On Sunday, Nov. 21, Brandeis Effective Altruism and the Philosophy Undergraduate Department Representatives brought in a speaker, Kaleem Ahmid, to speak to Brandeis students on the topic of effective altruism (EA).
Ahmid began by giving the audience five potential ways of increasing the amount of children that go to school, asking the audience to rank them. Contrary to what most people assumed, the thing that had the most impact was educating parents on the importance of education, followed by deworming. The third factor was free uniforms, followed by merit based scholarships and unconditional monetary transfers.
This example was then used to show the audience that intuition is not always reliable. Intuition is heavily influenced by what problems are most visible to the person, so it is important to go by evidence and reason, not intuition, said Ahmid. He highlighted that intuition is particularly “terrible with dealing with very large numbers.”
From there, Ahmid went on to discuss the best way to avoid making mistakes when trying to do what’s best for people. The project is based on using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible and taking action on that basis. The big thing with this was trying to find a way to avoid all of our biases.
The first step is to become neutral and only have a bias towards welfare. There are three criteria used to find things that should be prioritized. Firstly, one should consider scale: find a cause that will affect the largest number of people. The examples Ahmid provided were climate change and ALS. The next thing to consider is neglectedness followed by tractability. They can be used at different levels: societal, organizational and individual.
Ahmid used the following example to demonstrate a dissonance within people: imagine that you are going to a wedding and you are in a very expensive outfit. However, on the way to the wedding, you see a child that’s drowning and needs to be rescued. You have two options: the first option is to save the child at some cost to you, which would be to ruin your wedding outfit and possibly the memory of the wedding, or ignore the drowning child and go to the wedding. Ahmid then presents the following argument: if people are willing to save a child right in front of them if it incurs some sort of cost, why would they not do this for a child who is far away?
However, Ahmid also emphasizes that you should not burn yourself out, and you should be actively engaging in your own mental health and self-care. Moreover, he stresses that he understands that people are not perfect, but we can always strive to do better.
Overall, there are four things that the EA community is working on. These include crowding the number of engaged EAs around the world, helping people find effective careers, supporting EA and EA-aligned research organizations and encouraging people to find out about what they are doing and to think and take action. To assist people in finding careers they emphasize that the most impactful career that you could do depends on who you are and what skills you have. However, they also state that while it may not matter what sphere you go in to, the big thing is doing the “good” thing in whatever sphere you are in.
They also gave out free books to students at the event. The first book was “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity” by Toby Ord. The book “explores the science behind the risks we face. It puts them in the context of the greater story of humanity: showing how ending these risks is among the most pressing moral issues of our time. And it points the way forward to the actions and strategies we can take today to safeguard humanity’s future,” according to the book’s website. The other book was “Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference” by William MacAskill. According to the book’s GoodReads page, it “urges us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning rather than act on impulse. When we do this—when we apply the head and the heart to each of our altruistic endeavors—we find that each of us has the power to do an astonishing amount of good.” At the end of the event, vegetarian Indian food and boba were served to attendees.
Effective altruism is a global movement that combines evidence with empathy in an effort to do the most good possible. According to the event description, Effective altruism is a philosophical and social movement which focuses on answering the question: How can we best help others? It points out that resources are limited, therefore it is up to people to use them in the best way possible. Effective altruism has two main pillars: “using evidence and reason to find the most promising causes to work on” and “taking action, by using our time and money to do the most good we can.” The organization also provides career advising for students, which aims to show students how they can do the most good through their chosen careers.
According to the event description, Kaleem is a community organizer in the effective altruism community. He received a master’s degree in public health from Northeastern University.
According to the Brandeis Effective Altruism Facebook page, Brandeis is “a place that prides itself on social justice, on expanding our circle of caring to those who are underrepresented, disenfranchised, and oppressed.” The club therefore aims to “expand that circle to its widest possible bounds, assigning value to every life and every experience.”
The event took place on Nov. 21 at 1 p.m. in the Skyline Common Room. The event was sponsored by Brandeis Effective Altruism and the Philosophy (UDRs).