Some Early History of Effective Altruism
First published May 15, 2022; last updated July 8, 2022.
Written by Jacy Reese Anthis. Thanks to Ryan Carey, Sasha Cooper, Louis Francini, Caleb Ontiveros, and Peter Wildeford for comments on a draft of this post, though the claims in it are my own.
The effective altruism (EA) community has grown immensely over the past decade. I’m often asked about the early history of the community, so I will briefly discuss my own journey through the primordial soup and how EA was created through the convergence of at least 4 distinct but overlapping proto-EA communities from 2008 to 2012. Just to be clear, this is not meant to be a comprehensive or representative history of EA; in particular, I gloss over and just share links to some parts of the history that have already been well-documented.
2004–2008: Before I found other EAs
In 2004, when I was 12 years old, I was deeply confused by everyday morality. If we should live by rules like, “Do not steal,” and, “Protect your family,” how should one act if they need to steal a loaf of bread to protect their family? After some naive but lengthy reasoning that year, I decided the correct1 morality was the “greatest happiness rule.” I described this rule in an overwrought English class essay explaining ethics as a tree where the trunk is, “the best action is the one which spreads the most happiness.” So every decision that I’ve made since I was 12 has been based on this principle.2 Around 2008 in the 9th grade, I happened to type some of these words into the search engine Dogpile using my half-speed dial-up internet connection in rural Texas. I was thrilled to find out about utilitarianism, a branch of ethics that had existed for over 200 years! I fervently searched the internet and read all things utilitarian.
2008–2012: Felicifia and other proto-EA communities
2008 was also the year that the Felicifia Forum was created for utilitarian discussion, which I stumbled onto shortly after. People who stayed involved through post-2012 EA and were active on Felicifia included me, Tom Ash, Sam Bankman-Fried, Ryan Carey, Sasha Cooper, Ruairí Donnelly, Oscar Horta, Will MacAskill, Holly Morgan, Toby Ord, Carl Shulman, Pablo Stafforini, Brian Tomasik, Rob Wiblin, Peter Wildeford, and Boris Yakubchik. Felicifia was originally the name of Seth Baum’s blog made in 2006 before Ryan Carey and Sasha Cooper turned it into a public forum in 2008, so the forum is sometimes referred to as the second Felicifia. These internet forums were popular in the decade of the 2000s before social media became the locus of online discourse. The most interesting thread I started was in January 2010 on “Utilitarian careers?” where I asked about the best careers for a high schooler like me. Other Felicifia users graciously outlined three career paths that have continued to be a popular taxonomy in EA: professional philanthropy (now called earning to give), direct service, and movement-building. Another common discussion topic was the best way to build a broader movement or community around applied utilitarianism. One silly idea I had, because I was very interested in Buddhism’s ideas around the reduction of suffering, was “Would teaching Buddhism be better than teaching utilitarian?” Fortunately this idea did not catch on, and I share the above threads with some embarrassment for my poor reasoning, but hey, we all started somewhere. I also had a slightly less embarrassing idea of creating “effective altruistic studies” as an academic field.
Louis Francini has maintained an archive of Felicifia at felicifia.github.io since 2020, after the forum became inaccessible in 2018. Most of the community moved to social media discussion forums around 2011–2012. Unfortunately much of the social media and email discussion is lost to the sands of time, but the “Effective Altruists” Facebook group created in November 2012, which eventually became the locus of online discourse, has some old posts accessible through its search functionality.
In general, EA emerged as the convergence from 2008 to 2012 at least 4 distinct but overlapping proto-EA communities, in order of founding:
- The Singularity Institute (now known as Machine Intelligence Research Institute; MIRI) and the “rationalist” discussion forum LessWrong, founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky and others in 2000 and 2006
- GiveWell, founded by Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld in 2007, and Good Ventures, founded by with Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna in 2011, which partnered together in 2014 as GiveWell Labs (now Open Philanthropy)
- Felicifia, created by Seth Baum, Ryan Carey, and Sasha Cooper in 2008 as a utilitarianism discussion forum, which is how I got involved as discussed above; these discussions largely moved to other venues such as Facebook in 2012, and Felicifia is no longer active.
- Giving What We Can (2009) and 80,000 Hours (2011), founded by Will MacAskill and Toby Ord, philosophers at the University of Oxford, and the umbrella organization Centre for Effective Altruism; Will has written about the early history of EA on the TLYCS blog and the history of the term on the Effective Altruism Forum.
