It’s likely that you know what Christianity is, but what exactly is effective altruism? This page gives a bit of background and then makes the case for why, as Christians, we should get involved.
What is Effective Altruism?
Effective altruism is a growing movement which combines both compassion and reason to address the following question: How can we help others as effectively as possible? It consists of a community of people who are committed to doing good, who continually question what that means, and who use evidence to achieve it.
Effective altruism encourages society to become more generous in its giving. Yet simply donating more money does not itself guarantee that lots more good is done. We also need to care about the effectiveness of where the money goes.
To help us understand why effectiveness is so important, take a look at the example of the PlayPump talked about here. This is a water pump that was operated by a kids roundabout and was installed in countries in southern Africa. As children enjoy spinning around the roundabout, water is drawn out of the ground ready to be used. The idea seems like a wonderful way of solving a problem creatively, yet in fact the pumps were a failure. They weren’t fun to play on as there was too much resistance to let them spin freely, so instead it was left to the older women to spin the roundabout which they found extremely demeaning. They also weren’t even very efficient as pumps. Installing a cheaper and more efficient hand pump would have been a much better option.
When we consider the example of PlayPump, it becomes clear that good intentions do not always lead to impressive outcomes. While the worst giving opportunities sometimes do no good at all, fortunately, the best are often 10-100 times better than average. As such, the effective altruism community sees finding the best charities to support as an exciting way of doing more good in the world. To achieve this the community encourages the rigorous evaluation of charities to work out which will lead to the biggest difference per dollar. GiveWell is a great organisation which does just this. Their methodology is a good illustration of the sorts of criteria that effective altruism tends to value.
But effective altruism applies not only to charitable giving, but also to how we use our time. For most of us, our career is the biggest time resource we have. 80,000 Hours, an organisation in the effective altruism community, publishes research on how altruistically minded individuals can have the biggest possible impact with their working life. For some people they recommend earning to give, where one seeks to earn as much as they can with the aim of giving it to the most effective charities. For others, they recommend entering politics, founding new effective charities, and a host of other different options.
When trying to do the most good, thinking about which areas to focus on is vital. Instead of choosing an area based on personal passion or gut feeling, effective altruism promotes attempting to figure out which areas might have the biggest impact on the world. This is helped by considering the scale of the problem, how tractable working on it might be and also how many resources are already being devoted to solving it. While many in the effective altruism community focus on global health interventions, others work on political change, animal welfare, growing the effective altruism movement and stopping events which could cause mass extinction. Read more about how to think about cause areas here.
Effective altruism, at its heart, is the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis. It provides the vehicle to help turn our good intentions into the reality of finding and supporting the best causes in the world. If you would like to get more detail, then explore this introductory article or read Doing Good Better.
Why should Christians care about it?
Christians should care about effective altruism because it gives us a wonderful way of responding more wholeheartedly to God’s commandments, and His care for those who suffer.
Historically, Christians have taken the call to love our neighbour and to bring about social justice very seriously and have achieved a great deal of good in the world as a result. Yet so often we fail to realise that by using evidence and careful analysis we can make our actions go even further and so help even more of those that God so greatly values.
Trying to be effective might seem calculating and cold but it is ultimately rooted in love and compassion. Effectiveness is important because of just how much people matter to God. They matter so much that he was willing to give his only Son in order to save them. God not only cares for the salvation of his people but also takes an active interest in their lives:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7)
If people matter this much to God, then we should care for them too. Unlike God, we have limited resources, so the question is then, how ought we to use our resources to help those that God values? It seems that the only reasonable response is that we should use them to help as much as we possibly can, but how do we do that? As the previous section explored, this is the very question that effective altruism seeks to answer.
The importance of effectiveness also flows from the Christian concept of stewardship. God has entrusted us with the resources we have and as a result we are required to use them to fulfill his ends. The Parable of the Minas in Luke 19 gives us a clear example of what diligent stewardship involves. The master encourages the servants who wisely invest his money, and chastises the one who does not. On reflection, we would all consider it good stewardship to take advantage of the best investment opportunities, yet this would imply that good stewardship also means we should make use of the most effective ways of doing good.
The effective altruism movement can bring a lot to the Church. It provides us with a framework to make sure that our lives help as many individuals, in the most meaningful ways possible. Despite its careful calculation and attention to evidence, effective altruism is motivated by heartfelt compassion for those who suffer, who matter deeply to God. Ultimately, Christianity and effective altruism work well together: our Christian faith gives us the underlying desire to make the biggest difference we can and then effective altruism helps us to turn this desire into reality.
What does it look like to put the ideas of effective altruism into action? Click here to find out more.
Still have questions? Here are some responses to frequently asked questions about effective altruism in general, and here are some responses to questions which specifically relate to the intersection of Christianity and effective altruism. If you have a question not answered or would like further clarification then please get in touch via the contact form.