Excerpts from Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, 2015, Yale University Press.
Effective altruists don’t see a lot of point in feeling guilty. They prefer to focus on the good they are doing. Some of them are content to know they are doing something significant to make the world a better place. Many of them like to challenge themselves, to do a little better this year than last year.
A small number of the charities are outright frauds, but a much bigger problem is that very few of them are sufficiently transparent to allow donors to judge whether they are really doing good. Most of that $300 billion is given on the basis of emotional responses to images of the people, animals, or forests that the charity is helping. Effective altruism seeks to change that by providing incentives for charities to demonstrate their effectiveness. Already the movement is directing millions of dollars to charities that are effectively reducing the suffering and death caused by extreme poverty. Second, effective altruism is a way of giving meaning to our own lives and finding fulfillment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. Effective altruists directly benefit others, but indirectly they often benefit themselves.
Are we fundamentally driven by our innate needs and emotional responses, with our rational capacities doing little more than laying a justificatory veneer over actions that were already determined before we even started reasoning about what to do? Or can reason play a crucial role in determining how we live? What is it that drives some of us to look beyond our own interests and the interests of those we love to the interests of strangers, future generations, and animals?
research showing that people are more likely to help strangers when they know that others are doing the same.
•Living modestly and donating a large part of their income—often much more than the traditional tenth, or tithe—to the most effective charities; •Researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective or drawing on research done by other independent evaluators; •Choosing the career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good; •Talking to others, in person or online, about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread; •Giving part of their body—blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney—to a stranger.
Saving a child’s life has to be better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid. If Miles’s parents had been offered that choice—Batkid for a day or a complete cure for their son’s leukemia—they surely would have chosen the cure. When more than one child’s life can be saved, the choice is even clearer.
They would all agree that a world with less suffering and more happiness in it is, other things being equal, better than one with more suffering and less happiness. Most would say that a world in which people live longer is, other things being equal, better than one in which people live shorter lives. These values explain why helping people in extreme poverty is a popular cause among effective altruists. As we shall see in more detail in chapter 10, a given sum of money does much more to reduce suffering and save lives if we use it to assist people living in extreme poverty in developing countries than it would do if we gave it to most other charitable causes.
Effective altruists do not discount suffering because it occurs far away or in another country or afflicts people of a different race or religion. They agree that the suffering of animals counts too and generally agree that we should not give less consideration to suffering just because the victim is not a member of our species. They may differ, however, on how to weigh the type of suffering animals can experience against the type of suffering humans can experience.5
When I wrote the article, my wife and I were giving away about 10 percent of our modest income (she was working as a high school teacher, earning a little more than I was). That percentage increased over the years. We are now giving away about one-third of what we earn and aiming to get to half, but that still isn’t anywhere near the point of marginal utility. One of the things that made it psychologically difficult to increase our giving was that for many years we were giving away a bigger slice of our income than anyone we knew. No one, not even the megarich, seemed to be giving a higher proportion. Then in 2004 the New Yorker published a profile of Zell Kravinsky. Kravinsky had given almost his entire $45-million real estate fortune to charity. He did put some money into trust funds for his wife and children, but the children were attending public schools, and he and his family were living on about $60,000 a year. He still did not think he had done enough to help others, so he arranged with a nearby hospital to donate a kidney to a stranger. The article linked my then-thirty-two-year-old essay to Kravinsky’s way of living and quoted him as saying, “It seems to me crystal clear that I should be giving all my money away and donating all of my time and energy.”
As a small child Julia Wise grasped that although she did not lack anything she needed, there were others who did. Ever since, she has seen every dollar she spends as a dollar taken out of the hands of someone who needs it more than she does. So the question she asks herself is not how much she should give, but how much she should keep. Julia is not a Catholic, but her account of her early insight echoes the words of Ambrose, a fourth-century archbishop of Milan who was later canonized and became known as one of the four original Great Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. Ambrose said that when you give to the poor, “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself.”3 That became part of the Christian tradition: Thomas Aquinas went so far as to say, “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”4 Surprisingly to some, the Roman Catholic Church has never repudiated this radical view and has even reiterated it on several occasions. Pope Paul VI quoted the passage in which Ambrose says that what you give to the poor is really already theirs and added, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, “We must repeat once more that the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations. The rule which up to now held good for the benefit of those nearest to us, must today be applied to all the needy of this world.” On the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul II said it again, in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and Pope Francis has indicated his support for this doctrine too.5 The problem is that these are just words until the Church puts the full weight of its moral authority behind them. Popes, bishops, and priests are quick to condemn supposed sins like the use of contraception, homosexual acts, and abortion, but they are much less willing to speak out against the blatant failures of wealthy Catholics to give to the poor what the Church says is owed to them.
Everyone has boundaries. If you find yourself doing something that makes you bitter, it is time to reconsider. Is it possible for you to become more positive about it? If not, is it really for the best, all things considered? George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, urged his followers to be an example to others and to “walk cheerfully over the world.” Julia refers to that thought, saying, “We don’t need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.”9 There are still relatively few effective altruists, so it is important that they set an example that attracts others to this way of living. Julia spoke to my class at Princeton, and she did present a cheerful image of a person thoroughly enjoying her chosen lifestyle.10 She referred to the ability she and Jeff have to save hundreds of lives and improve many more as “an amazing opportunity.”11 In responding to a question asked by a student, she said she does not tell others who spend a lot on themselves and give nothing away that their lifestyle is immoral because, “you can’t change people by preaching at them.”
effective altruists can reasonably hope that having a child will benefit the world. Both cognitive abilities and characteristics like empathy have a significant inherited component, and we can also expect that children will be influenced by the values their parents hold and practice in their daily lives. Although there can be no certainty that the children of effective altruists will, over their lifetimes, do more good than harm, there is a reasonable probability that they will, and this helps to offset the extra costs of raising them.14 We can put it another way: If all those who are concerned to do the most good decide not to have children, while those who do not care about anyone else continue to have children, can we really expect that, a few generations on, the world will be a better place than it would have been if those who care about others had had children?
