Giving What We Can

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Illustration: Dillon Yeh

Suppose we were able to develop a drug that could make us more moral. Should we take it?

This radical thought experiment was the topic of a recent Philosophy Society talk by Wardlaw professor of moral philosophy, Sarah Broadie. The talk was based on an idea brought up by philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson who argue that the problems we face globally are the result of our failure to be moral. Climate change and nuclear war are a threat to future generations of humans and are or would be the direct consequence of our moral failings.

Savulescu and Persson claim that it is a psychological fact that we find it difficult to consider the moral interests of people who live far away. As a result, we prioritise our interests at the cost of others and act in unsustainable ways that can only end in disaster.

If there were such a drug, we should definitely take it.

Yet are we really incapable of considering all interests equally? Last week’s Effective Altruism conference offered an altogether more practical response to today’s global issues. By stressing practical and impactful actions, the doctrine of effective altruism empowers us to do more rather than intimates us into inaction.

Effective altruism is both a philosophy and a social movement, characterised by its aim to motivate people not only to act morally but also to act morally in the most effective way possible.

Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps the cause’s most well-known advocate, describes effective altruism as a combination of “the heart and the head” in his 2013 TED talk. The heart represents the empathy that motivates us to try to alleviate suffering. The head is involved in recognising what suffering we should aim to reduce as well as what the most effective methods are for achieving this goal.

Singer gives the example of Bill and Melinda Gates, whom he calls two of the world’s most effective altruists. Through their foundation, they are able to follow their hearts. Melinda Gates says: “Whatever the conditions of people’s lives, wherever they live, however they live, we all share the same dreams.” But the couple is also committed to the “head” part of Singer’s equation. She adds: “We are focused on the areas of greatest need, on the ways in which we can do the most good.”

Of course, not even the billions of dollars that Bill and Melinda Gates have donated are enough to solve the world’s problems. Facts about the scale of the most pressing global issues – including poverty, preventable diseases and climate change – can prove both intimidating and depressing. Moreover, if an individual believes that he or she cannot improve the situation alone, then he or she is left unmotivated even to try.

Effective altruism challenges this reasoning. By evaluating the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of charities, meta-charities such as Giving What We Can (GWWC) find and recommend only the very best. In this case, ‘the best’ organizations are ones that can take even small donations and use them to provide treatments or aid that can save lives. Their work is effective altruism in practice.

Dr Theron Pummer, a lecturer in moral philosophy at the University, said that when he first found out about GWWC, he was “shocked at how much good each person could do with so little money. Especially with the de-worming charities…50p is enough to de-worm a child. This is a significant health benefit for them. It’s a significant relief for pain, and it also enables them to go to school.” After learning about GWWC, he started to consider not just whether, but where to donate his money. In his own words, he “became interested in the ‘effective’ in effective altruism.”

Dr Pummer is among the founders of a new chapter of GWWC in St Andrews. He argues that organisations such as GWWC work by “creating a community of givers” who can support each other in their giving and spread the ideas of effective altruism. Rufaida Al Hashmi, a Philosophy and Economics student and member of the Giving What We Can chapter, agrees and says that their “plan is to continue having visiting speaker talks and to start a discussion group to further explore effective altruism.”

While it is not surprising that some charities achieve their goals more effectively than others, the difference between the efficacies of some charities is nothing short of astounding. Singer gives this example of two charities that both work towards decreasing the suffering of people affected by blindness: “Take, for example, providing a guide dog for a blind person. That’s a good thing to do, right? Well, it is a good thing to do, but you have to think what else you could do with the resources. It costs about $40,000 to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective [resource]. It costs somewhere between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. I think it’s clear what’s the better thing to do.”

The fact that some charities may be hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than others has led some effective altruists to argue that although it may be morally permissible not to give vast proportions of one’s income to charity, it may be morally impermissible in many cases to give any money at all to ineffective charities. In Whether and Where to Give, Dr Pummer argues that even if the ‘less good’ charities still make a positive impact, it may still be wrong to give to them at the expense of far more effective charities.

As students, the question of how much to donate to charity may appear to be merely an academic one. At a Q&A Skype session last week between St Andrews students and Mr Singer, he was asked whether students on very limited budgets could still be effective altruists. He reminded us that what we consider to be a very limited budget is vastly above the international poverty line of $1.90 (about £1.32) a day. Money we spend on everyday luxuries like coffee or mobile phone packages could be donated.

Moreover, Mr Singer argued that by starting out with small donations during their university years, students could develop a habit of giving. After graduation, this will make donating a percentage of one’s income much easier. He explained that he employs a similar scaling-up approach in his own donations. Each year, he and his wife reassess their financial position and try to donate more money to effective charities. Today, they give 40 per cent of their income, up from 10 per cent in the 1970s.

One way in which students could develop such a habit is by taking the GWWC pledge. This is a voluntary commitment to give 10 per cent of one’s pre-tax income until retirement while earning a regular income (or one per cent of one’s spending money for students and the unemployed) to effective charities.

However, students’ ability to be effective altruists extends beyond our spending power.

Dr Pummer suggests that effective altruism would have students seriously consider “the ethics of career choice.” While he is quick to point out that effective altruism does not say that “you must pick whatever career would do the most good,” he does say that “the idea is to work with people’s particular talents and interests and so on to identify within some set of reasonable career options the ones [that] do more good than others.”

One might expect that picking a career based on maximising positive impact will lead to working for a NGO or becoming an aid worker. However, among the careers most highly ranked in terms of effective altruism are, surprisingly, in the financial sector. Dr Pummer says: “One clear way in which a career could enable you to do more good than another is if you got a bigger salary. So money can buy happiness… for other people. It can buy relief from suffering and prevention of death.”

It is all too easy to think that the good we can do is inconsequential in the face of the terrifying global problems that we face today. Effective altruism challenges us to see the impact we could have in absolute terms. In a lifetime, the effective altruist could save hundreds or even thousands of lives. When viewed in this way, it is hard to ignore the good that each of us is capable of doing.

At least until we can develop a morality drug, reflecting on this reality is the first step towards combating our moral failings the old-fashioned way: one at a time.

More information about effective altruism in St Andrews can be found on the Giving What We Can: St Andrews Facebook page.

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