Effective Altruism: Implications for the Social Work Profession: Part I

Archives > Volume 21 (2024) > Issue 1 > Item 06

DOI: 10.55521/10-021-106

Frederic G. Reamer, Ph.D.
Rhode Island College

Full disclosure: Frederic G. Reamer is a member of the IJSWVE editorial board. IJSWVE uses an anonymous review process in which authors do not review their own work and reviewers do not know authors’ identities.

Reamer, F. (2024). Effective Altruism: Implications for the Social Work Profession: Part I. International Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 21(1), 32-50. https://doi.org/10.55521/10-021-106

This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the authors and advance notification of IFSW.


The concept of effective altruism has been prominent in moral philosophy since 2009. Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. The core tenets of effective altruism are remarkably consistent with social work’s values and mission. Ironically, social work’s literature does not include any in-depth discussion of effective altruism. This article (Part I of II) discusses the concept of effective altruism; identifies its core components; and explores the rich relevance of effective altruism to social work’s principal aims as defined by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. The companion article (Part II) focuses on the relevance of two key elements of effective altruism as this movement pertains to social work: distributive justice and empiricism.

Keywords: Altruism, distributive justice, effective altruism, equality, ethics

The social work profession attracts altruists. Altruism is defined as engaging in actions to benefit others and to avoid or prevent harm to them (Kraut, 2020). In recent years, moral philosophers have engaged in deep discussion of a subtype of altruism known as “effective altruism” (Berkey, 2021). Philosopher Peter Singer (2015) defines effective altruism as “a philosophy and social movement which applies evidence and reason to working out the most effective ways to improve the world” (pp. 4–5). Philosophers who have focused their scholarship on effective altruism have not explored the concept’s implications for social workers; yet the potential application of effective altruism to social work is profound. To date, social work’s literature lacks in-depth exploration of effective altruism and its relevance to the profession (Kindle, 2015). The aim of this discussion is to help fill that gap.

The Nature of Altruism

To grasp the relevance of effective altruism for social work, practitioners must first appreciate the nature of altruism as a core concept. Behavior is normally considered altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. The term is used as the contrary of “self-interested,” “selfish,” or “egoistic”—words applied to behavior that is motivated solely by the desire to benefit oneself. “Malicious” conduct applies to behavior that expresses a desire to harm others simply for the sake of harming them (Kraut, 2020).

The concept of altruism has a rich history (Boehm, 2012; Nagel, 1970). The word “altruism” (from the French, altruisme, from autrui, “other people,” derived from Latin, “other”) was coined by Auguste Comte, the 19th century French philosopher, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he espoused. Comte believed that people have a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and devote themselves to others.

In addition to many philosophical and secular treatises on the nature of altruism, the world’s major religions clearly embrace the concept (Batson, 2011; Boehm, 2012). In Buddhism, for example, people are encouraged to focus love and compassion on others, which in turn promotes happiness. In Islam, the concept ‘īthār’ (altruism) is the notion of preferring others to oneself. In Christianity, altruism is central to the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel. Jainism preaches the view of Ahimsa, to live and let live and not harm sentient beings.

Altruism is also central to Judaism. According to Hillel’s famous maxim, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” A core belief in Sikhism is that the greatest deed anyone can do is to live the godly qualities of love, affection, and sacrifice, among others. Mohandas Gandhi exemplified the traditional Hindu focus on altruism. Indeed, Ghandi was granted the title Mahatma (revered person or sage) in recognition of his remarkable efforts to help others.

If someone performs an act entirely from altruistic motives—if, that is, self-interested motives are entirely absent—we can describe her act as a case of “pure” altruism. It is important to distinguish between purely altruistic behavior from self-sacrificing behavior: the former involves no gain for oneself, whereas the latter involves some loss (Batson, 2011; Kraut, 2020). For example, a social worker who adds time to her usual work week during some weekends and evenings to provide outreach services to people struggling with homelessness appears to be engaging in behavior that approximates purely altruistic behavior. A social worker who gives up timeslots and income during her usual work week to provide uncompensated services to clients during times that she could easily fill with paying clients includes elements of altruistic and self-sacrificing behavior. 

