Effectiveness or altruism?

Effective altruism is all the rage. And as we all know, a highly effectively altruistic thing to do is bring about more effective altruism. However, the optimal mixture of activities for promoting effectiveness is not identical to that for promoting altruism. They are upheld by different norms, and require different efforts to expand and arguments to proliferate. Which brings us to a need for prioritization. So, which is better: effectiveness or altruism?

By this I mean, which is the better recipient of marginal promotion effort?

For background, I’m visiting the Oxford Effective Altruists at the moment. Conversations here made it salient to me that my implicit views on this question have changed a lot since I was a teenager, and also differ from others’ in the EA movement. So I thought I’d lay them out.

When I was younger, I thought altruism was about the most promising way to make the world better. There were extremely cheap figures around for the cost to save a human life, and people seemed to not care. So prima facie it seemed that the highly effective giving opportunities were well worked out, and the main problem was that people tended to give $2 to such causes occasionally, rather than giving every spare cent they had, that wasn’t already earmarked for something more valuable than human lives.

These days I am much more optimistic about improving effectiveness than altruism, and not just because I’m less naive about cost-effectiveness estimates. Here are some considerations:

Past success

So far, effectiveness has bought more than altruism for EAs, arguably. That is, giving an ordinary amount highly effectively will buy more good than giving a highly altruistic amount in an ordinary way. The difference between a normal amount of giving and a highly altruistic one is around 20x by my reckoning. I’m not sure what the mean charity is, but my impression is that it is less than 1/20th as useful as the best things we know of. Better data on this welcome.

Furthermore, perhaps the quest for producing altruistic value can learn from the more popular quest to produce selfish value. There have been efforts both to encourage people to be more selfish (see Ayn Rand) and to find cost-effective ways to direct selfish efforts. As far as I can tell, the former might even produce negative selfish value for people, whereas mankind has become reasonably good at finding selfishly valuable investments. But you might reasonably retort that the quest for selfish value has less to gain from changing values, given the ubiquity of selfishness. Also, selfish people have little reason to spread selfishness. The spread of useful understanding for prioritizing selfish actions is perhaps largely because information is reusable and hard to contain.


Effectiveness is much rarer and altruism more common than I assumed when younger. Altruism is actually done to extremes reasonably often. Perhaps more importantly, pushing for effectiveness is much rarer than pushing for altruism. People are neither naturally very effective in their altruistic endeavors, nor driven to look for effectiveness and praise it in others. Altruism on the other hand is universally liked, and celebrated in others. It is searched for on first dates, and praised at funerals. Quite a lot of effort has been put into encouraging it.  

ROOM FOR MORE FUNDING (marginal value)

There appear to be high value ways to encourage effectiveness, such as by doing or funding the research others need to be effective, and making it appealing to use. For instance, it seems that producing trustworthy prioritization of high level causes (e.g. poverty alleviation vs. technological progress) could easily produce more value from redirecting others’ funds than one competent person’s lifetime of giving to AMF, and I think would take less than one competent person’s lifetime. So I think such prioritization is a better investment than AMF, which makes it a good investment.

In encouraging altruism, I don’t know of any particularly promising directions. The most effective I have seen is probably Peter Singer‘s method, of writing for a popular audience, encouraging readers to resolve their moral inconsistencies in favor of altruism. I’m not sure if you can do such a thing again however; the low hanging fruit may be eaten, and Singer may have been especially well equipped to pick them.


There’s only so altruistic a person can be, and the limit is within about an order of magnitude of where a lot of people are. We know what this would look like: about ten times better than what a Giving What We Can member’s achievements looks like. It seems on the other hand that there are much higher reaches of good prioritization that we haven’t seen – it isn’t clear how good the best visible opportunities could be, if we could spot them.

Flow-through effects

Effectiveness probably leads to altruism more than the other way around

An intuitive story is that if a person really cared about helping, they would be naturally driven to find exceptionally good ways to do so. The fact that ‘effective altruism’ is a thing suggests this is not so, for whatever odd/cynical reason.

