“Effective Altruism”, or Modern Utilitarianism

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The greatest good for the greatest number of people is one tenet of utilitarianism, and this way of thinking is alive and well under a new name: “effective altruism”. The term effective altruism is questionable at best; however, their message does make a lot of sense. Basically what believers of effective altruism believe in is using empirical data to decide where to donate time and money. In this month of caring about each other it is one more way to help you make decisions on where you can donate.

Let’s distinguish between whether a cause is difficult to quantify and whether it’s political. Although it’s true that many political movements and political changes have outcomes that are difficult to measure, I don’t think the two distinctions line up quite so neatly.

Many effective altruists, myself included, have over time become convinced that the vast majority of lives we can affect are in the future. If that’s right, it’s plausible that the most important moral imperative is to make sure that the very long-run future goes well. The stakes are enormous: trillions and trillions of lives over hundreds of thousands of years.

But when it comes to influencing the long-run future, we can’t run randomized control trials. In general, we can’t have the same sort of robust evidence base that we’re used to in global health interventions, for example. So it’s not the case that effective altruists focus exclusively on things that are easy to measure.

When it comes to politics, there’s no reason in principle why effective altruists shouldn’t get involved. But we’re less likely to enter longstanding political debates, such as what the tax rate should be, where a few more voices are unlikely to make much difference. Instead, we’re more likely to look for comparatively neglected policy areas — for example, what to do with new technologies such as artificial intelligence and synthetic biology.

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