Friday, August 7, 2015

Thoughts on Effective Altruism

I've posted many links regarding the emergent moral movement known as 'effective altruism', but I have not addresses the concept directly. It is powerful. And seductive. Here are my disjointed thoughts:
  • Effective altruism is essentially a moral philosophy that urges each individual to maximize their positive impact on the world's conscious creatures. This is an interesting shift from most practical moral systems, which emphasize adherence above minimal rules or thresholds. Effective altruism is extremely concerned with the unique statistical impact of individual persons and the effectiveness of philanthropy and aid. 

  • One of most visible and awesome effects of this movement has been to bring rigorous analysis to various charities, aid organizations and philanthropists.

  • A key theme in effective altruism concerns the comparison of a default aid strategy (writing a check to either a proven effective aid organization or to poor people directly) to alternatives. Unsurprisingly, many aid organizations that peddle feel-good schticks (read: Tom's) have found themselves suboptimal.

  • An interesting result of effective altruism is a focus on the product of career strategy and donation behavior. Effective Altruism coined the phrase 'earning to give', and it essentially describes folks who work in careers that maximize their income (often Wall St. finance and data jobs) in order to donate a large dollar value to effective charities. This strategy is in striking contrast to bleeding-hearts who might decide to work in a direct-service job like a nonprofit. The concept of earning to give represents a significant sacrifice: choose what job maximizes your earnings (thus enabling the highest donations) instead of a job that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

  • Another result of effective altruist thinking concerns organ donation. By donating a kidney, you save or greatly improve the life of a recipient, in exchange for a very small chance of incurring medical risk.

  • Similarly, existential risk is elevated in priority compared to most other moral systems.

  • There are two books that recently came out on the topic, both highly recommended. The first is The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer. Singer has long been a booster of the effective altruist-style reasoning about morality (a clear-eyed flavour of utilitarianism), and this book lists many interesting examples of people inspired by Singer's previous work on morality and animal rights. The second book is Doing Good Better by William MacAskill, the founder of 80,000 Hours, and is an excellent science-based deep dive into how best to use your time, from a moral perspective.

  • One of the best resources for effective altruism news is Vox journalist Dylan Matthews. He covers most major developments, and provides a steady drum beat on the topic of scientifically-grounded moral philosophy.

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