The most good you can do

According to moral philosopher and utilitarian Peter Singer, we should be donating every spare cent we have to charity. As you can imagine, this hard-line moral obligation argument has not enamoured Singer to all. The guilt-inducing example for which he is most (in)famous is that of a child drowning in a shallow pond. If you walked past said pond, would you jump in and save the child’s life, or would you not want to run the risk of ruining your expensive clothes? If you saved the child, congratulations - you have proven yourself to be a moral human being.

But there’s a catch. You’ve just implicated yourself into a moral obligation to the 15 000 children under the age of five who die every day from curable diseases brought on by extreme poverty. According to Singer, the life of a faceless child in a distant country is just as important as that of the child in the pond. And if we’re not giving everything, we can to save the former, we’re not the virtuous human beings we’d like to think we are.

If you’re anything like me, your reaction to his accusation could include a combination of guilt and indignation, and you may even want to stop reading this article. Please don’t! It’s too important of a topic.

While Singer’s view is certainly admirable and his shock tactics do grab the attention, he’s too extreme to be persuasive – at least to most of us mere mortals. Voltaire’s aphorism that ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ seems particularly apt here.

Singer’s philosophy has inspired the modern Effective Altruism (EA) movement, but it has also been (sensibly) refined and reframed into a more sustainable and palatable ideology.

Toby Ord and Will McCaskill, two young Oxford philosophers and in my humble opinion modern-day saints, have been instrumental in catalysing the movement through eloquent argument and truly putting their money where their mouths are.

Both have pledged to donate most of their career earnings to cost-effective charities. Take a moment to think about that. What were you doing in your early 20s? I certainly wasn’t thinking beyond my day-to-day welfare and the satisfaction of my hedonistic desires. The occasional few coins in the SPCA tin at the local grocer was pretty much the extent of my charitable commitment.

Ord and McCaskill have established a charity fund ( and a non-profit organisation ( offering advice on careers that will enable you to do the most good over a typical 80 000-hour career. They’ve also created the site, which introduces the movement’s philosophy, objectives and guidelines for giving effectively. Included here are suggestions such as using charity evaluators like givewell. org to contribute to effective global health organisations, and to support successful animal welfare projects. rates charities using rational thinking and verifiable metrics the likes of which you would expect from your financial adviser. You wouldn’t invest your hard-earned money in anything about which you weren’t well-informed, and you shouldn’t do so when it comes to charitable giving either.

This approach negates the common and often paralysing concerns around how much of our money will actually be used to help those in need, and whether the programmes we are supporting are actually effective.

Research has shown that there are vast disparities between the effectiveness of charities, making reputable evaluators invaluable resources. One of the EA movement’s aims is to reduce ‘guilt-riddled’ donating. If you don’t feel positive about giving, you probably won’t do it again.

A positive intent example used by McCaskill is that of imagining yourself running into a burning building and saving a child. You’d feel like a true hero, wouldn’t you? According to the philosopher, we have the opportunity to experience this very feeling every year, or even every few months - depending on how much we can afford to give.

It costs approximately R50 000 to (literally) save a child’s life. It’s rather heartbreaking that we can actually put a figure to this. One of the more controversial EA objectives is to replace less effective charitable donations - which are directed toward salient charities only due to their proximity to us - with rational effective decisions driven by data derived from in-depth research. Rather give to Evidence Action’s Deworm the World Initiative than to your local hospice, for example.

I was initially a bit put off by this, as my natural inclination is to help those closest to me and then, where possible, expand my circle of compassion from there. I’m still grappling with the concept, but if we agree that every human life is of equal value, we should surely make the decision that has the most benefit to human life, regardless of who or where that life may be.  Perhaps the fact that we live in South Africa makes this less applicable to us than to those based in Europe or the USA.

McCaskill McCaskill encourages people to start small, but make sure that their efforts are effective. Giving needn’t negatively affect your lifestyle. Rather, it has the power to elicit a sense of joy and purpose that will no doubt see you donating larger amounts soon enough.

This brings us to what is probably the most logical and well thought-out arm of the EA philosophy. Achieve exemplar status by donating what you can while maintaining your lifestyle. The joy in your heart will be palpable, and your improved sense of wellbeing will inspire your friends and family to follow your altruistic path, potentially increasing your charitable impact exponentially.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Then why aren’t we all jumping at the opportunity to do good? Is this evidence of Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory in action? Our genes will be selfish unless it serves them to be altruistic. So we need to view altruism as an evolutionary imperative for the success of our species.

As in the pendulum theory, cultural trends tend to swing from one extreme to the other. We started out in egalitarian societies which, while seemingly utopian, certainly had their limitations.  Modern society has driven us to the antithesis of this, in which we see most interactions as zero sum games. Could the EA movement be the impetus required to shift us gradually and thoughtfully into the synthesis of an evolutionary stable system in which all boats rise on the same tide?

By giving what we can, we have the opportunity to alleviate poverty and suffering on a grand scale while maintaining our lifestyles and finding joy and purpose that inspires others to do the same.

Philanthropists the world over echo one sentiment: giving away their money has brought them joy in far greater orders of magnitude than earning it ever did. If your initial response to this is that it’s easy for these individuals to do and say this because they have millions or even billions to give away, remember that if you earn approximately R500k per annum, you are in the top 1% of earners in the world. In fact, I’d recommend visiting and entering your income to see your ranking in terms of percentage and actual placing.

I for one have definitely run out of excuses to avoid being more charitable, and have set up a small debit order that will hopefully snowball over time. It is my hope that reading this article has inspired the effective altruist within you, too.

By Quentin Crofford


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