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Why effective altruism

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There are many good articles, books and videos about different aspects of effective altruism: for example

but I was having trouble finding an article that gives a comprehensive overview, while still being short enough to read in 20 minutes, so I thought I'd write one.

The principle that all lives have equal value

Roughly speaking, effective altruists subscribe to a version of the Gates' Foundation's principle that "all lives have equal value." They tend to consider enabling person A to live another 10 years is about as good as enabling person B to live another 10 years. This isn't always the case: for example, if person A leads a very happy life and person B leads a miserable life, an effective altruist might decide that it's more valuable to enable person A to live another 10 years than it is to enable person B to live another 10 years.

On another level, effective altruists value some lives more than others; for example, they care more about their children than they care about most people, something which is rooted in human psychology. But they choose to devote some of their resources based on the assumption that all lives have equal value.

Why would you adopt the "all lives have equal value" principle? Here are a couple of (interconnected) reasons:

  • In a world where everyone acted in accordance with the principle "all lives have equal value" many recognized social ills would be resolved: (a) there wouldn't be ethnic conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the people on one side care more about the people on their side than on the other side. Instead, the two sides would be at peace, and both of them would be better off (b) there would be much less poverty, because people would care more about poor people and help them more (c) people would care more about preserving the environment for the sake of future generations of people.
  • Your circumstances are largely a matter of chance. Warren Buffett famously said that his wealth can be largely attributed to his having been born in America as opposed to poorer parts of the world. Awareness of this can lead you to empathize with those who live in situations that you yourself could have been in had things turned out differently. Similarly, the people who you don't know have a lot in common with the people who do you know and care about a lot personally, and awareness of this can lead you to care about others who you might have known and loved had things turned out differently.

One sample consequence of this perspective is that giving money to poor people in very poor countries is much better than giving money to poor people in America. This is because giving $1k to a Kenyan family that lives on $1k/year helps the members of the family a lot more than giving $1k to an American family that lives on $20k/year.

Roughly speaking, effective altruists seek to direct their altruistic efforts toward maximizing:

The sum of (positive effect on a given person) for all people.

(Effective altruists who care about animals consider all animals rather than just people.)

The notion of the sum presupposes that

  • It makes sense to assign a number to the positive effect on a given person. Effective altruists generally don't actually assign numbers, but they do make rough comparisons. For example, intuitively, if a surgeon does an operation that allows a young medical patient to live another 10 years, the positive effect is about 10 times as large as doing an operation that allows the patient to live just 1 year longer.
  • It makes sense to compare the positive effect on person A with the positive effect on person B. Intuitively one can make some comparisons: for example, intuitively, saving somebody's life is better than curing somebody else's blindness, and may be better than curing two other people's blindness. But curing 1,000 people of blindness