Over 2015 I’ve become increasingly involved with a social movement called Effective Altruism. Inspired by a friend who recently wrote a post about how and why she became an Effective Altruist, I decided to do the same. Let me take you on my whirlwind journey over the last 12 months.
Since late 2012, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place. I didn’t want to just make it a little better, I wanted to go all the way. I decided the best way for me to do that was to finish my degree in geoscience and work my way up through the energy industry, changing the environmental practices from within. I finished in 2014, and was hired straight out of university. My employers told me I could start as soon as I liked. I’d been thinking about going on a volunteer trip for a while, and decided to do that before I started working, as it may be my last chance. I went to Nepal for 5 weeks, where we built a medical centre. My attendance on the trip cost me around $5,000 including flights and expenses.
Some part of me started to feel uncomfortable. Something didn’t seem right. I would be making over $7,000 a month in my new role. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start working straight away and donate my earnings, which would pay for someone else to do the same work, and then some? A lot of people told me I was crazy, and I believed them for a while.
I finally found a TED talk by Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer which really resonated with me. I realised there was a whole community of people who thought as I did, that sometimes the best thing to do is a little unconventional, but that it should still be done.
Wanting to get involved, I sent Peter Singer an email asking how I could. Being such a famous and important man, I never expected a reply. 30 minutes later, for some reason I decided to check my junk mail (which I never did, but now always do). Imagine my surprise when I saw a very prompt email from Singer suggesting that I start up the first Effective Altruism chapter in Adelaide. I was put in touch with Louise Pfeiffer, who had just moved to Adelaide from Melbourne and was involved with the EA chapter there. We quickly got to work and founded The Life You Can Save Adelaide chapter.
What is Effective Altruism?
By now you might be wondering what Effective Altruism actually is. It’s a large and decentralised movement, so the definition varies. But in my mind, an Effective Altruist is someone who:
Is open minded about the most effective ways to do good. Once they find the most effective ways, they do them.
For some, this means aiming to earn a high salary to donate as much of it as they can to the most effective charities and causes. For others, it might be doing direct work for particular causes, such as research into the most effective charities or starting a highly effective non-profit. A common theme is that EAs often pledge to donate a percentage of their income. I myself have pledged 12% of my income, though I hope to give a lot more.
I haven’t pledged higher because some part of me wants to one day start my own company, and potentially make and give even more money. Some donate a kidney to strangers. Zell Kravinsky, who donated a kidney to a stranger, said:
“Statistically, it’s a 1:4000 chance that I will die from the procedure to donate the kidney that I do not even need. Therefore to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means that I value my life 4000 times more than them.”
There are a lot of other considerations which make the calculation less simple than that, such as risk of chronic complications from a kidney donation that don’t lead to death, or the chance that the kidney won’t take. In any case, I haven’t donated my kidney, and I’m not sure that I will. But there are a lot of other ways that people can do good, at significantly less risk to their own safety.
GiveWell is an organisation that rates the effectiveness of charities (often called a ‘meta-charity) and produces a (small) list of the world’s most effective charities. Of those rated so far, the most effective, the Against Malaria Foundation, is considered to be so good that a donation of $3,400 will save 1 life on average. AMF provides anti-malarial bed nets to rural locations to reduce the incidence of malaria.
Over the year we’ve given presentations about Effective Altruism to over 100 people, and will be giving many more in the new year when our Run for Effective Altruism kicks off in April. (If you’re in the Adelaide region and want us to give a presentation to your community group or business, get in touch!) Some people believe that you can’t spend most of your life working for others without being miserable, but I’ve never felt more happy and fulfilled. I paraphrase Charlie Bresler, co-founder of The Life You Can Save here, and it’s a little cheesy, but it’s true.
“The life that I saved was my own.”
So do I regret going to Nepal? It was an incredible experience – I met a lot of great people, learned a lot of things and had a lot of fun. In hindsight, the decision between working and volunteering wouldn’t have been easy. The value was probably more in the personal development side of things than the work I was actually doing, though it was still good and important work. Unfortunately, since I was in Nepal there has been a series of major earthquakes which devastated the country. Many of the buildings in the village where I was working have fallen down or been damaged. While disaster relief is not as effective as some other causes, like poverty relief, due to my high paying job I was able to donate a significant sum to Oxfam who were the most effective charity doing aid in Nepal, and likely did more good through that than if I had returned to help.