As a philosopher, journalist and co-founder of non-profits, I aim to help address so called crucial questions. A question is crucial if, depending on how we answer it, it drastically affects our decision-making and the direction our lives and society take. This approach leads to the practical questions: What are the ethico-political priorities of our time? How can we make the maximum amount of progress on them with our limited resources?
Suppose you’re carrying $500 in your pocket while walking past a pond where a child is drowning. Do you jump in to save the child, sacrificing your money? If you judge saving a life more important than $500 worth of additional luxury goods, you’ll save the child. – But is omitting to donate $500 to demonstrably life-saving charity really so different from not saving the child?
We would not confine and mass-kill dogs for our consumption. But pigs are beings at least as sentient and intelligent as dogs: They answer to their names and are able to learn more commands than dogs. Their intelligence is on a par with that of a human toddler. – What’s the difference justifying that much disregard for billions of pigs? And what do risk epistemology and risk ethics have to say about decision situations of this kind?
These are just two examples of topic areas where crucial questions arise. We cannot avoid these questions, and getting them wrong could be disastrous. This is why open-minded, rational, and evidence-based thinking is vital. In order to help address crucial questions in theory and practice, I co-founded the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF), whose projects are described below. EAF was founded in 2012 and I served as its president until December 2016. I have since stopped working for EAF in order to be able to focus on research.
The Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF) is a think-and-do-tank aiming to tackle pressing ethico-political issues in a scientifically grounded way. Effective altruism is the foundation’s core concept: Our resources – time and money – are limited. How can we use them to prevent the most unnecessary suffering and save the most lives? More fundamentally, which arguments do or don’t speak in favor of investing a lot of resources into altruistic endeavours in the first place? EAF pursues these questions based on research in philosophy, cognitive and social psychology, and economics.
Sentience Politics is a project aiming to do politics for all sentient beings. “Sentience” means the ability to have conscious experiences or feelings – especially feelings of pain and pleasure, suffering and happiness. This ability is characteristic of both humans and non-human animals alike. It is one basic reason why we benefit from legal rights, and are harmed in their absence. Sentience is therefore politically crucial – or it would be, in a more rational and compassionate world. Animal farming confines and kills about 100 billion land animals each year and is thus among the largest sources of suffering on our planet. It also contributes to global instability by being a top cause of climate change and is linked to world hunger and public health issues. Political activism should prioritize interventions that don’t come with systemic downside risks, that are comparatively neglected (diminishing marginal returns of activist resources), and which can help solve multiple global problems at once. Campaigning against factory farming and for animal rights fits this bill exceptionally well. In Switzerland, Sentience Politics has initiated what will be the first ever democratic ballot votes on the abolition of factory farming and on the introduction of legal rights (to life and intregrity) for primates.
Raising for Effective Giving (REG) is a meta-charity for professional poker players, traders and entrepreneurs interested in maximizing their ethical impact on the world. Members pledge to donate a substantial fraction of their earnings to cost-effective charities. REG uses empirical science and rational decision-making to find the interventions that can be expected to benefit the greatest number of individuals to the greatest extent. Research in health economics has shown that charities’ direct impact may differ by a factor of up to 100. REG promotes the idea of effective giving in the worlds of professional poker, finance, entrepreneurship and beyond. The rationality skills used to maximize expected monetary value transfer well to maximizing the expected life-saving impact of charitable donations.
Selected essays on rationality and ethics, effective altruism, and animal welfare: