Controversy and Effective Altruism: How EA still has a positive impact on the world

controversy donate effectivealtruism longtermism Mar 02, 2023

 By Spencer Kelly & Recha Bergstrom, MD

Over the past few months, effective altruism (EA) has faced close scrutiny and intense criticism. From the controversial philosophy proposed by EA leader Will MacAskill to the epic collapse of EA supporter Sam Bankman-Fried, many critics have suggested that the EA movement as a whole is deeply flawed.

While recent events have certainly exposed profound shortcomings with effective altruism, the media has often painted a misleading portrait of the EA community. Despite claims or concerns that an obsession with the long term future has directed attention away from present problems, EA is still making an impact on current global issues like health and development.

Recent controversies with effective altruism

 Effective altruism (EA) described itself as “a research field and practical community that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.” Emerging around a decade ago as an informal group of idealistic college students in the UK, EA now has palpable influence in directing billions of dollars of donations and is increasingly gaining political clout as well.

While the notion of trying to “find the best ways to help others” seems unobjectionable and even laudable, over the past few months a series of controversies have put EA in the crosshairs of intense criticism.

In August 2022, Will MacAskill, one of EA’s founders, released What We Owe the Future. While MacAskill had previously advocated for people to focus on donating to cost-effective global health and development charities, his new book argued that promoting long term wellbeing was the most important issue of our time.

This philosophy of “longtermism” proved controversial and seemed antithetical to EA’s roots. Critics suggested that longtermism was diverting time and money away from causes and charities that were saving people’s lives right now and toward nebulous efforts that may or may not affect people who haven’t even been born.

Criticism of EA and longtermism exploded a few months later in December 2022 when Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency exchange FTX declared bankruptcy. Bankman-Fried had been a prominent EA funder and a proponent of longtermism. Indeed, it seemed that Bankman-Fried’s aim of maximizing his donations to longtermist causes had driven his reckless business practices that led to FTX’s downfall and the financial ruin of many of its customers.

 Headlines across the internet asserted that EA was “on the defensive,” was “facing a moral reckoning,” or was “in trouble.” Even for EA’s most ardent supporters, it seemed difficult to support a movement that purported to “do the most good” yet had given rise to a man who had done immense harm.

The true impact of EA

To be sure, EA as a philosophy and as a community was complicit in the actions and outcomes of Sam Bankman-Fried. And much of the criticism that EA has faced is appropriate.

However, the idea that effective altruism is in fact “defective,” as numerous pundits have quipped over the years, is an overstatement. And the concern that longtermism is overshadowing near-term concerns does not reflect reality.

In September 2022 (before the FTX collapse), Vox writer Kelsey Piper pointed out that, despite all the attention directed at longtermism in the media, the past year saw record breaking donations to GiveWell, a charity evaluator focused on global health and development.


Source: Vox

“For people who worry about whether effective altruism is a competitive tussle between a few cause areas, with some gaining at the expense of others, I think this chart ought to be enormously reassuring,” Piper wrote. “The picture it paints instead is that as effective altruism has gotten big — and as effective altruist-aligned institutions have broadly oriented themselves more toward long-term and existential-risk priorities — the movement has also gotten stronger and healthier in terms of the money focused on global health and development.”

 A further dive into EA-aligned giving statistics supports this conclusion. Giving What We Can, an EA-associated donation platform, lists the top recipients for donations on its website.

Whether you sort by number of donors, number of donations, or amount donated, neartermist causes are overwhelmingly the most popular.


Top 10 organizations/funds (since Jan. 1, 2022)



Sorted by number of donors:



Sorted by number of donations:



Sorted by amount of money:




In each case, the Long-Term Future Fund is the only longtermist organization that shows up in the top ten for donation activity since January 1, 2022. Note that the Founders Pledge Climate Change Fund, which appears in all three lists, is classified as a nearterm cause given the evident effects climate change is having on our planet already. However, climate change could arguably be deemed a longtermist cause, in which case each table would have two longtermist causes and eight neartermist causes. This, however, would not change the overall conclusion: that neartermist causes are far more popular that longtermist causes.

 A possible objection to this conclusion is that the above tables are just one dataset from one donation avenue. However, Giving What We Can is the official philanthropic platform for Centre For Effective Altruism, and both organizations are operated by the same parent foundation, Effective Ventures. So, the donation patterns on Giving What We Can—which show a clear emphasis on neartermist organizations—are likely representative of the EA community overall.


 Effective altruism is far from perfect. The FTX scandal exposed shortcomings with this movement and with the philosophy of longtermism that will need to be addressed for EA to move forward.

 However, EA has still done an enormous amount of good. Giving What We Can reports that people have donated $310 million on its platform and pledged to donate over $3 billion. As shown above, the vast majority of this money is addressing near-term issues. In this light, longtermist causes are clearly not diverting undue attention away from current problems; on the contrary, there is a strong argument to be made that longtermist problems are still underfunded.

Ultimately, EA has made some high profile mistakes. But its true impact—the impact that doesn’t make the headlines, the impact that is carried out by everyday people who just want to make a difference with their hard-earned money—is a calculable difference made in the lives of people around the world, right here and now.

You can be the change you want to see in the world through effective, efficient, and impactful philanthropy. Check out my course, The Physician Philanthropist, for a comprehensive education on and strategy for maximizing the impact of your giving both for you and your causes

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