Perspectives on Effective Altruism

Posted: August 19, 2016



Altruism, by definition, refers to the emotional or behavioral display that indicates an individual’s willingness to assist other individuals by virtue of lacking selfishness. Altruism dictates that an individual willingly and consciously pts the interest of other human beings above his or her own in a committed manner for the common greater good. Altruism acts as the motivational character that drives individuals to commit donations to charitable organizations or engage in charity work to make a difference in their social locus. Altruism, by default only deals with the effort towards making the world a better place for some unfortunate individual living in a different geographical location o a different culture. The broad and indistinct nature of altruism led to the birth of effective altruism which narrows down the scope of altruism acts to serve specific purposes and intentions in comparison to the general all encompassing altruism concept (Newman & Cain, 2014, p. 649). Effective altruism in its essence contains means of bring accountability in the operations and decision making in the charitable organizations tasked with the responsibility of reaching out to the less fortunate in society regardless of the geographical location.

Effective altruism is essentially a more focused and impact oriented approach to conducting altruism which is achievable by answering the question what can one do to maximize the good that one can do with altruistic actions. Essentially, this movement advocates against the main stream framework where one just makes donations to charitable organizations and common good cause without following up on how much their contribution actually helps in the real world situation. Peter singer argues that ethically it is not correct to assume that by avoiding participation in actual harm causing activities one lives a completely ethical life. He furthers his point by arguing that living ethically requires one to consciously attempt to make the world a better place through the use of one’s spare resources and belongings. His arguments nestle upon three distinct ideologies that refined and differentiate altruism from effective altruism. The three ideologies include thinking scientifically instead of sentimentally, improving the effectiveness by satisfying the next greatest need for the marginal dollar and finally realizing the power one posses when he or she lives in a richer geographical location.

Effective altruism

Effective Altruism and Charitable Donations

Effective altruism stands against the bare concept of giving away one’s spare resources to serve the needs of those who lack the same resources (Timmerman, 2015, p. 90). Effective altruism demands that an individual must account for every donation that he or she gives out by focusing their efforts into considerable and plausible needs of the needy. Effectively, the concept of effective altruism dictates that an individual must take into account the grand scheme of things as he or she pursues the epitome of altruism. Making donations to charitable organization is a noble gesture that might deceive one of their virtuous qualities. In real sense the individual might be doing less harm by focusing much effort into less effective endeavors. The same individual could accomplish more by thinking and forecasting his or her donation decisions and promptly tailoring them to serve a specific altruistic purpose.

The book by Will McAskill does not necessarily banish the idea of donating to charities for individuals living in less fortunate circumstances. Instead the book asks the donors to abstain from sentimentalism where they put so much effort into the donation without considering what the donations intend to achieve at the end. Donating to an organization that provides improved schooling infrastructure for local unfortunate students is by a far a noble gesture that satisfies all the checks in an altruistic situation. However, in the grand scheme of things the donation would be a waste if the targeted individuals fail to utilize the improved facilities due to other reasons such as health, insecurity or even food security (MacAskill, 2015, p. 107).

The Case for Effective Altruism Movement

            Effective altruism offers the able individual a worthy path towards helping others without incurring the influence of self interest. The twist to this lies in the effectiveness of the aid that the individual sends to the recipients and how much change the donation will have on the intended target. Altruism as a stand-alone concept is severely lacking in terms of achieving a real impact in the lives that it targets through various programs currently in place all over the world. The main reason behind the support for effective altruism is the amount of good it does beneath the act of superficial and sentimental act of just giving to the poor. Effective altruism aims to provide the right kind of aid to the right kind of individuals in various locations. The principles that guide effective altruism care about the targeted person and his or her unique needs that might never be a priority to charity organizations that claim to bring aid to the market (Marks, 2016, p. 43).

            Individuals advocating for effective altruism point to the fact that this approach does not generalize the need of an individual by pooling them into one large needy group. Instead, this approach ensures that charity efforts address the most pressing pertinent needs of the needy individuals. Such needs may vary from access to basic needs such as food, water and shelter to other equally important needs such as access to health care services. Consequently, by providing such core services, the individual seeking assistance is at a much better position to pursue improvement of other aspects of life that could include education and financial stability. Hence, effective altruism proves that it cares more for the individual rather than the sentimentalism of contributing to helping the individual (Timmerman, 2015, p. 91).

