people the skills to apply it independently? If we “meet people where they are” (and therefore focus on influencing their values and their immediate impact on the world) rather than teach a philosophy, are we sacrificing the long run goals for short-term benefits? For instance, by emphasizing environmentalism over animal welfare, am I setting the people I engage with up for behavior that is not in line with the essential values I want to spread? Furthermore, what does this mean for the authenticity of EA or animal rights as movements? Are we acting inauthentically by using arguments other than our own to achieve our goals?

I do not have the answers to any of these questions presently. However, I think this is an interesting and potentially valuable topic to pursue further. A deeper examination of what we mean by effective advocacy and how flexible we are willing to be with our values has the potential to greatly impact how we approach others.

Kaitlyn Gee

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The Camp Fire of Northern California has been touted as one of the deadliest wildfires in California’s state history -- with over 40 confirmed casualties and only a quarter of the 170 square miles of fire contained. 

As a California native who attended undergrad in NorCal and grew up in East Bay, I am very concerned by this. Moreover, as an effective altruist, I’ve been thinking about how to maximize my ability to help relief and rescue efforts for the Camp Fire. 

Firstly, does the Camp Fire pass Effective Altriusm’s (EA’s) frameworks for vetting veritable causes? The key features of a worthy cause are: (1) scale of the issue, (2) tractability of finding and implementing a solution to the issue and (3) the “saturation” of the issue, or the relative degree to which there are too many or too few people working on the issue. The scale of the Camp Fire extends beyond simply those directly affected by the fires. My friends in the Bay Area have reported high air pollution, and the extent of the fire has sparked criticisms of forest management practices. Moreover, firefighters, first-responders and insurance companies are all impacted by the fire. I would argue that relief efforts are indeed tractable, and due to the urgency of the situation, there cannot be too many people working to help. Therefore, I would argue that it is a good cause.

Secondly, if we should be working on the Camp Fire, what should we be doing? One option is to donate to relief efforts, of course under the premise that the organizations selected have effective solutions and that the money donated will be mobilised to help those in impacted by the Camp Fire. In line with EA, we could also raise awareness and engage more people by posting on social media about the Camp Fire and suggesting judicious choices for relief efforts to contribute to. More fundamentally, the quintessential EA approach is to identify the course of action that leads to the most relief, which may not be obvious -- perhaps the way to help the most people in this case is to focus efforts more on containing the fire than rescuing those reported missing, for example.

Being an effective altruist, I have learned, involves drawing both from an emotional desire to do good as well as the rationality that numbers and reason may be the best guide for maximizing impact. With this thinking, there is not a single optimal approach for addressing the impact of the Camp Fire -- but the first step to putting EA to good use is to start engaging with these questions.

Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/12/us/california-wildfires-woolsey-camp-hill-missing/index.html

https://abc7news.com/maps-a-look-at-the-camp-fire-in-butte-county-and-other-california-fires/4656293/

Sierra Orr

The readings that seemed to resonate with me the most were from the second week of the fellowship, where we began to talk about where our morality seems to stem from. Morality is concept that we continued to talk about throughout our sessions, but these readings are what really made me stop and think about why I was coming to the answers that I had and why my moral compass pointed a certain way. Accompanying the readings on morality was the article on “The Biology of Suffering”. I really appreciated this text because put perspectives on things around us that we take for granted or ignore because we are so focused on what is happening within our own lives.

Josh Greene’s idea of “point and shoot morality” helps to break down when it is appropriate to judge things solely in the realm of whether it is morally “good” or “bad”. At times, it is important to just trust our intuition and go with our gut instead of waiting to process where we are going to place the situation to fit onto our scale of morality. Before learning about this concept, I thought about situations in a way where if I wasn’t an active participant, then technically if something “bad” happens, the blame could not be placed on me. But upon further reflection, I realized that even choosing to not become an active participant, is still making a choice and denying the situation the help that you could have given. I think that understanding this is really important because it ties into how people view giving donations of any kind to charities around the world. They may think that they won’t be able to help with what they give, so why give anything at all? With that mindset, nothing would get done.

