The Ethical Imperative of Effective Altruism

Synopsis

In this piece I argue for the ethical imperative of Effective Altruism, by which I mean that I believe we are ethically obligated to donate as much money as one can to the charities which save the most lives per dollar spent. I take a rough figure of $2000 per live saved from GiveWell, and argue that we must always consider this as the benchmark against which all other proposed donations and causes are judged. I then expand this argument to apply not only to charitable donations, but also to all our purchasing decisions. I argue we must seriously consider the lives we could save for every single dollar we spend on anything.

Saving More Lives is Better

How much does it cost to save a life? Many people don’t even like to think about such a question – after all, isn’t it crass and vulgar to put a dollar value on human life? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think it’s positively immoral not to ask this question, and seriously consider the answer. We simply must ask the question of how much it costs to save a life. Why? Basically the argument goes like this:

1) Holding other relevant considerations approximately equal, we ought to take the action that saves more lives over any actions that save fewer lives
2) Donating all one’s charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost will lead to more lives being saved than any other action we could take
3) Therefore, we should donate all our charitable contributions to the charity which saves lives for the lowest cost

Some Responses

There are a lot of ways one could object to this argument. One could debate about the merits of attempting to deal with deeper structural or social problems, rather than donating exclusively to specific global health initiatives. One could question the value of present lives versus future lives, and how that might affect our analysis. One could argue that life itself is not all that matters, and that we also should consider the good being done in improving the quality of life. All of these objections, and many others like them, are completely valid and worthy of discussion and serious consideration. They also, I think, largely miss the point. And what is that point? The point is, whatever else one proposes that we use or money or resources for, whether it be environmental activism or political reform or human rights protection or art preservation or whatever else, we must everywhere and always remember this fact: that every dollar spent on such causes could (in general) have instead been used to save lives. This is a concept called opportunity cost – the forgone benefit that we could have received had we used our resources in another way. In arguing that we ought to donate time or money to a particular cause, we must always and everywhere remember that this represents time and money that could have been used to save lives by instead donating to the most cost-effective charities.

Our Opportunity Cost

So how much does it cost to have a life? GiveWell has some excellent analysis of this question, some of which can be found here. The issue is stupendously complicated, but let me just pick a ballpark figure. Based on the GiveWell data, let’s say that the best charities can save a life for about $2000. Maybe its really $1000, or $5000. And maybe there are other benefits of these programs too besides just saving lives. That’s not really important. The rough figure is what matters, and it seems pretty clear that it is on the order of a few thousand dollars.

So what does that mean? First of all, I think it ought to put a lot of things in perspective. When I’m considering whether to give to an art gallery or an environmental lobby group or to cancer research, I must remember that every $2000 I give is one less life saved. That’s my opportunity cost. So I had better be pretty damn sure that the money I’m donating to this other cause is going to have some very significant impact, if this is to outweigh the forgone benefit of one life saved. This isn’t some abstract intellectual exercise. GiveWell considers all sorts of factors in evaluating charities, including actual on the ground effectiveness and room for more funding. That means, as best as we can tell, you can, in fact, actually┬áincrease the number of lives saved by providing these charities with additional funding, allowing them to expand their operations (e.g. buy more bed nets, disperse more money, fund more deworming programs, etc). I’m not saying here that none of these other causes can ever be worth it. My point is simply that we have an ethical obligation to be aware of what we could be doing with our funds, and what we are giving up when we donate to charities other than the most cost-effective charities.

Doing Both?

But can’t we do both? Can’t we donate, say, to deworming and also to cancer research or greenpeace or whatever else? No, you can’t. At least, not in any meaningful sense. Unless you are someone like Bill Gates, your funds are very limited compared to the capacities of the organizations in question. This means that every dollar you don’t give to the most cost-effective charities is failing to have as much impact as it could. You can’t just pretend that the opportunity cost somehow magically disappears just because you donated some of your money to the more effective charity. That alternative still exists for every single dollar you give away. So you simply cannot ‘do both’. For every dollar, the question is the same: donate to the most effective charities which can save a life for $2000, or donate so some other organisation. Again, I’m not saying that the ‘some other organisation’ option is never the better choice (though I do think it very rarely is). I’m just saying, this is the alternative that we always have. This is the reality we face.

The Ethics of Every Purchase

My argument here, however, does not extend only to our charitable donations. It also can (and I think ought to) be applied to absolutely every purchase decision we ever make. Here is the brute fact: every dollar we spend on anything is one less dollar that could have been spent on GiveWell top charities, saving (something like) one life per $2000 donated. Thus, every single purchase we make is a moral act. Every time we hand over money for anything, we are handing over some part of a chance to save a life. Whenever you see a price tag, you should mentally divide by 2000, because that’s the number of lives you are not saving by buying that thing. How much does a car cost? Several thousand dollars for a used one. That’s a couple of lives right there. How much does it cost to attend a music concert? A hundred dollars? Several of those in a year is maybe a fifth of a life. How much does a cup of coffee cost? A few dollars? How often would you buy one? Ever other day? Every day? That’s some non-trivial fraction of a life. How much does an overseas holiday cost? Several thousand dollars? Another couple of lives. How much do you spend on jewellery? Alcohol? Eating out? Electronics? DVDs? Airfares? Vacations? How much money do you earn every year? How much do you spend in things that you do not really need to get by? How many lives could you have saved, but did not?

Conclusion

I do not paint a very attractive picture here. I’m saying that most of what we spend our money on is frivolous in comparison to the good that we could do by donating this money to the most effective causes. And I don’t mean to put myself on a pedestal. I do try to limit unnecessary purchases. But am I really any better? I doubt it. There are numerous luxuries that I allow myself which I nonetheless don’t really need. But however much of a hypocrite I may be, I don’t think that in any way diminishes our ethical obligation to do better. We simply must do better. Many, many lives depend on it.

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