Episode 11 • 30 April 2020

Eve McCormick on Effective Altruism

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Eve Portrait
Eve McCormick is the co-director of Effective Altruism Cambridge and a grant recipient from the Centre for Effective Altruism. We begin by discussing some of the philosophical arguments that originally motivated the effective altruism (or ‘EA’) movement — before learning about its (fairly new) history. Next, Eve briefly surveyed some of the central concepts of EA: how are charities evaluated, what is ‘counterfactual reasoning’, and what is the ‘ITN’ framework? Some of these ideas are broadly applicable to a range of decision-making contexts. Effective altruism encompasses a diverse set of ‘cause areas’, which Eve also introduces. As well as donating money, an effective way to do good is to use your own time and skills to join those seeking to make a difference in some of the world’s most pressing problems. To this end, Eve explains how to begin thinking about a career-oriented around doing good. This write-up summarises our conversation and includes links and references for more information. Since this is such a big topic, this article provides only a satellite’s eye-view — you can dig deeper by following the links provided.

Book Recommendations 📚


The Centre for Effective Altruism, an organisation set up to support the growing community, defines effective altruism as follows:

Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.

This highlights two components:

  1. The intellectual project of using reason and evidence to identifying most effective approaches, methods, initiatives, and cause areas for doing good or improving lives — where ‘improving lives’ and ‘doing good’ and construed in welfarist terms (the idea that the goodness of an act or outcome is to be ultimately determined either primarily or exclusively by well-being).
  2. The practical project (and associated global movement) of following through on (1) and volunteering significant time, money, or resources to implement such ideas and actually do good. This now involves a worldwide community of people interested in EA, an EA forum, annual conferences, and local groups.

For an extended discussion of the definition of effective altruism, as well as a discussion of common misconceptions, see Will MacAskill’s ‘The Definition of Effective Altruism’.

Philosophical Arguments

What motivates any given individual to spend significant amounts of their time or money in helping strangers is often highly personal, and might involve an experience or story that can’t easily be communicated or replicated. However, a striking number of people have been convinced to change their behaviour in significant ways by a series of philosophical arguments.

The most significant of these was suggested by the moral philosopher Peter Singer in a landmark 1972 paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’. At the time, East Bengal was experiencing a widespread shortage of food, shelter, and medical care. Singer was curious whether individuals and governments from affluent countries have a responsibility to provide assistance, in order to prevent many thousands of deaths. His conclusion — that they do — had implications that reached far beyond the immediate context of the article. But what made Singer reach that conclusion?

The Drowning Child

Singer’s article featured a thought experiment that has probably been described and argued over in intro ethics classes more times than any other. It’s extremely simple, and each step seems unobjectionable. Yet, many people are extremely uncomfortable with the demandingness of the conclusion.

Imagine you’re walking home, and your route passes a shallow pond. You notice that a child has fallen in, and looks to be drowning. You can rescue the child from the pond — but only at the cost of getting your clothes soggy. What’s worse, you haven’t got time to pry the expensive watch from your wrist. Should you save the child? This is about the easiest ethical question you’ll have to face: clearly you should.

Now suppose there are other people walking past the pond, who don’t seem to have noticed but are similarly capable of saving the drowning child. Does this make a difference to whether you have an obligation to save the child? No — the fact that others could save the child doesn’t mean I have no obligation to do so myself. To see this, notice that if everyone followed this reasoning, everyone would successfully exempt themselves from any obligation to save the drowning child, and thus nobody would be responsible if the child drowned. “It’s not my fault”, you might shrug — “that other guy could have helped too”.

Now imagine (and this requires some imagination) that the drowning child was not right in front of you, but on another continent. All the other facts remain the same: she is facing an equal risk of dying, and you are equally capable of saving her at equal cost to before. Maybe, for instance, you are remotely piloting a little photography drone when you spot the child, and rescuing the child involves getting the drone wet and breaking it. Would this geographical difference make a difference as to whether you have an obligation to rescue the drowning child? Again, it seems obvious that neither physical distance nor nationality, race, or relatedness make a difference here.

Now quoting Singer:

I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world.

How could this be the case? Well, it happens that many charities exist, operating in the poorest parts of the world, which we know beyond reasonable doubt are capable of saving lives at very little cost and with no perceptible downside. One example is the Against Malaria Foundation.

It is certainly true that some charities are inefficient; some even do harm — either through inadvertently directing resources to corrupt regimes or politicians, by fostering a culture of reliance and undermining longer-term economic growth, or else unreflectively playing off culturally insensitive ‘white saviour’ tropes. Maybe this is the case for the majority of charities operating in the developing world. If it is, that fact is nor morally relevant — because it is demonstrably true that some charities are not inefficient, harmful, or insensitive.

