Why I became an Effective Altruist

My story

Over 2015 I’ve become increasingly involved with a social movement called Effective Altruism. Inspired by a friend who recently wrote a post about how and why she became an Effective Altruist, I decided to do the same. Let me take you on my whirlwind journey over the last 12 months.

Since late 2012, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place. I didn’t want to just make it a little better, I wanted to go all the way. I decided the best way for me to do that was to finish my degree in geoscience and work my way up through the energy industry, changing the environmental practices from within. I finished in 2014, and was hired straight out of university. My employers told me I could start as soon as I liked. I’d been thinking about going on a volunteer trip for a while, and decided to do that before I started working, as it may be my last chance. I went to Nepal for 5 weeks, where we built a medical centre. My attendance on the trip cost me around $5,000 including flights and expenses.

Some part of me started to feel uncomfortable. Something didn’t seem right. I would be making over $7,000 a month in my new role. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start working straight away and donate my earnings, which would pay for someone else to do the same work, and then some? A lot of people told me I was crazy, and I believed them for a while.

I finally found a TED talk by Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer which really resonated with me. I realised there was a whole community of people who thought as I did, that sometimes the best thing to do is a little unconventional, but that it should still be done.

Wanting to get involved, I sent Peter Singer an email asking how I could. Being such a famous and important man, I never expected a reply. 30 minutes later, for some reason I decided to check my junk mail (which I never did, but now always do). Imagine my surprise when I saw a very prompt email from Singer suggesting that I start up the first Effective Altruism chapter in Adelaide. I was put in touch with Louise Pfeiffer, who had just moved to Adelaide from Melbourne and was involved with the EA chapter there. We quickly got to work and founded The Life You Can Save Adelaide chapter.

What is Effective Altruism?

By now you might be wondering what Effective Altruism actually is. It’s a large and decentralised movement, so the definition varies. But in my mind, an Effective Altruist is someone who:

Is open minded about the most effective ways to do good. Once they find the most effective ways, they do them.

For some, this means aiming to earn a high salary to donate as much of it as they can to the most effective charities and causes. For others, it might be doing direct work for particular causes, such as research into the most effective charities or starting a highly effective non-profit. A common theme is that EAs often pledge to donate a percentage of their income. I myself have pledged 12% of my income, though I hope to give a lot more.

I haven’t pledged higher because some part of me wants to one day start my own company, and potentially make and give even more money. Some donate a kidney to strangers. Zell Kravinsky, who donated a kidney to a stranger, said:

“Statistically, it’s a 1:4000 chance that I will die from the procedure to donate the kidney that I do not even need. Therefore to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means that I value my life 4000 times more than them.

There are a lot of other considerations which make the calculation less simple than that, such as risk of chronic complications from a kidney donation that don’t lead to death, or the chance that the kidney won’t take. In any case, I haven’t donated my kidney, and I’m not sure that I will. But there are a lot of other ways that people can do good, at significantly less risk to their own safety.

GiveWell is an organisation that rates the effectiveness of charities (often called a ‘meta-charity) and produces a (small) list of the world’s most effective charities. Of those rated so far, the most effective, the Against Malaria Foundation, is considered to be so good that a donation of $3,400 will save 1 life on average. AMF provides anti-malarial bed nets to rural locations to reduce the incidence of malaria.


Over the year we’ve given presentations about Effective Altruism to over 100 people, and will be giving many more in the new year when our Run for Effective Altruism kicks off in April. (If you’re in the Adelaide region and want us to give a presentation to your community group or business, get in touch!) Some people believe that you can’t spend most of your life working for others without being miserable, but I’ve never felt more happy and fulfilled. I paraphrase Charlie Bresler, co-founder of The Life You Can Save here, and it’s a little cheesy, but it’s true.

“The life that I saved was my own.

So do I regret going to Nepal? It was an incredible experience – I met a lot of great people, learned a lot of things and had a lot of fun. In hindsight, the decision between working and volunteering wouldn’t have been easy. The value was probably more in the personal development side of things than the work I was actually doing, though it was still good and important work. Unfortunately, since I was in Nepal there has been a series of major earthquakes which devastated the country. Many of the buildings in the village where I was working have fallen down or been damaged. While disaster relief is not as effective as some other causes, like poverty relief, due to my high paying job I was able to donate a significant sum to Oxfam who were the most effective charity doing aid in Nepal, and likely did more good through that than if I had returned to help.

