Hello everyone,

I hope you have been doing well. In this week's email, I want to take the time to tell you about Effective Altruism.

What is it?

The goal of Effective Altruism is summed up pretty well by the title of William Macaskill's book.

"Doing Good Better"

How can we live our lives so as to maximise our positive impact on the world? How can we use our resources to help others the most?

These are the questions posed by the Effective Altruism philosophy.

The description from its Wikipedia article is apt.

"Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions and to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based upon their values."

Values that tend to be held by Effective Altruists include:

  • Impartiality: The rejection of the idea that some lives are intrinsically more valuable than others. For example, another person in a developing country has an equal value to a person in one's own community. From this perspective, there isn't anything intrinsically better about donating to a local not-for-profit compared to one that works abroad.

  • Cause prioritization: Not all good causes that we work towards are of equal importance and we should prioritise our use of time and resources to reflect this. Causes that tend to be universally regarded as high priority include risks to civilisation and planet earth, poverty in the developing world and the suffering in factory farms.

  • Cost-effectiveness: Charities are not all equally effective at achieving their goals. Donating to a more effective charity will translate to improving more lives per dollar used.

  • Counter-factual reasoning: When making a decision to benefit others, we should ask ourselves the question "what would have happened if we didn't do this?". Let's say you land a job at a charity and that position was high in demand. The net good you are doing isn't your direct impact, but how much more you are doing than the second choice would have done.

To learn more about Effective Altruism, please have a watch of these TED talks by philosopher Peter Singer and William McCaskill.

Utopian vs Piecemeal Social Engineering

I attended a series of lightning talks by the local Effective Altruism community. They were all very good but my favourite was by one by the philosophy graduate Samuel Khoo about how we should engineer changes in our society. He very kindly sent me the slides for his presentation which this section of the email will be based on.

The influential philosopher Karl Popper originally made the distinction between the two ways we tend to attempt to make changes to the world. One strategy he has dubbed Utopian Engineering and the other Piecemeal Engineering.

"It aims at remodelling the ‘whole of society’ in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint."

Karl Popper, on Utopian Engineering

Utopian engineering:

  1. Choose your ideal state or society
  2. Choose the most appropriate way to reach it
  3. Implement!

Piecemeal engineering:

  1. Choose the most urgent/important problems in
    current society
  2. Critically consider possible solutions
  3. Implement while keeping an eye out for mistakes and unintended consequences, with “small adjustments and re-adjustments which can be continually improved upon.”

The problem with Utopian Engineering can be summed up by Popper:

"It is very hard to learn from very big mistakes."

To live as a human is to live in uncertainty and to not know better is to be prone to making mistakes. We need ways of correcting our errors and minimising how much harm they can do. We need to make our changes reversible so we can roll them back, like a software engineer using git.

End of financial year sale

It's that time of year. The financial year is coming to an end. Do you know what that means? If you haven't made a donation to charity, now is the time.

With all this talk of Effective Altruism, I will recommend the charities that I donate to here.

1. GiveWell

The original initiative by Effective Altruism. GiveWell is a charity evaluator, that assesses the effectiveness of many charities and ranks them according to how much good they are doing per dollar.

You can view their top charities here.

When you donate to them, they offer the option to select how much of your donation goes to each charity or to donate according to their discretion.

Click here to donate to GiveWell

2. Cool Earth

The number one effective environmental charity as rated by GiveWell. They work on minimising deforestation by working with local groups.

A huge source of our carbon emissions comes from what is called green carbon. Green Carbon is that stored in trees, when we cut them down they cease to store carbon and in fact release it back into the atmosphere.

I first discovered the group when the wonderful Steven Pinker tweeted about them. You even see stats on their website as to how much rainforest, trees, carbon and water have been saved through their actions.

Click here to donate to Cool Earth

3. Karuna Shechen

The organisation of the excellent Matthieu Ricard. Karuna Shechen engages in humanitarian projects in the Himalayan region.

From their website:

"We provide vulnerable populations access to health care, education and vocational training, clean water, solar electricity, and other sustainable solutions that support and improve their livelihoods."

You can have a look at their projects here.

I am not sure how Effective Altruism / GiveWell would rate Karuna-Shechen if they could, I honestly have to say a major reason I donate here is that I trust Mattheiu. In everything I have heard or seen from him, his values seem in alignment with my own.

Click here to donate to Karuna Shechen

4. Beyond Zero Emissions

A think-tank dedicated to developing solutions to transition Australia to a 100% renewable energy economy. Not just the right technology but also incorporating the economics and politics behind each phase of the plan. It is called Beyond Zero Emissions because their ultimate aim extends further than reducing Australia's emissions but also to exporting renewable energy technology and expertise.

They have organised their research into six plans, each of which tackles a different sector of our society.

  • Renewable Energy
  • Buildings
  • Transport
  • Agriculture and Land Use
  • Industry
  • Exporting Renewable energy

Read more about Beyond Zero Emission's research here

As they are a think-tank it is difficult to assess exactly how effective each dollar you contribute will be. I believe that this research is invaluable and that not only will it benefit from Australia, but also other countries. Apart from taking into account the levels of sun and wind in Australia, the technical plans here could apply anywhere. If we build our global expertise and know-how at deploying renewables, everyone benefits.

Click here to donate to Beyond Zero Emissions

5. Wikipedia

Almost everyone uses Wikipedia. And even if those that don't benefit. It is quite amazing, the total sum of human knowledge accessible freely for anyone that can access the internet. It's impossible to overrate this as one of our greatest feats. I am actually more impressed at Wikipedia than the moon landing.

Can you comprehend the countless benefit it has given? At any moment if you want to know something, you can now. Think of all the organisations, innovators and projects that have been improved because of this. I suspect that our rate of progress in society would have been much slower if we were all still using Encyclopaedia Britannica...

I think contributing at least a little every month, is an amazing thing to. I actually believe this is effective altruism, it is just that the impacts are unseen and long term.

Click here to donate to Wikipedia

This one was a little longer than usual, but I hope you are all getting benefit from this. If you have any questions about anything here, please feel free to reply.

Until next time,