Helping those who need it

by Aaron Gertler 6 min read27th May 2020No comments

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We all care about others.

This often starts off as a personal matter; we care for family and friends, and for other people to whom we have some connection.

This sort of caring is incredibly important — but it's also possible, and important, to extend our care beyond this.


Imagine a child who wakes up coughing. As the days go on and fluid fills her lungs, it gets harder for her to breathe. She is one of the 150 million children who will get pneumonia in a typical year. Her parents watch anxiously but can't afford treatment.

If you were asked to donate to provide this child with the antibiotics she needs, you might consider the cost of the donation or the track record of the charity involved before deciding. But would you ask about where she lived?

Presumably not. It doesn't seem morally relevant whether she lives in the US, India, or Nigeria. A sick child is a sick child.

The general version of this: People aren't more important just because they live close to us. They may be more salient — we notice them more easily, and we are more likely to want to help them — but people anywhere else in the world matter just as much.


Imagine that the child in the prior example actually lived in the year 2050. She won't be born for a long time. However, you have the opportunity to make a donation now that you are confident will lead to her pneumonia being treated 30 years from now.

Should you be willing to give less than in the previous case, because the good you've done will only be realized in the distant future?

Many of us feel that people matter even if they don't yet exist: for example, we want a good world for our great-great-grandchildren. We may disagree about what the best options are for helping people in the future, or how much we should care about present impact relative to future impact, but we still aim to make decisions while considering their long-term consequences. We want the future to go well for the sake of those who will inhabit it.

(Some people think that our top concern should be ensuring that the long-term future goes well. For more on this viewpoint, see "Introducing longtermism.")


Another way we can extend our caring is to place more value on the welfare of nonhuman animals. While humans differ from other animals in many ways, we also share many similarities; it's hard to tell how we should account for these, since we don't know how many animal species could be capable of experiencing contentment or suffering.

(For more on this topic, see this EA Concepts post or Luke Muehlhauser's report on consciousness and moral patienthood.)

Some researchers study the nature of sentience and gather evidence to better understand what various animals' internal lives might be like. While we remain unsure of how much moral value to place on different animals, it seems clear that we should care a lot about them if they are conscious, and that learning more about this question is extremely important.

Deciding how to help

If we want to decide how best to help, what questions should we ask?

We might start with:

  • How important is the problem?
    • How many people (or nonhuman animals) are affected? For example, we might decide to focus on a health problem that affects lots of people before we move our focus to rarer conditions.
    • How bad is the problem? For example, we might try to end the cruelest farming practices first, before moving on to the ones that cause less suffering.
  • How much can we help?
    • For example, GiveWell conducts cost-effectiveness analyses to estimate the likely impact of many different interventions. Some ways of helping cost much less than others, and no one has infinite money or time, so we can use research to find where our resources go the furthest.
  • What will happen if we don't work on the problem?
    • Are governments, businesses, or nonprofits already making a lot of progress, making it hard to find ways to add more value? Or is the problem not getting the attention it should?
  • How confident are we in our answers to the above questions?
    • For example, do we think that a given intervention is effective because of a single scientific study, or did many different studies all find strong evidence of effectiveness?

Here are some questions that we generally don't think are very important, unless they influence the above questions:

  • Are we personally delivering the help, or are we making it possible for someone else to help?
  • How does the beneficiary differ from ourselves? For example, do they live in a different country or practice a different religion?

We try to be impartial about such questions.

For a practical example, see Founders Pledge's report on how to reduce your carbon impact. The report doesn't place any special importance on people reducing their personal emissions; in fact, it notes that contributing to climate charities is probably much more effective! The focus is on total impact, regardless of whether someone reduces their own carbon footprint or helps others to reduce theirs.

Trying to be impartial doesn't mean that we have to make all our decisions based on simple calculations. We can still care about a variety of other constraints — for example, preferring lower-risk options when possible, or avoiding actions which would violate someone's rights.

And of course, being fully impartial may be impossible for humans: We all have personal biases, and limits to how carefully we can think about our impact. But when we aim to do as much good as we can, we strive for impartiality.

Making difficult tradeoffs

We have limited resources we can use to help others; whomever we choose to help, we are by extension not helping someone else. We can't avoid these trade-offs entirely, but since we can't help everyone, we aim to help as much as possible given our limits.

Perspectives on caring

In these sections of the Handbook, we've shared excerpts from writing that delves deeper into a particular concept, showing how people have applied it in different contexts. All excerpts may have been edited for the Handbook, but the original versions are linked in the titles.

When is your help special? (Julia Wise, 2012)

I've heard the argument that we should "think globally, act locally" because we understand the needs of our own communities best. I'm willing to accept this for some situations.

I think it boils down to where your special help would be useful. If you pass a car accident, yes, your physical presence means you have a unique ability to help.

Likewise, when it comes to personal interactions, people are not interchangeable. Getting a card or letter from a stranger is not as comforting as hearing from someone you love. We evolved to interact with people we know in real life, and this still satisfies us more than some abstract kindness from a stranger.

So recognize the areas where you can be uniquely helpful: being kind with your family and friends. Sudden emergencies where you are physically present. Being a good neighbor.

But here's where I think people go askew with this logic: They feel that financial help should also work this way. After all, don't I understand the needs in my own community better than anyone? So I should fund projects in my own community, and other people should take care of theirs.

But rich people live in communities with other rich people, and poor people live near poor people. The average American probably has several relatives or neighbors who have at least a few thousand dollars in their bank accounts. The average Liberian does not know any such people. When both rich and poor people give in their own communities, the opera gets a lot more funding than the maternal health clinic in Liberia.

[...]

There are good and bad charities working in all parts of the world. Find ones that will use your money well, and that are doing important work. (And if you live in a rich part of the world, the greatest need probably isn't local.) Then donate money, which will help more than your blankets, old clothes, or volunteering.

And then, if you want, find someone you love and give them the hug or the kind word that only you can give.

We are in triage every second of every day (Holly Elmore, 2016)

There are millions of people around the world dying of entirely preventable causes. Why should it make any difference that they aren't in front of us? You know they are there. They know the suffering they feel. Poverty is a major culprit, as are neglected tropical diseases that could be cured for pennies per person per year. Money that you won't even miss could be saving lives right now if you put it to that purpose instead of, say, home improvement or collecting action figures. Every decision we make bears on the lives of the myriad others we might be able to help.

We are always in triage. I fervently hope that one day we will be able to save everyone. In the meantime, it is irresponsible to pretend that we aren't making life and death decisions with the allocation of our resources. Pretending there is no choice only makes our decisions worse.

Excerpt from Strangers Drowning (Larissa MacFarquhar, 2016)

This passage describes a few specific individuals, only some of whom are involved in effective altruism. However, MacFarquhar's description of strangers feeling like one's "own people" resonates with many of us. We've opted to include it in the Handbook as one of many ways to frame the movement's ideas.

In wartime, the line between family and strangers grows faint, as the duty to one's own enlarges to encompass all the people who are on the same side. It's usually assumed that the reason do-gooders are so rare is that it's human nature to care only for your own. There's some truth to this, of course. But it's also true that many people care only for their own because they believe it's human nature to do so. When expectations change, as they do in wartime, behavior changes, too.

[...]

This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers — they always feel that strangers, like compatriots in war, are their own people. They know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.

Reasons and Persons (Derek Parfit, 1984)

Suppose that I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood. A hundred years later this glass wounds a child. My act harms this child. If I had safely buried the glass, this child would have walked through the wood unharmed.

Does it make a moral difference that the child whom I harm does not now exist?

No Man Is an Island (John Donne, 1624)

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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