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Getting Started With Effective Altruism

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

New to effective altruism and don't know where to start? Overwhelmed by the amount of book recommendations and jargon people use? Here is the perfect place to start reading about effective altruism and the core ideas behind it.






Start Here!

If you're brand new to the idea of Effective Altruism I would recommend taking a few minutes to look at the main website, EffectiveAltruism.org.


At its core effective altruism is a way of looking at problems in the world and using reasoning to help save as many lives as possible, and prevent as much suffering as possible.



Local Events

If you're in the Raleigh area, one of the easiest ways to learn about effective altruism is to head over to one of our events where you can chat with people who might know a bit more or others who are new to these ideas.


You can find the most recent events posted on our event page!



What is Effective Altruism?

Their basic description is as follows:


"Effective altruism is a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.


It’s partly a research field, which aims to identify the world’s most pressing problems and the best solutions to them, and it’s partly a practical community that aims to use those findings to do good.


This project matters because, while many attempts to do good fail, some are enormously effective. For instance, some charities help 100 or even 1,000 times as many people as others, when given the same amount of resources.


This means that by thinking carefully about the best ways to help, we can do far more to tackle the world’s biggest problems.


Effective altruism... [is] not united by any particular solution to the world’s problems, but by a way of thinking."



Again, one of most important things to understand when first reading about Effective Altruism is to understand the last line above, that Effective Altruism at its core is not a movement or a group of people but instead it's a lens that can be used to help us make charitable efforts more efficient.


What makes this lens different from other charities that are also trying to improve the world is that effective altruism tries to use science and reasoning to have the largest impact per person or per dollar spent. In practice this typically means that we are looking for areas that are both neglected and highly impactful.


As a real world example, the website linked above mentions that many people in effective altruism are trying to prevent the next pandemic - after the COVID-19 pandemic most people now understand the harm a true pandemic can have on society. Unfortunately some diseases could be much worse and have a much higher death toll. However despite the fact that global pandemics represent a huge risk to humanity as a whole, today there are orders of magnitude more money going into counterterrorism efforts than pandemic prevention programs.





Based on looking at the potential impact either of these issues could cause, overall pandemic prevention seems much more important. Not to say that counterterrorism isn't important, but again we are working to get the most impact. This is a pretty clear example, as described on effectivealtruism.org:


"From 2011-2022, about 260,000 people were killed by terrorism globally, compared to over 20 million killed by COVID-19."


Based on the scale of these numbers, it seems like a poor allocation of resources to have pandemic safety be so low on our priority list when it comes to funding.


These ideas can be a lot to take in at first if you're brand new to this style of thinking, but luckily there are a lot of smaller steps and organizations that help people who are intrigued and want to increase their impact.



80,000 Hours


An easy way to learn more is to either visit the 80,000 Hours website or if you prefer they have an excellent podcast. 80,000 Hours is dedicated to help people make the most of the time they have to spend in their careers, however they also give a great and detailed breakdown of the most pressing problems we face today.



Introductory EA Fellowship

By far the best way to seriously engage with the ideas in effective altruism is to join an online fellowship, or essentially a book club where you read various pieces and discuss them with others. Not only do you get exposed to many novel and brilliant ideas, you also get to have conversations with people from all across the world.


Fellowships can differ but most of them also have interesting prompts and thought experiments to help you really internalize the ideas presented. This can also be a great way to network with other folks who may be interested in similar cause areas and issues as you are.


You can click here to sign up for a fellowship. Even if you are already familiar with EA, there are other fellowships that are designed for more experienced folks and discuss even more complex topics.



Doing Good Better

The first piece we have to discuss is the book Doing Good Better, published by William Macaskill in 2016. Although the effective altruism movement has been around since the late 2000's, this book really kick started the movement and brought us into the public eye. The main focus of the book is essentially the same as effective altruism: it starts from a place assuming you want to help as many people as possible, and sets out a framework for you to do that.



The Precipice

This is probably the second most influential book written in the EA movement, published in 2020 by Toby Ord. The main argument Ord outlines is that if we truly want to be effective, we need to focus not just on the here and now but on improving the future, especially the long term future. Ord's writing reflects a growing segment of folks in EA who want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to safeguard a happy and excellent future for humanity.



Closing

If you've gone through all of the steps outlined above, you (hopefully) know much more about EA than when you started. If you still have questions feel free to reach out to us at info@earaleigh.org, or just keep reading! One of the great things about EA is that many of the best writings are linked to each other, so with some exploring you'll be able to find many different ideas and other writers outside of the ones mentioned here.



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