On the other hand, learning that one can can help others more cheaply than one thought, and having more confidence in the reliableness of the estimates producing this belief, seems to encourage altruism. People are moved by Peter Singer’s story of the child in the pond in a way they would arguably not be if the passerby had to make a very substantial sacrifice and was less confident about the outcome of his action. On the other hand, on the way to improving effectiveness, we often learn that things are less effective than we thought, which will presumably undermine altruism by this reasoning.

Economics of information

An abstract consideration in favor of expecting higher returns to encouraging effectiveness is that much progress on effectiveness is in the form of producing insights and other information, which can be shared, reused, and built upon.

Effectiveness is more valuable when applied broadly

My impression is that in every part of the world, not just in philanthropy, better systems for assessing opportunities and making good decisions promise great gains. Altruism is not the only place where where contemporary efforts are primitive. Progress in prioritizing altruistic endeavors should often be applicable to this larger worthy project. Progress in effectiveness often comes with the accumulation of insights and other information, and information can be shared, reused, and built upon in a way that a pile of altruists can’t be so well. If people weren’t altruistic at all, but were basically cooperative (for selfish reasons), and they could discern of good policies from bad as perfectly as publicly available information would allow, I think this would make the world much better.

Altruism too appears to have many benefits outside of philanthropy. If people were more considerate of one another in general, they would avoid many harms from externalities and failures to coordinate. My sense is that within the plausible ranges of change however, these gains are smaller.  If everyone was extremely well meaning but as just as uncertain about how best to act as we are today I would also expect things to go better but not nearly as much.

One thing that contributes to these intuitions is my impression that the difference in social effects between a person who is nice enough to have enjoyable relationships and one who is particularly kind at cost to themself is smaller than the difference in effect between a person who has a good sense of how to achieve what they want, and one who acts without regard to strategy.

This intuition also depends on one’s answer to the question of why things go wrong in the world. Some ills are intentional malice, some are unchecked side effects of selfishness, and some are from ignorance and error. Altruism makes a dent on malice and selfishness, whereas progress in effectiveness diminishes the costs from ignorance and error.

I’m inclined to think that ignorance and error make up a large part of the problem, though not obviously most. My guess is selfishness makes up most of the rest, and malice is small.

Naively, avoiding ignorance and error should be an easier sell: everyone wants their own choices to be better, whereas I’d expect more hesitance about increasing their willingness to sacrifice for others. However after effort has been put into both, this may not be true on the margin. Also, there are many ways to make people more altruistic in effect that don’t involve changing their values per se, e.g. arranging for them to feel better when they are being altruistic, or to have social support for it.


Ironically, cost-effectiveness seems hard to measure. You can go by the current value for money estimate of your best cause, but this has a tendency to decrease as the quality of the estimate increases. This makes it a less good target for improvement, as it is harder to know when you are improving it, and easier for standards to decline without anyone noticing (this should go under the next section). On the other hand, there are relatively good (if imperfect) measures of altruism, such as ‘what fraction of your income do you give to charity?’.

Long term durability

One last consideration is how changes in altruism and changes in effectiveness will last. I am not optimistic about changes in values lasting well. At first glance, if it was easy enough for you to shift others’ values, you might expect them to shift again the next time someone pushes on them. Perhaps the situation is more complicated though. For instance, perhaps altruism is stickier than other values: it just inherently makes more sense, so once you have it you keep it. Or perhaps it spreads more easily: only altruists care about spreading their values to others. But in these kinds of situations, spreading altruism is still not as helpful as it looks, because everyone will end up there soon enough anyway.

The same goes for people valuing ‘being effective’ highly. However as I mentioned earlier, changes in effectiveness often involve insights that can accumulate. This makes it harder for progress to be completely reversed. Humans have come to not care much at all about hand-weaving, but still our accumulated insights on it mean that whenever anyone wants to weave stuff by hand, they can do it very effectively.