Celso is, as he says, “more moved by arguments than by empathy.” He has come to effective altruism through reasoning about what he ought to do.
Perhaps because of her own path to effective altruism, Priya is acutely aware of the fact that the circumstances we’re in and the people around us play a big role in determining our values and behavior. She admits that, as she puts it, “my default setting is ‘Me First’ and it’s a constant struggle not to let this impulse override every decision.”
At the same time, she believes, “altruism needs to be watched, challenged and nurtured, otherwise it risks becoming stale and automatic.” She has been giving 5 percent of her income to effective charities, with something of a bias toward charities working in Kenya because of her connections there.
The foundation has supported projects aimed at preventing and alleviating animal suffering and abuse, improving health in developing countries, educating people in Africa about human rights, and rescuing victims of human trafficking for sex and labor. Compared to the other effective altruists we have met, Jim lives an affluent life and lives in a luxurious home. He once owned a few sports cars and a share in a private jet but soon came to see those as excesses. While he now drives a Toyota, he still struggles to find a balance between his lifestyle and using his money to help others. As early as 2003, before effectiveness was as widely talked about as it is today, Jim was mostly supporting overseas projects. When he was asked for donations to local projects, he would say, “I can give you this much money, or I can save this many lives. You tell me what to do.”2 Nevertheless, he is very conscious of the need, when motivating wealthy people to give, to start where they are, so he accepts some “ineffective passion” in their giving, as long as at least half goes to effective giving.
How does earning a lot of money and giving a lot away compare with becoming an aid worker for an effective charity? Will MacAskill puts forward this argument: Suppose you could have worked for an effective charity but instead you accept a job with an investment bank that pays you $200,000 a year. There is usually no shortage of applicants for jobs with charities, so the charity will appoint someone else who will probably do almost as good a job as you would have done. “Almost” because if you had been offered the job, we can assume the charity considered you the best applicant for the position; but the difference between you and the next-best applicant is unlikely to be great. As a charity worker, therefore, you are largely replaceable. Working in finance, however, you earn much more than you need and give half of your earnings to the charity, which can use that money to employ two extra workers it would not, without your donation, have been able to employ at all. The amount of work they can do for the charity will greatly exceed the difference between what you would have done and what the next-best applicant for your position will do. Whereas you would have been replaceable as a charity worker, you are not replaceable as a donor. If you had not taken the job with the investment bank, someone else would have and almost certainly would not have donated half of her or his salary to charity (very few people in the finance sector do). So if you take the finance job, the charity will be better able to achieve its aims than it would have been if you had accepted their offer of employment.3
These people are all giving far beyond conventional standards of philanthropy, but of all the effective altruists I have encountered, Ian Ross offers the most remarkable example of a life committed to maximizing giving. Ian started working full-time in 2006 and between then and the time of writing has donated or earmarked for future donation about $1 million. In 2014 he earned more than $400,000, and more than 95 percent of his after-tax earnings goes to charities. The ethical motivation for Ian’s lifestyle began in college, when he became a vegan. For the best part of the next decade, a friend, also vegan, subjected him to merciless cross-examination. The outcome was that Ian came to accept the following argument: 1.Modern animal agriculture causes an immense amount of suffering. 2.We are responsible both for what we do and for what we refrain from doing. 3.We have the means to reduce the suffering caused by modern animal agriculture. Therefore: 4.It is imperative for each of us to do so. Ian then began to put that logic into practice in his own life.
He warned, first, that our daily activities change us, and by working in a hedge fund your ideals could slip so that you become less committed to giving. Second, he thought that choosing a profession that does not arouse your passion for the sake of an “abstract, faraway good” might leave you loving humanity in general but not the particular humans around you. Third, and most important, Brooks worried about “turning yourself into a means rather than an end ... a machine for the redistribution of wealth.” Taking a job just to make money could be “corrosive,” Brooks wrote, even if you use the money for charity.7
Perhaps people who earn to give have integrity, yet they may be participating in activities that do harm? One critic puts it like this: “Capitalism in its current global form is worsening inequality. ... A few people are gaining more wealth while many, many more are driven to more extreme poverty as a symptom of the market. The gap is widening between the very rich and very poor. ... [W]orking in the financial industry in order to give to global poverty charities is akin to arsonists giving donations to the local fire department.”13 Capitalism does appear to be increasing inequality, but that does not prove that it is driving people into extreme poverty because inequality can also increase when the rich become richer and the poor stay the same, or even when the poor gain but not by as much as the rich. As we saw in the preface, effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.14
It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.15 In any case, those who think the entire modern capitalist economy should be overthrown have conspicuously failed to demonstrate that there are ways of structuring an economy that have better outcomes. Neither have they indicated how, in the twenty-first century, a transition to an alternative economic system might occur. Like it or not, for the foreseeable future we seem to be stuck with some variety of capitalism, and along with it come markets in stocks, bonds, and commodities.
Granting that earning to give may lead to being involved in financial activities that harm some people does not settle the moral question of what the individual who has the opportunity to earn a lot and give a lot should do. Moral codes of behavior often give the principle “Do no harm” priority over the principle “Do the most good you can.” Those who take this view will consider it wrong to work for a corporation that is harming innocent people, even if the good that one can then do would hugely outweigh this harm.
For someone who judges actions by their consequences, to be complicit in wrongful harm requires that one make a difference to the likelihood of the harm occurring. As we saw earlier, if you do not take the position offered by the investment bank, someone else will, and from the bank’s perspective that person will probably be nearly as good as you would have been. If one of the bank’s capital-raising activities is funding a mine that is polluting a river on which many impoverished villagers depend, your refusal to take the job is not going to stop that happening. It will prevent you being able to donate as much to good causes, however, including charities that empower the weak so that they can better resist the depredations of mining companies. Moreover, you may have a better chance of altering the bank’s actions—or, through the bank, the actions of the corporation for which it is raising money—if you are on the inside than if you are protesting from outside.
