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by Chris O’Connor

Writer & Mantality Podcast co-host


 

In June 2017 I took The Giving What We Can Pledge, part of the Effective Altruism movement, and committed to giving 10% of my earnings to charity until the day I die. As part of the pledge, I specifically agreed to give to ‘whichever organisations can most effectively use [my donations] to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come.’ I was the 2927th person to take this pledge and have just hit the £10,000 mark. At the time of writing, 5912 people signed up to give at least 10% of their money to charity, and they have pledged over £1.6 billion to the most effective causes by the time they die. This is a movement that I believe can revolutionise the world for the better, and making this decision is one of the most important I have ever made.

Saving A Life

I want you to imagine you are walking on the pavement. You are wearing a brand-new pair of white trainers and a new pair of jeans. As you walk along, you see a young child walking from the pavement, between two parked cars, into a busy road. The child is completely oblivious and you see a car coming down the road in that direction at speed. The vehicle is blinded by the two parked cars on either side of the child. In a few seconds, the child will be out on the road, and there is no way the car will have time to stop. You now hear screaming from the park, as the child’s mother is running towards the road. But she won’t get there in time, only you can. You are confident you have enough time to get there and grab the child, with a second or two to spare. But the child is walking through a pool of muddy water built up over a blocked drain. You might muddy your new trainers and jeans? What do you do?

Well of course you don’t even think about muddying your new shoes and jeans. You dive as quick as you can and grab the child as it is about to emerge between the two cars. A second later, the oncoming car speeds by, unaware of how their life has also been drastically altered. The mother rushes over, grabs the child and hugs them, crying. She thanks you profusely between tears. You have saved the child’s life. The reality of this dawns on you and you feel an incredible sense of having performed an action that really mattered. The family keep in touch and send you a Christmas card every year, and you remember that moment as perhaps the most important thing you have ever done. Your trainers got scuffed in the process, and the stains in the jeans were actually quite hard to get out, but this never really crosses your mind again.

Doing Good Better

The above is based on a famous argument by Peter Singer used to highlight how we morally should save the lives of a stranger when the cost to ourselves is minimal. I remember being very moved by this argument when I came across it in my first year at University and it certainly inspired me to give more. However, Singer’s ask felt overwhelming, and I began to worry that any spending on myself that wasn’t absolutely necessary was unethical. Though I couldn’t argue with the moral principle, Singer was asking something too great of people as the implication was we would all be morally obliged to give up the large majority of our earnings to the worthiest causes. However, in 2016, on episode #044 of the Making Sense podcast, I heard a reframing of this argument in a conversation between philosophers Sam Harris and Will MacAskill. MacAskill presented these same ideas but into a more positive and realistic ask. In 2009 he, alongside philosopher Toby Ord, co-founded Giving What We Can, which asked people to give at least 10% of their earnings to the most effective causes for the rest of their life. This felt like an ask that better took into account human nature, and after a few months of research and thinking it over, I took the pledge in June 2017.

The Reality

There are just under seven hundred million people today who live in extreme poverty, and each year countless millions die of completely treatable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea or pneumonia. Among these deaths are millions of children, and on the day you are reading, another 15,000 children will have died before their 5th birthday of an easily preventable death. This reality is barely reflected in the news yet if ten children die in a plane crash, it would be on TV stations globally. Also, if a fraction of the people who die daily from malaria or diarrhoea were killed in a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster, we would see the images and appeals for aid everywhere. This is a result of how we are wired, with very rare events grabbing our attention and the media network we have created reflecting this by focusing more on them. Effective Altruism aims to bypass our biases in this area and use reason and evidence to find out the most effective ways of doing good.

It is purely by the lottery of birth that I am spared the fate of many in the world, and I have always felt motivated to do what I can to address this wrong. And though we have already made progress in so many areas of wellbeing, there is still a huge amount of work to do. In addition to the above statistics, a third of humanity live under tyrannical regimes, wars still wage, and we face major challenges ahead due to climate change. And right now, all of us are still in the midst of a pandemic, the effects of which will last for decades. All of these issues are areas where Effective Altruism can help. A common misconception is that Effective Altruism is just about giving to the poor, but this is not the case. Effective Altruism Funds is split into four pots: Global Development, Animal Welfare, Long-Term Future and Effective Altruism Infrastructure. I split my giving across these pots respectively with 40% to the first, 18% to the second, 25% to the third and 17% to the final pot. Recent examples of where my money has gone are providing anti-malarial nets, combatting AIDS and tuberculosis, giving money directly to the poorest families in the world, and research into the risks of artificial intelligence.  Another area where my money went, which I think we can all see the value in now, was funding to improve biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. And the movement isn’t just focused on putting a bandage on broken systems – it funds policy research and pushes for systemic change. It isn’t even just concerned with giving. There are other aspects to the movement such as The 80,000 Hours project that looks at how best to spend the hours of your working life to make a difference in the world. It could be by spending those hours impacting lives directly, or it could be by focusing on what you are talented at, earning as much as you can, and donating a large portion of your income.

