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7 lessons we learned about effective altruism

Effective altruism

If you’ve been wondering what effective altruism is, we break down the 7 lessons we learned about how effective altruism can shape the way we give money.

You might have been wondering about how you can give what you can to those in need. We’ve outlined how you can give to charity in at least 5 different ways including donating at tax time, giving small amounts regularly and giving up our time or skills to causes we believe in.

There are mindsets too which prescribe exactly how and what you should give your money, one of which is effective altruism. I’ve been reading the book by Peter Singer called The Life You Can Save: How to play your part in ending world poverty. If that book is considered a textbook on effective altruism, I’ve created a crib sheet on its core lessons for donating.


Here are 7 lessons we learned about effective altruism:


1. You must start by acknowledging that all lives are equal

One of the first examples of the book is the question of whether you would jump into water to save a child at risk of drowning, despite the fact that you would ruin your expensive shoes and be late for work. When posed this scenario, the majority of us would without question save the child. Another example asks the choice you would make if you had to give up an asset that serves as your retirement fund in order to save someone’s life. What both examples highlight is that we must start by acknowledging that all human lives are equal and worth saving.


2. Modern lives can make us complacent

Modern lives are by no means easy. It can incredibly difficult to live in a major city when you’re budgeting week to week and trying to scrap together savings or facing difficult decisions in our personal and professional lives. The wealthier among us are perhaps the most complacent, having amassed fortunes rather than give what they don’t need to those who need it more and if can feel incredibly unfair if others with greater disposable income than us do not donate. The bystander effect also then comes into play because we are less likely to give if others do not also donate, which can make us all feel complacent about giving.


3. Charities don’t all have equal impact

Working out how best to help others is difficult and many attempts to make a difference fail to have their desired impact. Effective altruism argues that some organisations and causes deliver more value than others and that you should direct your money to those that deliver the most impact.  


4. Data can be used to calculate the value of giving

Effective altruism attempts to make giving a science of donating money. One example raised in the book was the social media friendly Ice Bucket Challenge which saw people dump a bucket of ice and water over someone in order to raise awareness of ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. The book argues that the campaign was not effective because ALS is rare and that the money raised has not contributed to finding a cure for the disease to save lives. Effective altruism expects that you calculate the value for money that your donation will create, with that value of the donation judged to be worth more if it saves lives.


5. We can all give by working out first how much we actually need

If you have money to spend on a drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have money to spare. Effective altruism argues that we can all give to others by working out what you need to live on for a comfortable life and donating the rest. The majority of us live comfortable lives including indoor plumbing, internet access and a washing machine. Our disposable income is in excess of what we need and there is a case to donate this income to those who need it more.


6. We can end global poverty

Effective altruism focuses much of its energy on ending poverty in the developing world, by promoting causes including preventing children dying from malaria, birth injuries and restoring sight. The argument is you can do the most good for the least cost brings more energy and optimism to the goal of ending global poverty, particularly if more people apply their donations with this goal in mind. 


7. Effective altruism is just one approach to giving

Effective altruism is a scientific framework for giving money that some people will relate to. However, it is just one approach to giving. Peter Singer’s book will help many who have been on the fence about donating choose to start giving but you must find an approach and cause that resonates for you in order to give in a sustained way that fulfils you.


Effective altruism is an approach to giving that might encourage some people to start donating for the first time.


To give away your money is a deeply personal choice and I would encourage you to find your own reasons for giving that are relevant to you, including identifying a need in your community.


Read more: 5 ways that you can give to charity

Written by Kate Crowhurst

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