The Effective Altruism Forum poses this gruesome hypothetical situation. It begins with a new outfit. It was expensive — you’d forked out a significant chunk of your savings to pay for it. You decide to go out for a stroll to show off your lavish ensemble. Unfortunately, your timing is inopportune; no one seems to be out to see it today.
As you pass a pond off to the side of the path, you notice a young child struggling to stay afloat. Upon second glance you see she is alone, she is desperate and she appears to be losing her quiet battle against the water. No one else is around; it is up to you to save this child. Do you jump in the water, ruining your pricey outfit? Of course you do; no suit is more valuable than a child’s life. That child is priceless. The obvious choice, and that which we all would hopefully make, is to jump in without a moment’s hesitation.
Effective altruists might respond: What about the thousands of children around the world losing their battles to malaria? Or those dying of cholera, or another preventable disease? Would you “jump in the water” to save them? Yes, of course.
But wait — we often have the opportunity to do so and so rarely do we take it. “Jumping in the water” in this case might be donating to an anti-malaria foundation, perhaps one that provides mosquito nets to people and prevents numerous deaths. Many people around the world have enough money to spare, and choose to buy a new outfit rather than to “jump in the water.” Is there a difference between the drowning child scenario and this one?
How are these children’s dire situations any different from that of the child in the pond? Why was jumping into the pond such an obvious choice, while making a quick donation to an anti-malaria foundation is not? Sure, plenty of us donate here and there. But for those of us who have more than enough to give, and know that others are suffering, how do we justify turning away from the people whose lives could depend on our money, and spending on a new phone instead? Does differing socioeconomic status or physical location set a quantifiable price on a child’s life?
It would have been an ethical abomination to leave the child to drown in order to preserve the outfit. Is it not so when we have the money to save children and choose to spend it elsewhere? Something about the distance we are from a problem seems to change the way we empathize with it. Effective altruism references this as an example of cognitive dissonance, meaning an inconsistency with our behaviors and thought processes.
There are many variations of the “drowning child” thought experiment. The scenario above strays slightly from the original, which was originally contrived by Peter Singer — a moral philosopher and crusader of the ideas of effective altruism.
Harvard Professor of Psychology Joshua Greene makes similar points in his lecture “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality.” He found quantitative results to support the conclusions made above about human behavior; in one study, more than two-thirds of the respondents said they would feel morally obligated to donate a significant sum of money to poor people suffering the consequences of a recent natural disaster. But when, instead, a friend travels to the country and records the exact same situation going on there, only a third of respondents reported they would be inclined to donate. The gravity of the situation is the same, but in the latter, respondents are farther from it.
For more context, effective altruism is a growing philosophical movement aiming to achieve the most effective giving — which involves gauging the neglect, scale and solubility of various issues. In other words, if a threatening problem has the potential to be amended or even solved, and it does not already receive plenty of attention, it is a cause to which effective altruists will donate. Some of the broad causes highlighted by EA include but are not limited to: existential and global catastrophic risk (including nuclear weapons, climate change, biosecurity and more), animal welfare and global development.
One weighty critique of effective altruism, which followers have addressed since its inception, is the inherent elitist implications behind the movement. Millions of people desperately await each paycheck, working hard to sustain themselves and their families daily, to make life tolerable and maybe even enjoyable from week to week. It is unreasonable to imply that all should be donating to be moral when many in fact cannot.
That said, EA’s mission — to encourage giving by those who can and to optimize the impact of money spent — should be reflected on when possible. The point is to rethink materialism and redirect our expenditures to those who could most benefit from them. It’s a reminder to be kinder, to see all people as valuable and to be more aware of others’ situations.
How can we justify going on with life, buying new clothes and experiences, when that money could go toward an impoverished town’s vaccine supply? We really cannot. Yet most of us do it. I do, to be sure. Rarely, if ever, do people completely deprive themselves to be entirely altruistic. Philosopher Susan Wolfe labeled these theoretical people as “moral saints.” Do they exist, and how do we define them? There are plenty of disputes regarding who determines morality, which is a whole other discussion.
The point at which someone becomes entirely altruistic is fuzzy. For me, the lack of a “finish line” was at first paralyzing. We can donate here and there, we can choose to consume from ethical industries, we can learn about and fundraise for neglected, large and solvable issues. But selflessness is a lifetime commitment, and perhaps we will never perceive the results of our efforts — which is likely what makes giving to a charity, as opposed to saving a drowning person, feel much less instinctual.
Since it’s seemingly impossible to be entirely altruistic — even EA champion Peter Singer buys things for himself — we can at least try to let the philosophy guide us. As the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good”; we are imperfect creatures and will never make progress if we strive for perfection.
Rather than waiting in paralysis to find the blueprint to achieve the unattainable mark of “pure altruist,” we should simply strive to become more altruistic. To consider the lives in other parts of the world equal to those in front of us, and think twice before scrolling past a request for donations, if we have the means.