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Principles of effective altruism and ethical implications for physicians
  1. Ellery Altshuler
  1. Internal Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, FL 32610, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ellery Altshuler, Internal Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville, FL 32610, USA; ElleryAltshuler{at}

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The philosophy of effective altruism considers how to discover and implement the most impactful ways of helping others. At its best, the field of medicine is primarily interested in this same question—how to most successfully improve the well-being of others. In this essay, I will use the tenets of effective altruism—impartiality, cause prioritizsation, and cost -effectiveness—to address how physicians can do the most good possible. I discuss the major ways that physicians benefit others—directly, by treating patients, and indirectly, by contributing to efficacious charities—and consider the merits of each. By using the framework of effective altruism to think about how to maximizse their positive impact, doctors seeking to do good can do so more powerfully.

Imagine being alone in a public park and seeing a small child drowning in a shallow pond. It would be easy to wade in and save the child, but doing so would ruin your shoes and suit, which cost about US$400. Should you save the child?

So asks philosopher Peter Singer in his now-famous thought experiment.1 Singer’s rhetorical argument is that most people in rich countries have the opportunity to save a child by donating to efficacious charities. Just because the child is not right in front of us, he argues, does not mean that his or her life is not worth saving. Whether by supporting efforts like malaria eradication initiatives or water purification programmes, the cost of saving a life is, roughly, the same as that of a nice suit.1 …

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  • Contributors EA is the sole author of this work and is responsible for all of the content.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.