Saving little Tommy and his three-legged dog, Scout, and other potential realities

Blog 4 pic

(Photo via Steve Granger)

I recently listened to the thought and action provoking conversation between the philosopher, William MacAskill, and author, Sam Harris, on the Waking Up podcast, which I highly recommend (unless, as I ruefully learned, you’re about to go do some back-to-school clothes shopping – you’ll get why shortly).  They discussed arguments for what is called effective altruism.  Effective altruism is the idea that we should apply reason and evidence to maximize our attempts at making the world a better place.

For most of us, we are in the advantageous position to do a great deal of good.  We can save a life right now.  Seriously.  Imagine the story you would have if you were out for a night-on-the-town and you pulled someone away from getting hit by a distracted driver – or the tale you would recite if you ran into a burning building and saved a little child and his three-legged dog.  As MacAskill and Harris conclude, we are in a position to reach out or run in whenever we want!

But then the questions start to roll in.  Who or what organization should we give to?  How much should we give?  How can I truly maximize the good I do?  Luckily the effective altruism movement has answers for these and many more questions: http://www.givewell.org/

The key takeaway for me is this: Giving shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an obligation, but an opportunity.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the “maximize the common good” mindset – where luxury is a sin and being a hypocrite is unavoidable (e.g., getting new clothes when your old ones are perfectly fine!).  Many get paralyzed by this approach.  They turn inward by putting up a wall of distrust and self-preservation.  They lash outward by reproaching those who express benevolent inclinations and dismiss them as virtue signals.  Ultimately, they give less than they would have in hindsight.

Yet it has never been so easy to reach out.  If we simply change how we think and reason about giving, we could do so much more.  That’s why I wanted to share this conversation between MacAskill and Harris, and the idea of effective altruism.  As Harris points out in his postscript, it is not so often that we can share ideas that have such immediate consequences.

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