The conclusion is straightforward: if it is clearly the right thing to do to save the drowning child at some small cost to yourself in the first instance, then it is clearly the right thing to do to donate to effective (viz. well-evidenced and cost-effective) charities at equivalent cost. Effective Altruists take this conclusion seriously — and now you can see where the interest in ‘using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible’ comes from, at least in part. Laid out in argument form:

  1. Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.
  2. If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
  3. By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
  4. Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

You can read Singer’s reflections on the drowning child argument here.

The Expanding Moral Circle

Singer continues:

I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves. At the end of the nineteenth century WH Lecky wrote of human concern as an expanding circle which begins with the individual, then embraces the family and ‘soon the circle… includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man [sic] with the animal world’. On this basis the overwhelming majority of my students seem to be already in the penultimate stage – at least – of Lecky’s expanding circle. There is, of course, for many students and for various reasons a gap between acknowledging what we ought to do, and doing it; but I shall come back to that issue shortly.

In The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Singer elaborates on this idea: that just as there is clearly no reason to weigh the interests of other people less because they live in the next village over, or belong to a different church, or a different gender — so there is no reason to weigh the interests of another person less because they live on a different part of the world. Of course, it is normally much easier to help somebody close to you: you know each other better, you can directly exchange goods, and so on. But holding fixed those practical considerations: where you have an opportunity to dramatically improve or even save a human life, the mere fact about that person’s nationality (or whatever else) should not figure in deliberating about whether you have an obligation to take up that opportunity and help that person. Although it is simple to appreciate this idea intellectually, it is equally clear that many people’s behaviour in the developed world falls short of enacting it.

The same pattern of reasoning can suggest that we should not consider the interests of a sentient being any more or less because of facts about species membership. Where we have an obligation to relieve a human of immense suffering at some small cost to ourselves, we must also have an obligation to relieve an animal of that same amount of suffering. To do otherwise, argues Singer, is an instance of ‘speciesism’. Of course, this is not the claim that we ought to always weigh animal lives equally with human lives (you can kill 5 ants to save a human!) or that all or even any animals are capable of some psychological states that humans are capable of (like appreciating art, or feeling complex moral or spiritual emotions). Singer elaborates this idea in the book Animal Liberation. This latter thought, that the ‘expanding moral circle’ ought to encompass non-human animals, motivates effective altruists to find ways of alleviating unnecessary animal suffering, such as in egregious factory farming practices.


Maybe effective altruists are right in emphasising that it is the obviously right thing to do to donate to charities in the developing world, or to organisations promoting animal welfare. But why the emphasis on effectiveness? It might seem strange to name your movement after what might seem like a bonus, or an afterthought, or a technical boost — especially relative to other considerations of justice or equality.

One reason, as Eve emphasises, is that some charities (i) sound really wonderful; and (ii) actually do harm. A salient example is the ‘PlayPump’ initiative to build roundabouts which lift water out of wells when kids use them. Here’s Alex Tabarrok:

The PlayPump uses a merry-go-round to pump water. Fun transformed into labor and life saving clean water! The energetic driver of the idea quits his job and invests his life in the project. Africa! Children on merry-go-rounds! Innovation! What could be better? It’s the perfect charitable meme and the idea attracts millions of dollars of funding from celebrities like Steve Case, Jay-Z, Laura Bush and Bill Clinton.

And here’s Will MacAskill writing in Doing Good Better:

…despite the hype and the awards and the millions of dollars spent, no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump. Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they’ve gained sufficient momentum–that’s what makes them fun. But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted.

Indeed, the women of the recipient villages would often end up taking over from the children on a mechanism which was more expansive and less efficient than a conventional pump. Despite sounding wonderful, the PlayPump was a disaster.

A second reason is that even when charities appear to do some good rather than harm, the differences in how much good they do per dollar spent can vary not by multiples of 2 or 3, but by many orders of magnitude. It is not unusual that the difference in the number of lives saved or people otherwise helped per amount donated between an average and the most effective charity is in the order of 10,000%. For that reason, argues the philosopher Toby Ord, there is something like a moral imperative towards cost-effectiveness when considering which charities to donate to. Ord gives a compelling example:

Suppose we have a £40,000 budget which we can spend as we wish to fight blindness. One thing we could do is to provide guide dogs to blind people in the United States to help them overcome their disability. This costs about £40,000 due to the training required for the dog and its recipient. Another option is to pay for surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma in Africa. This costs less than ​£20 per patient cured… We could thus use our entire budget to provide a single guide dog, helping one person overcome the challenges of blindness, or we could use it to cure more than 2,000 people of blindness. If we think that people have equal moral value, then the second option is more than 2,000 times better than the first. Put another way, the first option squanders about 99.95% of the value that we could have produced.

