Future Perfect, explained

Welcome to Vox’s home for stories about changing the world.

A few years ago, I was writing up a short article at the Washington Post explaining why then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was voting against his own cloture motion. In the middle of the piece, I stopped typing and was seized with the thought: “God … why does this even matter?” It just felt so low-stakes, so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, who even remembers the Chuck Hagel confirmation fight five years later?

I said something to my then-editor, Ezra Klein, and he replied, “If we only wrote about stuff that’s really, really important, we’d write about nothing but, I don’t know, malaria.”

Ezra had a point, and I filed the piece. And I think we might have been a bit too hard on ourselves as journalists. A lot of stuff is important, even quirks of Senate procedure, and there are many wonderful reporters, especially here at Vox, covering it.

But Ezra and I kept talking about that question. What topics would we write about if our only instruction was to write about the most important stuff in the world, particularly the most important stuff that isn’t already widely covered?

We would write about malaria and other relatively easy-to-treat but still extremely deadly diseases. We’d probably write a lot about global poverty more generally, whose depth and spread are hard for people living in rich countries to fathom. We might write about farm animal welfare, or infectious disease in the developing world. We might spend some time on threats like superbugs and nuclear war that could end humankind altogether and prevent trillions or quadrillions of humans from enjoying happy lives in the future.

Part of Vox’s mission is to write about what’s important, not just what’s new. Future Perfect is an attempt to do exactly that. It’s a project by Vox’s writers and editors, with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation, to carve out a space, away from the regular news cycle, to cover and think about crucially important issues that are currently undercovered.

A brief history of effective altruism

Future Perfect is deeply inspired by a movement known as effective altruism, or EA for short. Will MacAskill, a co-founder of the Center for Effective Altruism, defines EA as “the project of using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.”

That’s a little vague — usefully vague, but vague — so let me try to concretize it a bit.

I first heard about effective altruism five or six years ago, and came to it through a group called GiveWell. The group attempted to quantify the amount of good done — the number of lives saved, the amount of poverty alleviated, the extent of health improvements, etc. — by various charities. Most charity evaluators, then and now, are about separating out organizations with high overhead and perceived waste from ones that run lean. GiveWell took a different approach. It wanted to know how much good $1,000 does if you give it to a microfinance charity like Kiva versus a group giving out bednets like Against Malaria.

I started donating to GiveWell charities in college, when I had spare cash from part-time work for the Washington Post. At the same time, I was studying moral philosophy, and was particularly taken aback by Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and Peter Unger’s book Living High and Letting Die(recommended by my now-colleague Matt Yglesias).

Both Peters made the same argument: that to have disposable income, as a rich person (by global standards) living in a country like America, and not give a sizable chunk of it away to extremely poor people overseas who need it more is heinously wrong. “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out,” Singer wrote. “This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” Living on $60,000 a year rather than $70,000, Singer and Unger argued, is likewise insignificant next to the good that donating $10,000 to desperately poor people could do.

Singer and Unger gave less thought to which charities that $10,000 should go to. But by 2009 and 2010, the ideas of GiveWell and of Singer/Unger — the notion that you should give to the best charities, and that you have a moral obligation to give a great amount — started to fuse. Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford, founded Giving What We Can, a group encouraging people to take a pledge to donate at least 10 percent of their income to a highly effective charity (I’ve taken the pledge).

The movement also started to branch out from just talking about individual-level charitable giving. GiveWell partnered with the billionaires Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz and started the Open Philanthropy Project to begin making donations on a much more massive scale, ones that it wouldn’t make sense to recommend to individual donors without billions to spend. MacAskill and Benjamin Todd founded 80,000 Hours, which tries to use a similar analytical approach to identifying the highest-impact jobs that young people can pursue. The realm of “doing good” was expanding, from a narrow focus on donations to questions about how to pick a career, how to run major charitable foundations, even how to organize government policy.

What we’ll cover

In 2011, MacAskill, Ord, and others named their incipient movement “effective altruism.” And from there, the movement quickly developed a few main areas of focus: global health and economic development, the traditional focus area of both GiveWell and moral philosophers like Singer and Unger; animal welfare, since there are many more animals in factory farms than there are humans on earth, and they are living vastly worse lives on average; and preventing catastrophic risks — like climate change, nuclear war, or unregulated artificial intelligence — that have the potential to end humanity or severely set back human civilization. We think all of these issues are incredibly important and undercovered relative to their importance. That’s why we wanted to start a new section devoted to them.

But we’re interested in so much more. One of the things we’re on the lookout for is ways to do a lot of good at low cost. For instance, people thrown in prison or jail in rich countries (especially the US) experience incredible hardship and deprivation, and it’s possible to lessen that hardship at negative cost to the government by cutting down on the use of incarceration.

There will be forays into unexpected topics — like, say, kidney donation. It’s a way to save one, two, even a dozen or more lives, at little personal financial cost and little to no health cost to the donor. I gave away my kidney two years ago and haven’t regretted it for a second, and I can’t wait to write more about organ donation and how to make the system save more lives. The first episode of the Future Perfect podcast is all about kidney donation and its connection to effective altruism.

We’re also going to be interrogating the decisions that big foundations (like the Gates Foundation, Open Philanthropy, and even our sponsors at the Rockefeller Foundation) are making. We’re trying to figure out the best ways to do good, and that means critically scrutinizing what existing institutions are trying.

We’re also generally interested in how to reason better, predict better, and make better decisions. Making ourselves better, less biased reasoners is one way to get better at helping others.

How to do good better

Effective altruism is an idea that, in its broadest form, ought to be noncontroversial bordering on tautological: We all have a moral duty to help each other, and we should help each other in more effective ways. (MacAskill captured the idea well in the title of his book: Doing Good Better.)

But effective altruism as it actually exists is also a concrete movement of real people and organizations. Future Perfect shares similar interests with them, but we’re not affiliated with them — and sometimes, we’ll write things that people in the movement will disagree with.

Effective altruism has hit on a really fundamental, important insight: Relatively few people and organizations conduct themselves as though they’re actively trying to do as much good as possible. To some degree, that’s okay (not everyone has to act with that goal in mind), but it leaves a lot of obvious, high-impact ideas on the table, ideas that begin to come into focus if you start looking at the world through this lens.

Our team wants to write more stories about the world’s problems: problems that are big and neglected, and that most people in the US don’t hear about nearly often enough. These are problems where big progress is possible with just a bit more resources and attention.

I find that really exciting, and the rest of the team here at Future Perfect does too. We hope you will as well.

All Rights Reserved for Dylan Matthews

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