‘If it wasn’t Cambridge graduates who were going to make a difference in this, then who else?’

Will Bennett 24 October 2017

“We’re changing the culture of how people think about doing good”. So says Sebastian Oehm, a third-year NatSci at Trinity and president of Effective Altruism Cambridge. Launched in 2011, EA Cambridge has quickly grown to being one of the largest societies at the university, with a committee of around 40 members and a mailing list with “a few thousand people”. From Sebastian’s point of view, “it’s a really exciting time for the whole movement, because now it’s really taking form and really taking scale, and it’s really changing the way a lot of people think about altruistic topics”.

The society’s philosophy is simple: it asks how we can do the most good possible for the world in general. It makes no distinctions between the world’s current priorities and future priorities; “it’s very focused on this idea that if you help someone now, or if you help someone in 10 years, you shouldn’t value someone in 10 years’ time less than you value someone right now”. Sebastian is adamant that all lives, present and future, in Cambridge or on the other side of the world, should be valued equally.

“It strikes me as an ethical catastrophe”, Sebastian says, that there is so much potential “in the developed world, and especially at places like Oxbridge, to have a very tractable and very tangible impact, and just because people live on the other side of the world doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be caring about them”.

However, Sebastian is optimistic about the growing interest for and involvement in EA Cambridge. He describes it as a place that is both welcoming and an opportunity for intellectual exchange: “asking questions, criticizing current beliefs… I think creating this community is the thing I’m most excited about”. As the club grows, as does its timetable; the society is looking at running more than one event a day this year. One of the main goals of these events is to change “the culture of how people think about doing good or giving to charity, not to the best marketing campaign but actually to the charities that are going to be the best and the most effective”.

In their evidence-based approach, does Effective Altruism advocate a completely unemotional kind of philanthropy? According to Sebastian, a rational approach is not necessarily unemotional. However, philosophers and followers of the EA movement have prioritized certain causes as the most pressing issues that humanity should focus on. For Sebastian, donations to causes that do not maximize how much good you can do – to, for example, homelessness prevention charities in Cambridge – “don’t count” as effective altruism, and should not detract from donations toward utility-maximizing charities and causes.

He cites three causes that top the EA list: global health, factory farming, and risks to the survival of the human race. Oxford philosopher Will MacAskill outlined a similar list of altruistic priorities in his recent speech at the Cambridge Union. MacAskill founded 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can, two branches of the movement that merged to form the Effective Altruism society in Cambridge.

Are risks to the continual survival of the human race – nuclear annihilation, synthetic biology, advanced artificial intelligence – tangible problems that students can hope to even slightly impact in their donations? According to Sebastian, absolutely: “if it wasn’t Cambridge graduates who were going to make a difference in this, then who else?” Effective Altruism is not only concerned with the things students can do at university, but also about cultivating skills so “you could go into a government role or into a policy role, or into a more technical research where you can actually have a big difference”.

This year, EA Cambridge hopes to continue to build their community and to discuss the difficult question of how to make a difference in the world. To Sebastian and others involved in the EA movement, “it’s really hard to do good, it’s not something obvious or easy, it’s not like you’ve gone to one fundraiser and you’ve done something great… but actually if you take it seriously, you can have a dramatic impact, even as an individual”.