You may find, on the other hand, that you cannot have any influence on the bank’s policies because the corporate culture is to pursue profit regardless of the cost to the poor, and one junior employee cannot counteract that. Perhaps in especially egregious cases the right choice will be to quit and blow the whistle on what the bank is doing. Even then, your choice to work for the bank will have had good consequences, for it will have made you a better-informed, more credible opponent of the bank’s actions.
The consequentialist notion of complicity does have implications that many people will reject. It implies, for instance, that the guards at Auschwitz were not acting wrongly if their refusal to serve in that role would have led only to their replacement by someone else, perhaps someone who would have been even more brutal toward those who were about to be murdered there.
A Brookings Institution study has pointed out that millennials are much more concerned about corporate social responsibility than any previous generation, and as employees, they want “their daily work to be part of, and reflect, their societal concerns.”20 There are many ways of achieving that integration between work and social values. For the right person in the right circumstances, earning to give is one of them.
80,000 Hours is a metacharity, a charity that evaluates or promotes other charities. Other metacharities include Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and The Life You Can Save. Working for an effective metacharity can do more good than working for an ordinary charity because of the multiplier effect it can have—although this could also be an argument for earning to give and donating to the metacharity.
As in the case of an ordinary charity, you could be replaceable, but if you have special skills that others do not have, the payoff from those skills is likely to be high. Will’s understanding of ethics, his argumentative skills, his experience with the effective altruism movement, his knowledge of the facts that underpin effective altruism, and his personal connections in the movement make him extremely difficult to replace.
Years later I heard from Gorby again. He had joined the World Bank and was working with a team that evaluated the cost-effectiveness of the bank’s investments in global health. More specifically, he was managing the section that recommended investments in family planning. As a result of the recommendations his section made, the bank shifted about $400 million from projects that cost $300 for each unwanted birth averted to projects that cost $50 for the same outcome.
That is why 80,000 Hours recommends “Prioritization Research,” which it describes as “activity aimed at working out which causes, interventions, organisations, policies, etc. do the most to make the world a better place.”3
Ochojska’s reply was to reject the idea that caring for people far away is in conflict with caring for people nearby; she believes that making people aware of the needs of others anywhere in the world will make them more aware of the needs of local people as well.4
To train some of the local people to work in the hospital, Tzu Chi founded medical and nursing schools. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of its medical schools is the attitude shown to corpses that are used for medical purposes, such as teaching anatomy or simulation surgery, or for research. Obtaining corpses for this purpose is normally a problem in Chinese cultures because of a Confucian tradition that the body of a deceased person should be cremated with the body intact. Cheng Yen asked her volunteers to help by willing their bodies to the medical school after their death. In contrast to most medical schools, here the bodies are treated with the utmost respect for the person whose body it was. The students visit the family of the deceased and learn about his or her life. They refer to the deceased as “silent mentors,” place photographs of the living person on the walls of the medical school, and have a shrine to each donor. After the course has concluded and the body has served its purpose, all parts are replaced and the body is sewn up. The medical school then arranges a cremation ceremony in which students and the family take part.
Tzu Chi is now a huge organization, with seven million members in Taiwan alone—almost 30 percent of the population—and another three million members associated with chapters in 51 countries. This gives it a vast capacity to help. After a major earthquake hit Taiwan in 1999, Tzu Chi rebuilt 51 schools. Since then it has done the same after disasters in other countries, rebuilding 182 schools in 16 countries. Tzu Chi promotes sustainability in everything it does. It has become a major recycler, using its volunteers to gather plastic bottles and other recyclables that are turned into carpets and clothing. In order to promote sustainable living as well as compassion for sentient beings all meals served in Tzu Chi hospitals, schools, universities, and other institutions are vegetarian.
From the perspective of an effective altruist, Tzu Chi does some surprising things. After the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, Tzu Chi raised funds to distribute hot meals to survivors, and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which battered New York and New Jersey in 2012, Tzu Chi distributed $10 million dollars worth of Visa debit cards, with $600 on each card, to victims of the storm.7 When I visited the Tzu Chi hospital in Hualien, I asked Rey-Sheng Her, a spokesman for Tzu Chi, why the organization would give aid to the citizens of wealthy countries like Japan and the United States, when the money could do much more good if used to help people in extreme poverty. His answer was that it is important for Tzu Chi to show compassion and love for all, rich and poor. More practically, he suggested, it could also help to promote the work of Tzu Chi and its ideals of compassion in affluent countries. Tzu Chi is unlikely to ever become one of GiveWell’s recommended charities because it is more interested in spreading love and compassion than in demonstrating that it is getting the most good out of each dollar it spends.
In 2012 GiveWell ranked GiveDirectly among its top three recommended charities, a remarkable achievement given that only three years earlier the organization was no more than an idea in the heads of four graduate students studying for degrees in international development at Harvard and MIT. Michael Faye, Paul Niehaus, Jeremy Shapiro, and Rohit Wanchoo were all focused on understanding what works and what doesn’t work in development. They were also trying to decide where best to send their own charitable donations. On the one hand, they had their doubts about some of the work done by traditional charities; on the other hand, they had studied the impacts of several government programs in developing countries that had simply given cash to poor people, and they knew there was strong evidence that the recipients were generally using the money responsibly, with outcomes ranging from increased earnings to improved health and more education for children. They also learned that, thanks to improved payments technology, it was possible for the first time to send money electronically to the extreme poor.
Their vision for the future is to establish cash transfers as the benchmark that donors use to evaluate whether other, more traditional approaches are worth what they cost.8
I give a lot more than $5,000 each year, but I still have two kidneys. Going into hospital to have surgery that does no good to you and carries a risk of harm, however small, in order to benefit a stranger seems to me to take altruism to a very high level. It is therefore especially impressive that the number of people willing to do it, though still relatively small, is increasing.
We now have some sense of what effective altruists do. In brief, they are sufficiently concerned about the welfare of others to make meaningful changes in their lives. Effective altruists donate to charities that, instead of making an emotional appeal to prospective donors, can demonstrate that they will use donations to save lives and reduce suffering in a way that is highly cost-effective. In order to be able to do more good, effective altruists limit their spending or take a different career path so that they will have more to give or will be more useful in some other way. They may also donate blood, stem cells, bone marrow, or a kidney to a stranger.