A similarly eye-opening disparity emerges when we look at the (effective) value of e.g. an additional year of human life in rich countries, as compared to the equivalent costs involved to enable an effective charity to prevent untimely deaths. To its credit, the UK government explicitly estimates the monetary value of a single year of ‘quality-adjusted’ life of a British citizen at £60,000. By contrast, the approximate cost of a quality-adjusted life year in donating to the Against Malaria Foundation (through preventing deaths and sickness from malaria) is in the order of £100.

These disparities in costs and effectiveness, of course, extend beyond global health charities to animal welfare charities and even further afield.

Key Concepts

In the episode, we discussed some key concepts which effective altruists make use of. This began with…

Cause Selection

In the passage just quotes, Ord noted the difference in effectiveness between two ways of helping people with impaired vision. The lesson derived — that differences in effectiveness are often so dramatic that we have a moral imperative towards considering them — extends beyond the particular choice of intervention within that cause, to the selection of cause itself. For instance, in our interview with George Rosenfeld, he noted:

Which cause you choose will be responsible for above 90%, maybe above 99%, of the overall impact of your initiative. But if you look at the amount of time people spend thinking about the cause, it’s less than 1% of the time.

For more information, see this post by Open Philanthropy about how they go about cause selection.

The ‘ITN’ Framework

NTI stands for importance / tractability / neglectedness. Thinking in these terms is a useful way of choosing a cause. As the EA Concepts page writes:

  1. Importance: What is the scale of the problem in the area? If all problems in the area could be solved, how much better would the world be?
  2. Tractability: How solvable is the problem in this area?
  3. Neglectedness: How neglected is the area?

A cause area is more promising when it is important, tractable, and neglected; or else when there is reason to think it is likely to be any of these things.

Charity Evaluators

In order to actually determine which charities are effective, ‘charity evaluator’ organisations exist to scrutinise existing empirical evidence, and often themselves conduct novel research. Aspiring donors can then consult the resulting lists of recommended charities with robust evidence for their effectiveness. This provides an incentive for charities themselves to conduct and document evidence for their effectiveness, in order to feature on such lists. The most prominent such organisation with respect to global health and extreme poverty interventions is GiveWell, founded in 2007. In animal advocacy, Animal Charity Evaluators does equivalent work.

Counterfactual Reasoning

It is possible to get the impression you’re doing good by getting involved with a good cause, while in fact not making a difference at all — or even making a negative difference. For instance, suppose your friend tells you that they will donate to the Against Malaria Foundation if and only if you don’t donate money to them. You decide to donate anyway because you like the feeling of being personally involved with the charity — so you give £30. Unbeknownst to you, your friend was planning on giving £50; which she now spends on something else. The difference you made in donating to AMF, in the short run, was actually negative: £20 didn’t go to AMF which otherwise would have.

This is what is meant by a ‘counterfactual’: the scenario that would (or would likely) have occurred has something happened contrary to what in fact happened. In the present example, the counterfactual scenario where you didn’t give money actually resulted in more money going to AMF. This is a contrived example, of course — although it has recently been suggested that giving to charities where billionaires have pledged to ‘top-up’ their donations to some annual fundraising goal may sometimes have zero counterfactual impact (or, more precisely, the impact of functionally transferring money to a billionaire).

Suppose instead you see somebody in urgent need of CPR. A stranger rushes ahead of you to begin administering it. Although you have no reason to believe you are more experienced at CPR than this person, suppose you push them away in order to save the dying person yourself, because you think it’s better to be a hero than to stand by and watch someone else be a hero? This is silly, because your pushing the stranger away makes no counterfactual difference.

A related idea which Eve mentioned in our interview was the idea of ‘replaceability’. When thinking about the counterfactual impact of your career, it is worth asking whether, for any given role, some other person might fill that role just as well as you could if you took it up. On the other hand, it is worth considering whether you have a specific set of skill which makes you especially well-suited to another role, where it is less likely that another person could fill that role as well as you could (at least, not for the same pay or without a significant talent search). In other words: don’t be the person pushing the first stranger away just because you want to be a hero — do it when you have good reason to think you might be better at CPR!