Voltaire – The universal man

I was recently marathoning Sharpe’s Rifles the TV series (great viewing by the way, if you don’t mind the cheesy 90’s style) when I heard continued references to a man by the name of Voltaire. I’m an amateur Napoleonic historian, and was surprised that I hadn’t heard of a French from around that time. According to Wikipedia, Voltaire (or Francois-Marie Arouet, by his real name) was a writer, historian, philosopher and satirist. He was most known for his attacks on the established Catholic Church, and advocacy for the separation of the church and state. Certainly very controversial views for his time. Men and women had been guillotined for less (remarkably, Voltaire made it to the ripe old age of 83 and kept his head).

The quote from Sharpe’s Rifles that got to me the most came when Richard Sharpe, the main character, was guarding a woman’s bedroom. As back story, Sharpe had a wife who was far away at the time, and this particular woman was someone Sharpe apparently had a prior relationship with. She requested his ‘company’ that night, and Sharpe was clearly torn between his urges and his loyalty to his wife. She said something to the effect of “But your wife isn’t here tonight.” Sharpe was still undecided, then the woman quoted Voltaire, saying, “I have no morals, yet I am a very moral person.” Apparently this was enough to convince Sharpe, as they quickly got busy. This scene made me uncomfortable. What does that quote really mean, and why is it justification for  cheating on one’s wife?

A few clicks on Google later, and my impression is that the original quote referred to the idea that one does not need a specific set of morals or a moral code to be a good person. This is likely an attack on the notion of requiring a religious moral code to be ‘good’, given Voltaire’s history of hating on the church. I suppose this woman was saying that Sharpe could indulge his urges, do something traditionally seen as immoral, and still be a good person. Does anyone have a different interpretation?

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Voltaire holding a copy of his Henriade. Image from commons.wikimedia.org

Feeling curious, I wanted to get a greater sense of the man, so I borrowed the biography Voltaire: The Universal Man by Derek Parker from the library. It was an amusing and surprisingly compelling read, with anecdotes like Voltaire’s incapability to stop working (he would dictate to an assistant in the morning while getting dressed) and his love of coffee. When Voltaire’s physician told him that coffee was a slow and steady poison, he replied “Yes, it must be a slow poison, it has been poisoning me for over seventy years!” According to some sources, Voltaire drank over 40 cups of coffee a day, which leads me to wonder how weak the coffee was, how small the cups were or how jittery Voltaire’s writing must have been!

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” This is without doubt one of my favourite quotes from Voltaire. It is similar to my own world view that not saving a life when you could have is morally equivalent taking a life (essentially utilitarianism).

One amusing theme was that Voltaire’s work is apparently, by and large, unreadable today. Parker claims that, of all Voltaire’s work, only Candide is still in print and read widely today. Given how much Voltaire’s quotes resonate with me and how much I enjoy reading them, I find this remarkable, but perhaps I am just reading the very best parts. I mean to read some of his original work, and look forward to any suggestions people may have for where to start.

Many a time Voltaire wrote anonymously, and had to deny his having written certain pieces of work as the church rounded them up and burned them. What a world that must have been.

Francois-Marie Arouet’s pseudonym has several proposed origins. The most likely, according to Parker, is the nickname he was given as an infant, ‘le petit volontaire‘, or ‘the little stubborn one’. A fitting nickname for one who became such a profound opponent of the church and the state of affairs in France. I find it remarkable that Voltaire is today almost always referred to by his pseudonym over his real name. Parker writes that “To call him a ‘great writer’ then, is, probably a mistake. To call Voltaire a great man is only to do him justice.” But I, in my uneducated way (I’m a scientist by training, not a philosopher or historian!) disagree. The fact that he is known as his writer’s name today must surely be proof that, at the time, it was his writing he was most known and enjoyed for, and what better proof of a good writer is there than a lot of people reading their work?

As an aside, I find the idea of a writer’s pseudonym intriguing and powerful. In The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester, I read about a man named Jesse Hawley, who, from jail and under the pen name of ‘Hercules’, wrote fourteen columns in the weekly Genesee Messenger arguing for the construction of a major canal, which was eventually built. A pseudonym can be powerful, and wield more influence than the name’s creator.

Just a small collection of my favourite Voltaire quotes to finish off today.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

Common sense is not so common.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Until next time.

