Effective Altruist New Year’s Resolutions

Create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you, –will invite you to add something to the pleasure of others, –or to diminish something of their pains.

– Jeremy Bentham

If I had to sum up the central idea of Effective Altruism (EA) in three words, I think ‘moral opportunity costs’ would be a pretty solid effort. The major ideas associated with the movement share the general notion that there are important trade-offs associated with the way we use our resources, which mean they could generally be deployed in such a way as to do more good in the world. For example, Giving What We Can encourages people to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities: i) because a lot of the money we spend on ourselves provide us with limited benefit compared to the incredible good they can do for others, and ii) money given to less effective charities could do tens or hundreds of times more good if directed to the most effective charities. Similarly, 80 000 hours spreads the idea that deciding on less effective career paths prevents us from following routes where we can do more good for more people.

Understandably, Effective Altruism has tended to focus on our greatest and most significant resources and choices – what to do with our careers and money. It has, therefore, recommended actions with relatively large costs associated with them – 80 000 hours of a person’s life or tens (even hundreds) of thousands of dollars of their money. Nevertheless, the central logic of EA suggests we should apply the same reasoning to lower cost activities. I believe there is a set of actions that:

(i) Do not crowd out, or interfere with, more effective actions (such as donating money, or pursuing a high impact career)

(ii) Do a reasonable amount of good

(iii) Involve low or negligible costs

These acts most likely have a smaller impact than the sorts of things EAs typically think about, which is why I think they have been neglected. But the logic of EA suggests we should do more of them. They are low hanging fruit, so we might as well pick them.

So what are the small (but often overlooked) actions we could take, at low or negligible cost to ourselves, that could do a reasonable amount of good? This is a particularly topical question, since it’s the season for New Year’s resolutions, and the actions I have in mind seem like the sort of resolutions people make this time of year. The things I’m thinking of include:

  1. Making Time to Catch up with Friends and Relatives: Many of us have friends and relatives(often elderly) who live relatively solitary or lonely lives. 10-15 minutes on the phone could be a small sacrifice for you, but make them feel a lot better.
  2. Giving Blood: Giving blood involves little time or discomfort, but helps save lives
  3. Voting: Elections are pretty infrequent, but have important repercussions (particularly for the least vulnerable in society). It might take a few hours to collate and digest the information for an informed vote, but the impact (particularly in local elections where turnout is lower) could be significant.

These are just a few ideas to start the discussion – I’d love to put together a longer list of ideas, so please do let me know if you have more to add!

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One comment

  1. Interesting, normally EAs mention little about what you have written for the last three points. Giving blood is a good one, must get round to that. I’ll be interested to see what people’s responses may be to the discussion that you have opened!

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