Effective Altruism

A Rational Approach to Making the World a Better Place



Rohan Subramani, Yorktown High School alumnus Class of 2020, began to build his dreams to make a positive difference in the world right here at YHS.  He explained,  “While my exact goals may have morphed a little since then, my general drive to make as substantial a positive impact on the world as possible remains fully intact. In fact, I feel like the path towards the kind of life I want to lead is clearer than ever thanks to my recent discovery of a movement called Effective Altruism.”  Rohan’s article explores the concept of “effective altruism” and its role in providing a rational way to effect positive change.  Rohan currently studies at Columbia University.

Virtually everyone agrees that making the world a better place is a worthy goal. But how seriously do people actually take this idea? Do they often carefully make their life choices in order to do the most good possible? Sadly, in most cases, the answer is no. But the Effective Altruism (EA) movement is trying to change that. The core principle of EA is that people ought to think carefully about how they can make the largest positive impact, and then act on their findings. Two of the main categories that Effective Altruists focus on are donations and careers. Let me try to give you a sense of just how much of a difference you can make by acting like an Effective Altruist in either of these categories.

There are a tremendous number of charities doing good work in the world, but estimates of the impacts of different charities suggest that some are much more effective than others. The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), an organization that distributes insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria in developing nations, is commonly mentioned among Effective Altruists as one of the most effective charities. A rough estimate is that on average, the AMF saves the life of one child for every $3,000-$3,500 donated. Ponder that for a moment: the cost to save the life of a child is only around five times higher than the price of a smartphone.

There is an EA-aligned organization called “80,000 Hours,” named for the amount of time people typically spend working over the course of their careers. This is why careful career selection is considered such a crucial part of Effective Altruism: it can be a single decision with a lifetime of impact associated with it. A person hoping to dedicate their career to improving global development could join a non-profit, or look for a job in government through which they could increase foreign aid, among numerous other options. 

I imagine most people reading this will generally see the value of this approach to the world, but still feel a little hesitant. Maybe you think selecting a career or donating a substantial portion of your future income (members of the organization “Giving What We Can” pledge at least 10%) is too much to ask. I recognize that this is demanding, and I’ll first say that the way you want to balance your priorities is entirely up to you. But in my eyes, these don’t really seem like sacrifices; instead, they seem like the best uses of my time and money to obtain the things I value most.

For those who are interested, I strongly encourage you to look up Effective Altruism and explore more on your own.