Doing Good Better book review

For anyone sleeping under an asteroid lately, a new movement by the name of Effective Altruism is slowly taking the world by storm. Put simply, EA involves thinking critically about which causes and charities to support. It may seem strange, but the differences between charities can be enormous, and it’s not just about overhead and transparency.

For example, it costs around $40,000 AU to train a guide dog to care for a blind person. Giving a person the ability to get around is a great thing to do, but a $60 donation to the Fred Hollows Foundation is enough to cure someone of blindness in a developing nation. For the cost of training one guide dog, we could cure over 600 cases of blindness. For some, this raises concerns about whether it’s ok to say one charity or cause or life is worth more than another. But in reality, by not undertaking this comparison, you are saying that one life is worth more than 600 others. We have a remarkable opportunity to save a lot of lives by just changing how we think about charity. If you’re still not convinced, I gave a presentation about this recently which introduces these ideas.

This year has seen a number of Effective Altruism books being released, including The Most Good You Can Do by moral philosopher and co-founder of EA, Peter Singer, which is a good introduction.

I recently finished reading Doing Good Better by William MacAskill, which dives into some of the less obvious ways that people can maximise the good they can do throughout their lives. I’d like to take a bit of time to summarise the key themes of this book and give my thoughts.

Will MacAskill. Image taken with permission from http://www.effectivealtruism.com/press/.
Will MacAskill. Image taken with permission from http://www.effectivealtruism.com/press/.

One new idea floating about is that it’s possible to do a lot of good by working for a company that might typically be seen as unethical, such as a bank or finance company, rather than working directly for a non-profit. This is because, by working for a non-profit company, you are likely taking the job from someone else, almost as equally skilled as you, and so the marginal good you do is small. However, by working for a bank, you could earn a high salary, which you can donate to an effective charity. If you earn enough, you could donate enough to pay for the salary of several non-profit staff that otherwise wouldn’t have had jobs if you didn’t donate that money. EAs call this ‘earning to give’. That’s not to say that everyone should drop everything and work for the most evil corporation to earn a lot of money, just that it is another option. Some causes, like artificial intelligence research, are more talent constrained than funding constrained, so in some cases working for a non-profit is still better than donating to them.

One activity that is often seen as a way of ‘greenliving’ is buying local produce, but unfortunately, the benefits of buying locally are often overstated. On average, only 10% of the emissions from food come from the transport, while 80% comes from the production. The effect of this is so strong that it is more effective to cut out red meat and dairy of one’s diet one day a week than to buy entirely locally produced food. This isn’t to say that buying local isn’t a good thing to do, just that there are easier ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint. This counterintuitive nature is a common theme with reducing carbon emissions. Leaving a phone plugged in for a whole year is equivalent in carbon emissions to having one hot bath, and leaving the TV on for the year is comparable to driving a car for just two hours.

MacAskill proposes an even more effective way of reducing emissions. Carbon offsetting involves paying someone to reduce or avoid carbon emissions or to capture carbon, for example planting a tree. This isn’t a new concept, though one carbon offsetting charity, Cool Earth, is particularly effective at this. Using analysis by William MacAskill and 80,000 Hours, even with the most conservative estimates it would only cost around $135 for the average Australian to offset their carbon emissions – for a whole year.

People often tout catching a train as being a more environmentally friendly way to travel between cities. However, trains are usually significantly more expensive than flights for long distance travel, so you’re almost certainly doing more good for the environment by flying somewhere and donating even half the savings to a carbon offsetting charity. Not to mention the time you’d be saving, which if you were serious, could be used to do even more good for the environment.

MacAskill also discusses the possibility of offsetting one’s meat consumption. Charities such as The Humane League distribute advertising material to convince people to eat less meat, thereby reducing animal suffering and environmental damage. It costs about $100 to convince someone to stop eating meat for one year (or the equivalent reduction over multiple people). If this is the case, would it be possible to donate $100 to such a charity rather than go vegetarian, and be able to say it’s the moral equivalent? What if you donate $200 a year, but eat meat. You’ve essentially convinced two people to be vegetarian for the year. Is that better than eating meat but not donating?

Permission for use of image granted by The Humane League.
Permission for use of image granted by The Humane League.

MacAskill’s conclusion is “I don’t think so. There’s a crucial difference between greenhouse gas emissions and meat consumption: if you offset your greenhouse gas emissions, then you prevent anyone from ever being harmed by your emissions. In contrast, if you offset your meat consumption, you change which animals are harmed through factory farming. That makes eating meat and offsetting it less like offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and more like committing adultery and offsetting it, which we all agree it would be immoral to do.

