[epistemic status: mostly believed, high confidence]

I was putting together some readings about effective altruism, and I realised that the resources I’d picked out nicely mirror and support the stages of a prototypical argument for effective altruism.

The argument

1) The plight of the poor in our world is a pressing moral issue, even for those of us in the rich West.1

2) We ought to address moral problems in the most effective manner possible.2

3) Global health is both an enormous3 and cheaply addressible4 problem.


4) We ought to prioritize global health, and address it in the most cost-effective manner possible.

Going further (controversially!):

5) The most effective way to impact global health with one’s life may be “earning to give”.5


6) We ought to aim for high-earning careers in order to improve global health by effective donation.


This is not a strictly valid argument, but I think the structure is both clear and mirrors the path that people tend to follow when they start to come across the ideas of effective altruism. It also quickly takes us a long way from the normal view of charity.

The last part is, as I said, controversial. Personally, while one earns a pretty good salary as a software engineer, I could almost certainly do better in the finance industry, but I’m not planning a career switch any time soon. Why? I don’t think that, realistically speaking, I have the capacity to excel in that area (and hence earn the higher wages).

If we’re to think seriously about this, we have to take into account people’s motivation and willpower as well when we try and predict the outcomes of their career choices. I’m pretty sure that I’m not strong-willed and driven enough to excel in a competitive field that I would probably hate.6 For this reason I think point 5) is most likely to really apply to people who are already considering a career that is likely be high-earning.