Effective altruism

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The Effective altruism (abbreviated EA ) is a philosophy and social movement of the early 2010s, which seeks the limited resources the best use of time and money to make life to comprehensively improve as many sentient beings as possible. Empirical knowledge and rational arguments serve as means for this .

Effective altruists strive to consider all known causes and actions in order to act in such a way that their actions have the greatest positive impact. This evidence-based approach distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or classical charity . Proponents of effective altruism include Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz , philosophers William MacAskill , Toby Ord , Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge, and poker player Liv Boeree .


Cost use Bill

Many Effective Altruists come from philosophy, economics , mathematics, or from areas that prefer rational and quantitative thinking. When the concept of cost-benefit analysis is applied to charitable causes, the cost-effectiveness ( cost-effectiveness analysis ) refers to the amount of good that is achieved per euro. For example, the economics of health interventions can be measured in quality-corrected years of life (i.e., additional years of life in full health).

Effective giving is an important part of effective altruism because some charities are far more effective than others. In addition, some aid organizations simply miss their goals. Among the organizations that achieve their goals, some achieve far better results with less money than others. Researchers from the organization GiveWell have calculated that some charities hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than others.

Effective altruists also consider the capacity of aid organizations to use additional financial resources effectively ( room for more funding ). Following this idea, aid organizations should not primarily be selected based on what they have already achieved, but what they can achieve in the future with a donation.

Prioritization of problems

Effective altruists consider the prioritization of problems (e.g. poverty, illness, inequality, lack of education) to be crucial in order to subsequently bring about the greatest possible improvement in solving the most important problems.

The focus is on the efficiency and evidence review of aid measures. Although this is partly already in practice in the area of non-profit organizations , such a review usually only takes place within certain subject areas, for example in the area of ​​education or climate change . The critical analysis and comparison of different subject areas should avoid wasting scarce resources. Effective altruists therefore do not place a specific problem (e.g. animal welfare or human rights) at the beginning of their helpful considerations. Instead, they first select the problem themselves based on efficiency considerations. The most common criteria for this are the size, the solvability and the degree of neglect of a problem.

Several organizations from the effective altruism movement are researching problem prioritization. Many Effective Altruists think that the most important problems are poverty in developing countries , the suffering of animals in factory farming, and existential risks for the long-term future of humanity.


Effective altruists reject the view that the lives of some are more precious than others. For example, they believe that a person in a so-called developing country has the same worth as a person from an industrialized nation. Peter Singer writes, for example:

It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten meters from me or a Bengali, whose name I will never know, who lives 10,000 miles away. […] The moral view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. So far […], this could hardly have been possible, but it is quite possible now. From a moral point of view, preventing the starvation of millions of people outside of our society must be seen at least as urgently as maintaining property and norms in our society.

In addition, many Effective Altruists believe that future generations will have the same moral worth as people living now. Therefore, they focus on reducing existential risks to humanity. Others believe that the interests of animals have the same moral weight as comparable interests of humans, and therefore focus on reducing the suffering of animals, e.g. B. in factory farming to prevent.

Thomas Pogge argues against this view, saying: "What matters morally is not just how we influence people, but how we act through the rules we make." Thomas Nagel argues similarly, referring to Derek Parfit's terminology of " Agent-neutral ”and“ Agent-relative ”reasons.

Counterfactual reasoning

Effective altruists use counterfactual arguments to determine which actions will maximize the positive effects. Many people assume that the best way to help people is through direct methods, such as working for a charity or social service. Because charities and social service providers tend to have many members or supporters willing to work for them, Effective Altruists compare the amount of good one could do in a conventional altruistic career (e.g. as a doctor) to the situation when in which the same job would be filled with the next best candidate. This reasoning builds on professional substitutability and suggests that the impact of choosing a conventional altruistic career is smaller than it initially appears. For example, a career in medicine is often intuitively and ethically valued because it directly saves many human lives. In practice, however, the decision to become a doctor only saves as many lives as the difference between your own performance and that of the next best candidate.

Effective for altruists with personal fit ( personal fit ) the strategy of professional donating (to be earning to give ) proposed. It consists in pursuing a high-paying career with the goal of donating as much of the money earned as possible to charity. Some Effective Altruists argue, based on substitutability, that the marginal impact of potentially unethical behavior in such a lucrative career (e.g., unethical behavior as an investment banker) is small. If the career didn't take off, someone else would take the job and cause the same damage. The positive effects of donations, on the other hand, are counterfactual, as the other person probably would not have donated large amounts effectively.

