In defense of a "statistical" life

by GHuang1 min read17th Feb 20211 comment

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I've heard people be quite suspicious of effective altruism lately. In particular, they are suspicious of the cost effectiveness calculations that end up saying bed-nets are the best bang for buck and similar sorts of analyses. I've also heard effective altruists defend this by saying, that's not the only thing we're about! We also care about existential risk, economic growth, political stability!

I'm going to try and defend the "donate to a cost-effective charity" school of effective altruism here. I'm referring to, for example, donating several thousand dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation .

Firstly, most importantly and selfishly, its been good for my soul, its  meaningful. Life can sometimes be joyless. Many of us can go through at least some periods of life terrified and confused.

In the throes of depression, the fact that I've probably donated enough money to save a life, someone, somewhere, gives me a touchstone on meaning. It reconnects me to the world. A life! a real breathing, touching, feeling, laughing, crying life! If I screw everything else up, at least I've given someone out there the chance to live a meaningful life. Funnily enough, thinking about this then makes me feel a bit more confident about myself.

Secondly, I think to donate to a cost-effective charity is not realistically traded off against other causes. Of course, I want widespread economic growth, political stability, stronger communities, existential security, climate change mitigation, closer family bonds and so on. However, they're not really at odds with donating to charity! We can do all those things too! If you donate enough money to save a life, and you have a decent income in the first world, there is no real opportunity cost.

So donate away! It helps you love your own life more, and gives someone else the opportunity to love theirs too. 

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Thanks for writing this! I especially enjoyed the part where you described how donating has given you a sense of purpose and self-worth when things have been difficult for you - I can relate.

I think I have to disagree with your last point, though, because it seems to me that whenever we make a decision to spend resources, we are making a trade off. A donation to an effective global health charity could in fact have gone to a different cause.

I don't think that diminishes how worthwhile any donation is, but I think that the spirit of effective altruism is to keep asking ourselves whether there's something else we could do that would be even better. What do you think?