David Hume, that shrewd eighteenth-century observer of his fellow humans, wrote, “There is no such passion in human minds as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to oneself.”1 More than a century later Darwin’s understanding of human evolution gave a scientific underpinning to Hume’s observation. We now know that we are the product of a long process of genetic selection that eliminated those unable to survive, reproduce, and have surviving offspring. Love of those with a “relation to oneself,” that is, our kin, is easily explained by our understanding of evolution because it promotes the survival of genes like ours. Love toward those with whom we are in a cooperative relationship or who, in Hume’s language, provide us with “services” is explicable because such relationships benefit those who are involved in them. The evolutionary process would, however, seem likely to eliminate those who love and assist all humans as much as they love and assist their kin and those with whom they are in a mutually beneficial relationship. Frans de Waal, who has spent a lifetime observing the social behavior of our closest nonhuman relatives, points out that morality probably evolved within groups, together with other related capacities for resolving conflicts, cooperating, and sharing. Yet this notion does not lead to the kind of universal altruism that effective altruists practice. On the contrary, de Waal writes, “Universally, humans treat outsiders far worse than members of their own community: in fact, moral rules hardly seem to apply to the outside.”2 Two other strong advocates of group selection as a key factor in the evolution of altruism, Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, make the same point: “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.”3
Effective altruists are sensitive to numbers and to cost per life saved or year of suffering prevented. If they have $10,000 to donate, they would rather give it to a charity that can save a life for $2,000 than one that can save a life for $5,000 because they would rather save five lives than two.
as these two findings strongly suggest, utilitarians are less prone to feel emotional empathy than others, it seems unlikely that effective altruists are dramatically different in this regard. At the very least, their altruistic actions are not likely to be the result of greater emotional empathy than people who do not act altruistically. In response to those who think that what the world most needs is an expansion of empathy, Bloom writes, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”
Against Hume’s famous sentence, we can put one from Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”15 For Kant the moral law is a law of reason; but Kant asserts that reflection on this law of reason gives rise to feelings. What he fails to explain, however, is how the eternal truths of reason can generate feelings in all human beings, with their distinct empirical natures. In the light of this difficulty, Hume’s view may seem the only defensible one.
Each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him.16 This maxim—and, for that matter, the two principles that led Sidgwick to it—is very similar to the principle that Bloom proposed as a better hope for the future than the idea of extending empathy to everyone on the planet. It is also exactly the kind of principle that would guide receptive people to do the things that, as we have seen in the previous chapters, effective altruists do.
Here are some commonly expressed dispositions and affections that effective altruists would consider misguided grounds for giving: •I give to breast cancer research because my wife died of breast cancer. •I always wanted to be an artist but never had the opportunity, so now I direct my charitable contributions to organizations that provide opportunities for promising artists to develop their creative talents. •I am passionate about photographing nature, so I donate to protect our wonderful national parks. •Because I am an American, disadvantaged Americans have the first call on my charity. •I love dogs so I give to my local animal shelter. The influence that “the point of view of the universe” has on one’s behavior will vary from person to person. Perhaps it is significant that many effective altruists decided on their overall goal while they were still quite young, before they were too deeply embedded in more particular projects or, in some cases, close personal attachments to people who do not share their values. As infants we cannot reason, but we can and do have emotions about a wide range of things. When we begin to reason we are likely to use reason to generalize and draw inferences from those situations about which we already have an emotional attitude.
What Kravinsky meant is that they did not understand that, because the risk of dying as a result of donating a kidney is only one in four thousand, not to donate a kidney to someone in need is to value one’s own life at four thousand times that of a stranger, a view Zell thought was wrong. The relevance of the remark is that Zell explained the failure of others to understand his motivation in terms of a deficiency in a cognitive capacity, not of the absence of a feeling or emotion. Toby Ord made a similar comment when he explained his shift to what we would now describe as effective altruism as the outcome of his calculation about how many people he could help if he lived modestly and donated everything above that to effective charities.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks recognized the intellectual basis of effective altruism—and was clearly uncomfortable with it—when he was criticizing the idea of “earning to give”: “If you see the world on a strictly intellectual level, then a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child. But not many people actually think this way. Not many people value abstract life perceived as a statistic as much as the actual child being fed, hugged, nurtured and played with.”4 Critics of effective altruism often suggest, as Brooks is doing here, that there is something odd or unnatural about being moved by the “strictly intellectual” understanding that a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child.5 But as I said in the preface, loving your own child does not mean you have to be so dazzled by your love that you are unable to see that there is a point of view from which other children matter just as much as your own or that this perspective is unable to have an impact on the way you live.
My favorite example of the combination of effective altruism and numeracy is the website Counting Animals, which has the subtitle “A place for people who love animals and numbers” and a home page stating that “nerdism meets animal rights here!” We can speculate that people with a high level of abstract reasoning ability are more likely to take the kind of approach to helping others that is characteristic of effective altruism. This speculation gains some support from research into how donors to a charity respond to information about the effectiveness of the charity.
To the letters sent to a random sample of donors Karlan and Wood added information giving scientific evidence of the effectiveness of Freedom from Hunger’s work. They found that this information increased the number of donations received from large donors, who had previously given $100 or more, but decreased the number of donations received from small donors. As we noticed earlier, small donors who give to many charities tend to be “warm glow” donors who are not really concerned to do the most good. As Karlan and Wood write, “Our finding that smaller prior donors respond to information on charitable effectiveness by donating less frequently and in smaller amounts is consistent with other research showing that emotional impulses for giving shut down in the presence of analytical information.”6
Effective altruists, on the other hand, are strongly influenced by analytical information, which suggests that their emotional impulses are not inhibited by such information. Instead, they use it to override those elements of their emotional impulses that lead other people to act less effectively.
