Effective altruism


Effective altruism is characterized by a driving concern to do the most good possible; a commitment to use reason, evidence, and data to select causes to focus on, approaches to pursue, and organizations to support; and an impartiality that rejects directing aid by consideration of such things as ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, or species membership. Although it is relatively new, effective altruism is already having a significant impact on the world of philanthropy, as well as on how many millennials think about how they ought to live. Effective altruism is controversial in a number of respects.

Effective altruism is the topic of the 2016-17 ethics program lecture series (see bottom of this page). Effective altruism is also central to my 2016 section of LDR 101, Doing Good.

Below are several links concerning effective altruism. Most go to sites that advocate effective altruism as well as explain it. I do not, however, list these sites in order to encourage students to become effective altruists. Furthermore, neither the ethics program lecture series nor my LDR 101 section are intended to endorse effective altruism.

What Is Effective Altruism?

Doing Good Better

The Centre for Effective Altruism

Boston Review: The Logic of Effective Altruism

Here’s some information about the 2016-17 ethics program lecture series on effective altruism:

Agnes Scott College Ethics Program 2016-17 Lecture Series

Effective Altruism

I. The Case for Effective Altruism

Rob Reich

Monday, September 19, 2016, 7 p.m.

Rooms ABC, Evans Hall

Effective altruism is characterized by a driving concern to do the most good possible; a commitment to use reason, evidence, and data to select problems to focus on, solutions to pursue, and organizations to support; and an impartiality that rejects deciding whom to help based on such things as ethnicity, ancestry, geographical location, or religious affiliation. Although it is relatively new, effective altruism is already having a significant impact on the world of philanthropy, as well as on how many millennials think about how they ought to live. Rob Reich will introduce the audience to effective altruism while making a compelling case for it. Indeed, he will attempt to show us that we already accept the principles upon which effective altruism is based.

Rob Reich is a Professor of Political Science and, by courtesy, in Philosophy and at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He is the faculty director of the Center for Ethics in Society and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford. His research focuses on contemporary political theory, and his most recent work examines the relationship between philanthropy, democracy, and justice. He is the author of Bridging Liberalism and Multiculturalism in American Education (2002), co-author of Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation (2005), and co-editor of Toward a Humanist Justice: The Political Philosophy of Susan Moller Okin (2009), Occupy the Future (2013), and Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013). He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including the Phi Beta Kappa Undergraduate Teaching Award and the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford University. He is currently a University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford.

II. Effective Altruism and the End of Farmed Animal Suffering

Jacy Reese

Wednesday, October 19, 2016, 7 p.m.

Graves Auditorium, Campbell Hall

Many activists and do-gooders are adopting an “effective altruism” mindset, using evidence-based thinking to make the biggest positive difference they can in the world. But this lofty goal often feels overwhelming and abstract. So what does it look like in practice? In this talk, Jacy Reese will illuminate the key concepts of effective altruism through the lens of farmed animal protection. This is an area where effective altruism can make a huge difference. Scientists recognize many animals as sentient, feeling beings with the capacity to suffer. Yet billions of them are made to suffer on factory farms, enduring horrific abuse and miserable living conditions. Reese will apply effective altruism thinking to this important issue: What would it look like if we built a food system without this cruelty — not to mention the harms to the environment and public health? And perhaps more importantly, how can we get from here to there?

Jacy Reese is a researcher at Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE) and a leading voice for effective altruism and animal protection. His writing has been featured in publications including Huffington Post, Salon, and Vox. By the end of 2016, he will have presented his work in 6 different countries. Before joining ACE, he investigated interventions to help the global poor at another charity evaluator, GiveWell, and researched decision-making under moral psychologist Joshua Greene and cognitive neuroscientist Russell Poldrack. For more, please see his personal website: jacyreese.com

III. Effective Altruism: A Critique

Judith Lichtenberg

Thursday, November 3, 7 p.m.

Graves Auditorium, Campbell Hall

The new movement known as effective altruism has many virtues. It shows how without enormous efforts we can greatly improve the odds of remedying some of the great evils in the world—poverty, disease, ignorance. Who could disagree with the idea that we should try to make sure our efforts to help others are more rather than less effective? Yet effective altruism is deeply flawed. Despite assertions to the contrary by its proponents, effective altruism is just utilitarianism in new garb and as such suffers from its flaws. Some of these are well-known. Critics have long pointed to indispensable principles of justice that are incompatible with utilitarianism. Others note that, in requiring that we “do the most good we can do,” effective altruism demands too much of ordinary human beings. I point to a further problem: effective altruism conflicts with central views we hold about what sorts of actions and people are morally desirable. It downgrades the value of personal moral commitments and connections, which rarely maximize good consequences. And since for the most part large improvements in the world can be brought about only by rich people, effective altruism inflates their moral worth. A world in which all altruistic people were “effective” altruists would be deficient in values we rightly hold dear.

Judith Lichtenberg is Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate Professor of Government at Georgetown University. Previously she taught at the University of Maryland, where she held a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. She has written about international and domestic justice, moral psychology, nationalism, war, and higher education. In spring 2016 she taught an ethics course at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland; she also serves on the advisory board of Georgetown’s new Prisons and Justice Initiative. Her book Distant Strangers: Ethics, Psychology, and Global Poverty was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. With Robert Fullinwider, she coauthored Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions (2004); she edited Democracy and the Mass Media (1990). She has held visiting appointments at Dartmouth College, the University of Melbourne, Harvard, and Yale. In 2005-06 she was a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and in 2011 at Hebrew University’s Institute for Advanced Studies; in 2012-13 she taught at the Center for Transnational Legal Studies in London. She is currently chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee for the Defense of the Professional Rights of Philosophers. You can learn more at her personal webpage.


All lectures take place during Fall 2016.

All talks are free and open to the public.

The ethics program wishes to thank the James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Fund for its support.