In summary, I think effectiveness is relatively neglected, though it has a better track record of success, more room for funding, better upsides, and produces better flow-through effects.

11 responses to “Effectiveness or altruism?

  1. “I’m inclined to think that ignorance and error make up a large part of the problem, though not obviously most. My guess is selfishness makes up most of the rest, and malice is small.”

    Is there any evidence for this or is this mostly wishful thinking? I’d say both benevolence and malice are considerable human motivators. If you gave random people a means that allows them to cheaply inflict suffering on chosen others, or members of chosen outgroups, I’m sure enormous amounts of pain would be created instantly.

    • I agree there is quite a bit of malice as a motivator, but I think it is largely in check. People don’t have cheap ways to harm others much, in part because we have organized to disincentivize it strongly. There may still be many dirty looks and spiteful failures to help etc, which are hard to punish, but I don’t think these are big next to selfish externalities and failures to help, and failures to even know what to do.

      • Really, Katja, you’re getting insufferably arrogant. Who cares what you “think” about a question like the relative importance of malice and ignorance? Do you really think the few supporting platitudes settle the question or even contributes to clarifying it?

  2. Perhaps a really simple model:

    1.) An average unaltruistic person donates 2% of their income, whereas an average altruistic person donates 10%.

    2.) An average effective person donates to Against Malaria Foundation, whereas an average ineffective person donates to their local homeless shelter.

    3.) AMA is 2000x more effective than the local homeless shelter.

    * An ineffective unaltruistic person with $100K will donate $2K to the local homeless shelter.
    * An ineffective altruistic person with $100K will donate $20K to the local homeless shelter.
    * An effective unaltruistic person with $100K will donate $2K to Against Malaria Foundation, which is like donating $4 million to the local homeless shelter.
    * An effective altruistic person with $100K will donate $20K to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is like donating $40 million to the local homeless shelter.

    * Being “effective” is more important than being “altruistic” in terms of who does the most good.
    * Getting an “ineffective, altruistic” person to become effective is more important than getting an “effective, unaltruistic” person to become altruistic, in terms of getting more philanthropic value.

  3. Odette ( https://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/a-scene-i-once-saw/ ) comes to mind. Since her ineffective altruist companions are happy doing their ineffective altruist thing, Odette would have to be an outstanding leader and communicator to have a shot at taking the group out of the comfortable local maximum; far more likely, she’d just convert them into ineffective-altruists-annoyed-at-Odette.

    It is worth noting that even the sign of the impact of a particular “altruistic” action is not always clear. (Witness e.g. any heated debate on welfare.) In the worst such cases, the ineffectiveness of folk altruism is arguably a key feature: it still succeeds in making its doers feel good about themselves and bond with each other, but it fails to inflict much harm. So one should think hard about which intermediate goals are worth pursuing in the first place before putting a lot of effort into improving effectiveness at reaching them.

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  5. I think they are missing the real problem here. Rather than endlessly donating money to sub-Saharan Africa – which seems to be what all the “effective” charities are doing according to those two websites – why not look at the root cause of the problem?

    Why is sub-Saharan Africa so screwed up? That is the real philosophy question! Overpopulation, corrupt leadership, bad education systems, too many wars, or whatever (I don’t know). Why do these folks suffer from malaria and need to be dewormed, to give two examples of the “effective” charities?

    Making calculations on how best to fix the symptom are ineffective. Fixing the underlying cause of the problem – whatever it is – seems the most effective way to solve the problem.

    It is not that I don’t want to help these children. It’s just that I don’t think anything is really being accomplished by these organizations in a larger sense. It’s like they’re bailing out a sinking ship with a teacup.

  6. Reblogged this on YBoris.

  7. Pingback: Essai sur le don: Altrusim in research | Notes from the research frontier

  8. Everything is very open with a very clear explanation of the challenges.
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  9. Pingback: Katja Grace – Artificial Intelligence, Anthropics & Cause Prioritization | snertmandosian


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