In “The Biology of Suffering”, they talk about the several ways that the concept of suffering can be broken down. There is the biological aspect as well as the experience of suffering, which many people believe to be the line between how suffering that occurs within organisms can be categorized. There is a distinction between the biological side and the conscious understanding of suffering, and while the lack of one does not detract from the other, I think that prioritizing the acknowledgment of the conscious understanding of suffering is important. The ability to empathize with those that are suffering is what allows us to want to reach out and help them and work to lessen their suffering.

Imane Bouzit

Philanthropy vs. Time

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Effective altruism is the use of evidence and reasoning to maximize the impacts of philanthropy. Leaders of this movement like Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, believe that donating resources is imperative given the high levels of suffering--whether due to illness, oppression, or poverty--worldwide. While this ideal may seem obvious enough, numerous questions come to mind regarding the actual act of philanthropy: How much should be donated? To whom should resources be allocated, and according to what distribution guidelines? And when should donations be made? In this post, I will attempt to elaborate on the last question, although ultimately, this question will continue to inspire debate among effective altruists.

In a 2013 Effective Altruism Forum, writer Julia Wise provides a summary of arguments for either taking time before donating or donating immediately. With regard to waiting before donating, she explains that because effective altruism promotes quantitative analysis of service organizations, it takes time to determine the best intervention strategies. In this case, it makes more sense to give a particular organization time to improve its operations before supporting it financially. Likewise, investing in research might be a good way to expedite understanding of ideal interventions. Another argument Wise introduces is the possibility of investing now--whether in one’s education or career-- to have more wealth to donate later. I find this viewpoint to be attractive to the average effective altruist, as it encourages foresight in one’s career or business. Overall, the considerations of waiting for conclusive research about the best interventions or wealth accumulation are what I would categorize as the position of the first faction of effective altruists-- individuals who view extended time as being conducive to greater effectiveness.

The second main group of effective altruists are individuals who would argue for immediate intervention. Wise mentions that with time, some individuals may lose interest in donating as they age, investments may fail, and global problems which may have been mitigated sooner cause extended suffering. I naturally gravitate toward this second class of effective altruists because of the urgency of some causes-- the ongoing famine in Yemen or oppression of Uyghur Muslims being just two of numerous examples. Though I am a student with little to donate, I am willing to provide support. However, I am in favor of conducting research to find the most effective organizations for a certain cause as well as which organization would provide the most support per donation amount. Thus, although the debate of when to give may seem polarized to either immediate or culminating intervention, I posit that there is a third class of effective altruists: individuals who give within their capabilities while waiting for more effective intervention guidelines. While this approach has its flaws, it certainly addresses the need for urgency that underlies many global issues.

Julia Kim

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Effective altruism is intended to be a method in which people use their resources in the wisest manner to accomplish the most good in the world. However, there are counterarguments that question the morality, potential inequalities, and effectiveness of effective altruism. Regarding morality, some consider it unjust to donate and give more to one cause than another. According to a version of effective altruism, both situations should be carefully studied, and advice can be given in order to demonstrate how to benefit each situation. Thus, there would not be any injustice. In another version of effective altruism, all possible consequences should be studied, and advice would be given in order to maximize potential benefits. In this scenario, effective altruists use a scientific approach to benefit others, but since it is based on consequences, it is subject to change. No special consideration is given to any one case. Also, one can use their resources in any manner, however, effective altruists try to maximize benefits out of limited resources. Regarding equality, effective altruists understand that their allocation of resources can create resentment, domination, and erosion of public goods, however, inequality can create new opportunities to do more good. Helping those with less resources can have a hundred times the benefit of helping those with more resources. Although equality is a good concept, and hopefully one day we may all be equals in all opportunities, some people need more resources than others. Thus, equity could be a better option to assist others and balance the tables. Effectiveness considers the amount of resources that organizations already have. If an organization already has a large sum of money from donors, then giving more to that organization may not benefit as many people and causes. Giving more to organizations with too much could make funds available for other purposes. In order to avoid this situation, funds could be shifted to other organizations. One can also argue that effective altruism is merely speculative and considers possibilities in the future. Thus, effective altruism may not be very effective. However, if we consider every effort that the world makes to help various causes, could the same not be said about these efforts? In that case, how would anyone know how to help, and if that is the case, then who would help those that need assistance? While effective altruism may not be perfect, nothing is, and considering the possibilities of what could maximize benefits is better than offering money to causes that do not help as much or doing nothing.

