You have probably heard of Christianity, but what exactly is effective altruism?
Effective altruism is a growing movement which aims to answer one simple question: ‘how can I do as much good as possible?’
Effective altruism does not assume that there is one obvious answer to this question, but rather invites us to use reason, evidence and data to work out what actions produce the most good.
An example: the PlayPump
An example which helps illustrate the importance of effective altruism is a charitable project in Southern Africa which promoted PlayPumps.
The PlayPump is a water pump designed to be operated by children playing on a roundabout. The idea is that as children enjoy spinning around on the roundabout, the spinning pumps water out of the ground, saving the time and effort for adults to operate ordinary handpumps.
The PlayPump sounds like a wonderful idea, and plenty of money and publicity was poured into it, including celebrity endorsements and a social media campaign.
In reality, however, the pumps were a failure: children did not enjoy playing on them because there was too much resistance to let them spin freely, so instead it was left to older women to spin the roundabouts, which was both exhausting and demeaning. The pumps were also inefficient, and far inferior to cheaper and simpler hand pumps.
Good intentions can lead to bad outcomes
The PlayPump illustrates that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes.
Although those behind the PlayPump initiative clearly had good intentions, they did not do enough research to find out if it would actually benefit those they were trying to help.
Effective altruism encourages us to use reason, evidence and data to test whether our well-intentioned ideas actually benefit those we are trying to help.
Given that our good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes, effective altruism challenges us to think critically about how we can create positive impact. This means using our resources – our money, our time and our abilities – as well as possible.
Research shows, for instance, that donating to certain charities can create a measured impact which is 10-100 times higher than average charities. Organisations like GiveWell assess charities according to various criteria, adopting a particular methodology which is designed to rank charities according to their effectiveness.
But effective altruism does not only apply to charitable giving. There are many other ways of creating a positive impact, such as through our careers.
80,000 Hours is an organisation which uses the principles of effective altruism to research how we can use our careers to create a big impact. This will vary depending on one’s skills and opportunities: for some, the biggest impact might come through earning a high income in order to give to effective charities. For others, it might be helping to design better policies, setting up effective charities, or developing one’s skills to do something impactful in the future.
Which cause to support?
Effective altruism encourages us to think critically about which causes are most worth investments of our time and money. Rather than picking a cause based on personal passion or gut feeling, effective altruism encourages us to look at which causes have the biggest impact on the world and to what extent we are well placed to help that cause.
For example, you might care deeply about education provision in developing countries. This might lead you to support projects which send school books to children in central Africa. However, evidence suggests that one of the biggest factors which affects whether children can attend school is their physical health rather than the availability of books; in many parts of the world, schools with books already exist, but children suffer from various diseases which prevent them from attending. It might therefore be better to devote one’s time to initiatives such as ‘Deworming the World’, which address some of the most common – and easily curable – diseases.
We can apply this evidence-driven approach more generally to think about which causes we should support. Certain causes may be more effective at saving lives for instance, or it may be possible to demonstrate that they have a bigger effect on global welfare. Effective altruism encourages us to be critical about why we care about the causes we care about – such as education provision – and to compare those causes with others.
This approach to doing good is what effective altruists call ‘cause neutrality’. Cause neutrality has led many effective altruists to prioritise issues which may not receive as much wider attention. For instance, many effective altruists are vegans and campaign on animal welfare issues. Similarly, many effective altruists have begun researching ‘existential risk’ issues such as nuclear warfare and biosecurity, since these low-probability but high-impact causes are often neglected by wider society and governments.
Effective altruists consider various factors when picking causes, including the scale of the problem, how tractable working on it might be, and also how many resources are being devoted to solving it already. Read more about how to think about cause areas here.
Why should Christians care about effective altruism?
Effective altruism provides a wonderful way of responding wholeheartedly to God’s love for us, and the command to love our neighbours as ourselves.
There is a long history of fighting for social justice in the church, and effective altruism can be a valuable part of that. It can help us to think through how our acts of love actually benefit those we are trying help, and ensure that our ‘good deeds’ are more than just good intentions.
As Christians, we believe that God values wisdom in decision making, and careful stewardship of his resources. Ultimately, careful decision making about how we use our time, money and talents arises out of sincere love for our neighbours. Trying to be effective might seem cold and calculating, 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)
Similarly, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) gives us a clear example of what diligent stewardship looks like. The master encourages the servants who wisely invest his money, and chastises the one who does not. Effective altruism helps us to think about what careful stewardship means when we are trying to do good.
Effective altruism has a lot to bring to the Church. Equally, Christianity has a lot to bring to effective altruism. Faith can provide a reference for moral value, and motivate us to do good out of a response to God’s love. The Bible helps us to understand which issues matter to God, and challenges us to love our neighbour, while also having a broad understanding of who our neighbour is.
As Christian effective altruists, we are excited about how effective altruism can help us to love God and love people better.
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.