The Case against Effective Altruism

Effective altruism operates on the basis that it is a straight forward action when one measures the impact of one’s donation, consequently one can easily choose the next best option at all times. Due to the differing inequality levels across the globe ascertaining the impact for a certain donation is definitely impossible to figure out. As a result, altruism could lead to a limited spectrum of intervention programs which handle only a few notable needs of the less fortunate and dismissing the rest as unworthy of meriting charity efforts. Critics also argue that the effective altruism approach offers no concrete acknowledgement to the personal and sentimental features that makes altruism a humane act (Gabriel, 2016, p. 63). Effective altruisms strive to mechanize the whole concept of giving by adding a fixed structural approach to giving to the poor. Through effective altruism individuals rely on making their decisions on the next best option in helping the needy thus essentially asking the benefactors to act on business rationale rather than ethical obligations that gave birth to altruism.

Application of effective altruism and discussion of personal opinion

From a personal point of view, effective altruism represents a minimalist approach to making donations in an attempt to regulate the charitable organizations. Effective altruism is a rational attempt and bringing accountability to those organizations. However, the approach stands the risk of separating the essence of giving to the poor by introducing a bureaucratic process in donating to the less fortunate. Consequently, effective altruism remains a perfect idea in theory but a disaster waiting to happen should it take place on a mass scale. The logic behind that conclusion is that, effective altruism will impose certain limitations on where the donors’ resources flow in bulk and limit the existence of other charity organizations. Individuals will opt to send their donations to specific organizations which tackle specific issues in specific areas while choosing to ignore other organizations that provide equally important service (Ye, Yu, & Wang, 2015, 484). In light of this fact, it is not plausible to adopt effective altruism successfully without limiting the functions of other seemingly “less important organizations”.

While the case for and against effective altruism presents rational reasons for their case, the case against effective altruism is more appealing. Effective altruism attempts to introduce a specific structure to govern donation which goes against the appeal of giving to the less fortunate. By adopting effective altruism, the donors are effectively dictating what they perceive to be of importance to the less fortunate. The donors will dictate proceedings by simply limiting their donations to the said organizations thus implementing a dictator-like condition on the aid their send out to the less fortunate (Korenok,  Millner & Razzolini, 2013, p.6). The essence of giving is to do so willingly and selflessly, hence limiting the charity organization amounts to inclusion of selfish interests in helping the needy individuals.  In hindsight, limiting the donations to poor individuals goes against the logic of donating for selfless reasons.


Altruism is the ultimate choice for an individual seeking to live up to their moral obligations to the rest of the world. Giving to the less fortunate remains a self made decision that should not have any strings attached to it, effective altruism represents a platform for which the donors could include strings to their assistance thus it ruins the core of actually giving out of ethical considerations. Based on the information presented in the essay, altruism is noble it its bare essence and restrictions imposed on it will result into a catastrophic change for donations and charity organizations alike. The arguments in support of effective Altruism are rational but they go against the principle of selfless donation to the less fortunate thus introducing an accountability monitoring structure will be incongruous to the initial intentions of giving to the poor (Echazu & Nocetti, 2015, p. 47).

In conclusion, effective altruism represents a vaguely developed ideology that could change how donations are made and improve accountability within the charitable organizations. Although the principles of effective altruism are ideal, they do not represent a viable option in the future once the finer details are clear. Implementing those principles will affect the organizations and how they operate; such an effect will run some organization into the ground since the decision making will lie with the donors. Notably, the donors have no expertise in deciding what is essential and what could be left out when donating to the less fortunate individuals in society.


Echazu, L., & Nocetti, D. (2015). Charitable giving: Altruism has no limits.Journal of Public Economics125, 46-53.

Gabriel, I. (2016). Effective Altruism and its Critics. Journal of Applied Philosophy

Korenok, O., Millner, E. L., & Razzolini, L. (2013). Impure altruism in dictators' giving. Journal of Public Economics97, 1-8.

MacAskill, W. (2015). Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. Faber & Faber.

Marks, J. (2016). The Most Good You Can Do. Philosophy Now112, 44-45.

Newman, G. E., & Cain, D. M. (2014). Tainted Altruism When Doing Some Good Is Evaluated as Worse Than Doing No Good at All. Psychological science25(3), 648-655.

Timmerman, T. (2015). The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. The Philosophical Quarterly, pqv090.

Ye, N., Teng, L., Yu, Y., & Wang, Y. (2015). “What's in it for me?”: The effect of donation outcomes on donation behavior. Journal of Business Research68(3), 480-486.