Philosophers distinguish between “strong” and “weak” characterizations of altruism. An act is altruistic in the strong sense if it is undertaken in spite of the perception that it involves some loss of one’s well-being. An act is altruistic in the weak sense if it is motivated, at least in part, by the fact that it primarily benefits someone else or the fact that it will not injure anyone else (Batson, 2011; Kraut, 2020).

Gabriel (2017) argues that it is also useful to distinguish between “thick” and “thin” versions of effective altruism. The thick version involves a commitment to utilitarianism—maximizing good for the greatest number—while the thin version merely involves a commitment to using a substantial amount of one’s spare resources to make the world a better place, and is compatible with a wide range of moral theories. The thick version of effective altruism makes a number of assumptions. First, “good” states of affairs are those in which suffering is reduced and premature loss of life averted. Second, effective altruism is broadly utilitarian or consequentialist in nature, meaning that we should always maximize the sum of individual welfare at all times. Third, the movement takes what it considers to be a scientific approach to doing good, which means using tools such as cost-benefit analysis and sound research to help quantify and compare the impact of different interventions and initiatives.

In contrast, the thin version of effective altruism holds that people should do the most good they can and that this involves using a substantial amount of one’s spare resources to make the world a better place. This view of effective altruism remains noncommittal both about the nature of the good and about the individual’s relationship to it. That said, the thin version of effective altruism claims that through careful analysis of evidence it is possible to provide sound general advice about how individuals can have a positive impact.

Effective Altruism: Core Elements

The effective altruism movement was first associated with the charitable and philanthropic organization “Giving What We Can,” founded in 2009 at Oxford University by ethicists Toby Ord and William MacAskill (MacAskill, 2015, 2022). Giving What We Can is an international society whose members pledge to donate at least 10% of their income to what are defined as effective charities according to an ambitious rubric. People who join sign a pledge to give away at least 10% of their income to any organization they think can best address poverty in the developing world. In 2011, a sister organization led by MacAskill and others called “High Impact Careers” was spun off from Giving What We Can. This organization encourages people to pursue high-paying jobs so they can give more money away. High Impact Careers was soon renamed 80,000 Hours. In 2012 the two organizations incorporated the Centre for Effective Altruism as a nonprofit to serve as an umbrella organization.

The Centre for Effective Altruism embraces several core principles which intersect with a number of core social work values (MacAskill, 2015, 2022):

  • When choosing what to fund or work on, people should not aim for what is most personal, familiar, or accessible.
  • People should focus on problems that are important, neglected, and tractable (that is, problems which can be addressed meaningfully).
  • People should evaluate the work that charities do, valuing transparency and good evidence.
  • Time is valuable, and people should maximize the good they can do with their careers.
  • The world is threatened by existential risks; making it safer might be a key priority.
  • The suffering of some people is ignored because they don’t look like us or are far away.

According to the Centre for Effective Altruism, people should make decisions about their altruistic efforts based on four key criteria: scale, neglectedness, solvability, and personal fit. Considerations of scale entail these key questions: (1) What is the magnitude of this problem? (2) How much does it affect people’s lives today? (3) How much effect will solving it have in the long-run? A problem has greater scale the larger the number of people affected; the larger the size of the effects per person; and the larger the long-run benefits of solving the problem. For social workers concerned about expanding availability of affordable housing in their community, for example, from the perspective of effective altruism priority would be given to projects that enhance the number of people housed with maximum rent subsidies that are projected to last for long periods of time.