Thinking back to the child in the above scenario – we have the opportunity to affect the same outcome right now, and not just once. We can do this repeatedly throughout our lives. The current best estimates state that, if given to the most effective charity, it costs around £3,000 to save a life. To date, with the money I have donated, even on a conservative estimate, there is one life alive now that otherwise wouldn’t be. And my £10,000 will soon become £15,000 and then £20,000 and in over twenty years will likely be over £100,000. If you feel powerless as an individual, disillusioned with politics, or overwhelmed by the world’s problems then I would urge you to consider this route.

A New Idea

Effective Altruism is about using reason and evidence to actually do the most good for others, and if you are reading this, it is likely that you fit into the richest 5% in the world. And when we look at how much we give as a nation, it is evident that we can all do more. Looking at per capita private donations as a percentage of GDP, we give just 0.5% in the UK, whereas the United States, for example, gives 2%.  Of this 0.5%, the vast majority is spent on charities which are nowhere near the most effective. This point really matters: the most effective charities are vastly better at doing good than other ones. Research from GiveWell and the GivingMultiplier shows that they can be 100 times more effective. To put that in perspective, you would do more good by giving £100 to an effective charity than £10,000 to a less effective one. This might appear an exaggeration but it is actually what the evidence shows, and if you don’t think a charity can be that ineffective, look up the PlayPump initiative which raised, and subsequently wasted, countless millions because of an emotive pitch. We all have an opportunity to do far better here, and one of the ways the argument was framed to me, that I found very persuasive, was to answer the following question: would you take a ten per cent pay cut to make a real difference in the world?

There is no denying that we have an appetite to do good. The popularity of schemes such as Comic Relief and Children in Need, though I have concerns around them and their effectiveness, shows a significant amount of people are motivated to act to deal with these issues. The problem, as I see it, is one of ideas. If a significant portion of these people were persuaded by the ideas of Effective Altruism, we would see a move towards perhaps the biggest change in global wellbeing in the history of our species. Yet, at the moment we live in a society in which we overly appreciate minute acts of giving and focus more on the giver than on the impact done. As Will MacAskill puts it, in a controversial but excellent article about the Ice Bucket Challenge, this ‘creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.’ This leads to the moral licencing problem, where very small acts of good give us the illusion that we are doing more than we are. I am conscious that guilt is not a strong motivator, and do not intend anyone to feel guilty about their current relationship with charity. In fact, this approach to charity is the status quo, and it would be hard to expect people to think much differently until this changes. Hopefully, articles like this might go some way to changing this thinking, and perhaps someday soon, there will be a major telethon promoting the ideas of Effective Altruism.

As mentioned, the main focus on our charitable giving is how the giver feels, rather than how effective that giving can be. At worst, this could be seen through the lens of virtue signalling, but in most cases, I think it is that the person’s empathetic response to a particular cause or story is what has motivated them.  This might sound good, but the problem is that research into empathy shows that it is not a good foundation for moral decision making. For example, brain scans show that in the case of two people suffering in the same way, your empathetic response is different depending on something as trivial as the football shirt they are wearing. Also, causes which, compared to the problems above, evoke more empathy result in far more giving than they warrant with regards to their effectiveness. Paul Bloom has done some excellent work in this area, but the key takeaway is that rational compassion is far more effective than empathy in improving the lives of those who suffer the most.

For this reason, I rarely give to the sponsored causes that I am often invited to, and if I do, it is never out of the 10% that I set aside for Effective Altruism Funds.  I want to make it clear here that I don’t want to diminish the good work other charities do. Through the arts, I have worked with, promoted, and helped raise awareness of many charities. Occasionally I do give to causes that create an empathetic response in me, or that I have a connection to. For example, I have recently given to dementia causes and a male suicide charity, but I do this out of my remaining 90%, not the 10%. I see this as separate and a reflection that there is still value in having a human connection to a cause and wanting to support it whilst accepting that it isn’t the most effective way of doing good.

Again, I don’t want any of this to come across as judgemental. I wasn’t aware of any of these arguments until around four years ago. If you are someone who regularly gives to charities anyway, you have already done a lot of work to form your identity as an altruist. I hope these ideas are persuasive and will make you consider how you can use that identity to do the most good you can with what you give. As mentioned I thought about these concepts for a few months before I signed the pledge and I fully expect anyone to think this through thoroughly first. Recently I came across a really interesting site called the Giving Multiplier which might help you first explore this concept. The premise is an interesting one; you can give to a charity of your choice but you must also select a super-effective charity and divide your donation between the two, giving at least 10% of your initial donation to the super-effective charity. The site will then add on between 3%-30% of your donation to the super-effective charity, depending on how much you have given. This is currently limited to charities in the United States, but most international charities will be registered there. If these ideas interest you, perhaps this is an avenue to explore with the aim of hopefully taking up the 10% pledge soon.