As the EA flag was being planted, there were many effectiveness-focused altruists who came out of the woodwork but did not have formal involvement with one of these 4 groups, especially people inspired by the famous philosopher and utilitarian Peter Singer, particularly his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972)3 and book Animal Liberation (1975). Many were also involved in the evidence-based “randomista” movement in economic development, emphasizing evidence-based strategies to help the world’s poorest people, including academic research on this topic since the 1990s, especially IPA (2002) and JPAL (2003). Additionally, there were other email lists and community forms related to EA such as SL4 on the possibility of a technological singularity, as well as personal blogs, such as Brian Tomasik’s. Some were inspired by famous altruists such as Zell Kravinsky. I met many people in the early days of EA who said they had been thinking along EA lines for years and were so thrilled to find a community centered on this mindset. This is less common in 2022 because the movement is so visible and established that people run across it quickly once they start thinking in these ways.
Some people including me have described themselves as “co-founders” of EA. I hesitate to use this term for anyone because this has been a diverse, diffuse convergence of many communities. However, I think insofar as anyone does speak of founders or founding members, it should be acknowledged that dozens of people worked full-time on EA community-building and research since before 2012, and very few ideas in EA have been the responsibility of one or even a small number of thinkers. We should be consistent in the recognition of these contributions. This is not like the founding of a for-profit or non-profit corporation, which is typically just one to three founders; social movements are almost always best attributed to the combined efforts of many individuals—though historical counterfactuals (e.g., Without which groups would the movement not have emerged?) are extremely difficult to assess. If I were pressed to say when EA was founded, I would say 2008–2012, though as with most social movements, there were thousands of individual events that mattered.
What was the movement like at this time? The demographics of movements change a lot as they grow, which is well-summarized in the famous “diffusion of innovations” curve in which 2.5% of the population, “innovators,” kick off a social trend, then there are “early adopters,” “early majority,” and so on. For example, a far smaller fraction of new EAs in 2022 are die-hard utilitarians the way many of us began our journeys from 2008 to 2012.
2012 onward: Growing EA as EA
In 2012, Mark Lee from Leverage Research, which was founded in 2011, and I started the first student group network explicitly focused on this emergent community. (80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can each already had some student groups.) You can read my announcement of the launch on Felicifia in June 2012, which at one point we called the Strategic Altruism Network because EA hadn’t yet ossified as the community label; it was used at least as early as 2003, but other popular terms included “high impact philanthropy” and “rational altruism.” One March 2012 thread started by Jeff Kaufman on “A Name for a Movement?” is archived on his blog, and Will MacAskill discusses the naming of CEA in a March 2014 forum post. Eventually we called the organization The High Impact Network (THINK), though within a couple years it had dissipated as student groups became more independent. As of 2014 or so, online discourse largely converged on a Facebook group to consolidate our altruistic musing, which I co-moderated for several years. I think with Peter Singer’s February 2013 TED talk, “The Why and How of Effective Altruism,” the 4 communities fully came together around the flag of EA and the term itself, so the history after that point is better known and documented.
Personally, after bouncing around between several nascent EA organizations, cause areas, and career paths, I became convinced to focus on “moral circle expansion” around 2014 to improve the long-term future, which I made the case for on my now-defunct blog. I ended up working in the field of effective animal advocacy, first at Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE; formerly known as Effective Animal Activism) as a volunteer as it was spun off from 80,000 Hours in 2013, then chair of the board of directors, then as a full-time researcher once I graduated from college in 2015. Animal advocacy was acknowledged as one of EA’s “four focus areas” by Luke Muehlhauser in 2014, and I fought very hard and ruffled a lot of feathers to put it on the agenda for the 2015 Effective Altruism Global conference, where I gave a short presentation, and to make EA events (at least) vegetarian. Fortunately, the parts of EA that were antagonistic towards animal advocacy became much more sympathetic! In 2016, I left ACE to work at the Effective Altruism Foundation and found a new organization, Sentience Institute, to research moral circle expansion. I published a book in 2018 on the intersection of EA and animal advocacy, The End of Animal Farming, and I have in general seen my role as bridging the gaps between these two fields. After the book, I shifted to research on a new area of moral circle expansion, artificial intelligence, especially the moral and social inclusion of digital minds and artificial sentience, who will probably be the majority of sentient beings in the long-term future. I’m now working to build this field and work on other EA projects related to AI.
I’m no longer a moral realist. In fact I’m now a die-hard reductionist and a positivist across a range of philosophical questions. ↩
I was a strange child, also obsessing over mathematics, physics, and biology. In fact I was convinced for several years that I was an alien, and I spent a lot of time looking into supernatural theories like ghosts because my mind felt so strange compared to those around me. The first answer I remember giving to what I wanted to be when I grew up was “paranormal investigator.” ↩
Other philosophers published similar work over the decades with some influence, such as Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die (1996). ↩