The criterion of neglectedness requires people to ask these questions: (1) How many people and resources are already dedicated to tackling this problem? (2) How well allocated are the resources that are currently being dedicated to the problem? (3) Are there good reasons why markets or governments are not making progress on this problem? (4) Does the problem affect neglected groups, like those a long way away, animals, or our grandchildren rather than us? (5) Is the problem a low probability event, which might be getting overlooked? (6) Do few people know about the problem? From this perspective, social workers should give priority to compelling social problems that have not received sufficient attention in the profession. For example, the National Association of Social Workers recently declared that the profession has not paid sufficient attention to anti-racism during its history and needs to make this a priority. In 2021, NASW went so far as to apologize publicly for its failure to adequately confront these issues (NASW, 2021a):

Like most professions and institutions since 2020, the field of social work has been grappling with the consequences of our nation’s racist foundation. Continued violent tragedies and widespread public protests illuminated centuries of racial exploitation and trauma in the United States. Clearly, no discipline can escape scrutiny if we are to build a truly inclusive and equitable future together. Social work is unique in its dual focus of enhancing human well-being and championing social justice. Yet our occupation’s history is also linked to many shameful chapters in America’s story. Despite visible leadership in our nation’s most important social justice movements and in creating our country’s social safety net, the social work profession has also contributed to ongoing discrimination and oppression of people of color through its systems, policies, and practices.

For 60 years, NASW has consistently worked to identify and correct industry standards and guidelines that do not align with our Code of Ethics. Core social work values include: service, social justice, human dignity, importance of relationships, as well as professional integrity and competence. Although social workers strive to improve the lives of others, we must also face some uncomfortable truths in the history of social work. For these grave mistakes we apologize to the clients, colleagues and communities of color who were harmed by our profession. (p. 2)

The criterion of solvability includes these questions: (1) How easy would it be to make progress on this problem? (2) Do interventions already exist to solve this problem effectively, and how strong is the evidence behind them? (3) Is there a way to make progress on this problem with rigorous evidence behind it? (4) Is this an attempt to try out a new but promising program, to test whether it works? (5) Is this a program with a small but realistic chance of making a massive impact? This criterion aligns especially with standards embedded in the NASW Code of Ethics concerning the importance of evidence-informed practice (Reamer, 2018a, 2018b).

Social workers should base practice on recognized knowledge, including empirically based knowledge, relevant to social work and social work ethics. (standard 401[c])

Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work and fully use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice. (standard 5.02[c])

Finally, the criterion of personal fit associated with effective altruism encourages people to examine the extent of their motivation to work on a particular problem. For social workers, priority should be given to projects in which practitioners are deeply invested and about which they are passionate.

According to Berkey (2021), effective altruists tend to engage in activities, and encourage others to engage in activities, such as:

  • Donating money to charitable organizations recommended by effective altruist charity evaluators.
  • Living a modest lifestyle so as to limit one’s negative impact on the world and increase the amount of one’s resources directed to improving the world.
  • Choosing a career on the basis of the capacity of the work itself and/or the earnings from the work to contribute to improving the world in morally important respects.
  • Contributing to efforts to determine what is achieved by different approaches to improving the world, so as to increase our ability to make informed choices about where to direct our time and money.
  • Making decisions about where to direct the resources and time that one allocates to trying to improve the world on the basis of the best available evidence about what is achieved by different efforts.
  • According to the Centre for Effective Altruism (MacAskill, 2015), effective altruists are critical of behavior such as:
  • Spending significant amounts of money on unnecessary luxury goods and services for oneself or one’s loved ones and friends.
  • Donating money to, for example, wealthy universities, one’s local opera house, or charities that are, on any plausible view, clearly much less cost effective than others with respect to improving the world.
  • Donating money to causes that one happens to care particularly about or feel a special connection to, rather than to others where the donations would, on any plausible view, do significantly more to improve the world.
  • Donating money to charitable organizations without looking into the available evidence about which organizations improve the world most cost effectively.

Much of the philosophical discussion of effective altruism focuses on optimal ways to enhance philanthropic giving. Proponents of effective altruism view it as a social movement that aims to revolutionize the way philanthropic giving occurs. Effective altruism encourages individuals to do as much good as possible, typically by contributing money to the best-performing aid and development organizations based on rigorous analysis of key metrics (Gabriel, 2017). More narrowly, effective altruism as typically framed encourages affluent people to make significant donations to improve the well-being of people living in poverty, using quantified and observational methods to identify the most efficient charities (Syme, 2019).