However, some dispute this principle. Bernard Williams, for example, cites a similar example of a job in a chemical weapons factory to argue against utilitarianism . According to Williams, utilitarianism requires people to act in ways that violate their own integrity.

The views on excessive (supererogatory) actions

Several influential philosophers of effective altruism, including Peter Singer and Peter Unger , oppose the view that donating to charity is undue . An undue act is one that is good but not morally imperative. Effective altruists do not generally deny the existence of excessive benefits. However, they consider donations to charities that are very effective in helping the poorest people in the world to be a moral imperative. Singer and Unger both use different thought experiments to illustrate this point. The basic structure of the thought experiment is that a person is found in fatal danger who could be helped with little effort. Without help, the person would die. Most people say it is morally wrong not to help. Singer and Unger conclude that it is morally wrong not to donate to charities that can save human lives with few resources. This argument assumes that the physical distance to a person does not affect whether he or she needs help. This is a key principle of effective altruism.

Organizations and prioritized problems

Effective altruism is principally interested in working on the problems where the most good can be done. For this purpose, various problems are compared with one another and the one selected which has the most promising expected value in terms of maximizing the good (minimizing suffering). In practice, members of the movement have mainly focused on the following problem areas:

Global poverty

The fight against global poverty has been the focus of some of the earliest and most prominent effective altruism organizations.

The charity evaluator GiveWell examines the cost-effectiveness of charities and estimates that some charities work significantly more effectively than others. GiveWell argues that the value of donations to poverty alleviation and health care is highest in developing countries. Organizations from these areas are therefore mainly recommended.

The organization Giving What We Can promotes the most cost-effective relief organizations to fight poverty on the basis of GiveWell's recommendations. The Life You Can Save organization, founded by the philosopher Peter Singer , has similar goals and is named after his book of the same name.

In the German-speaking area there is no organization that conducts its own research according to the principles of effective altruism in this area. However, the organization effectively-spenden.org translates parts of Givewell's recommendations into German and offers advice on donations based on the criteria of effective altruism.

While some of Effective Altruists focus on direct strategies such as health interventions or cash transfers, others are concerned with more systemic social, economic and political reforms that are intended to contribute to poverty reduction in the longer term. GiveWell has been cooperating with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz since 2012 as part of the so-called Open Philanthropy Project in order to research and promote more speculative measures such as legal reforms.

Animal welfare

Many Effective Altruists see reducing animal suffering as a major moral priority and see cost-effective ways to contribute. In an article in the Guardian, Peter Singer quotes estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the British organization Fishcount that 60 billion terrestrial animals and between 1 and 2.7 billion individual fish are killed for human consumption every year. Singer argues that effective altruists committed to animal welfare should prioritize factory farming over more popular, less neglected problem areas, such as pet welfare. If, for example, one assumes a certain level of awareness and the associated pain sensation in chickens, it seems advisable to focus more on efforts to abolish industrialized factory farming. They have the potential to be more cost-effective than measures that seek to reduce human suffering (global poverty reduction). From an ethical perspective, the suffering of wild animals could also be relevant to Effective Altruists.

The Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) organization that emerged from the movement evaluates and compares charities that support animals based on their cost-effectiveness and transparency. ACE focuses on organizations that are working on the abolition of factory farming.

Distant future and global disaster risks

Some Effective Altruists take the position that the distant future is ethically enormously important, as the number of future humans and other animals far exceeds that of currently living beings. For this reason, the importance of reducing existential risks , such as dangers from biotechnology or artificial superintelligence , is highlighted and actively researched.

Some organizations associated with the Effective Altruism Movement are actively researching to minimize these risks and dangers. These include the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, the Center for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge, England and the Future of Life Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is also the Foundational Research Institute , which conducts research into how much future suffering can be reduced, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute , which researches how security can be guaranteed in the development of advanced artificial intelligence.


Parts of the movement see indirect meta-activism as a more effective approach compared to solving problems directly. These include fundraising for effective organizations, building the effective altruism movement, and researching effective strategies for disseminating social norms. Many Effective Altruists argue that meta-activism can be used as a multiplier for social impact, for example when a fundraising organization collects more than one euro for every euro spent for other effective aid organizations.