The hypothesis that effective altruists tend, to a higher degree than many other people, to allow their reasoning abilities to override and redirect their emotions is consistent with more than a decade of psychological research on Joshua Greene’s suggestion that we use two distinct processes when we make moral judgments. Greene suggests that the way most people make moral judgments can be thought of as akin to taking photographs with a camera that is normally used in “point-and-shoot” mode but can be switched to a manual mode that overrides the automatic settings. When we are confronted with a situation calling for moral judgment, we usually have an instinctive gut reaction that tells us when something is wrong. Like a point-and-shoot camera, our intuitive responses are quick and easy to operate and in normal conditions yield good results; but in rare situations with special features, they can lead us astray. In that case we will do better if we switch to manual mode, in other words, put aside our instinctive reactions and think the issue through.
Point-and-shoot cameras were designed to enable people who are not expert photographers to take good photographs in most circumstances. Our quick moral responses were not designed but evolved by natural selection. Given that for most of our evolutionary history we lived in small tribal groups, it is no surprise that we developed instinctive responses that led us to help our kin and those with whom we could form cooperative relationships but did not favor helping distant strangers or animals. The most controversial aspect of this model is that it links moral judgments characteristically based on the idea that something is just wrong in itself, independently of its consequences, to the instinctive, emotionally based point-and-shoot mode of reaching a moral judgment and links characteristically utilitarian judgments to the manual mode, which draws on our conscious thought processes, or reasoning, as well as on emotional attitudes.
If a high level of abstract reasoning ability is conducive to effective altruism, we can ask why it has emerged as a movement only now. Have people’s abstract reasoning abilities suddenly improved? Several factors are likely to be involved. In affluent nations a sizable segment of the population lives very comfortably and does not have to worry about economic security. In these circumstances, the need to find meaning and fulfillment in life comes to the fore, and many people turn to effective altruism as a way of giving their lives a purpose it would not otherwise have. Moreover, substantial wealth is now coming to a new generation of people who work in areas that analyze data and evidence. They are likely to be more ready to embrace the idea of giving based on doing the most good as opposed to giving based on family traditions, social conventions, or personal feelings. Technological changes that make it possible for effective altruists to connect with each other via the Internet have been important. The establishment of GiveWell has eased the difficulty of knowing where best to give.
Steven Pinker believes that the improvement in our reasoning abilities may have begun when the development of the printing press spread ideas and information to a much larger proportion of the population. He argues that better reasoning had a positive moral impact too. We became better able to take an impartial stance and detach ourselves from our personal and parochial perspectives. Pinker calls this a “moral Flynn effect.”16 If he is right, this effect could have led more people to the kind of ethical views that are characteristic of effective altruism. Who knows what changes the twenty-first century, with its enormous expansion of personal communications and thus of contacts with others both near and far, will bring to human nature, to our brains, and to our moral sense?
Studies of the relationship between income and happiness or well-being indicate that for people at low levels of income, an increase in income does lead to greater happiness, but once income is sufficient to provide for one’s needs and a degree of financial security, further increases have either much less impact on happiness or no impact at all. Other things, especially warm personal relationships, contribute much more. One study calculated that for single people earning their society’s median income, finding a domestic partner would give as big a boost to happiness as a 767 percent increase in income.3
We should instead focus on whether what makes them happy involves increasing the well-being of others. If we wish, we can redefine the terms egoism and altruism in this way, so that they refer to whether people’s interests include a strong concern for others—it if does, then let’s call them altruists, whether or not acting on this concern for others involves a gain or loss for the “altruist.”
Trying to do the most good involves making difficult judgments, not only about which charities are most highly effective but also about the broad areas in which our resources will do the most good. So far I have taken aiding the world’s poorest people as my leading example of a highly effective cause; but is it the most effective possible cause? How does it compare with efforts to stop the infliction of suffering on animals? to mitigate the damage we are doing to the climate of our planet? to save endangered species from extinction? or perhaps to save ourselves, by reducing the risk that we will wipe ourselves out?
You may be thinking that this figure could be misleading because of the greater purchasing power of money in poorer countries, but that is already taken into account. The World Bank’s figure is at “purchasing power parity”—in other words, it is the amount that, in the local currency in the country in which the person lives, buys the same amount of food and other essentials that one can buy for $1.53 in the United States in 2014.9
All impoverished Americans have access to safe drinking water, free schooling for their children, free health care through Medicaid and, in many cases, subsidized public housing. Should they fall seriously ill, they can go to a hospital emergency room, and the hospital will be legally bound to treat them, irrespective of whether they have health insurance, until it is safe for them to be discharged. Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries lack these benefits. Those who are poor in the United States are poor relative to the majority of members of a society that is, by historical standards, extraordinarily affluent.
I am not denying that Americans should be deeply concerned about poverty in their own country. Other affluent nations have better social security than the United States, so their poor are, in absolute terms, generally better off than the poor in the United States, but in those countries, too, there are grounds for trying to do better. I have no doubt that being poor in a rich nation makes life extremely difficult and often degrading. My point is only that there is a wide gulf between being poor in the United States and being in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank. For effective altruists, the most important consequence of this gulf is that their dollars go much further when used to aid those outside the affluent nations. We have already seen this in regard to interventions to protect health.
Robert Wiblin has called the difference in what you can get for donations to different charities altruistic arbitrage. In the business world, if two identical products are selling at different prices in different markets and the cost of transporting the products from the lower-priced market to the higher-priced market is less than the price difference, someone will soon buy where the price is lower and sell where the price is higher. That is known as arbitrage, and it tends to smooth out such price differences. If the world of philanthropy were like the business world, then whenever there is an opportunity to do good much more cheaply than most people are doing good, philanthropists would pounce on it, and the opportunity would rapidly disappear. But philanthropy is not as focused on effectiveness as the financial sector is focused on profit. Some causes are less popular than others and so tend to be neglected. That explains why it is possible to do so much more good per dollar donated by helping poor people in poor nations than poor people in rich nations.
“Target groups you care about that other people mostly don’t, and take advantage of strategies other people are biased against using.”