The Struggles

In the interests of honesty, it is worth noting that I did initially find it difficult. The average annual income of what I earned in the three complete tax years that I have done this was in the lower end of the £20,000’s, and for the majority of this, I was in two overdrafts. I have opted to give my pre-tax income, so the amount I get taxed on after my expenses are deducted, rather than my post-tax amount, as I feel this is a fairer reflection of my earnings. I do this through a mixture of monthly and one off payments once I have a better idea of what I am earning for that tax year. And though I struggled, I had the mindset that this was the same as my rent or bills in that it was a payment that I was committed to making. Again, there were still times where I have had to borrow money, and there were a few occasions where I didn’t have the money to go on certain holidays, and I looked at how much I had donated and imagined the holidays I could have had. However, these thoughts are to be completely expected, and I have still been on some fantastic holidays and, in so many ways, consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people in the world. This leads into one of the many unintended benefits that I have noticed, as this decision has ultimately made me better with my money and more conscious of what I get paid. However, this decision has made me more entrepreneurial in that sense as my income now provides me with an opportunity to do a considerable amount of good. It is also worth mentioning that if my income were to increase drastically, I would most likely increase from 10%. For now though, the 10% works and is also a very realistic target a lot of us could hit.

Sharing Good Ideas

When I first made this decision, I was very concerned about the accusation of virtue signalling. And as mentioned above, the focus here was not on how I felt but on how much good my giving could do. So, I initially decided not to mention it and make it a part of my life that was just for me. However, I then shifted slightly and thought it wise to only say it where relevant, still be cautious about when and where and add it to the ‘About Me’ section of my website. I think both these positions are wrong, and perhaps even selfish. My fear of appearing to be virtue signalling was preventing others from making a decision that will do a massive amount of good and is also extremely rewarding. This is an idea that needs to be spread.

I want to make one thing clear: there is nothing special about me, and this mostly isn’t even something I am conscious of. In fact a strength of making this commitment through monthly Direct Debit’s means it becomes automatic. Through my work, I regularly meet people who have such a vast empathic capacity and emotional energy to give to people and I find myself in awe of them. There are loads of hidden heroes among us and I am regularly inspired by people I have been fortunate enough to work with. But in an ideal world, and hopefully a realistic one, this decision wouldn’t warrant any praise. It would just be the default norm. The intention of this piece is not to virtue signal; in fact, I want to stress that this act should ultimately not even be seen as virtuous. There is nothing extraordinary about this decision. I have just been persuaded by the ideas within this movement and have committed to them. Now it is just something I do. It felt like common sense to me. I hope it does to you too.

On Reflection

I can honestly say I made this decision because the arguments persuaded me, and it changed how I thought about giving, to focus solely on how much good could be done from giving. But I would be lying if I said that there aren’t moments where I feel very moved by the decision I made and the likely real-world outcomes that are out there. I want you to think about the scenario I described at the start where you could save the life of the child about to walk into the road and how amazing that would feel.  As mentioned, there are some unexpected benefits of this decision, but the most rewarding by far is the thought that there are almost certainly people alive now who wouldn’t otherwise be because of the money I have given. And that there could be at least one more every year for the rest of my life. It is an additional benefit I didn’t envisage, and even in my lower moments, it provides an anchor of comfort that gives me a sense of meaning and purpose, something many today feel like they lack. I have had struggles with OCD after a head injury in recent years, thankfully mostly behind me now, but being a part of this movement has given me an unwavering source of strength, even in tougher times. In a world of hyper individualisation, we can forget about the other, especially the invisible other who doesn’t benefit from having the glare of the media on them. But these people are still suffering and still dying. There is an overwhelming amount of preventable suffering in the world at this very moment. In this same moment, we can all do something incredibly powerful and meaningful about that. We can make a massive difference and add a real sense of purpose to our lives.

This is a concept that I want to help normalise, to become part of common-sense morality, and in aid of that aim, I am hoping to encourage three people reading this to take the pledge. I already have one friend, who after a conversation about this movement took a pledge of 5%, but I would love to encourage three others to take the 10% pledge. Please get in touch if you have any questions about the pledge or if you would like to take me up on my offer. I am also trying to distil this idea into a dramatic form, so if any people in my industry would like to discuss this, please also get in touch. I have a few ideas for stories to bring this concept to mainstream attention that I would love to explore.

Finally, I want to express again that this article is not intended as a guilt trip. I am sure many people are quite unaware of this concept. I hope this serves as an introduction to Effective Altruism and my experiences with it. We all have an incredible opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone. If this idea became part of common-sense morality, we would see more good achieved in a short space of time than at any point in human history. I believe that this is possible, and I hope you do too.

Sources

This article owes a lot to the ideas already expressed by Will MacAskill, Peter Singer, Toby Ord and many others. I highly recommend Will MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better, as a starting point if you are interested in this area but I have listed some other useful sources below:

https://www.effectivealtruism.org/doing-good-better/

https://80000hours.org/2020/08/misconceptions-effective-altruism/

https://howrichami.givingwhatwecan.org/how-rich-am-i

https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/charity-comparisons/

https://80000hours.org/

https://givingmultiplier.org/