Panel discussion at EA Global 2015 ( from left to right : Moderator, Nick Bostrom , Elon Musk , Nate Soares, Stuart Russell )

Several organizations have explicitly committed themselves to meta-activism, although this classification is not always clear. In the English-speaking world, this includes the Center for Effective Altruism (CEA) as an umbrella organization and project incubator based in Oxford. The organizations Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours founded by William MacAskill are associated with the CEA . Giving What We Can encourages people to donate at least ten percent of their income to effective charitable causes. The resulting international community consists of around 4,300 people in 2019. The 80,000 Hours organization examines ethical career choices. It also takes into account indirect ways of pursuing an ethical career, such as earning a high salary in a conventional career and donating part of it, as well as more direct paths, such as scientific research.

In the German-speaking countries, the Foundation for Effective Altruism (EAS) in Berlin worked on spreading effective altruism. The foundation supported the establishment of local groups for the movement, published political position papers and carried out independent research. It emerged in 2015 from the Swiss regional group of the Giordano Bruno Foundation . The Raising for Effective Giving (REG) project founded by Liv Boeree , Igor Kurganow and Philipp Gruissem collects donations for effective aid organizations. Up to now, REG was mainly active in the field of professional poker and was able to win poker world champion Martin Jacobson as a member. By 2017, the EAS entertained the project Sentience Politics , which mainly in Switzerland on the subject of speciesism draws attention and policy initiatives starts, about the abolition of the factory farming ( factory farming initiative ). The Network for Effective Altruism Germany has been coordinating the local groups since the end of 2019 .

Known proponents

Peter Singer

Peter Singer (2009)

The philosopher Peter Singer has authored several works on effective altruism, including The Life You Can Save . In it he argues that people should evaluate how they can use their donations most effectively. In his article Hunger, Prosperity, and Morals , he claims that people have a duty to help those in need:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then we should be morally obliged to do it.

He founded the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save , which advocates donating to particularly effective charities. Singer himself donates at least 25% of his income to charity and is a member of Giving What We Can .

Toby Ord

Toby Ord is an ethicist at Oxford University. He advocates consequentialist ethics and deals with global poverty and disaster risks. Together with William MacAskill, he founded the organization Giving What We Can in 2009 . Ord lives on £ 18,000 ($ 27,000) a year and donates the rest of his income to charity. His book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity was published in March 2020 .

Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge (2014)

As a student of John Rawls , Thomas Pogge approaches effective altruism from a less consequentialist point of view. Pogge is a member of Giving What We Can and the Health Impact Fund , which seeks to make modern medicines available to poor people at low cost, and Academics Stand Against Poverty , which helps scientists make a greater positive impact on poverty in the world to have.

Pogge's book World Poverty and Human Rights argues that people in affluent democracies are actively causing suffering to people in developing countries: "Most of us not only starve people, we participate in starving them." He goes beyond the approach of Singer and Not even more, who claim that people in need need help because of positive commitments. In contrast, Pogge argues that the responsibility to help the world's poor stems from the fact that people in rich countries are actively harming people in other countries, such as by lending to corrupt governments.

Peter K. Unger

In his book Live and Let Die , Peter K. Unger presents several arguments that people in the developed world have a strong moral obligation to others. An example of a thought experiment is "The vintage Sedan":

You are not really rich, your only luxury in life is a Mercedes classic car that you restored to mint condition with a lot of time, attention and money ... One day you stop at the intersection of two small country roads that are both rarely used. You hear a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who is injured and covered in blood. The man assures you that his wound is limited to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he studied medicine for two years. And although he was de-registered in his sophomore year for cheating, which explains his penniless status since then, he expertly tied his leg near the wound with his shirt to stop the blood loss. So there is no urgent danger to life, as you are informed, but there is a great risk that the man will lose his leg. This can be prevented if you drive him to a rural hospital 50 miles away. "How did that happen to the wound?" You ask. He - an avid bird watcher - admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and cut himself on the rusty barbed wire while leaving it carelessly. If you want to help this intruder, you have to put it over your lovely back seat. But then your fine upholstery will be soaked in blood and the car will cost over five thousand dollars to restore. So you go away The next day, the man is picked up by another driver, he survives but loses the injured leg.

