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Caring about the future doesn’t mean ignoring the present

Effective altruism hasn’t abandoned its roots.

Dion Lee/Vox; Getty Images

Effective altruism (EA) has been unusually active in the news this month with the release of the book What We Owe the Future by the Oxford philosopher and founding EA figure Will MacAskill. In it, MacAskill argues for what he calls “longtermism” — donations, policy, and activism focused on preserving the best possible long-term future of humanity.

One frequent — and reasonable — critique of longtermism is that it could steer the effective altruist movement away from its biggest achievements to date: saving lots of peoples’ lives in the present with direct and immediate measures.

Effective altruism encourages donating a far larger share of rich Westerners’ household income than most people do on average. My wife and I, for example, target giving 30 percent of our pre-tax income.

Effective altruist money has funded vaccinations, lifesaving health care, vitamins targeting critical nutrient deficiencies, cash distributions in poor areas, and research into pandemic prevention, global development, humane farming, and other critical, immediate stuff dedicated to helping those in need right here, right now.

Effective altruism is growing on all fronts

I agree with longtermism’s central claim that people not yet born should be a key priority in our policy and decision-making. But if the shift to longtermism meant that effective altruists would stop helping the people of the present, and would instead put all their money and energy into projects meant to help the distant future, it would be doing an obvious and immediate harm. That would make it hard to be sure EA was a good thing overall, even to someone like me who shares its key assumptions.

However, recent data from GiveWell, which directs effective altruist cash to top-priority global health causes, suggests that trade-off is a myth. That’s because, for all the attention on longtermism recently, the last year has also been the best year ever for effective altruist money funding present-day global health and development.

Here’s GiveWell’s estimate:

GiveWell

For people who worry about whether effective altruism is a competitive tussle between a few cause areas, with some gaining at the expense of others, I think this chart ought to be enormously reassuring.

The picture it paints instead is that as effective altruism has gotten big — and as effective altruist-aligned institutions have broadly oriented themselves more toward long-term and existential-risk priorities — the movement has also gotten stronger and healthier in terms of the money focused on global health and development.

Of course, it’s impossible to rule out that EA would be growing even faster if not for longtermist “weird stuff.” But I think that’s a hard-to-demonstrate claim, and one I don’t totally buy.

MacAskill’s book has put weird stuff front and center, but the reception has been remarkably positive, introducing tons of people to effective altruism, including to the more direct work on today’s concrete problems.

A symbiotic relationship

My main takeaway from the GiveWell chart is that it’s a mistake to believe that global health and development charities have to fight with AI and biosecurity charities for limited resources.

The vast majority of Americans don’t donate much to charity at all, nor do they choose their careers on the basis of making progress on critical global issues. But as effective altruism has become more prominent, it has gotten more people on board, each of whom decides for themselves which EA priorities persuade them — and then works on those topics.

You could imagine the EA movement growing to the point where further growth is mostly about persuading people of intra-movement priority changes, but that day is very far in the future.

This is not to say that I think effective altruism should just be about whatever EAs want to do or fund. Prioritization of causes is at the heart of the movement — it’s the “effective” in effective altruism.

But the recent funding data does incline me toward worrying less that new focuses for effective altruism will come at the direct expense of existing ones, or that we must sacrifice the welfare of the present for the possibilities of the future.

In a growing, energized, and increasingly powerful movement, there is plenty of passion — and money — to go around.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!