I’m not completely convinced by this. Let’s try a thought experiment. Say that being vegetarian costs an extra $500 a year compared to eating meat, due to the food being more expensive (to be clear, it’s not, a vegetarian diet can be substantially cheaper). You might have two options. Option A is to eat meat, save $500 and donate it to an effective animal advocacy charity. Option B is to be vegetarian, thereby losing the $500 you might have otherwise donated. Would it really be acceptable to take option B and let so many more animals die because you refuse to eat meat? Now this is just the trolley problem. You’re changing who lives and dies in that situation to minimise death, so why not this one?

Now let me be slightly contradictory and say that, while I think eating meat and donating $100 to The Humane League would be morally equivalent to being vegetarian, I don’t think that really excuses the meat consumption. We’re not in the world of this thought experiment, so ideally one should be vegetarian and donate to effective charities. Foreseeing potential criticism, I myself am vegan and donate to The Humane League.

Related to this are vegans who regularly go out for fancy meals. If you are spending $500 more than you reasonably need to on meals per year, I would argue that is potentially less ethical than a meat eater who only eats cheap meals and donates $500 to The Humane League every year. Morality doesn’t begin and end with whether or not you eat meat. But after all this, I still believe that eating less or no meat is one of the easiest ways people can change their lives to do a lot of good. I appreciate that this is all quite controversial, so I invite you to leave your thoughts or criticism in the comments below.

On a related vein, MacAskill argues that ethical consumerism probably isn’t as good as we think it is. If it costs $30 to buy an ethically produced shirt, and only $5 to buy one produced in a sweatshop, you’re probably doing more good by buying the sweatshop shirt and donating the $25 savings to an organisation that advocates for workers rights. In fact, it’s widely agreed by economists that sweatshops are, overall, good for poor countries. They are steady sources of income for many people in developing nations, and they probably wouldn’t otherwise have jobs. By boycotting sweatshops, we just make things worse.

In Will’s words, “We should certainly feel outrage and horror at the conditions sweatshop labourers toil under. The correct response, however, is not to give up sweatshop-produced goods in favour of domestically produced goods. The correct response is to try to end the extreme poverty that makes sweatshops desirable places to work in the first place.

When it comes to choosing a career, Will cautions against ‘following your passion’, which is a common piece of career advice. This is bad advice for two reasons. One is that most people don’t have passions that fit the world of work. The second is that your interests change. It’s ok to realise after finishing a degree or working in a career for 10 years that it’s not what you really enjoy or are good at, and to move on. The idea that people should know what they want to do for the rest of their life by the age of 18 is ludicrous.

Considering the amount of time people spend working over a career, they spend comparatively little time thinking about what the best career for them really is. An organisation called 80,000 Hours is seeking to combat this by providing advice on finding personal fit for a career and reviewing careers for how much positive impact people can have within one. 80,000 is the number of hours the average person will spend working, yet most people spend substantially less than 1% of that time thinking about their career itself.

The 80,000 Hours team. Image taken with permission from https://80000hours.org/.
The 80,000 Hours team. Image taken with permission from https://80000hours.org/.

Doing Good Better talks about so many things that I could never cover them all here, but hopefully I’ve given you a taste. I highly recommend it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Until next time.

How to game (motivate) yourself

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on how to ‘game’ your PhD in order to produce more and higher quality work. This got me thinking about some of the even more subtle ways that I game myself. Some people call these ‘life hacks’ because they are almost like cheating. I’m going to take you through some of my own life hacks, with a brief discussion of psychology along the way.

1. Motivation charities

In the past, I’ve struggled a lot with video game addiction. At one point, I was playing for over 10 hours a day, and going to bed after 4 to wake up at 7 in time for university. My grades and my life suffered. For the most part, I was able to overcome this by setting and committing to some lofty life goals, but I still played games from time to time, and felt terribly guilty about it after. Recently, a friend told me about his own motivation technique, whereby he commits to making a modest donation to a charity every time he does something he wants to stop doing. But he didn’t just pick any charity. If you’re like me, and love donating, giving some money to a great charity won’t be much of a deterrence, because you’d probably do it anyway. So he picked a charity that he thinks does more harm than good, so that donating to them not only costs money, but actually does damage. (How can a charity cause harm? See this presentation I gave to find out.)