Maisha Prome

Effective Altruism: The money is there, but where it’s spent just needs to be optimized.

The core principle of Effective Altruism is to make the most good out of given resources. This means ensuring the money that’s given to charity is being used to its best potential and that the most value can be achieved from every dollar. For example, to promote school enrollment, it is much more effective to spend funds on educating parents regarding the importance of education than it is to pay for clean uniforms or providing food incentives to children. When I was introduced to this idea at the start of the Arete Fellowship, it reminded me of a something I’d read in my Bangladesh Studies textbook back in high school.

The chapter in the textbook had been about GDP growth in Bangladesh over the past few decades and had said said something like this: most expatriates who live and work abroad send their incomes to their families in Bangladesh, and this accounts for a large source of Bangladesh’s foreign currencies. However, this money is rarely used to its full potential. The families would almost always spend it all on food, rent, and other living costs. If these families used a part of that money to invest in small businesses, there would be a return on that overseas currency that would help boost the Bangladeshi economy.

This optimization is analogous to EA’s aim to maximize impact from donations to charities.  Just as slightly more mindful use of money from abroad could boost the Bangladeshi economy, mindful use of charity funds could not only help a lot of people, but also make donors feel happy that their donations are making the highest possible impact.

I also came to realize there are many other cases in which application of EA principles could potentially revolutionize things. Another area, again in the context of my home country Bangladesh, is the practice of zakat. This is the obligation for Muslims who have a certain amount of wealth to donate 2.5% of their annual income to those in need. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country and most people, including my own family, donate this money to poorer relatives in the village, especially the sick or elderly who cannot provide for themselves.

While this helps the millions of recipients every year, I wondered if these funds, like those from the expatriates to their families, could not be used more efficiently. Instead of directly giving the money to these people to spend, why not try other things, like help recipients set up small businesses or invest in elderly care homes? The different approaches should be researched, and the most impactful ones should be implemented. That way, the donations would do the most good. The recipients would gain even more from the money they receive. And Bangladesh is just one of many Muslim majority countries in the world. Just adjusting the practice of zakat to be more in line with the principles of Effective Altruism would mean billions of dollars better used for those who give and those who receive.

Adeline Hillier

The optimist in me would like to believe that Darwin was not fully correct when he proposed that our biological altruistic inclinations are reserved for the people who share our genes.  I’d also like to think that humans are not innately selfish, that there must be some way to account for the decision to act in the service of others outside our gene pool beyond the calculated benefits it brings to us.  One of the lesser-known facts about Darwin is his theory that humans wield an evolved tendency toward sympathy that supersedes the instinct for self-preservation, and that our resulting propensity for caretaking behavior and cooperation underlies the success of our species.  The “survival of the kindest” theory espouses that natural selection favors the occurrence of compassion rather than punishing it. 1

Most of us have heard that providing social support to others stimulates the primal reward center of the brain, releasing neurochemicals like oxytocin involved with the characteristic “warm glow” feeling of giving.  But there is further physiological evidence that humans may tend towards altruism by nature--for example, the vagus nerve may be adapted to promote altruism, and mirror neurons found uniquely in primates provide a possible neurological basis for the ability to empathize.2  But even if any sympathy we feel is not in fact instinctual, there still appears to be truth to the idea that social ties play an important role in prosocial behavior.  A 2005 study found that while non-Jews who had helped rescue people from the Nazis (as compared to others who did nothing) were less risk-averse, the strongest correlation was with those who reported having regular interactions with friends and family.3   A recent study suggests that altruistic behavior in children is not automatic, but grounded in a pre-established relationship with the person whom they choose to help. 4

