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In our first episode, we explore the reasons we have to care about other people, why being more effective is so important, and why helping others also makes our own lives better.
- Jeff McMahan— Moral Philosopher
- Leah Libresco— Statistician and writer
- Michelle Hutchinson— Director of the Institute for Effective Altruism
- Matthieu Ricard— Buddhist Monk, Researcher
Matthieu Ricard: I'm facing two hundred kilometers of the Himalayas. I have a small hermit room, one hermitage that's about nine feet by nine feet with a big window facing the mountains. I have no heating, and I’m fine! Totally fine.
Stephanie Tam: This is Matthieu Ricard, Parisian academic turned Buddhist monk, who authored the book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World.
Matthieu Ricard: I won't say encyclopedic book, but a book that took five years of research to cover all the different topics of altruism.
Stephanie Tam: He’s a supporter of a growing social movement called effective altruism.
Matthieu Ricard: Our vision is very similar and so, yes, so I've been doing intensive research on the the idea of altruism in all possible fields from psychology, history, anthropology, evolution, economy, childhood education — name it. There’s forty-three chapters on the subject.
Stephanie Tam: He’s also — fun fact — been called ‘The Happiest Man in the World’ because of a study on his brain that showed unusually high levels of positive emotion.
Matthieu Ricard: I’m most happy when I'm there looking at the Himalayas, wild animals around, perfect time. So that's how I spend time there, trying to cultivate altruism and compassion.
Stephanie Tam: I think that many of us, at least at some point in our lives, are like Matthieu: we’re trying our best to know what really matters in life, how we fit into the world, and how we can make it a better place.
Sam Deere: In this series, we explore ideas about effective altruism. It’s a way of combining the empathy and compassion that motivate us to do good things, with the evidence and reasoning that helps us do those good things more effectively.
Stephanie Tam: Over three episodes, we take questions that keep us up at night, like — why should we care for distant strangers at the cost of ourselves or our own communities? Or, how can we make sure our donations are doing the most good? — and wrestle with just how hard it is to help in the face of suffering and uncertainty. We enlist experts, from philosophers and statisticians to social workers and practitioners, to find a way forward.
Sam Deere: In our first episode, we start with WHY. Why is helping others important? Why do we need to think hard about our values if we’re going to live up to them? And why is it important to be effective as well as altruistic?
Stephanie Tam: We’ll take you from our conversation with a moral philosopher in the ivory towers of Oxford, England …
Jeff McMahan: Just as we have duties not to harm or kill strangers, so we have duties to benefit and aid strangers …
Stephanie Tam: … to psychological research on the relationship between altruism and happiness …
Matthieu Ricard: It's an intrinsic property of generosity and kindness that there's a component of wellbeing.
Stephanie Tam: … to a Catholic statistician who puts her money where her mouth is in New York.
Leah Libresco: It’s just amazingly cheap to help people, sometimes, right? There are people with enormous need and I can alleviate it because I happen to be lucky enough to be pretty stably well off — and that’s kind of thrilling, right, like — because your money goes so much further abroad, you’re being invited to do an enormous amount of good and that’s exciting, it’s not just this grim obligation, it’s exciting!
Stephanie Tam: And more, in just a minute.
Sam Deere: You’re listening to Doing Good Better, a podcast from the Centre for Effective Altruism, that explores how to combine head and heart to wrestle with how to, well, do good …
Stephanie Tam: …better.
Sam Deere: I’m Sam Deere.
Stephanie Tam: And I’m Stephanie Tam.
Stephanie Tam: Matthieu didn’t always spend his time in the Himalayas. He was born in France in 1946.
Matthieu Ricard: My father was a late philosopher, Jean-François Revel. My mother is a painter.
Stephanie Tam: He himself became a scientist, entering the Pasteur Institute in France for a PhD in cellular genetics.
Matthieu Ricard: So I was doing biology, was very interesting; genetics, fascinating. But somehow, I didn't really feel it was giving me, you know, a sense of how to best lead my life.
