Julia Wise, president of Giving What We Can and board member of GiveWell, highlighted some changes in the effective altruism movement and spoke about her hopes for the future of the movement at an event hosted by the Yale Effective Altruists.

The mission of the Yale Effective Altruists, and of the movement more broadly, is simple — to identify the most effective ways to make the world a better place and to pursue those paths. Wise is seen by many as a global leader of the movement. The two organizations with which she is affiliated, Giving What We Can and GiveWell, evaluate the effectiveness of charities and recommend effective charities to donors. In addition, Giving What We Can members donate 10 percent of their income to recommended charities.

“I’ve been involved with effective altruism for eight or nine years,” Wise said. “I’ve always been interested in giving and making things better. But the effective part was pretty new for me, and I gained a lot from it.”

Wise spoke Thursday about the need for effective altruists to pursue a wider range of careers and identified fields that are not populated by many effective altruists. Wise explained that effective altruists have traditionally worked in math, philosophy and technology-related fields because of the optimizing and analytic qualities inherent to the movement. But a diversity of fields is necessary for tasks like conference organization and community management, which is what Wise does.

According to Wise, the movement has shifted its focus in recent years from spreading the word about effective altruism to detailing an accurate account of its principles. After initial media coverage provided a simplistic characterization of effective altruism, it became harder to spread more nuanced ideas that paint a truer picture of the movement, she explained. The movement is therefore organizing local groups and conferences with Q&A sessions to interact with the public and prevent misrepresentation of effective altruism.

The movement has also shifted its focus to tactics that guarantee realistic, long-term results. Taking vegetarianism as an example, Wise said the movement previously handed out pamphlets to encourage people to stop eating meat, for example, but is now focused more on developing meat alternative products and affecting legislation.

“If the question before was what we can do right now to reduce consumption of animal products, the question now is what movements have done to change people’s behavior in the long term,” Wise said.

Lastly, Wise said there has been a shift in the movement away from personal sacrifice. Previously, the movement focused on pushing oneself hard to donate more and spend less. Now, there is an acknowledgment that pushing oneself too hard can discourage other people considering an effective altruist lifestyle, sabotaging the cause. To have a long-term impact, Wise said, people must take care of themselves and stay motivated.

After discussing the changes in the movement, Wise participated in a Q&A session with the audience.

Responding to a student who asked how to convince people who believe they were being taxed too much to donate, Wise asserted that taxes should not be a reason not to donate because they serve different purposes. The government is not effective at making the world a better place with tax money, but donation could directly improve the world, Wise argued. She added that people have no choice but to pay taxes, even though donating is an active choice.

Xuan Tan ’18 proposed a relativistic way of viewing taxes, dismissing the idea that one can pay too much in taxes to be able to donate.

“I used to feel that giving 10 percent of my income was a pretty high bar, but then I realized that being from Singapore, my country has a really low maximum income tax of 20 percent, compared to Sweden’s, which is 57 percent,” Xuan said. “And that really shifted the frame of reference for me, because I really couldn’t come up with a good reason why I couldn’t ‘give’ as much as the Swedes do, even if we account for the benefits they receive in return — it’s not like they’re magically more virtuous, they’re just normal people in a different country.”

Vanessa Yan ’21 praised Wise for her passion and willingness to give, calling the event “very inspiring.”

Yan also expressed hope that the movement could have a larger presence on campus, citing the doubling in application numbers to the Effective Altruists Fellowship last semester that resulted in two sections of the fellowship and interest in this semester’s fellowship as well.

For students who want to donate to or work toward social justice in the United States, Wise suggested criminal justice reform and farm animal welfare reform.

Giving What We Can was launched in November 2009 by Toby Ord and William MacAskill, philosophers at Oxford University.

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu 

Correction, Feb. 9: This article has been updated to reflect that members of Giving What We Can donate 10 percent of their income to recommended charities, not members of GiveWell.