Suppose you are confronted with three equally complex and important problems, but you can only solve one. To solve this dilemma, one must ask which of the three problems is of utmost importance and how that problem must be solved. This, Effective Altruism member Kilin Tang ’25 explained in an interview with The Phoenix, is the goal of the Effective Altruism club.
For many, these hypothetical problems aren’t hypothetical at all. Tang explained what drew him to the club when he first arrived at Swarthmore in the Fall.
“I learned about the various public policy problems that faced people living in both the United States and the rest of the globe through my long-time involvement in debate,” he said. “I knew I wanted to make a change for the better in the world, but I was highly uncertain about how to go about doing that. When I was introduced to Swarthmore Effective Altruism during the club fair last September, Abie (Swarthmore Effective Alturism’s co-founder) told me that my dilemma is exactly what Effective Altruism tries to investigate.”
Effective altruism operates far beyond Swarthmore’s campus. It is a social movement and philosophy originating in the late 2000s that focuses on maximizing the amount of good one does in the world and aids people in discovering how they themselves can take action. It has a global reach, with over 200 satellite groups in over a dozen countries.
Swarthmore’s chapter of Effective Altruism started during the Fall 2021 semester. In an interview with The Phoenix, Abie Rohrig ’23, the co-founder of Swarthmore’s Effective Altruism chapter, explained that his interest in effective altruism began as early as 2016, when he read a philosophy paper titled “Famine, Affluence, and Mortality” by Peter Singer. The paper, which argued that we have a moral obligation to combat poverty, influenced Rohrig to work at the non-profit 1Day Sooner that sought to develop fast COVID-19 vaccine trials to save lives. Rohrig mentioned that many of the employees at 1Day Sooner were also involved in the effective altruism movement.
“That year, I met JJ [Balisanyuka-Smith ’21] and Koji [Flynn-Do ’23] — two Swat students, JJ has since graduated — who were interested in starting an Effective Altruism club at Swarthmore, including an introductory reading group for students who wanted to learn more about effective altruism. I loved them, and I love reading groups, so it was an easy choice to help start Swarthmore Effective Altruism.”
Reading groups are an important part of the Effective Altruism club. Tang described what a typical weekly meeting for Effective Altruism looks like.
“Student reading groups, usually about four to five people, will meet once a week … we call such reading groups ‘Fellowships’ in which students do readings, listen to podcasts, and watch videos discussing relevant topics,” Tang explained. “At the meetings, students discuss questions, uncertainties, and criticisms surrounding the course material.”
One unique aspect of the club, Swarthmore Effective Altruism President Edward Tranter ’22 explained, is that it’s a community of learning and debate.
“In my experience, [Effective Altruism] is a community where people strive to learn with others about what it can mean to do good. This is a huge question that naturally leads to a lot of really interesting disagreements within the community, even on what some would say are the ‘basics’ of EA-affiliated ideas,” Tranter mentioned.
According to Rohrig, Swarthmore’s Effective Altruism chapter operates as a chartered club at Swarthmore, and therefore receives funding through Swarthmore’s Student Budgeting Committee. In addition, they receive funding from the Centre for Effective Altruism, the organization that supports Effective Altruism branches globally.
This past weekend, Swarthmore Effective Altruism participants attended the Effective Altruism Global (EAG)xBoston conference that took place between April 1 and April 3. Approximately 900 people from around the world attended. Tang, who took part in the conference as a member of Swarthmore’s delegation, described his experience attending the conference.
“As this was my first EA conference, I found it extremely helpful to discuss my uncertainties with other people interested in effective altruism who come from different backgrounds and hold varying perspectives,” Tang said. “It was also really cool to listen to people interested in effective altruism talk about their careers and how they thought it aligned with the EA movement. It helped me determine which careers I could see myself in or not.”
The Effective Altruism club has gained much attention around the Swarthmore Community. Despite thorough discussion and plentiful critiques of its moral framework, Rohrig explained that the core philosophy of the club is something that resonates deeply with Swarthmore students and is reminiscent of previous student club growth.
“I think it’s not unusual for student movements with compelling messages to take off exponentially. Sunrise started around 2015, and by 2018 they were staging national sit-ins, making headlines, and had chapters at seemingly every campus,” Rohrig wrote. “The core idea of effective altruism — that our generation faces intersecting crises, and we should do what we can to find careers that improve the world as much as possible — resonates deeply with lots of people who feel a general anxiety about the state of the world and are looking to take action.”