How to Solve Everything

Illustration by Sam Oldshue.

Frankie Andersen-Wood stood beside a projected cartoon of a light bulb with its filament twisted into the shape of a heart. In front of her, five Yale students sat along one side of a seminar table. Upbeat pop music played in the background.

“Effective altruism isn’t something you can just learn about in two hours,” said Andersen-Wood, co-president of Yale Effective Altruism (YEA), going off-script from her presentation at YEA’s spring information session. She spoke quickly and in a soft English accent. “If that were the case, then the world would be solved.”

A social movement that emerged in the late 2000s at the University of Oxford, effective altruism aims to quantify and maximize the positive impact of individuals’ lives. In practice, this means identifying the world’s most urgent issues—those chosen by adherents include global poverty, animal suffering, climate change, and artificial intelligence—and recommending the most efficient responses. The movement recommends careers based on their social benefit and assesses charitable donations based on their impact and cost-efficiency.

The most active local effective altruism groups—YEA among them—are at elite colleges like Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, or in large cities like London and Boston. According to Andersen-Wood, the YEA mailing list includes about seven hundred students and recent graduates, although only twenty-five are actively involved. YEA hosts speakers and career workshops, holds social events, and runs a semester-long fellowship designed to introduce Yale students to effective altruism.

A week before her presentation, I met Andersen-Wood at Blue State Coffee on York. She sat in an armchair by the window, balancing a balsamic-glazed tofu sandwich on her lap. Andersen-Wood is vegan and majoring in political science. This is not an unusual set of characteristics for Yale’s effective altruists (or, as Anderson-Wood prefers, “aspiring effective altruists”). Many follow animal-free diets; the majority study political science, philosophy, or a STEM field. Effective altruism also influences other facets of Andersen-Wood’s life: “what I buy and what I don’t buy, where I donate, if I donate, how often I donate, how much I donate, career choices.”

Aaron Gertler, who graduated in 2015, founded YEA during his senior year at Yale. Now, he works in communications at the Centre for Effective Altruism. He also keeps a personal blog, where he publishes his charitable donations; he gives ten percent of his income to charity every year, primarily to effective altruism organizations and the Against Malaria Foundation.

Joshua Monrad, the former co-president of YEA, arrived at Yale planning to study psychology. But under the influence of effective altruism, he switched majors to Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and now hopes to work in public health after college.

“I think I would have grown frustrated if I had felt like I wasn’t in the best path for helping others,” he told me over Skype. Monrad is from Denmark, but this semester he’s studying abroad at Oxford, the philosophy’s birthplace. Still, he acknowledges that being a perfect effective altruist is an ideal, not a reality.

“As an international student, I fly all over the world, which is expensive and emits a lot of carbon,” he said. “There are a lot of things that I own, that on a very extreme conception of effective altruism, I maybe didn’t have to own.” Effective altruism, he said, encourages him to think more about these issues, and to try harder to mitigate them.

The effective altruists at Yale seem wary of their public perception. In an email responding to my interview request, Monrad warned, “I have a tendency to be quite careful about how I represent effective altruism,” citing experiences with “unfortunate misconceptions about what the broader effective altruism movement is and what it involves.”

One point of controversy is effective altruism’s relationship with “earning to give,” the strategy of pursuing a high-paying job in order to donate more to charity. Especially early in its development, the effective altruism movement gained a reputation for recommending careers on Wall Street. But according to Sebastian Quaade, YEA’s strategy advisor, effective altruism has since reduced its emphasis on earning to give. An article published in 2015 on the website of 80,000 Hours—an offshoot of the Centre for Effective Altruism named for the average number of working hours in a person’s life—clarified the organization’s stance, asserting that earning to give is only one effective path among many. That attitude seems to be reflected across YEA: Quaade is interested in economic development, and none of the other five current or former YEA board members I talked to planned to pursue consulting or finance.

Shelly Kagan, a Yale ethics professor, outlined a more philosophical question the movement faces. Since governments are better than individuals at enacting change, he wrote in an email, some might argue that effective altruists should focus more on government reform than individual actions. “Roughly, politics, not charity,” he wrote.

Another criticism focuses on the fact that effective altruism attracts a disproportionate number of white men. Two thirds of the 2,607 respondents to a 2018 demographics survey on the Effective Altruism Forum were male. Seventy-eight percent were white, down from a staggering 89 percent in 2017. The 2018 survey notes that the drop was likely due to an increase in people who opted out of the question, not an increase in people from underrepresented groups.

Eui Young Kim, a board member of YEA, acknowledged this problem. The movement has historically attracted people from “quantitative subjects, like cognitive science or math or physics or artificial intelligence,” fields that are “not exactly diverse,” Kim said.

Diversity seems especially important in a movement that aims to decide which problems are most pressing—a point Monrad acknowledged. Diversity helps “avoid blind spots and reduce the risk of overlooking important causes or approaches to doing good,” he said.

Jessica McCurdy, the other co-president of YEA, said that YEA’s members are the type of people who enjoy confronting uncomfortable moral questions. She described late-night discussions about the trolley problem and outlandish moral thought experiments.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, how do I actually feel about that?” she said. “How many chickens is a human life worth?”

According to Andersen-Wood, effective altruism isn’t a philosophy or a set of answers, but a shared project. She and the other effective altruists at Yale find a unique home in YEA: a secular congregation examining the meaning of a moral life.

— Eli Mennerick is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.