Effective altruism is about doing the most good, more more precisely “using evidence and analysis to take actions that help others as much as possible,” as this effective altruism FAQ puts it. It is the guiding principle of our work.
Duty to Rescue
Many countries have something like a duty to rescue in their law, “a concept … describing a circumstance in which a party can be held liable for failing to come to the rescue of another party in peril.” It is commonly applied to such cases as accidents on highways where observers are held to secure the site, call an ambulance, and perhaps even render first aid if they can.
We empathized with this moral obligation to help but we asked ourselves where it ends. It did not seem intuitive to use that, for example, greater distance to the peril should absolve us from our responsibility to help if we can still help just as effectively. The limits of the law vary from country to country, but were concerned with what guidance our morality should give us. Our morality told us that our responsibility was the same whether we’re observing a car accident or whether we know that over a thousand people are dying of malaria every day.
If you go along with this premise, then it’s also important to understand the concept of opportunity cost. A volunteer firefighter might be faced with a dilemma: Two houses are on flames, but they are far apart so the firefighter can only get to one in time. In one house, one person is trapped, in the other, ten people are trapped. Given the first premise, avoiding the decision by just sitting back and doing nothing is no option for the firefighter. So which house should they prioritize?
The idea of opportunity cost is that if the firefighter saves the ten people, one person will die, which is terrible, but if the firefighter saves the one person instead, then ten people will die, which is ten times more terrible. Hence they will need to make the hard decision to save the ten people.
Most people will accept these premises, but we’re not saying that you need to. But if you do, then what follows from them is that it is of paramount importance not only that you put a significant part of your resources – time, money, attention, creativity, passion, and more – toward helping others in need but also that you spend them in such a way as to maximize their positive effect.
Organizations like GiveWell and Animal Charity Evaluators are researching how you can optimally invest your monetary donations, and 80,000 Hours researches how you can optimally invest all your other resources throughout your career.
(There are also great resources in German on the website of the EA Foundation.)