Stephanie Tam: He was meeting lots of interesting people in different fields, traveling in culturally elite circles.
Matthieu Ricard: Scientists… my mother being an artist, I met all the famous artists of the time, my father was a philosopher so all the great thinkers. Myself I was involved in classical music so I met many great musicians.
Stephanie Tam: But …
Matthieu Ricard: But I could not see any correlation between being a good pianist, a good philosopher, a good scientist, mathematician and being a good human being. I mean, some were wonderful people, some very difficult ones. You know so, so I was puzzled by this lack of correlation.
Stephanie Tam: And that was a problem for the scientist in him.
Matthieu Ricard: You know scientific investigation after all is about trying to ascertain what is reality, isn't it? To discover new things, to see how things work.
Stephanie Tam: So he did some exploration of his own.
Matthieu Ricard: The main thing was to devote myself to a different kind of investigation. And so when I traveled to the Himalayas and met what you call people of great wisdom and compassion, then I realized that, there you have to have an adequation between what they know, what they teach, and what they are, otherwise it doesn't make sense. But when you see a complete, consistent, words, behavior, and way of thinking — whatever you can guess, for so long — then the only explanation, it comes from a source that is wonderfully altruistic. And there's nothing much in mind but others’ good. It's like a clear sky, you know. There's no clouds anymore, no clouds of selfishness, no clouds of narcissism, no clouds of jealousy, no clouds of arrogance. So this is a clear sky of inner freedom that manifest in ways that are benefiting others, that's all I can say.
Stephanie Tam: And that made a lasting impression on Matthieu’s later interest in the relationship between altruism and happiness.
Matthieu Ricard: So then I felt that you know, pursue the line of rigorous inquiry of science, but apply to the happiness and suffering, selfishness and altruism; so fundamental human values that makes a good life and flourishing life. And I thought that was much more inspiring to dedicate my time early enough so that I don't regret when I’m, you know, at the time of retiring that's, “OK now let's take care of what really matters.” And I never regretted one second that decision, and I'm so glad that I did it when I was twenty-six and not wasting too much time and then, so like that.
Stephanie Tam: So, first things first. What’s this effective altruism about?
Michelle Hutchinson: So I think that at it’s core, effective altruism is really about helping others and helping others more rather than less, because it seems like there are just so many different ways out there that we can help people, and it’s really difficult to know which one to choose.
Stephanie Tam: This is Michelle Hutchinson.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I used to be the executive director of Giving What We Can. And right now I’m trying to set up an institute for effective altruism as part of Oxford University.
Stephanie Tam: Sure, okay. So when you say it’s about helping more people, what do you mean by more — as in more numbers of people, or helping more severe problems? Are we talked intensity or quantity, or … ?
Michelle Hutchinson: I mean both of those things, so helping an individual with a worse problem, rather than a less bad problem. So one comparison that’s sometimes made is between buying guide dogs for blind people in a rich country versus treating trachoma, which is a neglected tropical disease that afflicts a lot of people in really poor countries. So training guide dogs, which is obviously a hugely valuable thing to do, is also quite costly. It costs in the region of $20,000 to train a guide dog from scratch, to help a blind person get around better. Whereas trachoma is actually very cheap to treat; so it’s this horrible disease that means that your eyelids end up turning inwards, so that your eyelashes scratch your cornea, and it eventually results in people going blind. But you can treat it, so that that doesn’t happen, and it only costs about $200 to prevent someone from going blind. And in that case it seems like, actually, with a certain amount of money you can help far more people, and you can also help them in a way that’s much more meaningful to their life. So if you can stop someone from going blind in the first place, that’s going to have a much bigger impact on them than helping them get around using a guide dog, even though the latter obviously is also really important.
