How to be an Effective Altruist? Better Yet... Why?

How to be an Effective Altruist? Better Yet... Why?

Australian moral philosopher and author of publications ‘Animal Liberation’, ‘Applied Ethics’ and ‘Practical Ethics’ gave a talk at the TED Conference earlier this year, focusing on the importance of not only being altruistic, but also being effective. As part of this, he tackled many of the myths held by those that may be skeptical towards either charity or microfinance if one does not possess billions of dollars, euros or pounds. We will return to them later, but these are:

(1) Worrying how much of a difference you can really make

(2) Expectations to abandon your career to make any significant change

(3) Charities are bureaucratic and ineffective

(4) The act of giving being or becoming too burdensome

“But they are so far away”

Reinforcing the point he makes in ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ (i.e. identifying that distance is as morally arbitrary a characteristic as nationality or race) Singer highlights the example of two-year-old Wang Yue, known as Yue-Yue, who was tragically ran over on 13 October 2011 in Guangdong, China. As she lay bleeding out, eighteen passers-by walked by doing nothing to help. Eventually she was helped by a rubbish scavenger, only to succumb to her injuries eight days later.

Rightfully, many people worldwide were outraged at this event and would state that they would have done something to help out, not just stand by while something so easily preventable could have been avoided. Singer, perhaps controversially, uses this to fuel his argument that there are multiple causes of death that are easily preventable, such as certain childhood diseases, that we do nothing to conquer. Rather, the result is that 19,000 children die every day as a result.

Singer argues that, morally, distance ought to make no difference to our decisions. Practicality aside, the simple reason that a human being is far away from us should have no moral bearing on our decision to help someone. If we concede that it is right to help people in need and those who are suffering from a preventable problem, and that it is possible to help them without causing so much damage to our own life that our lifestyle becomes similar to their own, then we morally ought to and are obliged to help these people. We spend money every day on items that we do not need, whether bottled water, numerous vacations or unnecessary extra vehicles. Instead, Singer argues we ought to donate the money we would spend on the unnecessary and instead donate to an organisation that can help protect children from Malaria by providing nets.

“Heart and Head”

However, Singer is not one to resort solely to the desire to help without the assistance of rational thought accompanying it, a combination of both ‘heart and head’. Combining empathy with well-directed and effective measures is needed. For example, nets to prevent Malaria have been statistically proven to battle preventable diseases. The same reason we rely on to help understand that other human beings are like us, suffer like us, that parents grieve for their children like us is the same reason we need to rely on to ensure effective problem-solving.

So far, although powerful and thought-provoking, the argument for morality is rather strong but it may not necessarily tackle the four problems posed above. That is where the argument for effectiveness is raised. Billionaires such as Warren Buffett and organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have stated that ‘All Lives Have Equal Value’ and have given more than any other human beings throughout history. But equally as important, no one has ever been quite so effective. Using their intelligence, they have been highly successful, with the Gates Foundation having already saved millions of lives. But, what can we say about all the non-billionaires in the world?

“How much of a difference can I really make?”

In response to point (1), Oxford Fellow Toby Ord calculated that he would be able to give enough to cure 80,000 people of blindness in developing countries whilst still having a high standard of living. How? By offering to give up a percentage of his total income, he is dedicated to fighting and alleviating poverty where possible.

“Am I expected to abandon my career?”

In response to (2), Will MacAskill in fact encourages quite the opposite. Setting up the 80,000 hours website (named after the statistic that people, on average, spend that much time on their career throughout their lives), MacAskill encourages participation in the banking and finance sector because, put simply, if you earn a lot then you are able to give a lot. If successful, you may be able to provide an organisation enough funds to hire five workers to do five times as much work as you may have been able to do on your own. It is not enough to follow the ‘thou shalt nots’ in life, and instead we ought to pledge to share some of what we have with those that have so little.

“But aren’t charities just bureaucratic and ineffective?”

However, this may be all well and good, but if (3) is true, surely this is a moot discussion? If effectiveness is what we are focusing on then, we can shift to services provided by organisations such as Give Well or Effective Animal Activism. These websites are dedicated to highlighting the effectiveness of major charities. With evidence to spotlight their effectiveness, and identify ineffective organisations, the third counter-argument does not seem to hold for every charity or NGO. Equally important, it turns out to be far more expensive to help train guide dogs for blind Americans than being able to create real change and improvement in a developing country. In terms of effectiveness, the lack of distance doesn’t seem to only be arbitrary, but perhaps even counter-productive.

“Giving would just be too burdensome”

But isn’t all of this just too (4) ‘Burdensome’? Perhaps, or maybe it is a far healthier way to enable fulfillment by providing self-esteem and happiness. Singer argues it can be helpful to overcome the Sisyphus-like epic of consumerist life that we lead, by which he means we simply work hard to get money, spend it on consumer goods, consume them and once the money is gone we need to work hard to get more money back to maintain the same level of happiness – a vicious cycle akin to some perverse hedonistic treadmill. On the other hand, student Holly Morgan pledged to give 10% of whatever little she had to help others, and after giving has been described as one of the happiest people Peter Singer knows, whereas beforehand she battled severe depression.

Singer has made controversial claims, but he most definitely backs them up. As an expert in the field of moral philosophy, this part of his claim is strongest and requires the most battling for ourselves. Reading and listening to him makes us think we ought to do more, which is great. But the whole point is completely lost unless we actually follow up on his message.

Singer’s message and those like his have made an impact on many people on the Deki troops, with a surprising number of our team members having  a background in philosophy. Caring about the issues affecting those abroad is an extremely important part of our mission, but equally so is the need to ensure that the money our entrepreneurs are lent comes about as part of an efficient and effective process.

You can help out by visiting the Deki lenders’ page to make a direct contribution now, and see with whom and where your money will be invested. The smallest contributions in your life can make the largest difference for someone else.