I have introduced just some of many attempts to resolve the mystery of why people act altruistically at all--self-sacrificial behavior would seem at odds with our personal welfare.  There are likely many factors that play in. Psychoanalytic critics might support the theory that giving is merely a tool to reduce the burden on ourselves of our negative feelings about the situation, or of a possible guilt of not acting.  Some people might choose to act altruistically purely in the hope that the favor will be returned, or that it will appease a higher power and produce favorable future consequences for themselves, like getting into heaven or having a peaceful afterlife.  Or perhaps, sometimes, we can only be swayed by social pressures such as a desire to elevate others’ perceptions of us, a norm of reciprocity, or other desires or expectations that have taken root within a developed society that can make decisions that aren’t related to survival.  All of these things seem to count against the possibility that any intention is purely altruistic. One theory that I find particularly intriguing relates to an experiment in which students who had just spent time looking at a large tree or building were found to be significantly more likely than a control group to help retrieve pens that the experimenter ‘accidentally’ dropped on the ground (5).  A plausible explanation for this is that the self-loss that we experience in an awe-inspiring, or transcendent, moment reorients our thoughts in favor of prosocial behavior.  We see this effect in astronauts after they have witnessed the Earth from space--they return with a diminished sense of self and a newfound impulse to help others (the cognitive shift in awareness that occurs here is called the “Overview Effect”).  Whether some have a dispositional tendency toward such a state of mind, or if it has to be induced, perhaps we find reason to act altruistically by way of this kind of a third-party perspective in which we are removed from our own trivial interests and thus better able to think rationally.

If we are interested in mobilizing individuals for positive social change, perhaps it’s not enough to appeal to logic or unstated higher standards such as moral law.  Knowledge of an optimal way to act should be accompanied by a will to act. In the words of Matt Langdon, “the opposite of a hero isn’t a villain--it’s a bystander.”

1 Disalvo, D. (2009). Forget Survival of the Fittest: It is Kindness that Counts. Scientific American, 20(5), 18-19.

2 Keltner, D. (2012). The Compassionate Species. UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

3 Midlarsky E, Fagin Jones S, Corley RP. (2005). Personality correlates of heroic rescue during the holocaust. J. Pers., 73(4), 907-934.

4 Carey, B.. (2014). Stanford psychologists show that altruism is not simply innate. Stanford News.

5 Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-889.

Annie Gomez

Artificial Intelligence

In today’s high tech industrialization, the focus remains to create and produce the next

best iphone or roomba. Now more than ever, the time spent generating an invention and

assessing its impact can be short. Within less than two decades since 2000 the humanity’s

progress equals that of the entire 20th century. Development is constantly created back in the

worklabs as great leaps towards the smartest technology are made, that is artificial intelligence.

According to Don Brandeis, it is estimated that by 2020 a $1000 computer will have the same

processing power as the human brain. Later, by 2030 a personal laptop will be equal to a

thousand human brains. Technology is becoming more sophisticated by day, enabled to

filter,sort, and make decisions at a global scale. Warfare, policing ,and healthcare are becoming

increasingly automated causing much of society to rely on artificial intelligence. Our reliance on

technology today is a great reason to look into the moral grounds of AI. Unfortunately, to

humanity’s disadvantage AI lacks emotions, in other terms it has no moral compass . AI can

become a threat for global security in the near future. For this reason ethical issues on AI like

unemployment and security have surfaced.

The underlying ethical issues in Artificial Intelligence are centered on how

self-determining machines are bound to alter the way people work and live. Certainly, deciding

what jobs humans should assume as automated jobs take over is an issue. Perhaps, what follows

is cognitive labour or some other non-laborious activities that will benefit society in different

ways. Thanks to technology the quality of human life is much better than it was just ten years

ago,but what about in the future? With fewer humans needed in the workforce how will humans

provide for themselves? The future seems to hold a widening wealth-gap seems with most

AI-companies and their founders retaining most of the wealth.

