Our DeCal

The Greater Good is a Spring 2016 DeCal on doing the most good you can. Apply here!

Tue 5-7 PM, 115 Kroeber

"What's the absolute best way I can improve the world with my life?"

If you've ever asked yourself that question, this class is for you. If you've ever been dissatisfied by all the answers ("Just follow your heart!" "Don't sweat it so much!" "The answer will come to you one day!"), this class is for you.  

We'll help you move beyond the cliches and develop specific, well-tested mental techniques you can use to

  • Disentangle complicated and sometimes contradictory feelings to get a holistic sense of what you truly care about
  • Develop the questions and criteria that will help you choose from a wide variety of altruistic causes and career paths
  • Overcome procrastination, emotional blocks, and social disapproval to put your values into practice day-to-day   

Along the way, we'll introduce you to the "effective altruism (EA)" community, a group of people dedicated to helping each other answer this question. We'll assess which approaches from EA resonate with us and are valuable in our own quest for answers. Click on the dropdown tabs below for more details. 

Class Structure



Social Events

How to enroll

Our Faculty Advisor is Prof. Niko Kolodny of the Philosophy Department. He focuses on moral and political philosophy.

Ajeya Cotra  

When Ajeya was choosing colleges, the fact that Berkeley had DeCals tipped the scales. She loves teaching, and has dreamed of teaching a DeCal on  effective altruism since freshman year. She designed the syllabus for the first version of the class and taught it with Oliver. 

Ajeya's kind of an education psychology nerd, and she hopes it shows in this class! There were a ton of lessons to be learned from the first time around, and she's confident that it's going to be bigger and better than ever. Besides teaching this class, she has also been an Undergraduate Student Instructor (UGSI) three times for CS 61A and CS 188. 

Rohin Shah  

Rohin has been teaching fellow students since a really young age.  When he came to Berkeley, he was impressed by the teaching assistants (TAs) and wanted to become one himself.  As a result, he has TA'd for CS 61AS, 61B, 161, 170, 188 and lectured for CS 61A.

He has also read through the field of education research in order to improve his teaching skills, which he's used in CS classes.  He is excited to see how this translates to a less technical class and often thinks about how to use various teaching strategies to make the class better.

Week 1: Jan 26

Good vs. Good

What’s more important, eliminating racism or curing cancer? Who's more valuable, a doctor or a philanthropist? We’re often uncomfortable comparing two choices that are both doing good. But we can't escape making these tradeoffs every day. We discuss the ethics of such choices and strategies for making them wisely.

No readings

Week 2: Feb 2

Framework of EA

Effective Altruism is an intellectual and social movement that provides a framework for answering these questions: Altruism, Consequentialism, Maximization, and Egalitarianism (ACME). We practice thinking in this framework, and discuss its often radical implications.

Week 3: Feb 9

Helpful Thinking Patterns

Trying to do the most good possible involves us thinking in some pretty unnatural ways -- and dealing with some pretty uncomfortable arguments. We'll practice some useful techniques for changing our minds, dealing with unpleasant facts, and having productive and informative disagreements. 

Week 4: Feb 16

Global Poverty

We feel more compassion towards people who are closer to us or similar to us; we discuss why the ACME framework would reject the idea that this implies we have a greater obligation to these people, through a case study comparing domestic and global poverty.

Week 5: Feb 23

Impact Evaluation

We continue to explore global poverty as a cause area, focusing on how we can measure the effects of an intervention. Global health and poverty is a very large field with thousands of charities; we discuss the criteria nonprofit evaluator GiveWell uses to choose from among them.

Week 6: Mar 1

Cause Selection

We introduce a principle for choosing causes to work on: choose a cause that is Important, Tractable, and Neglected (ITN). We discuss the practical implications of this framework and practice using it to evaluate a variety of causes. 

Week 7: Mar 8

The Long Term

We focus on the EA concept of Maximization, and why that could imply that we should focus mostly on the long-term ripple effects of our actions. We introduce the concepts of global catastrophic risks and flow-through effects, and apply our strategies for dealing with uncertainty to evaluate long-term causes.


Week 8: Mar 15

Managing Uncertainty

When we’re trying to do good, there is often much more that we’re uncertain about than that we’re certain about. Our choices are nearly infinite, and there’s always a chance that we’ll fail to accomplish anything or even accidentally do harm. We introduce two reasoning strategies -- sequence thinking and cluster thinking -- and practice combining them to manage uncertainty usefully.

Spring Break

Week 9: Mar 29

Animal Welfare

We introduce the cause of animal welfare, why effective altruists tend to focus on reducing factory farming, and study concrete actions to support animal causes. We apply the principle of Egalitarianism, through a case study comparing feelings for pets and farm animals.

Week 10: Apr 5 

Lifestyle Choices

There are a lot of unusual and potentially radical choices we could make to improve the world. Frugality, waste reduction, veganism, donation, and more can make a dramatic impact. We discuss what lifestyle choices we would be open to and which ones are too scary, and form strategies to stick by our choices even when it's hard.

Week 11: Apr 12

What to Actually Do

If we want to make helping others a substantial part of our lives, what are our options? We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of donation, research, direct work, and activism, and form personal career plans tying together the causes we care about and the skills we can offer.

Week 12: Apr 19

Meta Charity

If we think that an approach to doing good, like effective altruism, is especially valuable, then one of the most valuable things we can do is to spread that idea and provide support for people trying to live by it. We present and evaluate organizations that try to do this kind of outreach.

Week 13: Apr 26 

The Final Game

Each student donates $50 of our money to one of eight charities in one of four cause areas. Students submit a final essay written in class about the decision. We match student contributions on top of the allocated amount until we run out of money.

No readings

Catherine Hollander

Catherine Hollander is an outreach associate at GiveWell. Previously, Catherine was a journalist covering economics and health care for National Journal in Washington, DC, and was editorial director for Beacon, an independent funding platform for journalism based in Oakland, CA. She graduated from Yale University with a BA in history.

Catherine will be speaking to the class about GiveWell's research on the Open Philanthropy Project. 

Sean Conley

Sean is a Research Analyst at GiveWell. He graduated from Oxford University in 2012 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

Sean will be speaking to the class about GiveWell's research on their top charities, which are evidence-backed, thoroughly vetted international giving opportunities for individual donors.

Speaker 2: Magician Ajeya

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Check back for more speaker listings as we confirm them!

(In Spring 2015, we taught the first iteration of this class. You can find the old material here.)

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