Intuitively, one might answer the question in this way: The difference between avoiding fifteen years of blindness and not seeing a new wing of an art museum is so great that we don’t need to take account of the numbers. There is no number of enhanced museum visits that would outweigh restoring sight to someone who will otherwise be blind for so long. The Harvard philosopher Thomas Scanlon defends a view like this when he invites us to imagine a situation in which a technician suffers an accident in the transmitter room of a television station during the broadcast of a football match. The technician is in severe pain, which cannot be stopped without interrupting the broadcast and diminishing the pleasure of all the fans watching. The match still has an hour to run. According to Scanlon, it doesn’t matter how many fans are enjoying the game; even if there are a billion of them, we should not attempt to add up their pleasures and see if they outweigh the pain of the technician. When we are faced with the needs of those who are, in Scanlon’s words, “severely burdened,” the sum of the smaller pleasures of the many have no “justificatory weight.”2
Similar methods of comparing very different kinds of benefits are used by economists to judge how much people value certain states of affairs. Such methods are open to criticism because many people appear to have irrational attitudes toward small risks of very bad things happening. (That’s why we need legislation requiring people in cars to wear seat belts.) An alternative way of thinking about the choice is to ask how many hours or days of blindness you would accept in exchange for seeing the new wing. Fifteen years is 5,475 days, so unless you would be willing to be blind for 54.75 days in order to see the new wing, you are agreeing that donating to prevent or cure trachoma does more good than donating to the museum.
Art surely can be an aid to learning, but building new museums is not likely to be the most cost-effective way to do that. We have other opportunities for studying art from which we will learn as much or more than we can by joining the crowds peering at very expensive paintings from behind a rope or through bulletproof glass. If the goal were really to educate the public about art, museums would do better to spend a few thousand dollars on the highest-quality reproductions and allow the public to get as close to them as they like. To forestall misunderstandings: there is value in creating and enjoying art. To many people, drawing, painting, sculpting, singing, and playing a musical instrument are vital forms of self-expression, and their lives would be poorer without them. People produce art in all cultures and in all kinds of situations, even when they cannot satisfy their basic physical needs. Other people enjoy seeing art. In a world in which everyone had enough to eat, basic health care, adequate sanitation, and a place at school for each of their children, there would be no problem about donating to museums and other institutions that offer an opportunity to see original works of art to all who wish to see them, and (more important, in my view) the opportunity to create art to those who lack opportunities to express themselves in this way. Sadly, we don’t live in that world, at least not yet.
even if donors give much less when advisors try to persuade them not to follow their initial inclinations about where they should give, the outcome may still be better. A donor might, for example, give half as much, but the charity may do a hundred times as much good per dollar it receives; then persuading the donor to give to the more effective charity will lead to benefits fifty times greater than leaving the donor to follow her or his initial personal convictions.
“If $100,000 can prevent blindness in 1,000 people, is that better than using $100,000 to feed the starving? Rescue abused animals? Protect women from rape? Keep glaciers frozen? Provide education? Housing? Accountable government? There are no precise answers to these questions, and sound impact assessment won’t create them. It will only allow us to compare programs addressing similar objectives with one another. It won’t tell us whose fate is most worth changing. Hard as it is, we must each answer that question for ourselves.”
It is not difficult to find grounds for disagreeing with this discount rate for blindness and with the methods used to evaluate various health states.2 Whom should we ask to do this evaluation: ordinary members of the public? or those with the condition? On the one hand, there is plenty of psychological research casting doubt on the reliability of judgments by people in good health about what it would be like to suffer from adverse health conditions. On the other hand, people who have adjusted to such a condition may have forgotten how much better it was to be in good health. Even people who have recently had a painful experience and are asked how bad it was seem to be subject to illusions.3
The only way one might think that it is would be to hold that the greatest evil is to be found not in the harm suffered by the victim but in the evil intentions of the perpetrator. Some Roman Catholics may hold this view. In a famous passage, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “[The Church] holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse.”7
is, however, a straightforward reason for not giving the highest priority to charities that rescue abused animals. The suffering of abused pets amounts to a tiny fraction of the suffering we inflict on animals.
In The Animal Activists’ Handbook Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich make a startling claim that vividly illustrates the vastly greater suffering of animals raised for food compared to other ways in which we cause animals to suffer: “Every year, hundreds of millions of animals—many times more than the total number killed for fur, housed in shelters, and locked in laboratories combined—don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.”4
Harish Sethu has done the sums for the United States on his website Counting Animals. The total number of animals killed in shelters each year is around 4 million, for fur 10 million, and in laboratories 11.5 million, making a total of approximately 25.5 million. Using conservative figures based on industry reports and scientific journals, Sethu estimates that 139 million chickens suffer to death annually. Adding turkeys, pigs, and cattle would increase this figure.5 Despite this immense disproportion, because our pets are so much more popular than chickens or pigs or cows, there are thousands of organizations in the United States working to help dogs and cats and relatively few working for farmed animals. Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) acknowledges that by sterilizing dogs and cats, curtailing the spread of disease among them, and finding good homes for some animals in shelters it is possible to reduce the suffering and killing of dogs and cats; but this comes at a high cost because it includes medical care, vaccines, and the provision of food and housing.
Hence, ACE says, “it seems unlikely that this is a cost-effective method to alleviate suffering.” Instead, ACE concludes that the most effective way to help animals and prevent the largest amount of suffering is to be an advocate for farm animals. Whereas animal rescue will cost tens or even hundreds of dollars per animal saved, convincing people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products saves animals at a fraction of this cost. At the time of writing, ACE’s recommended charities are both focused on farm animals.6 This is an instance of the altruistic arbitrage discussed at the conclusion of chapter 9: we should follow Robert Wiblin’s advice to focus on the causes that most people don’t care about. This is where altruists will find the low-hanging fruit.