Stephanie Tam: Okay, yeah, that’s a very helpful example.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, so I think effective altruism is really about caring about others, both humans and other animals, who can feel pain and suffer just like we can. It’s about having a scientific type of mindset about doing good, really using evidence and reason. And then it’s about taking action, because none of this really matters if we don’t go out into the world and do it.
Jeff McMahan: There is a moral question here, a substantial, serious moral question: how much are we required morally to do, to help people who are in great need? And what are the limits to how much we’re required to do?
Stephanie Tam: This is Jeff McMahan.
Jeff McMahan: I’m a faculty member in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and I work primarily in moral philosophy, political philosophy, and legal philosophy.
Stephanie Tam: On one of the last days of the summer, Sam and I sat down with Jeff in his office overlooking Corpus Christi Quad to ask some big questions.
Stephanie Tam: I think one of the questions we are interested in was why we should care about and help those who are distant from us, and especially when it comes at the cost and comfort and convenience of, potentially, our immediate communities and ourselves.
Jeff McMahan: I guess I would say that one bit of common ground among all the moral theories is that we do have reasons to save people’s lives if we can do so at little cost to ourselves, and this was of course the basis of the famous original argument of Peter Singer’s, the child drowning in the pond …
Sam Deere: Just super quickly, the ‘child drowning in a pond’ analogy is a thought experiment that moral philosopher Peter Singer often uses, which goes like this:
Imagine you’re walking past a pond, and in the pond you spot a small child, out of their depth and about to drown. You’re wearing some nice clothes — let’s say you’re on the way to a wedding or something — and you know that if you wade in to save the child your clothes will be ruined. But you also understand that the loss of your nice clothing is insignificant. So you wade in and save the child’s life. You’re a hero. Peter Singer drew the analogy to show that saving a life by giving away our money, or our time, is very similar. It’s a small cost to ourselves, but it’s insignificant in the scheme of things because we’ve done something so much more important.
Jeff McMahan: … That was something that Peter assumed rightly that everybody would agree on, and that would be true whatever your moral theory is. It seems to me that in many ways the basic commitment to altruism is a component of all moral theories; it’s something that everybody, more or less, agrees about, except for egoists of one sort or another, or nihilists, or whatever. And the challenge is to weigh those reasons against the other reasons that we have, with moral reasons and prudential reasons, given that now we can do so much more.
Stephanie Tam: So, what kind of moral reasons might come into play when we’re thinking about why and whom we should help?
Jeff McMahan: I think it’s obvious that everybody thinks that many of our moral reasons, particularly our moral reasons not to harm people, apply almost equally stringently with respect to total strangers as they do with respect to those near and dear to us. And if that’s true about our essentially negative duties, duties not to harm, not to kill, and so on, it should be true of positive duties as well, that is duties to aid, duties to benefit, and so on. It may not be as strong as our duties to benefit those who are specially related to us, but that’s because in the case of our special relations the two reasons coincide. So I think the paradigm case of a morally significant special relationship is the relation of parent to child; that’s very important. On the other hand, many people attribute great moral significance to relations that seem to me to be insignificant. Physical distance is one. It’s hard for me to see how that could be morally significant. But the important point here is that special relations do come in degrees. And the reasons that arise from special relations do get weaker and weaker as the moral significance of the relation diminishes.
Leah Libresco: Well, so let me give you my slightly more boring philosophical answer, then my more thrilling call-to-arms answer.
Stephanie Tam: This is Leah Libresco.
Leah Libresco: I’m a writer and a statistician. Right now I work for a remittance company called Wave that’s trying to be a for-profit effective altruist group, basically: working on making it so that when people send money back home to East Africa, a lot more of the money ends up with their family as opposed to in fees with middle men.
Stephanie Tam: She has a couple different ways of thinking about who we should care about, and why.
