“Everything sucks is not helpful. The relevant question is what can we do?”
– William MacAskill
As the summer winds down, what is left of the dwindling print press has focused on a positive topic to counter all of the bad news splashed across the headlines. Prominent articles on “altruism” or “the art of doing good” were featured in Time magazine (cover, Aug. 22) and The New Yorker (essay, Aug. 15).
One would think that such a topic would be a straightforward, uplifting examination of individuals and organizations devoted to improving the world. Alas, it turns out that practicing altruism is complicated. When a group of confirmed altruists get together, the debates are intense with conflicting positions.
One reason altruism is getting attention can be traced to the 35-year-old Scottish philosopher, William MacAskill, credited with forming the modern movement on the subject. MacAskill has just published a new book on altruism titled, “What We Owe The Future.” The book is expected to be a best-seller. In the spirit of altruism, all proceeds will go to his organization dedicated to helping others.
MacAskill has spent his life agonizing over the threshold question of how one individual can do the most good for humankind. Years ago, he made his own calculations and determined that he would limit his income to 26,000 pounds ($31,000) each year and would give the rest of his earnings away. Ironically, as his organization called “effective altruism” (EA) has gained a worldwide following, his fund-raising activities far outweigh his income.
Two issues complicate the life of an individual dedicated to altruism. First, how does one determine what activities will actually do the most good? Second, how does one reconcile being an altruist with living a healthy lifestyle, free of angst and depression, in a world so full of inequality, death and destruction?
The first question has caused heated battles within the altruism community. Traditionally, many philanthropists would favor giving to a favorite university, library or local causes in the community. The new view is that effective altruism is evidence-based to determine the best ways of helping others. Under this thesis, local giving may be seen as a personal indulgence to gain recognition rather than true sacrifice for the sake of the world’s neediest.
The modern altruism movement considers all human lives to have equal value. A thousand dollars might buy one scholarship in Pennsylvania, four eye surgeries for children in Portugal or 5,000 doses of deworming medicine in East Africa. When measured in what altruists call “quality-adjusted life years,” the deworming charity was found to be a hundred times more cost-effective than the sight-saving eye surgeries. The Bill Gates foundation has used this approach in its decision to eradicate malaria. It has been determined that the most cost effective way to save human lives, anywhere in the world, is in the manufacture and distribution of insecticide-treated anti-malaria bed nets.
MacAskill and his EA organization have come to favor a breadth of interlocking causes. Fifty percent of its funding goes to global health and development projects with the highest potential to save human life. Ten percent is dedicated to building the movement and for research. Animal welfare is a major issue in the altruism community and receives funding to promote development of alternative proteins to reduce demand for animal products. (Although MacAskill warns that giving to a clean-energy charity will do more good than a lifetime of not eating meat.) Lastly, programs are funded to support the relatively new concern for future existential risks. This includes threats like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics and genetic engineering.
When MacAskill first heard the call for altruism to address long-term risks, he was not sold on the idea. He felt there were too many real problems in the world facing real people to fanaticize about future apocalypses. As the pace of scientific discovery quickened, his views changed. He now believes “the world’s long run fate depends in part on the choices we make in our lifetime.”
This brings us back to MacAskill’s new book, “What We Owe The Future.” It is a polemic on the moral imperative to take all necessary steps to influence the long-term future. He believes that humanity is in the early stages of development with three possible outcomes: extinction, billions of future unhappy lives or billions of future flourishing lives. The prescription for success is not an easy sell. It entails an individual duty to live a life of conscious self-denial along with financial contributions to the causes he champions. The conclusion is that a single person can make a difference in saving lives today and transforming the lives of thousands in the future.
Learning to live a balanced life while serving both present and future humanity is also complicated. MacAskill has undergone his own transformation over the years. Early on, he was often depressed and agonized over small decisions like what products to purchase and where to cut corners to give more of his savings away. Today, he is no longer overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world’s problems. He takes time off to enjoy life and prioritizes sleep, exercise and meditation. MacAskill now believes it is possible to be comfortable and well-rounded while continuing to do the most good.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.