Rewriting the narrative of Effective Altruism
Effective Altruism — better known as “EA” — is a philosophical movement often associated with corruption, capitalist cognoscenti, and the adoption of cultic customs. But, this is just one perception.
For second years, Beth Rieger — EA co-President and Philosophy and Economics student — and Harry Mckenzie — Group Organiser and Arabic and Spanish student — EA is far from its discrimination.
“EA is about doing the most good,” said Mckenzie, “for example, by reducing suffering.”
Understanding EA is a tall order when one’s background knowledge exclusively consists of slimy Sam Bankman-Fried — founder of the successful Cryptocurrency exchange, FTX.
Bankman-Fried vocally supported EA, but in 2022 authorities revealed his so-called “charitable acts” as a guise for fraud and money-laundering.
Inspired by several key figures — namely William MacAskill, Peter Singer, and Toby Ord — EA seeks to help those in need by calculating the greatest possible impact by using reason, empirical evidence, and one’s skill set effectively.
According to the EA website, “doing good” is most important. While this can be difficult to define, the website “tentatively” describes it as “enabling others to have lives that are healthy, happy, fulfilled; in line with their wishes; and free from avoidable suffering.”
At the forefront of EA St Andrews, Rieger and Mckenzie dedicate time to re-imagining and addressing their outlook of the world.
At St Andrews, the society runs three separate initiatives.
One — an introductory discussion group — has participants complete an hour of readings and then meet with their peers to discuss their thoughts.
“The [readings] explore EA principles and discuss how we can address issues such as global health and development, animal welfare, and existential threats such as AI safety, and catastrophic pandemics,” said Rieger.
The society aims to get people into high-impact careers.
“When I started in first year, I thought it was just another thing I would join,” said Rieger, “but then I had my mind blown. It has motivated me to try and have a positive effect on the world throughout my whole life.”
Because of EA, the two students even decided to go vegan. “I was already interested in animal rights but I wasn’t aware that there was far more to the movement,” said Mckenzie.
Many Effective Altruists are vegan and, consequently, against factory farming. But according to EA, changing one’s diet is encouraged but not necessary. Many Effective Altruists even disagree over which particular world problem is the worst.
Effective Altruists use collected research — and their own initiative — to see how they can have the biggest impact on the world. This could mean, using one’s earnings to buy mosquito nets for those at risk of dying from malaria, or researching existential risks such as unaligned AI.
Effective Altruists use three factors when determining which issue they can have the most impact on: scale, neglectedness, and tractability.
Scale refers to how good it would be to achieve a goal, like finding a cure for a disease or implementing an animal welfare policy.
Neglectedness involves looking into which global issues are disregarded the most. According to research conducted by Effective Altruists, one can have a greater impact on a cause with fewer resources allocated to it.
Finally, tractability refers to the probability of success. Mckenzie and Rieger believe there is little point in giving time, energy, and money to something that won’t have an impact — something that EA St Andrews encourages participants to think about.
While one may want to invest in a cause to which they have a personal connection, it may not be the most beneficial.
Rieger emphasised that, while any effort individuals make to do good is great, she said that there’s always the potential to do more — even if you don’t immediately realise it. “Maybe the money I’ve donated or the actions I take could help 100 or 1000 more people than it does now,” she said. She now always takes this into account when making decisions.
“Something that can be challenging is that [the ethos of the movement] may go against your intuitions,” said Mckenzie.
According to him — whilst it’s great to donate to charity — one ought to distinguish between “the warm fuzzy feeling” that accompanies working with a charity one feels connected to, and what will have the greatest impact.
Keeping this in mind, EA is about using reason and evidence to arrive at your own conclusions about doing the most good. There is not one “EA answer” on how to achieve this.
This is why — when arguments are well thought through — “differing opinions are valued,” Rieger added.
But Rieger acknowledges that some may feel intimidated by the EA community.
In “addressing the elephant in the room,” Rieger admitted that “the movement does tend to attract people from well-educated backgrounds.”
Sam Robinson — third year philosophy student and co-president of EA St Andrews — emphasises in his opening talk — which can be found on Youtube — that “EA is not an abstract philosophical concept that you have to get your head around.”
In so many words — while considering one’s impact on the world can be rigorous — one doesn’t have to be an academic to work out how to have the biggest impact on the world. Furthermore, Robinson clarified that EA asks individuals to be open-minded to criticism.
“From my experience in St Andrews and in the wider EA community, people are so open to having their minds changed,” reflected Rieger, “as a second-year student, I can approach a 40-year-old person who has an established career and tell them ‘Hey, I’ve looked at your organisation's website, and I think you’re doing it wrong’."
Effective Altruist, Peter Wildefort — CEO of think tank Rethink Priorities — says the movement shouldn't be about treating your arguments as ‘soldiers’ but about practising good epistemics to make the world a better place.
Some believe that EA reflects the consequentialist ethical theory, Utilitarianism. But while there are arguable similarities, Robinson points out that EA is not an obligation. It’s an opportunity for those who like to do good, to do even more, he said.
In theory, one could argue that money spent on pints at the pub could go to a better cause, but Mckenzie and Rieger explained that this mindset can lead to burnout.
“It can seem like a sacrifice, but you do not need to choose EA over happiness and other passions,” affirms Mckenzie. “The core aim is to do good, but we also sip soup and chat.”
Mckenzie acknowledged that — whilst attempting to make the world a better place is a common pursuit at University — he says EA can offer a genuinely impactful and “unique approach.”
Some criticise EA for not being radical or diverse enough to address bigger issues, though.
Rieger showed concern that people may feel intimidated by the space for other reasons. “In terms of neurodiversity, or if you don’t feel comfortable in groups, I’m more than happy to figure out a way to accommodate,” said Rieger, who encourages individuals to reach out with concerns about the format.
Rieger and Mckenzie acknowledge that it seems daunting to discuss and pay attention to global issues and how to effectively bring about systemic change. But overall, being a part of EA has been empowering, they said.
According to them, it’s the best approach to trying to have an impact on the world.
“Instead of thinking the world is f***ed and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Rieger, “EA encourages you to be agentic and gain energy to help, not feel overwhelmed.”
Photo: Matilda Kay