Leah Libresco: One of the first things is just that our communities and our membership in them is a matter of happenstance; it doesn’t really reflect any particular merit of ours born into our own families, or to be surrounded by our particular friends, and we could have just as easily been anyone or anywhere else. And because of that, you know, it’s the luck of the draw that we’ve fallen in with these particular people we love. So who I care for and who has value can’t possibly be a matter of happenstance, and people who are far away who I could have just as easily been one of can’t really matter any less, even if they don’t always have the same emotional heft for me — because I don’t know them — as the people who I happen to have fallen in with, to know and love. That’s the philosophy thing; here’s the more like, I don’t know, pom-poms and fireworks. It’s just amazingly cheap to help people, sometimes right? There are people with enormous need and I can alleviate it because I happen to be lucky enough to be pretty stably well off — and that’s kind of thrilling, right? Like, everyone would get a thrill if you were the person who, like, pushed someone of the way of a car, and they would be like, “I don’t know this guy, like, I’m not sure if I really want to.” I think the thing is that you have that sense of a thrilling opportunity when it comes to effective altruism and to distance charity, that — because your dollars go so much farther abroad — you’re being invited to do an enormous amount of good, and that’s exciting, like, it’s not just like this grim obligation, it’s exciting!
Stephanie Tam: I love that you describe it as a thrilling chance, because I think a lot of people — when they hear about the drowning child analogy — they feel this sort of like, guilt and, like, a sense of like, “Oh, maybe that’s something I should do, but isn’t that great.”
Leah Libresco: I think it's a mistake. It makes more sense to frame it in terms of opportunity, and thrill and gift — that the opportunity to give altruistically is a gift to us — because that matches better what I do value about helping these other people: that they too have this opportunity to be gifts to others, and that there’s something really — again — thrilling about being human and being able to respond to each other’s needs, not something crushing and despairing.
Stephanie Tam: I like this idea of gift, and I think it’s a little related to what you were talking about with luck, too — if I’m getting your, sort of, philosophical argument right — which is essentially that, because there’s nothing that is based on merit, you know, we end up in certain more privileged circumstances; we have a responsibility to help those who gotten a worse luck of the draw, essentially, and alleviate that sort of misfortune — or discrepancy — at least.
Leah Libresco: The other thing about gift in all of this is that, you know, I’m Catholic. What God does for us as Catholics is that God constantly offers us the opportunity to be channels of his grace to help others, and that’s superfluous, it’s always superfluous. We’re only invited as a gift to us.
Stephanie Tam: Yeah, that’s a really interesting kind of flip of the gift-slash-burden of helping; which is, there’s this perception of altruism as selfless, this idea that it’s a mutually exclusive trade-off between our own good and that of stranger. Do you think that it’s true that there’s a way in which our own good, or flourishing, or happiness, or joy — or whatever you want to call it — is actually tied to those to whom we do good, and that altruism might actually be as enriching for those who are not on the receiving end, but also on the giving end?
Leah Libresco: Yeah so I used to care more about this idea of selfless altruism — altruism that goes against my own instincts — before I was a Christian, when I was like, “Oh yeah, like, virtue is only virtue if I don’t enjoy it, like, because if I enjoy it then maybe I’m doing it for my own sake. Like, the best thing is to be kind to someone I hate. And this doesn’t work very well, because first of all it implies that, like, I’d be the most virtuous if I liked no one. Which is — again, just like that despair thing — it’s a weird goal to be aiming at, right? Like, the perfect person, the perfect me, hates everyone… but is kind to them relentlessly.
Stephanie Tam: This idea of altruism as something that might be in one sense, sacrificial and other-oriented — for instance, trying to save someone else from suffering — but was also deeply personally satisfying and ended up improving the helper’s happiness, was something that came up repeatedly in philosophical, religious, and psychological perspectives.
Matthieu Ricard: For instance, the study of Tim Kasser, the psychologist from — he used to be in Rochester…
Stephanie Tam: Kasser investigated the relationship between materialism and happiness. He found consistent evidence that people who prioritized things like fame, wealth, social status, and physical appearance, tended to be less happy and satisfied. They were also more prone to narcissism, insecurity, depression, anxiety, and drug abuse.
