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How Effective Altruism Lost Its Way


I. The Quest to Maximize Human Well-Being

A decade and a half ago, the founders of two small Oxford-based nonprofits couldn’t have anticipated that they were launching one of the most significant philanthropic movements in a generation. Giving What We Can was created in 2009 to help people identify the most effective charities and commit to donating a substantial portion of their income. Two years later, 80,000 Hours—a reference to the average amount of time people spend on their careers throughout their working lives—was founded to explore which careers have the maximum positive impact. In October 2011, Will MacAskill (the co-founder of both organizations who was then working toward his philosophy PhD at Oxford) emailed the 80,000 Hours team: “We need a name for ‘someone who pursues a high impact lifestyle,’” he wrote. “‘Do-gooder’ is the current term, and it sucks.” 

MacAskill would later explain that his team was “just starting to realize the importance of good marketing, and [was] therefore willing to put more time into things like choice of name.” He and over a dozen other do-gooders set out to choose a name that would encompass all the elements of their movement to direct people toward high-impact lives. What followed was a “period of brainstorming—combining…

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