In January, over the past few years, I’ve sometimes written a post about why I’m an effective altruist. Sometimes that went along with the Giving What We Can pledge drive, but the GWWC pledge drive has been deemphasized as effective altruists have learned more about the best ways to do good. But I think January is still a good time to stop and reflect and think about why I’ve chosen the goals that I have.
My husband and I could have saved ten children with our donations this year.
We didn’t end up saving ten children, because we didn’t donate to the Malaria Consortium. Instead, we split our donations between Evidence Action and the Animal Welfare Fund, both of which have results that are harder to easily summarize.
But. We could have saved ten children this year, and we didn’t, because we thought we could outperform saving ten children’s lives.
“Ten” is an interesting number of children. It’s large, but it’s understandable. I’ve seen ten children in a particular location. It’s a small birthday party’s worth of kids. Not quite one a month.
It’s hard to think about hundreds or millions. When I try to think about millions of children, it turns out actually the whole time I was thinking about maybe six. But I can, in fact, wrap my brain around ten.
Next year, we’re aiming to donate fifteen percent of our income instead of ten; by coincidence, that means we would be able to save fifteen children instead of ten. Half a classroom. You’re a hero, if you rescue half a classroom from a fire.
And we can do that next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. My husband will get raises, so we can save more; the low-hanging fruit is (slowly, wonderfully) getting picked, so we can save fewer.
I won’t ever know her name. It’s impossible even in principle to know which person I saved. But somewhere out there in the world there’s a mother kissing her child’s forehead while she tucks them in at night, and if it weren’t for me she would never be able to kiss her child’s forehead again.
When I donated to GiveDirectly, I used to scroll down GiveDirectly Live and take credit for things. A woman got her own house instead of having to live with her abusive cowife, thanks to me. A family has a cow and their two children have milk, thanks to me. A man paid for a dowry and he could get married and they’re very happy together, thanks to me.
I am a very, very privileged person. My husband is a programmer, which makes me one of the richest people on Earth. I don’t mean to deny that. Saving ten lives a year is out of reach for the vast majority of people.
But… I think it’s an important thing to let people know that you don’t have to be a firefighter or a doctor or Spider-man to save a person’s life. The cost to save a person’s life is the same as the cost of a vacation, or a year of Starbucks coffees.
Effective altruists often talk about effective altruism as a sort of obligation, something you have to do or you’ll be a bad person. That isn’t what this post is about. I don’t think there’s anything you have to particularly do with this information. I think the act/omission distinction, or something close to it, is an important part of living sanely in the world. If you’d rather have the vacation, I’m not going to criticize you.
I just… in case you’re feeling like your life is meaningless or worthless, that no one would notice if you died, that you’re going to be born and work some bullshit job and watch a bunch of TV and never leave any mark on anything, that nothing you do matters, that there’s nothing you do that you can really be proud of…
If you make the average American household income and donate ten percent of it, your household can save three children’s lives a year.
Whenever that voice in my head that talks about how I’m a worthless stupid failure who doesn’t deserve to exist gets too loud, I count up the children I’ve saved.
I’m a worthless stupid failure and I’ve saved a dozen kids and nothing and no one will ever be able to take that away from me.
In terms of a purpose in life and a sense of accomplishment, you could do worse.