Matthieu Ricard: … And then you look at the twenty-five percent, the less materialistic who put more emphasis on quality of human relation, friendship, nature, global issues etc. …
Stephanie Tam: The people who valued those kinds of things experienced greater well-being and life satisfaction — in short, they were happier.
Matthieu Ricard: So he wrote a book called The High Price of Materialism. It’s a small book, which summarizes his research, and that's, you know, very clear case for, you know, we're looking for happiness in the wrong place.
Stephanie Tam: Right, yeah. And how would you define happiness?
Matthieu Ricard: So happiness first is not the endless succession of pleasurable experiences; that would be more a recipe for exhaustion than anything else. It is a way of being it is a way of being; it is a way of being that comes with a cluster of fundamental human qualities. First of all, altruism and compassion, things like inner freedom, inner confidence. So basically it’s a very exceptionally healthy state of mind that gives you the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life. That means you have more sort of, acquired resilience, because somehow you know that you can deal with these ups and downs, so you’re less concerned with yourself and more available to others.
Stephanie Tam: And how about altruism?
Matthieu Ricard: So altruism is the general benevolence — you want the good of others and being the causes of the good of others — and then compassion is a sort of subset of that, that wishes that whenever there is suffering, may the suffering and its cause be removed. So it is a motivation that, as long as you have the capacity to do so, will be followed by action.
Stephanie Tam: And what is the relationship, to you, between altruism and human flourishing or — I guess — the good life, happiness, whatever you want to call it?
Matthieu Ricard: Well, I think they are completely indissociable. The reason is that there cannot be a happy a selfish happiness, it’s a self destructive concept. There’s two reasons for that. The first one is subjective, experiential. If you think “me, me, me” all day long and that's all that matters to you, then you make your life miserable and you make everyone's life miserable, because, you know, the world is not, the the universe is not a mail order catalog for your desires, and — for me — is definitely not centered around you at all.
Stephanie Tam: In other words, even if we build our happiness around our success — whether through careers, relationships, or money — we don’t always get what we want, and to the extent that our happiness and identity depend on getting what we want, we’ll probably be disappointed.
Matthieu Ricard: Second thing: it’s bound to fail, because you, know it, presupposes that you are separate entities and you could possibly, ideally, build your happiness in your little corner without caring for others. So that's not true because we are fundamentally interdependent. And also we know from all the studies that the quality of human relationship is probably the number one factor contributing to happiness.
Stephanie Tam: So we’re relational and dependent, to different degrees, on other people for our wellbeing.
Matthieu Ricard: On the other hand, you know, an altruistic pursuit of happiness is a win-win situation. You really are constantly, you know, open, benevolent, compassionate, altruistic. And so of course others will perceive, that’s a nice person they like to be with. But also you will see, you know, that this is also the most satisfactory state of mind that you can think of. And what it was that I found fascinating when I started collaborating with neuroscience, is you know, when they study positive emotions and with meditators who are trained, you know, in loving kindness and compassion meditation, they found that when they engage in those state is by far the self-induced state of mind that provokes the biggest activation of some areas of the brain connected with positive emotion, wellbeing, you know, the sense of belonging, and stuff like that. So subjectively it is the most satisfactory state of mind, and of course for others it is the best. So it's a win-win situation. Now, some people who would say, “Oh, everything is, in the end, some selfish motivation,” — you know, the universal selfishness — they will use that as an argument to say, “Oh, this is the warm glow. So you’re sometime kind and good to others because it makes you feel good.”
Stephanie Tam: Right, I’ve heard that.
Matthieu Ricard: I wrote this many chapters to debunk that silly hypothesis. Because it goes together, it’s like fire. Fire burns but it makes heat and makes light so it's an intrinsic property of generosity and kindness that there's a component of wellbeing. Now if you were to say you heard about that — of the warm glow — you don’t give a damn about others, and you’re going to do something seemingly generous or seemingly nice to others, without caring for them, because you want to get a warm glow; of course you’re not going to get anything! You’re just going to suffocate in your selfishness.