Unger points out that most people say this behavior is morally objectionable and you should be willing to accept the cost of restoring your car if it will save the man's life. He contrasts this reaction with our reactions to The Envelope :

There is something from (...) UNICEF in your mailbox . After reading it, you are correct to believe that unless you send a check for $ 100 to UNICEF soon, more than thirty children will soon die instead of living many years.

Unger argues that the various responses to the thought experiments are morally inconsistent. The duty to donate to UNICEF is therefore just as great as that to save the hypothetical intruder in the first thought experiment. Unger says that a relatively wealthy person “like you and me has to be heavily involved in supporting effective groups like Oxfam and Unicef, with most of the money and property now owned and with most of what is in the foreseeable future comes to that. "

Shelly Kagan

Shelly Kagan opens The Limits of Morality with the assertion, "Morality requires that you choose - from those not otherwise prohibited - the one that can reasonably be expected to have the best overall effect." He co-defends this claim a detailed analysis of both the various possible views about moral options and moral constraints and how these might be defended. He notes that there is a connection between believing in the existence of moral choices and believing in the existence of moral compulsions; a person who believes that there are opportunities to act suboptimally will almost certainly also advocate some restrictions on their potential behavior.


The principles of effective altruism can mean significant lifestyle changes. Many Effective Altruists try to live frugally by the standards of wealthy nations so that they can donate more. Some Effective Altruists were featured in the Washington Post . They lived on about $ 10,000 in 2012 and spent less than $ 200 on groceries in an average month. Other Effective Altruists live less frugally and donate less, with the aim of maintaining their commitment as long as possible. They also aim to make effective altruism more attractive to others and to motivate them to live a more economical and charitable way of life in order to achieve more good overall.

Some effective altruists try specifically to pursue a career in ethically harmless areas and earn as much as possible in order to be able to donate more money. Jason Trigg, one of the Effective Altruists featured in the Washington Post , is a professional donor - he takes the earning to give approach - and works as a quantitative analyst for a financial company and donates half of his salary. Another Effective Altruist moved to Switzerland, according to Spiegel Online , to earn more as a software developer and to donate a total of 60 percent of his salary.


The earning to give idea of ​​pursuing a “high-yield career” in a potentially unethical industry in order to donate more money is particularly controversial . David Brooks , a columnist for the New York Times , criticized the idea. He believes that most people in the financial and other high paying industries make money from selfish reasons. If you work with these people as an Effective Altruist, there is an opportunity to become less altruistic yourself. Some Effective Altruists also see this danger and try to reduce it through online communities, public guarantees and donations to donor-advised funds. Brooks also asks whether children in distant lands should really be given the same moral value as children in the immediate vicinity. He claims that morality should "ennoble internally," a position similar to virtue ethics.

In response to criticism of this aspect of effective altruism, the National Review questioned whether the industries that are widely believed to be unethical (such as the financial industry) are truly unethical. The author claims that these industries often produce more benefits than harm.

Paul Brest of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation , a Givewell donor, wrote an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review and concluded in the letter: “All in all, my unsolicited advice to supporters of effective altruism is to stay on course. In contrast, Charity Navigator's Ken Berger and Robert Penna wrote a long critique of the philosophy of effective altruism in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Your review was posted on the website in November 2013. The criticism provoked strong reactions from Effective Altruists, both in the comments on the SSIR website and elsewhere, including a response from William MacAskill which was also published on SSIR.

After attending the Effective Altruism Global 2015 conference, Dylan Matthews, journalist for the Vox website , gave mixed results. On the one hand, he identifies himself as an Effective Altruist and many innovative projects that would help people were presented at the conference. On the other hand, he sees the danger of focusing too much on existential risks from artificial intelligence . This focus can partly be explained by the composition of the movement, but is difficult to justify philosophically.


  • " Effective giving" (effective donation)
  • " High impact philanthropy" ( high impact philanthropy )
  • " Earning to give" (professional donation)
  • " Room for more funding" (capacity of aid organizations to effectively use additional financial resources)


Philosophical roots:


Further texts:

  • Hilary Greaves, Theron Pummer (Eds.): Effective Altruism: Philosophical Issues . Oxford University Press, Oxford 2019, ISBN 978-0198841364 . (English)
  • Toby Ord: The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. Hachette Books, 2020, ISBN 978-0316484916 (English)
  • Benjamin Todd: 80,000 Hours: Find a fulfilling career that does good. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Oxford 2016, ISBN 978-1-5373-2400-5 (English)

Web links

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