Note: This post assumes that you’re at least sort of a utilitarian
Effective Altruism is a movement that applies cost-benefit analysis to charity selection in order to maximize impact per dollar. This approach requires that you focus on the evidence for the effectiveness of various charities, weigh the benefits of the charitable interventions against the costs of implementing them, and then support the charity that has the highest impact per dollar.
For example, let’s say my goal was to help blind people. If I donated 42k to Guide Dogs of America, I could provide one blind person with a guide dog. If I instead donated that 42k to Helen Keller International, which does surgeries to correct trichiasis, I could restore sight to 1,344 blind people in the developing world.* Donating to Hellen Keller International is clearly a far more effective way to accomplish my goal of helping blind people. Effective Altruists are focused on accomplishing their charitable goals to the maximum extent possible given their resources.
I really like Effective Altruism’s focus on maximizing impact and I don’t see why this reasoning needs to start and end with charities. Why is there not the same sort of attention paid to effectiveness in other social movements?
I consider myself a feminist, but I find myself frustrated with modern feminism’s lack of focus on impact. Modern feminism feels like a poorly-aimed vagina-themed outrage machine, with issues of the day almost randomly picked and with proposed solutions not vetted for effectiveness. I want a feminism that embraces cost-benefit analysis, so that we’re focusing our resources on the issues where we can make the biggest difference. I want a feminism that’s focused on empiricism and demonstrated results, so that we actually know what the most effective solutions are, instead of guessing in the dark.
There are only 24 hours in a day, and you have only so much energy to devote to causes you care about. Focusing your attention on one issue necessarily means not focusing it on others. If you are writing a blog post about the dearth of women in government, you’re not writing it on the pay gap, or rape, or any other feminist issue. If you care about making the biggest impact you can given your resources, you have to prioritize the issues that you’re focusing on based on the impact you can have. The main questions are: How bad is the thing? How much can I do to fix the thing?
If we rank problems based on the suffering they cause to women, on one side of the spectrum we’re going to have things like “women denied basic human rights and equal opportunity overseas”, and on the other side we’re going to have things like “sometimes men take up more space on the subway” and “sometimes women get hit on in elevators”. In the middle are things like “the pay gap” and “women can’t become Catholic priests”. (Note that the awfulness of the thing is not the only factor to pay attention to. I think that per victim the mishandling of rape in the military is way more awful than lack of maternity leave, but because military rapes affect far fewer people than maternity leave does, it might be true that more suffering is averted by focusing on the latter than the former. What’s important is total suffering.)
Additionally, some of these problems might be far easier to fix than others. Under Saudi law, every woman must have a male chaperone/guardian, whose approval she needs before she can get a job or get an education. As awful as that is, if we’re looking at impact per unit of effort, attempting to change Saudi culture is probably far higher hanging fruit than, say, distributing free birth control in the US and elsewhere so fewer women get stuck with babies they don’t want. To get the highest impact per unit of effort, we’re looking for the sweet spot where things are both awful and we can make them better.
But how do we know if we actually are making things better?** For example, do sexual assault seminars do any good? I have no idea, and neither do you unless you’ve gone out of your way to look up the research, because the effectiveness of different interventions is not a focus in feminist discussions today. And that’s shocking to me, because the effectiveness of different proposed solutions to feminist problems should be something feminists are deeply interested in! Caring about demonstrated results is the first step to increasing the impact we can have.
**Interventions often don’t have the positive impact we hope for, and it can be hard to predict ahead of time which interventions will fail and which will succeed. For more on this, see: https://80000hours.org/2012/08/social-interventions-gone-wrong/