Stephanie Tam: Okay, so if we generally find that it’s good — for all sorts of reasons, whether personal, philosophical, or religious — to try and help others, I do think it gets trickier when we have limited resources.
Sam Deere: So one of the main claims of effective altruism would be that we have limited resources: we have a finite amount of time on earth, a finite amount of money. We can only spend those resources in the service of certain things. So, operating under those kinds of resource constraints, can be moral prioritizers? Can we say that some ways of helping or some ways of doing good are better than others?
Jeff McMahan: I think we have to weigh our reasons against one another.
Stephanie Tam: That’s moral philosopher Jeff McMahan again.
Jeff McMahan: So it seems very obvious that if I can either save a stranger’s life or give my child a nice lollipop, I must save the stranger’s life. But if I must make possible some kind of beneficial surgery for a stranger or give my child an education — even though an education is not as important as the surgery in itself — the fact that my child is my child may make it permissible for me, or even obligatory for me, to use my resources to give my child an education. These are things that aren’t easy to quantify or weigh against one another.
Sam Deere: While that’s true — many of these trade-offs are extremely difficult to weigh up — I think it’s important to remember that, most of the time, it’s more likely we’re giving up the lollipop rather than our child’s future.
Jeff McMahan: Well, I do think that one kind of trade-off is particularly difficult and that is the trade-off between that, on the one hand, and what philosophers might call perfectionist goods on the other: opera, the arts… But if you ask, you know, if you could have fed some more people but we wouldn’t have the novels of Dostoevsky or George Eliot, that’s more difficult.
Matthieu Ricard: Okay now, let's be practical.
Stephanie Tam: Matthieu Ricard again.
Matthieu Ricard: One day you bring there, I don’t know, the Rockefeller Museum or whichever a museum; at the door of that museum you bring a thousand children. Right there, in front. And then you have a committee that's going to decide today, now: with these children there, are we going to save the children or renovate the museum? Nobody would hesitate a fraction of a second — not even the question, isn't it? It’s simply because somehow, it's far from the eye, far from the heart. The fact that you could see them in front of you, sitting there right in front of the museum, and you have to choose between repaint the museum or save their life? So what you would do? No one in their healthy mind would say we sacrifice the children, of course. So that's a lack of imagination, in a way.
Stephanie Tam: But I don’t think it’s just about a lack of imagination. Distance does make things feel different, doesn’t it? So, how do we negotiate nearby needs and distant demands in practice? Leah Libresco has her own system.
Leah Libresco: When I feel the urge to help someone, and I want to act out of love nearby, I do donate to the person I already know and love, and then I match that donation with a donation to something GiveWell recommends.
Sam Deere: So GiveWell is a charity evaluator. They combine in-depth research to work out how cost-effective it is for people to donate to particular charities. It goes beyond ‘does this charity spend a lot of money on admin’, and instead asks ‘does this charity actually cause good things to happen in the real world?’
Leah Libresco: I don’t actually want to have the practice of saying no to the friends around me all the time; I don’t want to squelch that impulse to love and to care for others. What I want is I want to harness it so that it pulls me onward to people that never make that personal demand of me, whose faces I don’t see; so that this one particular act of love, I’m like, “Oh, right! And if I knew these people, I’d love them too — so let this remind me to act further.”
Stephanie Tam: That’s really cool! And it actually brings us to one of the, I think, contested areas, which is also whether it is, in fact, better to support one charity over another. I think lot of people — probably understandably — find it offensive to be told that they should give their money to one charity that saves hundreds of children from malarial death through bednets, as opposed to, say, one that allows one dying child to visit Disneyland, especially given that many people start and support charities because of the death of a loved one — like, a very specific individual, by a specific disease. I don’t know there’s any easy answer to this, but do you think it’s fair or good to evaluate how much good a charity does based on things like how many lives it saves, or suffering it reduces, and — if so — is there some kind of moral weight to choose charities that are more effective?
