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The Deaths of Effective Altruism

by Elijah
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The Deaths of Effective Altruism

Singer’s idea that excited me was that each of us should give a lot of money to help poor people abroad. Are thought experiment ‘shallow pond’ shows why. If you saw a child drowning in a shallow pond, you would feel obligated to save her, even if it meant ruining your new shoes. But yes, Singer said, you can save the life of a starving child abroad by donating to charity what new shoes would cost. And you can save the life of another child by donating instead of buying a new shirt, and another child instead of going out to eat. The logic of your beliefs demands that you send almost all your money abroad, where it will go the furthest to save the most lives. After all, what can we do with our money that is more important than saving human lives?

That is the most famous argument in modern philosophy. It goes far beyond the ideas that drive most decent people to give to charity – that all human lives are valuable, that severe poverty is terrible, and that the wealthy have a responsibility to help. The ruthless logic of Singer’s “shallow pond” tends toward extreme sacrifice. It has inspired some to give away almost all their money and even a kidney.

In 1998 I wasn’t ready for extreme sacrifice; but I thought at least I could find the charities that save the most lives. I set out to build a website (now no longer a parody) that would showcase the evidence on the best ways to give – showing altruists, you might say, how to be most effective. And then I went to Indonesia.

A friend who worked for the World Wildlife Fund had invited me to a millennium party, so I saved my starting professor’s salary and flew to Bali. My friend’s bungalow, it turned out, was a sleeping place for young people working on aid projects across Indonesia and Malaysia who fled to Bali for some rest and relaxation over the New Year.

These young aid workers worked at Oxfam, Save the Children and several UN organizations. And they were all exhausted. A nut-brown young Dutchman told me that he slept above pigs on a remote island and had gotten malaria so often that he stopped testing. Two tired Britons talked about the confrontation with the local fighters who always caught them stealing their belongings. They all scrubbed up, drank a lot of beer and rested for a few days. When we decided to cook a big dinner together, I took the opportunity to do some research.

“What if you had a million dollars,” I asked as they started eating. “Which charity would you give it to?” They looked at me.

“No, really,” I said, “which charity saves the most lives?”

“None of them,” said a young Australian woman, laughing. Story after story emerged about the daily frustrations of their jobs. Corrupt local officials, ignorant charity bosses, the daily grind of persuading poor people to try something new without pissing them off. By the time we got to dessert, these good people who dedicated their young lives to fighting poverty were talking about spending a few nights alone in bed, hoping that their projects would do more good than harm.

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