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The effective altruism movement

September 29, 2012

I claim three things:

  1. Many people who profess some degree of altruism are not being very effective, despite their good intentions.
  2. Regardless of how ineffective their past decisions were, they can still make a huge difference, by joining the “effective altruism” movement and spreading the message.
  3. Even for those who are only slightly altruistic, it seems good to spend a small amount of time to help spread the word.

A Case Study of Ineffectiveness

Let’s consider Alice, who wants to save lives of present African children.  Alice may decide to become a third-world doctor, a job which may directly save 10 children’s lives a day.  This seems pretty good.  But suppose that had Alice instead decided to do something else, Bob would’ve taken her job, and saved 8 lives a day (being slightly worse than Alice).  Then, Alice really only saves 2 lives a day, on the margin.

Saving 2 lives a day still seems pretty good, but good is relative.  A better goal should be to increase the number of third-world doctors.  Thus suppose Alice becomes an investment banker, and makes enough money to personally fund 10 new full-time third-world doctors.  If each of these doctors saves 6 lives a day, Alice is saving 60 lives a day!  Let’s call bankers like this “make-givers”.  Notice, it’s crucial to the argument to assume that had Alice not been an investment banker, the guy Bob who got the job instead wouldn’t have been a giver, and would’ve spent his money on cars.  Even if Bob donated enough to save 10 lives a day, Alice is still saving 50 lives a day on the margin.

But again, good is relative.  What if Alice spends her life convincing people that care about African children to become make-givers?  If she’s able to get 5 new people on-board across her lifetime, she’ll have saved 250 African children per day.  Thus building a small community of such people is much more valuable than being a make-giver, given that such potential make-givers are reachable.  In fact, if enough potential make-givers exist, there may be a lack of people promoting others to become make-givers.  So it may be even better for Alice to spend her life convincing others to spend their lives reaching out to potential make-givers.  And of course, it’s possible this logic extends even further up, depending on what the supply of potential make-givers and the reach at each level is.

We’ve gone from a career of saving 2 children per day to a career which could easily save 10,000 children per day, with some fairly simple logic.

Becoming Effective

It turns out the pool of potential make-givers is reasonable large.  So an organization focused on growing such a community seem extremely high value. And it turns out at least one such organization exists.  It’s called 80,000 Hours.

Of course, saving African children is just a toy example;  in general, human values are extremely varied and complicated.  Some value fetuses and wild animals, while others value future humans and computer intelligences.  In either case, though, similar arguments apply, and similar heuristics can be used to guide thinking.  So an organization can have much broader aims than saving African lives, and stay relatively value-neutral, while still having a coherent message.

And there are many common relevant questions.   For example, we might wonder:

  1. What is the best way to influence policy decisions?  Is it encouraging voting, trying to become president, or something else?
  2. What is the best way to speed up technological progress?  Is it doing research, trying to push on public policy, improving education, or something else?
  3. What is the best way to make money?  Is it starting a tech company, being an investment banker, or something else?
  4. What is the best thing to do with money, given my values?
  5. What is the best way to recruit smart people to think about such questions?

The answers to these questions may vary by individual, but even for a fixed individual, they seem quite difficult to answer.  That being said, it seems important to attack them.  We can guess reasonable candidates, break questions down into easier sub-questions, and try do estimation.  We can talk to people with experience, or try getting our toes wet.  We can build a community to put all the research in one place, letting individuals weigh it against their skills and values to make personal career choices.   These are all things 80,000 Hours tries to do.

That being said, the most important focus at this stage is to grow community.  You can make a huge difference by joining and spreading word, regardless of how ineffective your past decisions were.  Even if you are only a little bit altruistic, it seems worth investing a small amount of time in spreading the word.  

Please talk to me if you want to know more, or want to get involved!  I’m also helping to set up the MIT chapter of THINK.  So if you’re at MIT, let me know if you’re interested!

(DISCLAIMER: I’ve been an 80,000 Hours member for about a year now, but my description of them is not necessarily endorsed by them.  And my example is essentially taken entirely from their elevator pitches.)

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One Comment
  1. yboris permalink

    Reblogged this on YBoris.

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