The Best Way to Save a Life

The wisest question is not  “What is the greatest good?” but rather: What is the greatest good where the next dollar could have the greatest impact?”

The amount of suffering in the world is so vast in its scale and severity that it can be overwhelming to take it all in, let alone know where to start in alleviating it. We are but lone individuals amid a world of billions, many of whose wealthiest denizens seem utterly indifferent to the plight of the masses. It is easy, if not understandable, to feel cynical and despairing.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic tackles the concept of “effective altruism” — helping the world in the most efficient, sustainable, and consequential way possible. He cites a large breadth of wisdom on the matter, summing up a general guide to better giving thusly:

The simplest way to explain effective altruism and its discontents is to begin with three pillars of the movement: (1) You can make a truly enormous difference in the world if you live in a rich country; (2) you can “do good better” by thinking scientifically rather than sentimentally; and (3) you can do good even better by trying to find the greatest need for the next marginal dollar.

In other words, if you are at least a middle-class person in a wealthy country, and rely on science, reason, and evidence to guide your donations, you can do a lot more substantive good than you may think. Consider this:

Even middle-class American families are rich compared to the world’s poor. “If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the 1 percent”, MacAskill writes. Some research suggests that the doubling one’s income, whether you make $500 a year or $50,000 a year, roughly raises one’s happiness by a similar amount. This implies that if a middle-class American family were to transfer one percent of its income directly to an Indian rice farmer, his estimated happiness would double.

In his book, MacAskill calls this the 100x Multiplier: Donations to the world’s poorest are an unalloyed mitzvah and, if you are left-brain inclined, a mitzvah on extreme discount—a 99-percent-off sale for well-being in the world.

This line of thinking is morally powerful, and its radical implication is that one should devote every spare dollar and every spare moment to helping the world’s poor—eschewing the arts and exercise, banning oneself from all entertainment, subsisting on rice, and giving away all of one’s possessions. The moral philosopher Peter Singer once proposed a famous thought experiment: You see a child drowning in a pond. Do you jump in after her? Even if you didn’t push her in? Even if you’re wearing an expensive suit or dress? The socially acceptable answer to the question is you ruin your suit to save the child. But ordinary people with plentiful savings justify ignoring the daily deaths of children every day, even when the opportunity to save them is as close as an Internet connection.

Just a single dollar can go a long way. There are so many things we spend money on every day that, in the grand scheme of things, are unnecessary and be spared. But most of us are not primed to think about all the suffering out there that our seemingly modest funds can mitigate (especially when much of that suffering occurs out of sight and mind). Part of resolving this problem entails being mindful of how many causes need supporting, and how much more we can do help; another part consists of applying a scientific approach to guide our choices and motivations, whatever the challenges.

Perhaps the most piercing lesson from effective altruism is that one can make an astonishing difference in the world with a pinch of logic and dash of math.

In his book, MacAskill tells the story of two academics, Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster, whose randomized controlled trials in Africa found that neither textbooks, flip charts, nor smaller class sizes raised the test scores of students in Kenya. Kremer did find, however, that every $100 spent treating intestinal worms in children dramatically raised their school attendance. On the basis of this research, Kremer and Glennerster cofounded the Deworm the World Initiative, which helps developing countries launch and run their own deworming programs. Today, Deworm the World is widely considered one of the most cost-effective charities in the world.

But programs like Deworm the World don’t receive the lion’s share of U.S. charity. Of the $330 billion that American individuals, companies, and foundations give to charity, just 5 percent goes directly overseas. That means if Americans shifted just 5 percent of their remaining charity abroad, foreign donations would double; if the money were spent twice as efficiently (a low bar, according to MacAskill), the number of lives saved and improved would quadruple—and that’s without Americans giving an extra cent to charity

To be sure, not every cause can be so clearly measured. Indeed, some of the biggest and most important ways to improve the human condition — egalitarianism, individual liberty, human rights — are very difficult to quantify, let alone neatly implement (after all, a range of variables and externalities are involved, from culture and history to arguably even geography and climate). Is everything worth supporting capable of being efficiently monitored and guided? What then?

Effective altruists like MacAskill would respond that even these risky undertakings can be boiled down to math problems: If you build an equation that multiplies the greatest number of possible lives saved by the odds of that program’s success, you can estimate the highest expected value of your donation. But overall, effective altruism seems to focus its attention on the most measurable interventions.

In essence, we can set aside the bigger, more long-term goals and focus on what is more pressing and immediately impactful. This is not to say that we should ignore or overlook advancing things women’s rights or democratic freedoms. Rather, if we are going to help, we should start with the most basic needs: making sure people have food, shelter, medical care, education, and such. When people are no longer mired by the hardship and misery of everyday survival, they can utilize their subsequently greater time, resources, and attention to move on to greater goals (indeed, this pattern can already be seen in much of the developing world, where economic gains are followed by more calls for improved political and social conditions).

What are your thoughts?

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