You can read more about counterfactual reasoning here.

Cause Areas

In giving examples, I have emphasised one cause area that effective altruists pay significant attention to: namely, global health. This is particularly popular because interventions targeted at alleviating some of the worst diseases and health burdens that afflict low-income countries — such as malaria, schistosomiasis, trachoma, and malnutrition — are clearly important, often extremely neglected relative to diseases in the developed world, and tractable (most often the vaccines and treatments already exist, and the task is large-scale distribution and training). More generally, other effective charities involve a transfer of money or other resources to those living in extreme poverty.

I also briefly mentioned another cause area: animal welfare. Since the vast majority of animals used and killed by humans are farm animals, efforts in this regard tend to focus on pressuring governments and producers to improve animal welfare standards, and on advocating for consumers to make choices which send price signals to those producers (such as giving up meat). In this chart taken from Animal Charity Evaluators, we see how charitable giving is starkly and sadly inconsistent with the numbers:

ACE Graph


If, broadly speaking, one had to divide the cause areas that receive the most attention from effective altruists into three, then global health/poverty and animal welfare advocacy would certainly take up two of the spots. The third spot would probably go to an idea which is rapidly gaining interest and prominence, within and beyond effective altruism. This is the idea of ‘longtermism’, and, correspondingly, of ‘existential risk reduction’. This topic deserves many articles all of its own (or maybe even an episode…) so take a look the links in this section if it sounds interesting.

Loosely speaking, longtermism is the thought that the effects of our actions today on the lives of future people, stretching out indefinitely over the long term, are currently neglected and ought to be considered of high importance. There are many ways to approach longtermism and existential risk. One way is to think back to the idea of the expanding moral circle, and the drowning child argument. Suppose you find out that a child will drown in fifty years time, unless you act now (I don’t have the imagination to come up with a reason). Acting now would involve some small immediate cost, like losing your watch. Should you act? Of course. Similarly, Derek Parfit gives an example of burying some broken glass in a forest path. Consider two cases:

  1. A child steps on the broken glass in 10 years time.
  2. A child steps on the broken glass in 110 years time.

How much worse is (2) than (1)? Longtermists claim—all other things being equal—not at all. Suppose instead you thought we should ‘discount’ future welfare by some fixed amount year-on-year. Suppose that the annual discount rate was 5%. Well, if you run the numbers, this apparently modest discounting entails that (2) is over one hundred times less bad than (1). So it looks like discounting future welfare is not a very sensible thing to do. People already recognise this they engage in environmentally-friendly behaviour or advocacy, where they know that they might not live to see the worse effects of climate change, but nonetheless appreciate that taking steps to avoid the worse effects of climate change is the right thing to do.

A second approach to longtermism is simply to grasp just how stupendous the future of humanity might be — in terms of timescale, population, and progress. Here’s the back-of-the-envelope calculation that philosopher Nick Beckstead proposes: let’s say (conservatively) humanity has a 1% chance of surviving for another billion years. This will almost certainly involve developing the technology for colonising space—so conditional on surviving that long, let’s say humanity again has at least a 1% chance of spreading through the stars and thereby surviving for 100 trillion years. The expected duration of humanity’s future lifespan is therefore at least 1% × 1% × 100 trillion = 10 billion years. Like Toby Ord’s comparisons of cost effectiveness, that figure alone might be enough to make the longtermist case.

What can be done to improve the expected vale of the long-run fate of humanity? One obvious answer is to make efforts to avoid somehow squandering its enormous potential in some kind of ‘existential catastrophe’. To this end, many effective altruists work in mitigating the risks from natural pandemics, artificial biological weapons, artificial general intelligence (AI), nuclear war, and so on. For an excellent survey of the importance and nature of existential risk, Eve recommends Toby Ord’s new book ‘The Precipice’.

Effective altruists are interested in a great deal more cause areas besides these main three. This includes:

See this page for more details.


Many of the ideas associated with effective altruism, as well as the movement as a whole, have received a wide range of often perceptive criticisms. Here is a small selection, some of which we discuss in the episode:

For an extended discussion of these and other philosophical criticisms, see this post. For a more general discussion of frequently asked questions, criticisms, and objections — see this.

What Can I Do?

If you’ve found some of these ideas interesting, here are some ways to get involved:

In the interview, Eve also discusses the psychological aspects of getting involved with EA — so check out the full interview for that.

Finally, if you found any of this interesting or you even did any of the above, we would love to hear from you! Drop an email to hello[at]hearthisidea[dot]com.