History of effective altruism

The Apply the history of effective altruism covers topic to posts about the origins and development of effective altruism. This article describes the formation of the effective altruism movement and community, some of its precursors, and some major developments from 2010-22.


The Centre for Effective Altruism and other central EA organizations were founded in the 2000s and 2010s, but effective altruism has much earlier roots in various philosophical theories and communities related to doing good and rationality.

Ethical philosophy

Effective altruism has been influenced by older philosophical ideas and traditions.

Academic philosopher Peter Singer wrote ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ in 1972, partly in response to a contemporary famine in Bangladesh. He argues that if one can use one’s wealth to reduce another’s extreme suffering at small cost to oneself, then one is obligated to do so. In this work, Singer introduces the well-known ‘drowning child’ thought experiment: most of us, if we passed a child drowning in a shallow pond, would consider ourselves obligated to dive in and rescue them, even if we ruined a nice suit to do so. Similarly, we should feel obligated to sacrifice luxuries to save ‘drowning children’ living far away from us: people dying of poverty, disease, or other preventable ills.[1] Written in 1996, Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die makes similar arguments[2]. Arguments such as these inspired philosopher Toby Ord to form the effective giving community Giving What We Can, and are often cited in effective altruism outreach.

Philosophy has also influenced effective altruists to care about the long-term future. Nick Bostrom argued in ‘Astronomical waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development’ (2003) that delaying technological development might have extremely large (astronomical) opportunity costs, since it hinders humanity from colonizing the stars and creating many billions of happy lives[3]. This idea has been influential on longtermism and on many EAs who prioritize the mitigation of existential and catastrophic risks.

Many who would go on to be interested in EA congregated on Felificia, an online ‘forum for utilitarianism’. Some highly-involved EAs who were previously active on Felificia include Jacy Reese Anthis, Tom Ash, Sam Bankman-Fried, Ryan Carey, Sasha Cooper, Ruairí Donnelly, Oscar Horta, Will MacAskill, Holly Morgan, Toby Ord, Carl Shulman, Pablo Stafforini, Brian Tomasik, Rob Wiblin, Peter Wildeford, and Boris Yakubchik.[4][5][6]

Randomista development

Since the 1990s, economists working in development economics have used randomized controlled trials to test whether interventions to prevent disease or alleviate poverty actually work (some notable figures are Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Cremer). This evidence-based approach to poverty alleviation has influenced effective altruists’ work in global health and development, notably GiveDirectly, an unconditional cash transfers organization, and Charity Entrepreneurship (originally Charity Science), an organization that incubates evidence-based charities.[7]

The rationality community

From the early 2000s, the rationality community arose around the group blogs...

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