Another worrying ethical issue is establishing AI security from future disasters. evil

turning robots might just belong in Hollywood movies for now, but not unimaginable.

Supercomputers have to capability to do incredible things like building skyscraper as well as

eradicating entire countries. In the end, clear and bounded instructions are are what will prevent

computer from turning malicious appliances. On that same note, the idea on whether AI will one

day dominate over humans is serious matter. After all, autonomous machines do not have

switches. In my opinion the best way to avoid this from happening is to implement certain

human dependency in all machines like driverless aircraft.

To what extent AI will affect humans is still uncertain however, the time to act is now

to protect humanity from unintended consequences.

Shulammite Lim

Biosecurity: not just a cold

On its list of most urgent global issues, 80,000 hours includes biosecurity, pointing to the millions—even billions—of people that could potentially be affected by natural pandemics and new, scientifically engineered pathogens. Biorisk reduction reaches a whopping 15 out of 16 in the scale category, as outbreaks of pathogens can cause global catastrophe. Thankfully, this cause has gained some traction, as it ranks a 4 out of 12 on the neglectedness scale based on the over $1 billion spent by the US government for biosecurity purposes. Solvability has been assessed at a 4 out of 8, as there exist some possible ways to make progress toward biorisk reduction, with some support from experts.

Biosecurity includes many disease-related risks, including natural pandemics, bioterrorism, and accidental deployment of biological agents in research. These can be differentiated from global health issues in that they have relatively low-probability risks and potentially global impact, instead of continuing health issues that may be smaller in scope. The Open Philanthropy Project estimates that natural pandemics are likely the largest current threat, but novel biotechnology could contribute to heightened risk in future years.

The worst flu pandemic in the 20th century was the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which is believed to have caused 50-100 million deaths, or 3-5% of the world’s population then. If a similar pandemic were to break out today, that same percentage of the population would equal 288,000,000 people. This could be explained with the pathogen being more likely spread quickly courtesy of international travel, though modern medical advances may also reduce their potential impact.

Bioterrorism looms as a fear-inducing prospect and could take many forms. Some possibilities include a noncontagious biological agent like anthrax (e.g. Amerithrax, aka 2001 anthrax attacks), a noncontagious natural pathogen that has been “eradicated” and is no longer vaccinated against (e.g. smallpox, with the exception of its presence in research labs in Atlanta, Georgia, and Russia), and a contagious engineered pathogen, which may be created in dual use research.

“Dual use” research refers to research that could be used for both positive and negative effects. For example, there has been much controversy brewing over research intended to alter the H5N1 flu virus to make it transmissible between ferrets, which are used as a model for humans. With this type of research, two fearful possibilities lurk: scientists working on this project may accidentally release a harmful agent, or they may create a pathogen that allows the ill-intentioned to do their will with greater ease.

Biosecurity has mobilized multiple entities to surveil emerging threats and step up on research on novel therapeutics. It is a focus area of the Open Philanthropy Project, who has noted that though the U.S. has directed much funding to various aspects of biosecurity since 2012, philanthropic involvement in this field is still rather limited. To take action, new philanthropists can make the most impact in research and advocacy. Possible avenues of action include reaching out to policymakers to improve biosecurity initiatives, supporting research in the field, promoting stronger oversight of dual use research, and growing stockpiles of crucial medical countermeasures.

Swapnil Garg

Existential Risk: Good or Bad?

In Effective Altruism, a central question is that of what the biggest priority should be. Nick Bostrom is a well-known advocate for decreasing existential risk. In his paper “Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development,” he notes a possible 10^23 possible human lives living at once in the Virgo supercluster. Thus, decreasing the probability of existential risk, or increasing the probability of eventual colonization of the universe, by even a very small amount could massively increase total utility. However, Phil Torres argues that space colonization will cause suffering on an astronomical scale, and therefore contends that it is most desirable to delay space colonization or prevent it from happening (https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/zwpYGNQXvdD64FE3z/could-the-maxipok- rule-have-catastrophic-consequences-i). It seems that either decreasing or increasing existential risk will cause the most good/decrease the most suffering for humans, so one of them should be the cause area with the highest priority. But which one? I argue that the highest priority should be given to determining whether decreasing or increasing existential risk is better.

