The Deaths of Effective Altruism


The idea of Singer that excited me was that each of us should give a lot of money to help poor people abroad. His “shallow pond” thought experiment shows why. If you saw a child drowning in a shallow pond, you’d feel obliged to rescue her even if that meant ruining your new shoes. But then, Singer said, you can save the life of a starving child overseas 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 instead of dining out. The logic of your beliefs requires you to send nearly all your money overseas, where it will go farthest to save the most lives. After all, what could we do with our money that’s more important than saving people’s lives?

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

In 1998, I wasn’t ready for extreme sacrifice; but at least, I thought, I could find the charities that save the most lives. I started to build a website (now beyond parody) that would showcase the evidence on the best ways to give—that would show 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 party to mark the millennium, so I saved up my starting-professor’s salary and flew off to Bali. My friend’s bungalow, it turned out, was a crash pad for young people working on aid projects across Indonesia and Malaysia, escaping to Bali to get some New Year’s R&R.

These young aid workers were with Oxfam, Save the Children, some UN organizations. And they were all exhausted. One nut-tan young Dutch fellow told me he slept above the pigs on a remote island and had gotten malaria so many times he’d stop testing. Two weary Brits told of confronting the local toughs they always caught stealing their gear. They all scrubbed up, drank many beers, rested a few days. When we decided to cook a big dinner together, I grabbed my chance for some research.

“Say you had a million dollars,” I asked when they’d 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 to laughter. Out came story after story of the daily frustrations of their jobs. Corrupt local officials, clueless charity bosses, the daily grind of cajoling poor people to try something new without pissing them off. By the time we got to dessert, these good people, devoting their young lives to poverty relief, were talking about lying in bed forlorn some nights, hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.



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