Effective Altruism: Making the Most Good We Can

Effective altruism is not just a concept or a philosophy. It is a life to live; it takes not just empathy and compassion but also wisdom and intelligence. We help within our capacity. We help by strengthening our body, mind, and spirit to gain the resources necessary to create change.

A family of 6 children in Barangay Laiban, Tanay Rizal
A family of 6 children in Barangay Laiban, Tanay Rizal​​

We live in a world where 13,800 children under 5 die daily from poverty and preventable diseases. Each of us might say that there's nothing an ordinary person like us can do to save lives, particularly those out of our reach. We're all just specks of dust within the entire universe anyway, and only the Bill and Melinda Gates of the world have the actual capacity to make the world a better place. Right?

Moral philosopher Peter Singer would beg to disagree, though. Because in reality, we can contribute more today than ever if only we nail the "how" to the "why." His work on effective altruism shows us the incredible power of combining the heart and the head. We use our hearts to feel compassion for others and the need to impact the lives of those in need, but we need our heads to think of the most effective way to do so. Are we helping in the most impactful way we can? Are we choosing the best place to put our money? What matters more than the act and amount of helping is the difference it can make.

Suppose you have PHP 5,000 to spare. You can buy food for the street children you always come across when you go to work or donate it to an organization with an efficient system to educate children in the slums. Where would you want the money to go, and why?

Now you might have the desire to help out. Still, you feel that you're not as financially capable as the wealthy businessmen out there. Singer raises four questions that might help us determine the most effective way to contribute without sacrificing too much of what little we have.

How much of a difference can I make?

In a podcast episode of Philosophize Thiswhich talks about Singer's effective altruism, host Stephen West points out the typical lifestyle of earning more to spend more. After paying all our bills, we buy things we don't need with the extra money left. However, we never really get satisfied because there will always be something new in the consumer market. Applying effective altruism to our lifestyle might help us realize how much of a change we can make to better the world.

Some effective altruists pledge a percentage of their salary to a cause they believe in while committing to a certain amount to live comfortably on. Imagine how much more they can help if their earnings increase but their expenses stay the same? Effective altruism involves calculating our resources to determine the most difference we can make.

Am I expected to abandon my career?

The simple answer is no. Giving children a chance at a better life doesn't require us to leave our family, our careers, or our lives behind to be there and sit with them. In fact, effective altruism can lead us to a fulfilling job where we can find purpose and make the most good we can.

The career we build for ourselves can be a tool to create change if we utilize it with intent. Are you a writer? Great! How can you use that to trigger a movement or change a culture? You're an entrepreneur? Awesome! Who can you employ to benefit the most from your opportunities? What aspect of your career will allow it to make the most impact for the good of the community? The resources your career gives you access to allow you to make the most difference. Helping others doesn't mean sacrificing but sharing what we have with others who don't have enough.

Isn't charity bureaucratic and ineffective anyway?

It's true for some charities, but other organizations effectively fulfill their mission and vision. The key is assessing the charity we want to support. It's unwise to give money to charity without evaluating and understanding where and how they use your money. If, for instance, this charity promises to save kids from hunger, but are their systems effective? Are they maximizing their resources to make the most significant impact?


West gives a great example of a charity that uses 2% of the money donated for administrative costs versus a charity that uses 5% of the donation on operating expenses to help communities fight malaria. Now, it sounds good for the first charity that says they give 98% of the contribution to providing mosquito nets to the beneficiaries. Still, when you look at it closely, you'll realize that the limited budget for administrative costs prevents them from making the most significant impact with their resources. Whereas the second charity, which spends more on administrative expenses, can send teams to the communities to teach the people to make their mosquito nets, a skill that would help them maintain a safe environment against the disease.

Which one do you think is a better charity to give your money to? The charity that promises 98% of the money goes to the beneficiaries or the charity that allocates the budget effectively?

During the Taal Volcano eruption in January 2020, over 235,000 individuals were displaced with over 148,000 relocated to 497 evacuations in Batangas and neighboring towns. In the following days, organizations and private citizens were up in arms to help the affected families by transporting water, food, medicine and truckloads of used clothing.

Tons of used clothing were dumped in different evacuation centers, most of which were unused. Different media outlets urged people to donate usable clothing to evacuees. This created a trail of vehicles arriving and leaving with mostly used clothes that lasted for weeks. In the evacuation centers and with no livelihood, families were hoping for more food and water.

A boy from in one of the evacuation centers during the Taal Erruption in 2020 sitting on top of used clothes donations

Isn't it a burden to give up so much?

Singer addresses this question by sharing the life of the Greek mythology king Sisyphus. Zeus punished Sisyphus by making him roll a boulder up the hill for eternity. Sisyphus forever rolls the boulder up only to come crashing down. Singer compares him to people who keep running on the treadmill of consumerism that doesn't stop making them work harder to get and want more until they are exhausted. Effective altruism overcomes the Sisyphus problem by giving us a basis for living. Helping others and saving people's lives without asking for anything in return make ours worth living.

Effective altruism is not just a concept or a philosophy. It is a life to live; it takes not just empathy and compassion but also wisdom and intelligence. We help within our capacity. We help by strengthening our body, mind, and spirit to gain the resources necessary to create change. It sounds difficult to become an effective altruist with the life many of us are accustomed to, but maybe we could start by asking the same question that West has been asking.

"What's the most good you can do?"


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