As my ‘motivation charity’, I chose The Heartland Foundation, a climate denier organisation that, put simply, acts to block climate policy. I have pledged to donate $10 to them every time I play a game. A few weeks ago, I caved and played a few games, and so donated $30 to them. It was hard, but I forced myself to make the donation. I now have no desire to play games any more, and can easily focus on doing the important things.

2. Tossing your cap

Irish writer Frank O’Connor tells a story about how, when he was a school boy, he and his friends came across a wall that they wanted to climb to see what was on the other side, but were too afraid. Eventually, they decided to toss their school caps over the wall. They would get in a lot of trouble if they lost their caps, so they had no choice but to climb over and retrieve the caps.

There are a lot of ways to emulate ‘tossing your cap’ in every day life. One that I frequently use is to sign up and commit to doing things that I know will be difficult or time consuming, but useful in the future. By publicly committing to something, I am setting myself up for embarrassment if I don’t follow through, so I have no choice but to do what I said I would, because the discomfort of doing so is outweighed by the discomfort of letting people down.

I have used this to sign up for committee roles and give presentations that I don’t think I have the time or expertise to do, but by signing up I have forced myself to get good at that role, and do it well. This same principle can be used to overcome anxiety about something that you may really want to do, but struggle to actually follow through with at the time.

I can’t remember the exact quote or the woman who said it, but I’ve read that one secret to being successful is to take on so many responsibilities that you force yourself to work and keep a busy schedule.

3. Pomodoros

Pomodoros, or pomos, are a motivation technique that I have trialled myself with some success, but some people swear by them. Essentially, you set a timer, usually to 25 minutes, and work consistently through that time. Then you set a timer for 5 minutes and take a break, or stop thinking about work, and do something else. After 5 minutes, you get back to work, and repeat. If you think of something else you need to do during the 25 minutes, like reply to an email, you write a note on a pad to do that later, and continue focussing on the task at hand. As stated on the Wiki page, pomos are based on the idea that frequent breaks improve mental agility.

4. Improving rationality

Everyone can get irrational from time to time, unfortunately that’s human nature. But there are steps we can take to adjust or be aware of our way of thinking.

Being aware of bias is a key first step. There are many forms of bias that affect how humans think. There are a lot, so I will just discuss a few here. For a complete list, see the Wiki page here.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to only remember information that confirms your pre-existing beliefs. This means that, when researching a particular topic that you already have an opinion on, such as whether a vegan diet is healthy or not, you will click on the links that support what you think. You are less likely to read and/or remember articles and pages that disagree with what you think. In fact, even the way you phrase the search engine term will affect your results. If you search ‘health benefits of veganism’, you will largely get pro-vegan articles, while searching ‘health benefits of eating meat’, you will largely get anti-vegan articles. If you want to be intellectually honest, you should always structure your searches in a way that is as neutral as possible. In the example above, this might look like ‘health effects of a vegan diet’.

The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to the tendency for unskilled or unknowledgeable people to overestimate their skill in an area, and for skilled people to underestimate their skill. On a related note, think of something you’re an expert in, but a lot of people get wrong, either in the media or in conversation. This frustrates you, right? How can everyone be so ignorant? Well, that’s you for almost everything else. It’s important to be able to recognise what you’re an expert in, and what you’re not.

Negativity bias is the tendency to remember bad things more easily than good things. This is a hard one to account for yourself, but as with all biases, it is important to at least be aware of them so that when you find yourself coming to a conclusion, you can ask yourself why you think that way. Is it possible that you are under the influence of some bias?

The Centre For Applied Rationality provides advice and training for countering the many cognitive biases and improving rationality, and are worth a look.

5. Write it out

It turns out that the simple act of writing out your goals makes you more likely to achieve them. I’ve written a list of both short and long term goals, and keep it on my wall in my room. Some of the goals, which looked crazy when I first wrote them, have already been achieved. I review and update this list once a year (which reminds me, I’m almost due for an update!).

6. Set the bar high – real high

Related to setting goals, I follow a philosophy of setting the bar really high for myself. A lot of people say it’s too high. I thought I made up this quote, but it turns out it’s already a thing. Oh well.

Reach for the stars, and if you don’t quite make it, at least you might reach the Moon.

I am confident that if you strive to reach a very high goal incrementally, even if you don’t quite make it, you will get so much further than you otherwise would have with smaller goals.

That’s all I have time for. I hope these tips are as useful for your life as they have been for mine.

Until next time.