The inclusion of animals on Berman’s list of causes does, admittedly, raise a more difficult question: How can we compare the good achieved by helping animals with the good achieved by other charities? Here, two separate questions are often confused. One is a factual question: Do animals suffer as much as humans? The other is ethical: Given that an animal is suffering as much as a human, does the suffering of the animal matter as much as the suffering of the human? The answer to the ethical question should be yes. In Animal Liberation I argue that to give less consideration to the interests of nonhuman animals, merely because they are not members of our species, is speciesism and is wrong in much the same way that the crudest forms of racism and sexism are wrong. Speciesism is a form of discrimination against the interests of those who are not “us,” where the line between us and the outsiders is drawn on the basis of something that is not in itself morally relevant. My impression is that the moral irrelevance of species, in itself, has come to be accepted by most philosophers who reflect on the question.7 The rejection of speciesism is not, however, the end of the debate about the moral weight we should give to animal suffering.
Defenders of the way we treat animals usually point out that humans are more rational or autonomous or self-aware or capable of reciprocating than nonhuman animals.8 To argue on these grounds is to defend not species-ism but the distinct view that we should give more weight to the interests of beings who are rational or autonomous or self-aware or capable of reciprocating. This argument falls short of defending the way we currently treat humans and nonhumans, however, because there are some humans who manifestly have these characteristics to a lesser degree than some nonhumans. Compare, for instance, dogs with human infants less than a month old or chimpanzees with some profoundly intellectually disabled humans. To put aside the possible complications of the potential of a normal infant, we can think only about profoundly intellectually disabled humans. If a nonhuman animal is on the same mental level as a human being—or is superior to the human—and the human has no potential to surpass the level of the animal, then arguments based on the special value of beings with higher cognitive capacities will not justify giving more weight to the human, and we wrong animals whenever we give less weight to their interests than we would, in the same circumstances, give to a human with similar capacities.
To say that we are justified in comparing the sufferings of humans with those of nonhuman animals and that we wrong animals if we give less weight to their sufferings than we give to the similar sufferings of humans is not to deny that there are capacities possessed by normal humans beyond infancy that make a difference to how we should assess interests.
We saw in chapter 4 that some effective altruists think that giving to reduce animal suffering is the most effective form of altruism. They are aware of the difficulties just mentioned, but they believe that even if we think farmed animals like chickens, pigs, and cows have less capacity to suffer than human beings, the huge numbers involved and the relatively low cost of making a difference to these numbers by encouraging people to cut down or eliminate the consumption of animal products makes this the most cost-effective way of reducing suffering. Vegan Outreach has, for many years, used volunteers to hand out leaflets at colleges and universities in the United States and is now expanding these activities to other countries. Organizations like The Humane League now use Vegan Outreach leaflets and also do online advertising to lead people to watch videos. The outcomes have been evaluated through follow-ups that seek to estimate the number of people who change their diet as a result of the advertising. ACE has made a careful attempt to establish the cost of averting a year of animal suffering by these techniques.
In addition, when we reduce animal suffering by reducing the consumption of animal products, we get a huge free bonus. Ben West, one of the effective altruists mentioned in chapter 4, has shown that even if your goal were solely to slow down climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you could do that more effectively by donating to organizations that are encouraging people to go vegetarian or vegan than by donating to leading carbon-offsetting organizations.
Is there value in nature beyond the experiences of sentient beings? Many defenders of wilderness and endangered species argue that there is. When they advocate action to preserve forest or protect endangered species—sometimes killing, in painful ways, large numbers of feral animals in order to do so—they often support their proposals by asserting that biodiversity is an intrinsic value that does not need further justifi-cation from arguments that link it to benefits for humans or other sentient beings. The view that nature is intrinsically valuable was memorably expressed by the early American environmentalist Aldo Leopold. In an oft-quoted passage he advocates a “land ethic” according to which an action is right “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” and wrong when it has the opposite tendency.14
Evidence of the highest quality, GiveWell contends, is found only in academic research which focuses on the type of intervention (for example, distributing insecticide-treated nets to reduce the burden of malaria; deworming children; providing cash grants to poor families) and not on the charity that is carrying out the intervention.
Thus one could describe GiveWell’s current mode of investigation as first identifying interventions for which there is rigorous evidence that they have positive effects, and then investigating organizations that focus narrowly on these demonstrably beneficial interventions.
But the Jameel Poverty Action Lab has tested them and found that the last one on the list is by far the most cost-effective. Every $100 spent on providing information to parents about the increased wages of those who stay at school results in an amazing 20.7 additional years spent at school! Deworming through primary schools is also highly cost-effective, leading to 13.9 additional years spent at school per $100 spent.
Bintliff is not the first to claim that it is unethical to do randomized trials. The usual basis of the ethical objection to randomized trials is that to obtain the necessary control group, one must deny the intervention to half of the population that could benefit from it. This objection would gain more traction if we had good grounds for believing that the intervention is beneficial and have the option of providing it to everyone who could benefit from it. Presumably, though, limited resources make that impossible for Heifer International. If some people will, in any case, not receive the intervention, it is difficult to see any ethical objection to making use of that fact to learn how beneficial the intervention really is.
Political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty, leaving its causes untouched. Working to change unfair trading practices that disadvantage developing countries is one way in which we can try to address at least some of the causes of poverty. We can, for example, try to reduce the impact of the so-called resource curse, that is, the paradox that in impoverished countries the discovery of natural resources like oil and minerals is likely to leave levels of poverty untouched or even make them worse. This is in part owing to the impact of a large export industry in raising the value of the country’s currency, thus making it harder for local manufacturing industries to compete in international markets.
The riches awaiting anyone who can seize control of the government increase the chances of a military coup or an armed insurrection, which can turn into a disastrous civil war. For this reason many antipoverty organizations are part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, working alongside governments and companies to implement an international standard requiring transparency both from the foreign companies concerning what they pay for rights and from the governments of resource-rich countries concerning what they receive and what happens to it.
Nick Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, uses the term existential risk to mean a situation in which “an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.”2 The reason for specifying “Earth-originating intelligent life” is that what matters is the type of life that exists—is it intelligent? does it have positive experiences? and so on—not its species.
