EA key terms

Core Ideas

Effective Altruism: A growing social movement and an idea that uses evidence and reason to find the most effective possible ways of doing good in the world. An effective altruist is someone who identifies with and acts according to the principles of effective altruism.

Cause-indifference/cause-neutrality: One is cause-indifferent if one chooses where and how to help, only based on how much doing so would help. That is to say, one does not have a “pet cause.”

Cost-effectiveness: The cost-effectiveness of a charitable intervention refers to its marginal impact per euro. For example, each marginal euro donated to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) pays approximately for about 1.8 de-worming treatments.

Counterfactual reasoning: Concerned with how much impact an action has relative to what would have happened otherwise. Your counterfactual impact would then be the amount of extra good done through your action.

Impartiality: The valuing of all human lives equally, independent of location, age, gender, etc.

Leveraging donations: Sometimes, charitable donations can be leveraged to increase their effect. For example, instead of donating €1000 to charity, one might use the €1000 to hold a fundraiser event which results in the donation of more than €1000.

Prioritisation: Cause areas can be evaluated in terms of:

Philosophy

Consequentialism: The view that the rightness of an action depends only on its consequences, rather than intrinsic nature or circumstance. Most effective altruists are consequentialists. Moral philosopher and effective altruist Thomas Pogge is one notable exception; he subscribes to a deontological system of ethics (one in which people have duties to do or not do certain actions).

Moral realism: The claim that morality exists as more than just a human construct, in the same way that most people think of the external world existing independent of humans to perceive it. By contrast, moral non-realism is the claim that morality is just an idea that humans like to talk about.

Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism is a particular consequentialist moral theory, which states that an act is good or bad according to the extent to which it increases happiness and decreases suffering. Different variations of utilitarianism define happiness and suffering in different ways; for instance, preference utilitarianism defines happiness (resp. suffering) as the fulfillment (resp. denial) of one’s desires or preferences, whether or not this leads to pleasure. Many EAs ascribe to some form of utilitarianism.

Population ethics: Deals with questions about the relative importance of different sentient beings or groups of sentient beings. Its important questions include: What is the moral status of non-human animals? What is the moral status of not-yet-born humans? Is the total amount of humans with good experiences morally relevant, or does only their average happiness matter? Population ethics is a source of significant disagreement among effective altruists.

Rationalism: Rationalism is the view that reason and experience / evidence, rather than religious belief and emotional responses, should be the basis of one’s actions and opinions.

Actions and term-requiring causes

Earning to give: The practice of choosing a career not for its direct impact but for its salary, and then donating a significant portion of this salary to effective charities. Earning to give can be more effective than direct work because money is flexible, because earning to give is irreplaceable (someone else will sometimes do the direct impact job if you do not), and because it allows individuals to specialize in what they are best at. Many effective altruists earn to give.

Meta-EA: A meta-EA charity is an organisation that contributes indirectly to EA by seeking to build the effective altruism movement or increase its efficiency, such as GiveWell, CEA, TLYCS, and MIRI (see below section).

Pledge (Giving What We Can & The Life You Can Save): Many effective altruists sign pledges to donate a significant portion of their incomes to charity. Members of GWWC pledge at least 10% of their income to effective charities to relieve the suffering caused by extreme poverty. TLYCS has a similar pledge. 

Existential risk (x-risk): An existential risk is a danger that is global in scope and terminal in intensity. That is, it threatens to “either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Examples include severe climate change, nuclear warfare, and unfriendly artificial intelligence.

International organisations

The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA): A coalition of projects related to EA. Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours are both part of CEA. CEA’s other projects include setting priorities between different global challenges and raising public awareness of EA.

The Life You Can Save (TLYCS): A non-profit organisation founded by philosopher Peter Singer. It promotes effective altruism through public outreach with a focus on reducing poverty and economic inequality. TLYCS seeks to create local groups of informed givers and a global online community, and encourages individuals to sign its charitable-donation pledge.

The Future of Humanity Institute (FHI): A research centre at Oxford that is leading producer of primary research on existential risk. FHI’s main areas of research are global catastrophic risk, applied epistemology, human enhancement, and future technologies.

Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI): A non-profit whose mission is to “ensure that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence has a positive impact.” MIRI’s main activity is to conduct research on a few topics: How can a machine reason coherently about its own behaviour? What is a better formalisation for decision-making under uncertainty? How can we specify an AI’s goals to ensure that it matches our intentions, even as the AI modifies itself? What AI-related interventions are the most beneficial?