Effective altruism is widely misunderstood, even among its supporters.
A recent paper – The Definition of Effective Altruism by Will MacAskill– lists some of the most common misconceptions. It’s aimed at academic philosophers, but works as a general summary.
In short, effective altruism is commonly viewed as being about the moral obligation to donate as much money as possible to evidence-backed global poverty charities, or other measurable ways of making a short-term impact.
In fact, effective altruism is not about any specific way of doing good.
Rather, the core idea is that some ways of contributing to the common good are far more effective than typical. In other words, ‘best’ is far better than ‘pretty good’, and that seeking out the best will let you have far more impact. (If I were writing a business book, I would say it’s the ’80/20 principle’ applied to doing good.)
Insofar as people interested in effective altruism do in practice focus on specific ways of doing good, donating to global health charities is just one. As explained below, a majority focus on different issues, such as seeking to help future generations by reducing global catastrophic risks, or reducing animal suffering by ending factory farming.
Moreover, they often do this by working on high-risk high-return projects rather than evidence-backed ones, and through research, policy-change and entrepreneurship rather than donations.
What unites people interested in effective altruism is they pose the question – how can I best contribute with what I’m willing to give? – rather than how they answer that question.
- Misconception #1: Effective altruism is just about fighting poverty
- Misconception #2: Effective altruism is entirely about donations or earning to give
- Misconception #3: Effective altruism ignores systemic change
- Misconception #4: Effective altruism is just utilitarianism
If you’d like to see more academic research about effective altruism, see publications by the Global Priorities Institute.