I believe that astronomical suffering is much worse than astronomical colonization can be good. For one thing, extreme pain can be inflicted on the human body, while I don’t think the same thing can be said about extreme pleasure. In addition, Bostrom notes that some utilitarians may adopt a person-affecting view, where they primarily try to maximize the utility of past and ongoing human lives, and a loss of potential future lives is not bad. However, while they might not care about an astronomical number of future human lives, surely these utilitarians would be against those lives being in almost constant suffering. So, even if there is a very small probability of Phil Torres’s prediction of astronomical suffering, the expected amount of suffering is still very large, while the benefits from space colonization might not be as big. Therefore, more research on “suffering risk” should be the highest priority cause area.

Phil Torres also notes that there have been many individuals throughout history with the intention to cause as much suffering as possible. It seems almost certain that many more of these individuals will exist in the future if humanity doesn’t undergo extinction. With enough intelligence, drive, and access to large-scale weapons, they could conceivably cause astronomical suffering. If the proportion of such humans remains constant, then in the future, there would be large numbers of people with the intention to cause massive suffering, and if even one obtained access to the most advanced weapons, catastrophic suffering would result. So, more research into methods of decreasing such tendencies in people is also of the utmost priority.

Vanessa YiRan Li

As a college freshman, the Arete fellowship has allowed me to explore careers that can

positively and effectively make a difference. I have not previously been exposed to many career

paths in the past. Hence, my perception of what I can do was very limited. In fact, my

perception was tainted by the stereotypes associated with careers. Writers will remain poor.

Artist will not be recognized. Mathematicians are insane. Engineers are nerds. I was entangled

by the myths about careers that I was merely searching for something I will be good at.

Throughout the fellowship, I have come to see my career trajectory not only as a choice I am

passionate about but as an opportunity to make a difference in the world

Careers can contribute to the world around us in many ways. How do we asses the impacts of

a career? The most apparent mode of change is through direct impact. Organizations that

allow individuals to directly work with need are highly effective. These careers allow individuals

to gain public platforms as well as to influence budgets. For many college graduates, building a

career capital is also impactful. While building a career capital can entail many career paths, it

provides the opportunity to network and gain skills that can be applied and utilized later. An

impactful career is thus one that combines the two or contributes to one of the areas.

As a prospective STEM major, I would like to explore high impact careers in science. Research

is a highly impactful as it creates a ripple effect. A small advancement in a field could save

millions of life in the future. It is a play with the concept of time. As described in the Effective

Altruism Forum, advancing research by even 40 seconds would save a life. Hence, the value of

scientific research is immense. Research is in fact ranked as one of the most impactful careers.

Almost half of all published research is completed by a small group of individual. Hence,

passion and perseverance is key to making any career impactful.

While effective altruism appears to be logic, it is truly a mean to express compassion for the

world around us. By crunching numbers and debasing, I have begun to question how can I

make use of my passion and set of knowledge to be impactful. I sincerely hope to continue my

understanding of effective altruism as well as to be a part of this community throughout my

years if college and beyond.

Naomi Michael

Effective Altruism Blog Post: Criticisms of EA

For the past eight weeks, we have examined the motivations, doctrine, and application of the growing Effective Altruism movement. But, to more effectively tackle the world’s biggest problems, as EA hopes to do, we must also look at where we could fall short of this goal. Most criticisms of EA emphasize the faults in the “thick” rather than “thin” version of EA. The “thin” version is that people should do the most good they can. To disagree with this fundamental principle would be to reject EA altogether. But, critics more often take aim at the “thick” version of EA that consists of a wide range of assumptions and ideas associated with EA. Broadly, these ideas are welfarism, consequentialism, and scientific evidence. Speaking to welfarism, critics of EA often point to the fact that EA doesn’t give enough weight to equality or rights when deciding which causes to dedicate resources to. EA looks instead to maximize rather than distribute overall good. In regards to the other associated ideas, critiques typically center around the fact that EA can’t focus on systemic causes and structural inequalities when analyzing RTC or cost effectiveness experiments.   