What are the major existential risks? and how likely are we to be able to reduce them? Apart from the risk of a large asteroid colliding with our planet, here are some other ways in which we might become extinct: •Nuclear war: Although the danger seems to have receded since the end of the Cold War, the nuclear powers still possess about seventeen thousand nuclear warheads, more than enough to cause the extinction of all large animals on the planet, including us.3 •Pandemic of natural origin: The present century has already seen the emergence of several deadly new viruses for which there is no cure. Fortunately, none of them have been highly contagious, but that could change. •Pandemic caused by bioterrorism: Viruses could be deliberately engineered to be both deadly and highly contagious. •Global warming: The most likely predictions are that over the next century global warming will cause regional catastrophes, but not human extinction. The big unknown, however, is feedback loops, for example, from the release of methane caused by the thawing of the Siberian permafrost, which might go so far as to make the planet uninhabitable, if not in the next century, then within the next five hundred years. That kind of time-scale may give us time to colonize another planet, but it is hard to be confident about that. •Nanotech accident: This scenario involves tiny self-replicating robots multiplying until the entire planet is covered in them. It’s also known as the “gray goo” scenario. Let’s hope it stays in the realm of science fiction. •Physics research producing hyperdense “strange matter”: There has been some speculation that the development of devices like the Large Hadron Collider could produce matter so dense that it would attract nearby nuclei until the entire planet becomes a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters in diameter. •Superintelligent unfriendly artificial intelligence: Some computer scientists believe that at some point during the present century, artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence and will then be independent of human control. If so, it might be sufficiently hostile to humans to eliminate us.
the lack of identifiable victims and the diffusion of responsibility that occurs when no particular individual, agency, or nation is more responsible for dealing with the problem than any other.
This further step, some will say, isn’t just a step beyond our emotional capacity for empathy but one to which our reason can also object. It overlooks what is really so tragic about premature death: that it cuts short the lives of specific living persons whose plans and goals are thwarted. If people are never born, they have not formed any plans or set any goals and hence have less to lose. As this line of argument suggests, just how bad the extinction of intelligent life on our planet would be depends crucially on how we value lives that have not yet begun and perhaps never will begin. The extraordinary implications of the view that every life counts equally, whether it is the life of someone who will exist whatever we do or a life that will exist only if we make certain choices, might make us keen to reject this view.
The alternative to Bostrom’s assumption is what I have elsewhere called the prior existence view: that if people or, more broadly, sentient beings, exist or will exist independently of anything we choose to do, we ought to make their lives as good as possible; but we have no obligation to try to bring about the existence of people who, but for our actions, would not have existed at all.10 This view fits with the common belief that there is no obligation to reproduce, even if one could give one’s children a good start in life and they would be likely to live happy lives.
We need to encourage more people to be effective altruists, and causes like helping the global poor are more likely to draw people toward thinking and acting as effective altruists than the cause of reducing existential risk. The larger the number of people who are effective altruists, the greater the likelihood that at least some of them will become concerned about reducing existential risk and will provide resources for doing so.
Whether it was good or bad from (to use Sidgwick’s phrase) “the point of view of the universe” is debatable, but if human life is sufficiently positive to offset the suffering we have inflicted on animals and if we can be hopeful that in the future life will get better both for humans and for animals, then perhaps it will turn out to have been good. Remember Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, which refers to the annihilation not of human beings but of “Earth-originating intelligent life.”
The risk posed by the development of AI, therefore, is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting well-being in general for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included. If there is any validity in the argument presented in chapter 8, that beings with highly developed capacities for reasoning are better able to take an impartial ethical stance, then there is some reason to believe that, even without any special effort on our part, superintelligent beings, whether biological or mechanical, will do the most good they possibly can.
For example, eliminating or decreasing the consumption of animal products will benefit animals, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lessen the chances of a pandemic resulting from a virus evolving among the animals crowded into today’s factory farms, which are an ideal breeding ground for viruses. That therefore looks like a high-priority strategy. Other strategies that offer immediate benefits while reducing existential risk might be educating and empowering women, who tend to be less aggressive than men. Giving them greater say in national and international affairs could therefore reduce the chances of nuclear war. Educating women has also been shown to lead them to have fewer and healthier children, and that will give us a better chance of stabilizing the world’s population at a sustainable level.
No wonder that when I speak about effective altruism I am often asked how I can remain optimistic about human nature and its potential for altruism. If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media. There are plenty of violent people, but for any randomly selected person today the chances of meeting a violent death at the hands of his or her fellow humans is lower now than it has ever been in human history.1 “Peace Continues in North America” (or in most of Europe or China or India or South America) does not make a good media headline and neither, it seems, does steady progress in reducing human suffering and premature death. Here is one example of that progress. In 2009, when I wrote The Life You Can Save, I drew on the latest UNICEF report on deaths in children, which showed that nearly 10 million children were dying each year from avoidable, poverty-related causes. The next year, when the paperback came out, that figure had dropped to below 9 million. As I complete this book, the most recent UNICEF estimate is 6.3 million. On a daily basis, in five years the number of children dying from preventable diseases has dropped from 27,000 to 17,000. I have no desire to underestimate the tragedy that is happening in Syria, which is the bloodiest of the current conflicts, but even there, the average daily death toll over the past three years has been fewer than 150.2 If that toll makes us feel that the struggle for a better world is hopeless, the fact that 10,000 fewer children are dying every day—and altruistic efforts to protect these children from malaria, measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia have played a major part in saving their lives—should restore some balance to the picture and encourage us to do more, until large-scale deaths from preventable diseases no longer occur.
Effective altruism is an advance in ethical behavior as well as in the practical application of our ability to reason. I have described it as an emerging movement, and that term suggests that it will continue to develop and spread. If it does, then once there is a critical mass of effective altruists, it will no longer seem odd for anyone to regard bringing about “the most good I can do” as an important life goal. If effective altruism does become mainstream, I would expect it to spread more rapidly, for then it will be apparent that it is easy to do a great deal of good and feel better about your life as a result. Whether and, if so, when, that critical mass is reached will depend on the readiness of people all over the world to espouse a new ethical ideal: to do the most good they can.