Talking About Effective Altruism at Parties

I’m part of the effective altruism (EA) movement. We’re people who share a few beliefs:

  1. Value the lives of all people equally, no matter what they look like or where they come from.
  2. When you do something for the sake of other people, try to do the most good you can.
  3. Use research and evidence to make decisions. Support causes and programs with a lot of good evidence behind them.
  4. When you have a choice, compare different options. Don’t just do something because it’s a good idea — make sure there’s no obvious better thing you could be doing instead.

In practice, we give a lot of money to charity. Usually charities that work in countries where people are very poor, like India, Ghana, or Kenya — not the United States or Britain or Japan. We think other people should also do this.

(I’ll skip the complications for now. I’ve been satisfied by the responses I’ve heard to my objections against EA, and I’ll assume that any reader of this piece is at least neutral toward the central ideas of the movement.)


Party Conversation

This is a collection of ways to explain EA, or argue that EA is a good idea, in 60 seconds or less. Many are based on real conversations I’ve had. Ideally, you could use them at a party. I plan to, when I move out of Verona to a city with more parties.

I hope to write more of these. This is an experiment: I think that very short ideas could be more memorable than different sections of a long essay.

I use the United States as an example because I live there. If you’re at a party, you should substitute the place where you live.


Excited Altruism

Some people see charity largely as a way to avoid moral guilt. I think that’s a fair interpretation, but when I give, most of what I feel is excitement!

I may never get the chance to save a child from a burning building [example source], but I can still make a child’s life much better, and maybe even help to save a child who would otherwise have died a preventable death. Why not be excited about that? I’m also excited to live in a time when we’ve started to have really good evidence around how to help people on the other side of the world, so that I can be really efficient in the way that I give.

When I give, I feel much the same as when I volunteer — glad that I’ve done something positive, and hopeful about the results. Hence, “excited altruism”.


The Feeling of Relief

“Has there ever been a time when you started to get sick, and you knew it was going to be bad? And you had a moment of ‘oh, no, please, anything but…’?

“When I think about the people who are helped by groups that fight malaria and parasitic worms, I think about those moments.

“I’ve had those ‘oh no’ moments a few times, but that usually meant a really bad fever or a case of strep throat — something that would go away in a few days when I took the right pills. And meanwhile, I’d be more or less okay — I could call in sick to work, get homework from my professor, and catch up on life when I got better.

“But if I lived in a village where malaria is very common, I might have a higher-than-50-percent chance of getting it during the rainy season. So when I woke up and felt sick, my ‘oh no’ moment might mean several weeks spent in bed. During this time, I wouldn’t be fit to farm, and I’d lose quite a bit of money as a result — meaning I might be skipping meals later. If it were a parasitic worm infection, the symptoms wouldn’t be the same, but the general principle holds true; I’d be in bad shape.

“When I give money to buy deworming pills or a malaria bednet, I imagine someone who would be having one of those ‘oh no’ moments instead being perfectly healthy and not having their life disrupted. I imagine how good I’d feel if someone stopped one of my strep infections before it happened. It feels awesome, and that makes me excited to give someone a chance at one fewer ‘oh no’ moment.”


Global Inequality (Money)

“I’ll grant that inequality causes problems in the United States. But U.S. inequality is minor compared to inequality on the planet Earth.

“Did you know that Earth has a higher Gini coefficient than any single country? A lot of us are part of the global ’99 percent’, so to speak.

“The average American CEO makes about 200 times as much as me. And I make about 200 times as much as some of the poorest people in the world.

“One big project of effective altruism is to reduce global inequality. By letting more migrants into the U.S. (where they’ll send money back to their families), by cutting down on illicit cash flows (when rich people in poor countries don’t pay taxes and hide money abroad), and also by literally asking rich people to give cash to poor people. That seems to work pretty well.”


Global Inequality (Attention)

“There are a lot of Americans we tend to ignore. The homeless, American Indians, ex-felons… plus a lot of other groups. And that’s terrible.

“But I think that we ignore people in some other countries to an equal extent. That happens with charitable giving, too. For every dollar an American donates, we send about six cents to other countries.

“Intellectually, I understand the philosophical position behind giving locally. But on a personal level, I find it really hard to see nationality as a thing that should guide me, apart from any other factors. Maybe direct friendship, or shared membership in a small group, but not nationality.”


Doubling Income

“Major social problems in the U.S. are generally harder to solve with money than major social problems in the developing world. Still, there are obviously ways you could spend money to change the life of a fellow American. And that would often by a kind, world-improving thing to do.

“But money goes so much further abroad that it took me a long time to understand exactly how big the difference is.

“GiveDirectly lets me send money straight to someone in Kenya. If I give them about $700, they can use that money to double a family’s income for the entire year. Can you imagine what the impact would be if you doubled someone’s income in the U.S. for a year?