Key to effective altruism is what it dubs longtermism. According to longtermism, positively influencing the distant future is a key moral priority (MacAskill, 2022).

Examples of Effective Altruism

Using its rigorous research-based rubric that seeks to implement effective altruism, the nonprofit organization Giving What We Can highlights specific charities and charitable organizations. Giving What We Can founders, philosophers Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, have sought to identify and promote effective (1) charities, (2) charitable investment funds that include a diversified portfolio of effective charities, and (3) “meta-charities” that do not seek to help people in need directly, but seek to link potential donors with people in need. Examples highlighted by Giving What We Can of individual charities that engage in effective altruism include:

  • GiveDirectly: GiveDirectly is a nonprofit that lets donors send money directly to the world’s poorest households. The organization believes people living in poverty deserve the dignity to choose for themselves how best to improve their lives. Since 2009, GiveDirectly has delivered more than $550 million in cash directly into the hands of over 1.25 million families living in poverty.
  • Helen Keller International: Helen Keller International partners with communities that are striving to overcome longstanding cycles of poverty.  The charity provides services to prevent blindness and diabetes; empower women from poor households with the education and resources needed to raise their own nutritious foods; and prevent diseases that cause blindness, physical deformities, and other disabilities.
  • Against Malaria Foundation: This organization provides long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs) to populations at high risk of malaria. Nets are distributed through partnerships with the International Red Cross, the Malaria Consortium, and other organizations. The Against Malaria Foundation also provides malaria education for various communities.

Examples of charitable investment funds highlighted by Giving What We Can that include a diversified portfolio of effective charities include:

  • GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund: GiveWell recommends a short list of charities that are evidence-based, cost-effective, transparent, and in need of additional funding. Each charity has been assessed by GiveWell researchers. GiveWell’s top charities work on global health and poverty alleviation programs in low-income communities.
  • Global Health and Development Fund: The Global Health and Development Fund recommends grants with the aim of improving people’s lives, typically in the poorest regions of the world where the need for healthcare and economic empowerment is greatest. The fund gives priority to projects that directly provide healthcare, or preventive measures that will improve health, well-being, or life expectancy; directly provide services that raise incomes or otherwise improve economic conditions; and provide assistance to governments in the design and implementation of effective policies.
  • Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund: The Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund recommends grants that aim to improve the work of projects that use the principles of effective altruism by increasing their access to talent, capital, and knowledge. The Fund supports work that has the capacity to multiply the impact of direct work, including projects that provide intellectual infrastructure for the effective altruism community, run events, disseminate information, or fundraise for effective charities. The fund aims to support projects that directly increase the number of people who are exposed to principles of effective altruism, or develop, refine or present such principles; support the recruitment of talented people who can use their skills to make progress on important problems; aim to build a global community of people who use principles of effective altruism as a core part of their decision-making process when deciding how they can have a positive impact on the world; conduct research into prioritizing between or within different cause areas; and improve community health by promoting healthy norms for interaction and discourse, or assist in resolving grievances.

Examples of meta-charities highlighted by Giving What We Can include:

  • 80,000 Hours: 80,000 Hours is a nonprofit organization that conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact and provides career advice based on that research. The organization produces guides that compare careers in terms of impact, identify which global problems are most pressing, identify ideas for new high-impact career paths, and describe how to make a career plan.
  • Rethink Priorities: Rethink Priorities pursues research on pressing questions related to “tractable and neglected opportunities” for high impact across different social causes. The organization works to identify questions where empirical research could produce trajectory changes in charitable work on the long-term future of humanity, global health and development, animal welfare, and the behavior and demographics of the effective altruism community.
  • Happier Lives Institute: This organization conducts research on the nature and measurement of well-being. Staffers synthesize the existing data on subjective well-being to discover what initiatives will have the biggest impact. Happier Lives Institute explores what it considers to be neglected global problems (such as mental health and pain); identifies cost-effective interventions for addressing those problems; and evaluates and recommends the most effective organizations that deliver those interventions.

