Pitching "Effective Altruism"?

I’m interested in an idea called effective altruism” which is about not just doing things to make the world a better place, but about thinking about what can do to make their helping go the furthest. For example, if I could spend an hour and help a person cross the street that would be cool, but if I could spend an hour and cure blindness in three different people, that would be even cooler.

Generally, it seems like people either immediately get “effective altruism” or they don’t. Evidence from Giving What We Can member surveys plus other anecdotal evidence seems to support this. But as the “effective altruism” movement is going to grows, we’ll eventually run out of those who find the idea intuitive and we’ll need to start pitching to people who find the idea unintuitive. How do we do this?

Two days ago, I went on a volunteering trip with some fellow college students to a local non-profit organization. We arrived at their building and proceeded to help them clean their air vents, tables, chairs, walls, and ceiling fans. And then we left.

There were seven of us and we were all there cleaning for an hour each. However, imagine that, instead of volunteering ourselves, we paid a janitor minimum wage to do the cleaning instead. I suspect that the janitor would accomplish our tasks in less than seven hours given that the janitor is more trained and will require less oversight and explanation of the task from the management. Hiring a janitor is simply much more efficient than continuing to get confused college students to do the volunteering.

The work for the Salvation Army probably wasn’t “effective” by this definition. But it was interesting to see how people who aren’t interested in “effective altruism” (or haven’t considered the idea) think about the topic. I didn’t confront anyone with my views, but I asked them a little bit about what they thought.

The other people who were there seemed to believe that…

  • One ought to benefit their “local” community (the relatively poor city next to our college) instead of further away communities (like the developing world), even when those further away communities are in more need.

  • One can’t help these further away communities, because one doesn’t understand the issues there or “what the people want”.

  • The best way to help people is to get to know them on a personal basis first and “understand the problem”.

  • Volunteering is far more important than donating money (or spending a similar amount of time working and then donating that money).

  • Paying someone else to accomplish what you’d do when you volunteer is “cheating” or evading personal responsibility, similar to paying someone to take your math test.

  • The personal experience of volunteering for the volunteer is as important as the personal experience for the people who are helped.

  • Getting at the “root cause” of a problem is far more important than doing something to address a symptom (for example, some people considered it better to spend time achieving political change addressing economic inequality than directly feed a hungry person).

  • The idea of “maximizing one’s impact” makes some sense, but doesn’t imply things like helping the developing world (or helping nonhuman animals or reducing existential risk).

These believes seem somewhat incorrect, mistaken, or incomplete to me. Moreover, the fact that these beliefs are incomplete is obvious to me. But I think that even I believed all of these things at some point in my life. They’re just… intuitive.