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January 11, 2018

UC Effective Altruism Hopes to "Do the Most Good"

A recently reinitiated group on campus, UChicago Effective Altruism (UC EA), plans to spread its message and step up its initiatives this year. The organization is a revival of an older effective altruism club on campus founded in 2015 and counts first-year Parker Whitfill, second-year Andrew Kao, fourth-year Eliza Passell, second-year Anthony DiGiovanni, and Booth research professional Philip Trammell among its leadership.

What is effective altruism? Whitfill says it could be framed as “a question about how do we do the most good,” adding, “Effective altruists like to approach that question using both reason and evidence, and also by actually taking action on that question.” There are EA groups around the world; though UC EA is not directly connected to any other EA group, the organization has consulted with groups at other universities for advice, according to Whitfill.

The group hopes its members will “learn more about effective careers and charities, among other topics, while supporting each other in our EA endeavors,” according to its Facebook page.

Earlier in January, UC EA hosted a kickoff event, which Whitfill says was attended by around 20 undergraduate, graduate, and pre-doctoral students. During the event, Whitfill said, the group’s leadership explained “what effective altruism looks like [and] what that means for students here at the University of Chicago.”

The group is planning future events, including EA-focused career workshops, “where we talk about the possible best careers to go into to do the most good,” Whitfill said, and how career options can “intersect with ethics.” The group also plans to explore specific issues people brought up at the kickoff event.

The concept of effective altruism has been criticized in the past for coming across as elitist and for shifting focus from causes or interventions that, while less effective, may still be necessary. When asked about these potential criticisms, Whitfill responded, “There are many very serious problems in the world that are absolutely necessary to solve, and effective altruists want to fight all of them.... In a world where charitable causes receive limited resources and not every problem can be solved, we feel it’s important to prioritize the most effective causes.”

When asked to provide a specific example of effective altruism in action, Whitfill brought up GiveWell, an aggregator that rates the cost-effectiveness of charities. “An effective altruist may work for GiveWell and do research for them. Effective altruists may donate to charities recommended by GiveWell. An effective altruist might do none of those things because they’ve determined that another cause is more important and one that could be much more impactful. All of those things could be something that an effective altruist does.”

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