Effective Altruism and Social Action

Some critics argue that effective altruism undermines the (allegedly) more effective and productive results of capitalism and is designed to advance a politically or socially motivated agenda in an indefensible manner (Kessler, 2022; Lewis-Kraus, 2022). Most recently, a pall has been cast over effective altruism because of its links to Sam Bankman-Fried, the cryptocurrency mogul who collaborated with William MacAskill, embraced effective altruism, and allegedly directed ill-gotten gains toward the movement (Tiku, 2022).

Other critics argue that effective altruism ignores the systemic causes of compelling social problems, such as widespread and persistent poverty (Syme, 2019). These critics accuse effective altruism of adopting a bourgeois moral philosophy that does not acknowledge and confront the ills of capitalism or sufficiently address the root causes of poverty. Syme (2019), for example, argues that systemic change promises to be more effective than charity and that effective altruism’s resistance to radical politics is potentially distorted by a preference for the status quo and prevailing social arrangements. With specific regard to poverty, Syme (2019) states,

Systemic change promises to produce more good for less effort than charity, because of its potentially longer term impact. If we assume that a huge aid campaign would not eliminate the causes of poverty, then, even if it succeeded in helping most currently poor people, poverty would re-emerge. Ongoing aid efforts, perhaps smaller each time, would be required to maintain the elimination of poverty.

A single, large collective effort at social transformation, perhaps similar to a massive aid campaign, can become embedded in systemic practices, and become routine and “easy.” Removing the causes of poverty is also better than poverty relief insofar as fewer people suffer in the first place. Systemic changes are not usually permanent, but they can be stable over decades or centuries. If the structural causes of poverty could be eliminated for several generations, this would likely be a greater reward for similar effort than a massive aid campaign without systemic consequences. (p. 96)

Berkey (2017) also summarizes the view that the goals of effective altruism may be too narrow:

The central concern seems to be that the [effective altruism] movement’s commitment to recommending that individuals direct their time and resources toward whichever efforts appear, given the available evidence, likely to do the most good, will make whatever commitments its members have to working for institutional change objectionably contingent, since it will always be an open question whether political action appears, for any particular individual deciding what to do with her time and resources, to offer the best prospects for improving the world. Proponents of this criticism believe that our commitment to directing our time and resources toward efforts to bring about institutional change should not be contingent in this way. (pp. 100-101)

In response, Wiblin (2015) asserts that effective altruism fully embraces systemic change as a key goal. In response to allegations that effective altruism is not sufficiently focused on systemic change, Wiblin states, “Why couldn’t pursuing broad-scale legal, cultural or political changes be the most effective approach to making the world a better place? The answer is simply that it could! So there is nothing in principle about the idea of maximising the social impact of your work that rules out, or even discourages, seeking systemic change.” Wiblin then cites specific examples of organizations that meet effective altruism criteria and are focused on systematic change:

  • Philanthropic funder Open Philanthropy sponsors research and grants focused on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, macroeconomics, and international development.
  • The Global Priorities Project conducts research on reform priorities for governments in order to improve cost-benefit analyses and decision-making protocols related to global health and national risk assessment, among other issues.
  • The nonprofit Giving What We Can has worked with government officials on ways to improve aid effectiveness. One project focused on the appropriate use of discount rates by government agencies that deliver health services.

Further, Chappell (2016) emphasizes the role of lobbying among effective altruists for massive redistribution of resources. Syme (2019) comments on the ways in which effective altruism seeks systemic change in relation to norms of giving and highlights areas where policy advocacy could be an effective altruistic intervention. Karnofsky (2013) argues that effective altruism can promote true social change because:

concerted efforts to make the world a broadly better place seem to have become more common and… viable as economic development has progressed. Environmentalism, multiple civil rights movements, and large-scale foreign aid are… positive…. Changes… in the last two centuries and appear stronger in the developed world than in the developing world… We’d guess that increased wealth and improved technology often improves people’s ability to coordinate around, and concentrate on, movements whose effects go beyond their personal lives… If one believes that, on average, people tend to accomplish good when they become more empowered, it’s conceivable that the indirect benefits of one’s giving swamp the first-order effects.

