Final Project Preparation #2: The ‘Do-gooders’ and Effective Altruism

<Why Overly Altruistic People Makes Us Uncomfortable>

  • How often, in action movies, do we see the hero, with the supervillain finally at bay, forced to surrender his advantage after the bad guy reveals that he has the hero’s girlfriend or kid at his mercy? It makes no sense for the hero to drop his gun and put up his hands to prevent the villain from killing his wife on the spot, especially when the villain clearly intends to wipe out everyone who opposes him, or even the entire human race, once he’s regained the upper hand. But part of what makes a hero a hero is that he cannot bear to see someone he loves murdered as a result of his own actions. On the brink of saving the world, his personal feelings trump his nobility.

<The Surefire Formula for Doing Good?>

  • In the past few years, the “effective altruism” movement has entered the fray to help nascent do-gooders make this decision by ranking charities according to how much good they do, measured by “quality-adjusted life years” saved per dollar. Not surprisingly, the movement has proved particularly popular with those in the earn-more, give-more camp, whom MacFarquhar identifies as mostly “well-educated young, white men of technological background and rational disposition.”
  • Yet for many of us, effective altruism’s urge to assign a calcuable value to human life feels alien, and the scientific rationalism so beloved of tech-minded young, white men seems reductive at best. We are not rational, perhaps, when we prefer to donate to a cause in our neighborhood rather than to more urgent disaster relief overseas. But there’s a value in community that most of MacFarquhar’s do gooders seem, quite painfully, not to understand. Although many of them have partners, with whom they plunged at young ages into relationships dominated by debates about how to save the world, few are connected to a wider human group. They do not pursue political or collective solutions to the world’s ills, but are weighed down by an almost unbearable sense of individual responsibility. In several cases, despite MacFarquhar’s sympathetic storytelling, that individualism starts to sound a lot like narcissism. Of those profiled, a pastor, a nurse and a Buddhist priest come closest to doing the type of good that doesn’t merely save a life but tries to improve it, too, in its fullness. It’s a complicated business that does not fit easily into a utilitarian schema, but it’s what most of us know instictively to be true: Saving a life is just the beginning.

<The Logic of Effective Altruism>

<Forget Your Dreams and Follow the Money If You Want to Help the World>

  • In the book, MacAskill writes: “Taken literally, the idea of following your passion is terrible advice.” Partly he’s being practical. People tend to be passionate about sports, music and the arts, and there aren’t a lot of jobs there. More than that, though, MacAskill and his colleagues at 80,000 Hours – named for the number of hours people will spend at work during their lives – argue that passion does not lead to job satisfaction. That tends to depend on other elements, including the degree to which your job provides autonomy, variety and the opportunity to complete tasks, as well as how you get on with colleagues and the extent to which you’re good at what you do.  Most important, at least for effective altruists – those who define themselves as using reason to do the most good they can – is that passion won’t lead to impact. Nor, necessarily, will the most obvious career choices open to a socially-concerned college student or young graduate, like working for a nonprofit.

<Donating to A Little League Does Not Make You A Moral Monster>

  • Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball? This, of course, was the point of the story I began with, in which a person chooses to remove garbage from the pond rather than save the child. If we think that person is a monster, then we should regard nearly everyone as monsters. All of us who donate money to Little League baseball, environmental causes, schools, universities, and art museums are moral monsters because we don’t use that money to provide live-saving health care to the poorest people in the world.
  • The logic can be taken further. It might feel good to volunteer an hour a week in a soup kitchen, but if you can earn money during that hour, you should instead work and then donate your pay to starving people in drought-stricken Kenya. The starving people in Kenya benefit more from your money than the denizens of a First World soup kitchen benefit from your time. If you can, you should also find employment as an investment banker rather than as a schoolteacher or social worker. You can earn a lot as an investment banker, and send even more excess income to poor people in Bangladesh. Your earnings help those poor people more than teaching or social work does. Teaching or social work in the United States, even when it benefits poor children or families, does a lot less good than earnings from the investment bank position being sent to the world’s poorest people.

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