3 1 What Is Eff ective Altruism? I met Matt Wage in 2009 when he took my Practical Ethics class at Princeton University. In the readings relating to global poverty and what we ought to be doing about it, he found an estimate of how much it costs to save the life of one of the millions of children who die each year from diseases that we can prevent or cure. This led Matt to calculate how many lives he could save, over his lifetime, assuming that he earned an average income and donated 10 percent of it to a highly effective organization, for example, one providing families with bednets to prevent malaria, a major killer of children. He dis- covered that he could, with that level of donation, save about one hundred lives. He thought to himself, “Suppose you see a burning building, and you run through the flames and kick a door open, and let one hundred people out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. And I could do as much good as that!” 1 Two years later Matt graduated. His senior thesis received the Philosophy Department’s prize for the best thesis of the year. He was accepted by the University of Oxford for postgraduate study. Many students who major in philosophy dream of an opportunity like that—I know I did—but by then Matt had done a lot of thinking about and discussing with others what career would do the most good. This led him to a very different choice: he took a job on Wall Street, working for an arbitrage trading firm. On a higher income, he
E F F E C T I V E A LT R U I S M 4 would be able to give much more, both as a percentage and in dol- lars, than 10 percent of a professor’s income. One year after graduat- ing, Matt was donating a six-figure sum—roughly half his annual earnings—to highly effective charities. He was on the way to saving a hundred lives, not over his entire career but within the first year or two of his working life and every year thereafter. Matt is an effective altruist. His choice of career is one of several possible ways of being an effective altruist. Effective altruists do things like the following: • Living modestly and donating a large part of their income— often much more than the traditional tenth, or tithe—to the most effective charities; • Researching and discussing with others which charities are the most effective or drawing on research done by other indepen- dent evaluators; • Choosing the career in which they can earn most, not in order to be able to live affluently but so that they can do more good; • Talking to others, in person or online, about giving, so that the idea of effective altruism will spread; • Giving part of their body—blood, bone marrow, or even a kidney—to a stranger. In the following chapters, we will meet people who have done these things.
- Spring '19
- Hassan Kasfy