“But that would be about 20 times as expensive in the U.S. And the impact would be similar either way. $700 transforms a poor Kenyan’s life in the same way you’d expect $14,000 to transform a poor American’s life.”


Shared Humanity

“Does the cold, calculating part of EA mean that I lose some of my empathy?

“Yes, it’s hard for me to feel empathy for someone who survives on a couple of dollars a day. It would feel arrogant to claim that I ‘understand’ that person. Our lives are different in almost every way.

“But even if I’ll never know what it’s like to eat the same thing for almost every meal, I think there are basic human pleasures that I share with pretty much every other human who ever lived.

“I know what it’s like to learn something new. I know what it’s like to see an old friend after a long separation. I know what it’s like to sit inside when the weather is bad and hear the raindrops on the roof and think ‘yep, I’m glad I’m not outside right now’. I know what it’s like to fall in love with someone and wake up smiling just because that person exists.

“So when I need an emotional boost, I imagine the person I’m helping. And the way that, even though we are just about as different as two humans can be, we still share those awesome things. And I’m hopefully freeing that person up to not feel as much stress, and to have more time to feel the kinds of happiness I think we do share.”


Ridiculously Lucky

I keep this one on the page where I track my giving.

I might also whip out my phone and quote my idol, The Unit of Caring:

I firmly refuse to feel guilty about my outrageous cosmic luck. I find it far more satisfying to pay it forward. See, luck, like pretty much everything else, can be bought with money […] I was born by sheer chance into a country that has eradicated malaria already but I can buy a couple bednets towards the project of stamping it off this earth entirely […] Almost every advantage I have, everyone ought to have, and giving them money is the closest I can come to putting a finger on the cosmic scales.



“I have a hard time getting angry at people. I usually feel like people’s reasons for doing bad things made sense to them at the time, and whenever I get mad at them I remember times people were mad at me for doing bad things, and then I feel kind of sick.

“But getting angry is really satisfying. So instead I get angry at problems. I’m angry at meteors that have the sheer nerve to get within a billion miles of Earth. I’m angry at mosquitoes, because they’re always biting people. I’m angry at the social systems, built on purpose or by accident, that ruin lives with no remorse, because they are abstract concepts that can’t even feel remorse.

“EA is my way of saying ‘screw you, problems!’ You want to keep people in jail? I’ll bail them out. You want to make people sick? I’ll murder you. You want to threaten my planet? I’ll wipe the very possibility of you from existence. And I’ll do it with the cold, brutal efficiency of an executioner.”


Social Justice

“I’m generally a fan of the modern social justice movement. I think they’ve done more good than harm, and will end up doing much more good than harm in the long run.

“But like any movement, they wind up focusing on some people more than others, to avoid being stretched really thin. I think EA does a good job of catching some of the groups SJ sometimes doesn’t catch.

“A focus on local movements and protests means we don’t always catch people who aren’t from our country, and that’s one of EA’s major focuses. And while SJ has a lot of vegetarians and vegans, I haven’t seen a lot of animal-rights rhetoric; that’s another major EA focus.

“When I think ‘all lives matter’, I’m not going for a counterpoint to ‘black lives matter’. I’m going for ‘don’t forget the lives of people who live outside the classic U.S. race/gender/class spectrum!’ Even if ‘racism’ manifests very differently in Nigeria or Myanmar, poverty and the lack of education still cause very familiar problems there.”


Being Embarrassed in the Future

Paul Graham wrote a great essay on ‘what we can’t say now’. It’s about how the world might change in the future.

“We can look back at every other era and find problems with how they lived. Segregation, slavery, wars of conquest… there’s always something.

“What will our great-grandchildren be embarrassed about when they look at the year 2016? Probably the ‘rights issues’ we’re still struggling with. But I think they’ll also be confused and angry about how many people we left out to dry because they weren’t in the same country, or because of generic arguments about how ‘aid doesn’t help’ or ‘start helping in your own backyard’.

“This extends to some uncomfortable opinions, too. Like the idea that some causes, or specific charities, are simply a waste of time and money. I wonder if our descendants will look at the amount we give to museums or symphony orchestras, and just be completely confused as to why so many people were dying for lack of really cheap medicine in other parts of the world.

“Basically, I’m assuming my descendants will be smarter than I am, and I try to donate in part so that my giving will make sense to them.”


2 thoughts on “Talking About Effective Altruism at Parties

  1. Really impressive list here. My favorite is probably:

    “EA is my way of saying ‘screw you, problems!’ You want to keep people in jail? I’ll bail them out. You want to make people sick? I’ll murder you. You want to threaten my planet? I’ll wipe the very possibility of you from existence. And I’ll do it with the cold, brutal efficiency of an executioner.”

    I’ll be using this as a talking point at our local EA Meetup so thanks for rocking and writing this.

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