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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Effective Altruism club hopes to promote a deeper understanding of doing good on campus

Members of the Tufts Effective Altruism Club are pictured at the club's General Interest Meeting on September 19, 2021.

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement concerned with finding the most effective ways to make the world a better place, according to Graeme McDonough, a junior on the Effective Altruism club’s executive board.

“At its core, effective altruism is really about philosophy and thinking about how we can analyze giving back to the world. But in practice, it's really about thinking about giving back and also about in what ways you might go about doing that," McDonough said.

Rachel Weinberg and David Gantt, co-presidents of the Effective Altruism club on campus, are working closely with 15 other members to seek the club's university recognition by the Tufts Community Union Judiciary in mid-October. The renewed push for TCU Judiciary recognition represents an effort to reinstate the club after Effective Altruismfirst arrived at Tufts through Dillon Bowen (A’16) who learned about the movement during his year abroad at the University of Oxford. 

One of the advantages of joining Effective Altruism is career exploration. 

"In terms of actionable items, especially if you're a student, [effective altruism involves] actually just taking the time to think about what careers might benefit the most people. Think about your skills and your interests and how you can best give back," McDonough said.

McDonough added that while effective altruism as a philosophy shares many common tenets with utilitarianism, the movement does not officially subscribe to any specific school of thought.

“[As I see it,] effective altruism is the idea that what is ethical, and by extension what is the right thing to do, generally improves the quality of life or improves the happiness of the most people and in the greatest quantity,” McDonough said. “Utilitarianism as a philosophy on its own has a lot of flaws ... It can easily slip into minority underrepresentation or marginalized communities underrepresentation. But certainly, with some tweaks, there's something called prioritarianism, which is where you prioritize underprivileged communities over others, even if it means a slightly smaller increase in happiness overall. So with some tweaks, Effective Altruism is really based on that.”

In explaining effective altruism, Gantt introduced quality-adjusted life-year (QALY), a way to measure and quantify the effectiveness of doing good. 

Gantt discussed how a charity could compare two disparate interventions: contributing to a cancer treatment or contributing to a deworming initiative in a low-income country. "For a cancer treatment, it costs between $30,000 to $50,000 per year to extend one person's life by one year. Whereas with the latter option, you can do that for a matter of cents. If you take QALY as a metric, you can begin to compare one cause against another."

By quantifying a charity’s effectiveness, some critics point out that the movement comes across as calculating and cold-blooded. Weinberg, however, explained the rationale behind Effective Altruism’s approach.

“If we want to support people equitably, we need to support causes unequally, because some causes help people more effectively than others,” Weinberg said. “We should be pouring our resources into causes which can help people the most per dollar and hour that we spend.”

Weinberg added how Harrison Sweet, a first-year who joined the club, understands Effective Altruism’s premise in the context of mindfulness.

[Sweet] said meditation is in part about increasing the distance between impulse and your action in an intentional way,” Weinberg said. “In Effective Altruism, we want a similar thing: everybody has all these natural impulses to help people, and that’s good, but we want to intentionally consider how to best channel that into effective action, rather than acting on first impulse.”

On top of that, it is important to note that Effective Altruism is not all about charity and there is no one right way to join and help the cause. McDonough explained the importance of prioritizing your skills when giving back.

“Since I'm studying chemical engineering, I'm not going to swerve paths and start introducing climate change legislation. I don’t have those skills ... [I could instead focus on] developing carbon capture systems for climate change action," McDonough said. 

As the Effective Altruism club grows in size, Weinberg hopes that the club can foster an intellectual and mindful community where its members engage deeply with what it means to do good for the world. 

“We are trying to get students to think more deeply about a question, which is, how can you have the most impact possible, the most positive way possible?” Weinberg said. “Our mission is not to really answer this question — our goal is to think really deeply about it together, consider it... read all sorts of things that we can together and also get many different perspectives.”

The Effective Altruism club also attempts to examine how people extend their moral circle beyond their immediate communities, Weinberg explained.

“If you look at history a few 100 years ago, people didn't care about people who were outside of their country, outside of their race or outside of their religion,” Weinberg said. “We should look at ourselves critically and think, maybe we aren't taking into account everybody that we ought to care about.”

According to many effective altruists, including Weinberg and Gantt, people's moral circles should encompass all sentient beings, including animals. 

“Seventy-two billion land animals are killed for food around the world every year,” Weinberg said. “Animals have the capacity to feel the same, or at least a significant fraction of joy and pain we do, and yet 97% of our philanthropic funding goes only towards humans... We should expand our compassion to [animals] too." 

Despite how demanding it may come across as a philosophy, Gantt added that effective altruism can imbue one’s life with a profound sense of purpose and meaning in return.

“Something that people can get out of effective altruism, I think, is a sense that your work, whatever it may be, can carry great meaning, ” Gantt said. “To feel that you can have an immense impact by consistently giving a portion of your income to a charity or a cause is what effective altruism can offer.” 

Drawing from their experiences and involvement with the Effective Altruism community, Weinberg and Gantt organized a fall fellowship program that will run from Oct. 10 to Dec. 4 this semester. 

Joining the fellowship program will be the best way to get involved with the club and participate in the cause, Weinberg said. It will also serve as an opportunity for participants to discuss and debate a wide range of pertinent ideas.

“The fellowship is about an hour of reading and an hour of discussion per week,” Weinberg said. “It's super interdisciplinary. Anybody, regardless of their interests, can help us. We have a place for anybody who wants to have an impact.”

Weinberg added that there will be more regular meetings and club events once the club is recognized by the TCU Judiciary this fall.

We will have a few meetings [where] club members can give presentations on EA-related issues they care about," Weinberg said. "We are definitely interested in running a follow-up, more in-depth fellowship program next semester as well."

Moving forward, the club hopes to encourage students to have conversations about pursuing careers that maximize social impact. They also plan on helping the Tufts community donate and contribute to organizations and causes that can best actualize their goals, Weinberg explained. 

According to Weinberg, the club aims to discuss and address three main areas of interest: global health and poverty, animal welfare and protecting humanity’s long term future. 

“[These] three areas are highly neglected and tractable to make a difference,” Weinberg said. “We need to preserve humanity so that future generations, who will be wiser than we are, can take humanity to its full potential.”

Weinberg reflected on how joining Effective Altruism has changed her life. 

“I think a lot of college kids don't know what they want to do with their careers,” Weinberg said. “Overall, being involved with the EA community has given me a clearer sense of purpose and direction in life, which has made me much happier."