The main takeaway from these critiques is that effective altruism may not by nature focus on the systemic causes of problems and may rather seek to mitigate immediate causes of harm and death. By focusing on these problems, however, EA is able to mobilize resources from the wealthiest parts of the world and allocate them to those in most desperate need. As the movement grows, space may emerge to broaden the scope of EA’s efforts and metrics to encompass sociopolitical factors as well as the currently used metrics of QALYS and RCTs. But, as of now, the goal of EA is to do charity in the most effective manner under the methodical assumptions that it is best to save the most lives possible, seek tractability, help where there is the greatest potential for increased funds, and do so impartially. Perhaps charitable efforts that can’t be measured with RCTs and hard data will be undervalued by the movement, but that doesn’t undercut EA’s ability to mobilize those with the time, talent, or financial resources to do immense amounts of good, particularly in regards to extreme poverty, existential risk, and global health. And at the end of the day, if your goal is to do the most good you are capable of, regardless of which career path you undertake, the framework of EA supports such an endeavor.

Hannah Whellan

One topic that really interested me when learning more about Effective Altruism was the idea that our biases can get in the way of doing the most good. What pointed this out to me in the clearest way was the train problem. This problem asks you a series of questions about if you would rather pull a lever to cause a train to kill one person, or let the train run over five people, and other variations of this question. The point of asking these uncomfortable questions is to get you to start thinking about helping people that you don’t have a connection to or even see in your daily life.


Do you have an obligation to help those who live halfway across the world? Why should you donate to a charity that has no effect on your community? Can you trust your gut instincts? These are all questions that came into my head after participating in this train problem set. I wanted to understand more about why I should be so keen to stop looking around my own community for charities to donate to and start looking around the whole world for where my donation will go the farthest.


This separation of emotion and reason was extremely difficult for me to initially grasp. For the example of animal suffering: why should I care about factory farming when there are people who do not have access to clean water, or are homeless in my own neighborhood. This dilemma was so hard for me to understand until I started thinking about it in Effective Altruism terms. The EA community is trying to turn people toward doing the most with their donation whether that be their time or money. For factory farming, it is an extremely neglected issue where funding is severely limited and the number of volunteers working toward a solution is considered understaffed compared to the scale of the issue.


By focusing more resources on this issue, a greater impact can be made than donating to issues that already have an incredible amount of funding or issues where your dollar will not go the same length. Other examples of helping extremely cost effective organizations are projects focusing on undeveloped countries where your dollar is more meaningful. Organizations that distribute malaria nets, help deworm children, and provide medicine to children in Africa are all charities where your funding can do more good if you gave the homeless person on the street a dollar. While this may be uncomfortable to think about at first, because you see the homeless person suffering and you don’t see children across the world suffering, with EA principles, it is about helping the world as a whole become a better place and helping the most amount of people in order to make a difference.



Emma Plante

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.



Audrey Saltzman

There has been another massive oil spill in the gulf and you are distressed by the

images of birds’ wings slick with oil, choked and unable to fly. On a scale of 1-100, how

bad would you say five birds dying would be? What about five hundred?

Weighing each bird’s life equally would suggest if your answer to the first

question was 1/100, the answer to the second should be 100/100. Yet, if you are like

most people you do not view two orders of magnitude more birds dying as two orders of

magnitude worse. In fact, the number of human deaths in a tragedy must change by a

constant fraction of the total number of lives lost in order for us to notice 1 .

As MIT students, we take pride in quantizing things for efficiency. Our buildings,

majors, and classes are all numericized. Therefore, it should not surprise us that if we

want to do the most good in the world for our limited quantity of resources, we should

take a scientific approach to this problem as well.

