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How Philosophy Made My Life Awesome

By Ben S. Kuhn

It’s rare that one has the chance to watch the birth of a social movement up close. But for the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to do just that. I first heard of what we now call “effective altruism” in high school, when Peter Singer came to speak at my school. I listened to his now-famous “child drowning in the pond” thought experiment:

“Imagine you’re walking to work, wearing a new $500 suit. You pass by a pond and see a small child drowning in it. You could jump into the pond and save the child, but it would ruin your new suit with water damage. What should you do?”

Predictably, we answered that we should save the child, no matter about the suit.

“But it turns out this trade-off happens all the time. The child may not be in front of you, but a $500 donation to charity can save a child's life in Africa. Does it really matter where they are physically located? Or is it just as morally important to save someone in Africa as in the U.S.?” Professor Singer concluded that morally, we ought to donate some significant part of our income to charity.

“That’s interesting,” I thought, and proceeded not to think about it for two years. He couldn’t seriously expect people to just give away a bunch of their money. That would be crazy! So he must have been wrong. And nobody would frown on you for failing to donate like they would for not jumping in the pond.

Still, though, the possibility that he might be right nagged at me. In moral debates with friends, I would sometimes take Singer’s position just to play devil’s advocate, and it was surprisingly easy to argue. At the same time, I found GiveWell’s charity evaluation research, demonstrating that it was actually possible to find organizations as effective as Singer’s suggestion of saving a life per $500. I got a job programming and learned for the first time what it was like to have extra money. (Shortly afterwards, of course, I unlearned this when I started paying tuition.)

Then I met Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise, living proof that following Singer’s suggestion was not only possible, but fun, and required vastly less sacrifice than I thought. Jeff is a programmer at Google and Julia is a social worker; in 2012 they lived on $11,000 and donated $50,000. And yet they’re none the worse for it. Jeff is still a contra dance musician and caller; Julia can still write, go to museums and art galleries and concerts. And they’re still able to host potluck dinners for other local folks who share their ideals—effective altruists, as the movement has come to be called.

Some effective altruists, like Julia and Jeff, earn a lot of money and donate it. Others, like GiveWell's researchers, work on finding the best charities to donate to so that those donations have the greatest impact. Still others, like Peter Singer and his philosophical descendants, work on advocacy and outreach: spreading the ideas behind effective altruism and showing that anyone can make a huge difference by thinking about the best possible ways to spend their time or money. None of these people are crushed under the financial or personal burden of helping others. They’re all remarkably happy, and they live just like anyone else—except for the part where they save tens or hundreds of lives each year.

Meeting all these people was what convinced me that effective altruism is a viable thing to do with one’s life. Julia and Jeff are living well, having fun, and, of course, doing an enormous amount of good (their donations to the Against Malaria Foundation alone have saved upwards of 35 lives over the past three years). Since then, I’ve been trying to do more altruism myself through donating, writing about it, and running a campus outreach group, Harvard High-Impact Philanthropy, which brings in a series of speakers to discuss effective altruism.

Effective altruism is one of the most exciting, challenging, motivating and fulfilling things to spend your life on. I think GiveWell’s co-founder, Holden Karnofsky, put it best:

“Trying to maximize the good I accomplish with both my hours and my dollars is an intellectually engaging challenge. It makes my life feel more meaningful and more important. It’s a way of trying to have an impact and significance beyond my daily experience.”

This is what motivates effective altruists. It’s not some masochistic desire for self-sacrifice or a way of assuaging the guilt of privilege. It’s a genuine excitement that we have the ability to do so much to improve the world, and a desire to make the absolute most of it that we can.

Ben S. Kuhn ’15 is a mathematics concentrator in Eliot House.

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