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Session 05

What do you think?

“It is one of the unfortunate truisms of the human condition that there is hardly a good idea, noble impulse, or sound suggestion that can't be (and isn't eventually) adopted and bastardized by zealots… One iteration of this tendency is in the idea of “effective altruism.”

K. Berger & R. M. Penna

Required materials


It's really important to think for yourself and reflect on the arguments you've heard in previous weeks: you might uncover places where you disagree, or mistakes in the reasoning. And even if you don't you'll probably understand the ideas more deeply if you've thought about their weakest points.

So this week, we encourage you to take some time to reflect on your confusion and concerns about the ideas so far, and to read up on some of the strongest counterarguments.


A recent critique of effective altruism


Less common causes

While we’ve so far covered some of the most popular EA causes, there are many others. Please skim over this list of other causes to get a sense of other ideas that people in EA have discussed. Note, you don’t need to read this whole post in detail!​

  1. Big List of Cause Candidates


Baye's rule

Bayes' rule or Bayes' theorem is the law of probability governing the strength of evidence - the rule saying how much to revise our probabilities (change our minds) when we learn a new fact or observe new evidence.

  1. Know your base rate neglect (video - 5mins)

  2. Baye's rule: A guide (15mins)


Exercise (1.5 hours)

For the exercise this session, we will take some time to reflect on the ideas we’ve engaged with over the past sessions. Our goal is to take stock and to identify our concerns and uncertainties about EA ideas.

1) What are your concerns about EA? (15 mins.)

We’ve covered a lot: the philosophical foundations of effective altruism, how to compare causes and allocate resources, and a look at some top-priority causes using the EA framework.

What are your biggest questions, concerns, and criticisms based on what we’ve discussed so far?


These can be about the EA framework/community, specific ideas or causes, or anything you’d like!

Please raise and discuss them at your next session!

2) Reflecting back (45mins)

You’ve covered a lot over the past sessions! We hope you found it an interesting and enjoyable experience. There are lots of major considerations to take into account when trying to do the most good you can, and lots of ideas may have been new and unfamiliar to you. This session we’d like you to reflect back on the program with a skeptical and curious mindset.

To recapitulate what we’ve covered:

Session 1 (Part 1) - The Effectiveness mindset

In session 1, we introduced you to the core principles of effective altruism. We used global health interventions, which has been a key focus area for effective altruism, to illustrate these principles, partly because we have unusually good data for this cause area.

Session 1 (Part 2) - Differences in impact

We continued to explore the core principles of effective altruism, particularly through the lens of global health interventions because they are especially concrete and well-studied. We focused on giving you tools to quantify and evaluate how much good an intervention can achieve; introduced expected value reasoning; and investigated differences in expected cost-effectiveness between interventions.

Session 2 - Radical empathy

The next section focuses on your own values and their practical implications. We explore who our moral consideration should include. We focus especially on farmed animals as an important example of this question this session.

Session 3 Part 1 - Pandemics and other Existential Risks

Is this our last century? This session focused on existential risks: risks that threaten the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential. We examined why existential risks might be a moral priority, and explored why existential risks are so neglected by society. We also looked into one of the major risks that we might face: a human-made pandemic, worse than COVID-19.

Session 3 Part 2 - What could the future hold?

And why care? This session we explore what the future might be like, and why it might matter. We’ll explore arguments for “longtermism” - the view that improving the long term future is a key moral priority. This can bolster arguments for working on reducing some of the extinction risks that we covered in the last two sessions. We’ll also explore some views on what our future could look like, and why it might be pretty different from the present.

Session 4 - Risks from Artificial Intelligence

Transformative artificial intelligence may well be developed this century. If it is, it may begin to make many significant decisions for us, and rapidly accelerate changes like economic growth. Are we set up to deal with this new technology safely?

1. What topics or ideas from the program do you most feel like you don’t understand?

2. What seems most confusing to you about each one?

Go back to that topic/idea and see if there are any further readings you can do that would help you address your uncertainties and explore any concerns. Do those readings. Consider writing notes on your confusion, stream-of-consciousness style.

3. List one idea from the program that you found surprising at first, and which you now think more or less makes sense and is important?


How could this idea be wrong?

What’s the strongest case against it?

4. List one idea from the program that you found surprising at first, and think probably isn’t right, or have reservations about.


What’s the strongest case for this idea?

What are your key hesitations about that case?

More to explore

Types of criticism


Systemic change


Is Effective Altruism a question or an ideology, or both?


General criticisms of Effective Altruism


Criticism of EA methods

  • A philosophical review of Open Philanthropy’s Cause Prioritisation Framework (42 mins.)

  • Evidence, Cluelessness, and the Long Term - Hilary Greaves - (30 mins.)

  • Why we can’t take expected value estimates literally (even when they’re unbiased) - Holden Karnofsky explains why he takes issue with using expected value estimates of impact. (35 mins. - skimmable)

  • Some blindspots in rationality and effective altruism - An EA forum blog post that discusses some common pitfalls for rationalists and effective altruists, as well as some meta-considerations (12 min)

  • Ethical Systems - Check out other ethical systems not discussed yet in the program. Which ones resonate most with you? (Varies)

  • Summary review of ITN critiques (8 mins.)


Criticism of EA principles

  • Pascal’s Mugging Critique of the application of expected value theory. How do you deal with very low probability events that would be disastrous if they took place? (5 mins.)

  • Ethical Systems - Check out other ethical systems not discussed yet in the program. Which ones resonate most with you? (Varies)

  • AI alignment, philosophical pluralism, and the relevance of non-Western philosophy - Short talk (18 mins.)

  • The Repugnant Conclusion - Total utilitarianism (maximizing overall wellbeing) implies that it’s better to have many many beings with infinitesimally positive wellbeing to a smaller number of beings that are all extremely well off. Some people find this counterintuitive, but there’s significant debate on this. (Video - 6 mins.)

  • Utility monster - Another thought experiment suggesting that trying to maximize wellbeing may have counterintuitive implications (5 mins.)

  • The bullet-swallowers - Scott Aaronson describes how some theories (like EA) force you to either swallow some tough conclusions or dodge them by contorting the theory. (2 mins.)

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