Issues in Philosophy Can Effective Altruism Create a World of Wellbeing?

Can Effective Altruism Create a World of Wellbeing?

by Stephanie Heckman

Global development has struggled to live up to expectations and has failed to meet the needs of millions of people living in poverty.  Economic growth historically defines objectives and ultimately leads us down a path towards climate crisis and unsustainability.  As the gap between rich and poor widens, conflict and violence continue, and a lack of access to basic resources that sustain life prevails, we now ask ourselves if we are capable of creating a better world. If so, it seems something needs to change.

The recently launched UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a multidimensional view to creating a better world. These goals can be viewed as our new list of ingredients for wellbeing. The list is updated, however the concept of a better world is still being defined by the economists and politicians. We are left to accept assumptions made on what it means to live well and ignore the systemic causes that brought us to this point.

Here is an opportunity for philosophers to step in. As global development broadens definitions and introduces terms such as “results-based” and “values-driven” work, philosophy can help, 1) define a better world, and 2) inspire individuals to act. In other words, philosophers can help clarify what we are trying to achieve, how we can get there, and why we are morally responsible to do so.

Effective Altruism

Just over a year ago, a friend handed me a copy of Will MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better. Philosophers not only have something to say on the matter, they are actively building a movement that challenges the traditional approach to global development. Most simply stated, effective altruism states that individuals ought to act in a way that promotes the most good. Heavily influenced by Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, most good, in this context, can be defined as “alleviating the most suffering”. Already, we can see the challenges of trying to achieve this with merely a “to-do” list of sustainable development goals.  The SDGs do not provide information on what approaches are successful, which issues are the priority, or how goals can be met efficiently and effectively.

Effective altruists challenge us to make decisions that will ensure we get the biggest bang for our buck. The rewards of this are immense.  If we each act in this way, we can ultimately solve some of today’s biggest challenges. The Center for Effective Altruism also offers evidence-based information on which are the most effective and efficient humanitarian organizations within the aforementioned categories. This is certainly a worthy endeavour and my wish is to see the movement evolve and succeed beyond expectations.  So how do we make sure that effective altruism doesn’t repeat some of the same mistakes of the past? Are reason and evidence of past success enough?

By acting in a way that alleviates the most suffering, we may conflictingly bring about unintended, or at least unforeseen consequences, that will contribute to long-term harm. For example, if we focus on saving as many lives as possible, this could come at the cost of overpopulation, climate crisis, and a widening gap between the rich and poor.  Many of the consequences of our actions may be experienced by individuals who are not even alive yet. Whether or not we are morally obligated to act in their best interests is a separate conversation.


Valerie Tiberius argues that value- fulfillment theories of wellbeing can contribute to creating a better world.  Drawing from Aristotle’s virtue ethics, values play a significant role in defining what we mean by a life well-lived and this can have repercussions on how we prioritize  global development goals.  Wellbeing theory can enrich the outcomes of applying the utilitarian principle of doing the most good. Not only will we seek to alleviate suffering, we can seek to promote wellbeing.

Value-fulfillment theory states that we live a better life when we do the things that matter to us. This differs from the idea of satisfying our wants and desires. I might desire cake and eating it may make me happy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I value eating cake and it adds to my wellbeing.  A few things I value in my life are; my children’s safety, relationships, and good health. So, it follows that if I can act in a way that contributes to the realization of these things, my wellbeing will increase. This is true also for a friend living in poverty in rural Uganda. Give her the opportunity to realize the things in her life that she values, not merely wants and desires, and her wellbeing will improve.

By applying wellbeing to effective altruism, we needn’t abandon consequentialist principles. This hybrid approach to creating a better world answers our two earlier questions with a little more depth:

  1. What are we trying to do? Act in a way (based on reason and evidence) that creates a better world.
  2. How are we trying to do this? Promote the greatest amount of wellbeing and alleviate the most suffering.

There are a couple of practical implications from shifting the definition to include value-fulfillment and wellbeing. Programs could be assessed more closely on how they are implemented, and not merely on quantitative results. An effective altruist could also look at how the organization works, does it work to promote value-fulfillment, or does it reduce the opportunity for value fulfillment?  This prioritises programs that have respect for the values of individuals affected, and that promote quality of life – not solely in economic terms or in the alleviation of suffering.

This could explain the success of recent progressive approaches in philanthropy, such as Give Directly. This effective altruist endorsed organization funds individuals living in poverty directly; no restrictions, straight cash grants. The results so far, show that when individuals have autonomy over their own lives, there is more chance they will build a pathway out of poverty. In other words, perhaps funds have a more effective impact if individuals can choose to focus on what matters to them: value-fulfillment.

Compassion and Empathy

The final implication of this hybrid model to global development is motivation. If we think of our emotions as motivators for moral action (Nussbaum), it offers an explanation as to what can inspire us to act for the moral good. Recent charitable reports on philanthropic giving highlight that the less rich are often more generous , per percentage of income, than the more wealthy.  Why is this? Perhaps compassion and empathy are better motivators than pity and guilt for acts of altruism. By speaking to our common values, effective altruists will encourage emotions (motivations) of  compassion and empathy.  So not only will funds be better spent; more lives will be well-lived, suffering will be reduced, and thousands will be inspired to join us in making the world a better place to live.

Effective altruism can provide the inspiration to create a better world and the know-how to do it well.


I certainly hope so.

Stephanie Heckman obtained a Master of Arts in Philosophy and Psychology (2:1 hons) and a Master of Sciences in International & European Politics from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently a post-graduate research student in Philosophy (Wellbeing and Philanthropy) at the University of Edinburgh and the West Coast Director for Epic Foundation. Epic Foundation bridges the gap between a new generation of philanthropists and organizations supporting children and youth globally. For the last fifteen years, Stephanie has been building effective partnerships to create a better world.


If you have an idea for the APA blog, pitch us here


  1. Hi Stephanie and APA people! This is an idea that you might like:

    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.


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