We must recognize that we all have biases that can affect our ability to judge

causes. It is only too easy for causes near to the heart of the relatively wealthy to

receive funding while other, more effective, causes languish. If we want to maximize our

impact, a good cause to donate resources to must have three factors. It is: (1) large, (2)

neglected, and (3) tractable 2 . A small cause can be completely solved without doing as

much good as solving a small fraction of a very large cause. If a cause is crowded, the

resources you contribute present a much smaller fraction of the total allocation and

often cannot be used as effectively. Finally, if we are confident a cause is currently

impossible to solve, we should not waste resources in the attempt when they could be

used elsewhere.

Once a cause is selected, the next step is to figure out how to address it. While

charities have different ideas on interventions, some can be vastly more effective than

others. Randomized control trials (RCTs) can be used to evaluate the good, or lack

thereof, done by taking a certain action. For $40,000, one guide dog can be trained or

2,000 surgeries to cure blindness can be performed 3 . While both charities seem

worthwhile, one can do three orders of magnitude more good. Such extreme differences

can be found for other cause areas, including education and global health.

Since putting some thought into your giving can change the effect your donated

resources have by multiple orders of magnitude, next time you are trying to make a

difference, be sure to ask yourself:

1. Am I correctly evaluating the harm done the “badness” of this problem?

2. Is this a good problem for me to work on?

3. Which potential solution will be most effective?

A scientific approach to giving can make all of the difference.

1 https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ddgchPxD96RSMS4z8/scope-insensitivity

2 https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/prospecting-for-gold-owen-cotton-barratt/

3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGAkrpwyu1k

Cathy Yang

If you were told that you could live your life in a near-perfect manner, would you believe it?


The logical answer is no. As Susan Wolf points out, living life as a “moral saint” is not the good kind of life to live. A “better” person doesn’t mean being “morally better” since for every good action, another more “morally good” initiative can be taken. This does not mean that humans should stop caring about their values. It is simply important to distinguish a boundary between being morally perfect and being human. After all, mankind is innately selfish. This selfishness is part of human nature but can be put into doing greater good. By channeling these innate behavioral patterns into methods of fostering productive relationships, the human species advances. While this appears obvious, parochialism and egocentrism flood society, contaminating values. Disagreements arise over the basis of moral foundation. What is right vs. wrong divides groups, resulting in a broken, inefficient world. Yet, pareto efficiency suggests that the correct allocation of resources, time, and effort, results in an incredibly efficient population with upper limits impossible to define. If society advanced as one, humanity will only get stronger till it reaches a point of the unachievable.


So how can we achieve that point? In order to cooperate, a basis moral foundation must be set. There are two main routes: a religious, metaphysical route or a logic-based, scientific route. Many religions offer a unified way of thinking among all believers. However, the logic-based scientific route offers no definitive, correct answer. Sam Harris attempts to connect philosophy and science, stating that moral values are merely facts about the wellbeing of the conscious mind. The question then arises as to how much you trust your consciousness. The human mind is powerful yet deceptive. Josh Greene elegantly explains the manual vs. automatic mode of the brain. The manual mode is our logical, more intellectual viewpoint, whereas the automatic mode is our emotional reactions, separating us from machines and other animals. Yet, in many cases, our brain leads us to automatic mode, where when dealing with complex problems, we tend to preach statements based on how we feel rather than the logic behind it. The power of emotion over many of our choices is something that makes us human, but also vulnerable to error. For example, a conundrum known as “valuation by prototype” points out that when presented with something tragic, we often treat the problem with the same weight even though the quantity of the stimulus increases. Logic tells us one thing, yet emotion tells us another. Which one do we follow?

Uniting humanity under a common cause has been a goal not only for effective altruists, but for numerous social justice movements throughout history. As technology advances and we grow closer to answering impossible questions, it is important to have a moral foundation to fall back upon as we advance into an unknown. As values are put to the test through the choices we need to make, the question becomes harder: how will you define your values?