Implementation of the effective altruism model to promote social and systemic change is particularly relevant to social workers, whose moral mission includes explicit focus on distributive justice, social change, policy advocacy, and social justice. Among the helping professions, social work is truly unique in its explicit and simultaneous focus on individual well-being and the public or structural issues that affect individuals’ ability to cope with life’s challenges. According to the mission statement in the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW 2021b),

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s dual focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.

Further, social work has an enduring commitment to social and political action to address broad social justice concerns and to seek systemic change. According to the NASW Code of Ethics,

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. (standard 6.04[a])

Social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups. (standard 6.04[b])

For social work to truly embrace effective altruism, the framework must clearly extend beyond evidence-informed philanthropic giving to include assertive social and political action consistent with social work’s values. Practically speaking, in social work effective altruism can focus especially on carefully and systematically established priorities determined by prominent professional organizations and associations.

As a paradigmatic and uniquely ambitious example of a project consistent with the aims of effective altruism, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (2019) sponsors the Grand Challenges for Social Work project, designed to (1) identify major social challenges for the nation, (2) gather evidence based on rigorous science, (3) design imaginative, effective, and culturally relevant solutions, (4) promote policies and professional practices that lead to positive change, and (5) advance sustainable initiatives that achieve the positive impacts for all families and communities, tribal nations, and society as a whole. Through a rigorous protocol that initially involved review of more than eighty possible priorities drawn from a group of practitioners, researchers, educators, and policy experts, the Grand Challenges project has chosen to focus on thirteen core issues related to (1) individual and family well-being (ensuring healthy development for youth, closing the health gap, building healthy relationships to end violence, advancing long and productive lives), (2) stronger social fabric (eradicating social isolation, ending homelessness, creating social responses to a changing environment, harnessing technology for social good), and (3) a just society (eliminating racism, promoting smart decarceration, building financial capability and assets for all, reducing extreme economic inequality, achieving equal opportunity and justice).

The Grand Challenges Project gives priority to initiatives that have social, scientific, and application value consistent with the effective altruism model. With regard to the social element, “The Grand Challenges for Social Work is committed to strengthening our capacity to engage in productive relationships that enhance well-being, reduce conflict, and bridge across the many factors that divide us. We support the design and implementation of positive social interventions that increase human efficacy and freedom, not coercive measures for problem solving and social control. We support delivery of programs and services that arise from and strengthen positive, healthful social relationships and institutions.” Further, the Grand Challenges Project advocates for research that informs and provides direction for design, implementation, and improvement of practices, programs, and policies to address” the identified challenges. Finally, “Application refers to the use of knowledge for positive impact. Social work is an applied profession. We are not content just to know; we aim to know and do. The simple word do has profound ramifications. In knowledge building, social work must be as scientific as any academic discipline, but the knowledge must also inform meaningful and consequential action.”


Effective altruism has emerged as a central concept in philosophy. During the past decade, scholars have made major strides in defining and applying effective altruism as a practical way to meet the needs of vulnerable people and guide philanthropic and social policy funding and initiatives.

Effective altruism’s core elements are remarkably consistent with social work’s values, yet, to date, there has been minimal effort to link effective altruism to the profession. Social workers would do well to learn about effective altruism, appreciate its conceptual richness, and, where warranted, apply its principles and protocols to social work’s wide-ranging efforts to fulfill its unique mission. Social work’s potential contributions lie in the profession’s venerable commitment to assisting individuals who struggle in life and, simultaneously, addressing public policy and structural issues that harm individuals and compromise their quality of life. These are aims that align meaningfully with effective altruism.


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