Leah Libresco: I think especially the easiest domain to answer that question, is when you get the clipboard people in the streets, any charity you don’t have a personal connection with; when you’re juxtaposing that charity with a more effective one, you should usually pick the more effective one. You should do a little bit of the research — whether it’s enough to trust GiveWell, or more extravagant research of your own — to kind of learn, what is the generic charity where, when I want to do good with money, I have most confidence?
Sam Deere: This is especially relevant, as some social interventions are many times more cost-effective than others.
Leah Libresco: When it comes to making a donation to something where you have a deeply personal connection, or you’re honoring a specific person — you know, I don’t think you can never do that, but I try to keep that as a separate category in my mind, from my more general effective altruist donations, where I think of it as a gift, really, for the person I’m honouring. You can have a more totalising approach to EA — though relatively few people do — where it’s like, don’t buy birthday present for your parents, give that money to malaria. But if you are already in a position where you buy birthday presents or anything else, you know, put the donation to the foundation that chases the disease mother had in that category: it’s a gift to her. But if you’re trying to also kind of donate a certain amount per year to charity, do that with the other bucket.
Matthieu Ricard: I think not to be stuck — it's better not to be stuck in self-centeredness because it narrows your world a lot. It's always “me, me, me” and things which are related to “me, me, me.” So that's the only way, I think, to have this sense of, you know, universal responsibly —that’s the word the Dalai Lama, the term he uses — we have to have this sense of universal responsibility.
Stephanie Tam: In addition to universal responsibility, Matthieu also brought up this notion of sentimentality.
Matthieu Ricard: So if sentimentality comes in the picture, it biases altruism. That means you will not use whatever time, resources, power — anything you have in your hands — in the best possible way for relieving suffering. You are going to be influenced by your reaction to a cute, I don’t know, child that’s just in front of you, or something that moves you. It’s great! Things should move you. But then what about the of hundreds of other children who are going to die because you completely focus on this cute child? How can you possibly not take that into consideration? So sentimentality is just a very sort of raw, basic sort of emotional response to others’ suffering. And if you don't disengage yourself from that — I'm not saying emotion altogether of course, but sentimentality, that means that the bias that comes through that — then you are bound to, of course, prefer all the people that you know, that you have seen, that are cute. So basically, effective altruism is your basic motivation is altruistic; you want to achieve the good of others, you want to remove the suffering of others. Now, simply while being full of compassion, you can have tremendous compassion and emotion about wanting to remove suffering, but not sentimentally. So when you say, “Okay, what is the best way to remove suffering in the biggest possible way, with what I can put it, in terms of time in terms of energy, in terms of capacities, in terms of resources?” So that should be your passion, isn’t it?
Stephanie Tam: Of course, effective altruism is not without its critics.
Jeff McMahan: I think people worry about two things. One is that it’s maximizing.
Sam Deere: That’s moral philosopher Jeff McMahan again. So by maximizing, Jeff means a morality that says you’re required to maximise the amount of happiness you create, even if that means making yourself miserable or putting yourself into poverty. In this sense, there’s an underlying assumption that your personal wellbeing matters no more than anybody else’s in the equation.
Jeff McMahan: And if it’s maximizing it’s not leaving enough room for other things in life that matter, and therefore is a threat to their own wellbeing, a threat to their own autonomy, a threat to what Bernard Williams called their moral integrity.
Stephanie Tam: That is, people’s right to act according to their own values and beliefs.
Jeff McMahan: We haven’t answered, yet, the question, “How much of my time and effort and resources am I morally required to devote to helping other people, as opposed to, for example, doing philosophy and playing squash?” And those questions just haven’t been answered yet. Consequentialism gives an answer …
Sam Deere: So, consequentialism is a moral philosophy that says what makes an action good or bad are its consequences. So to be a good person isn’t just about having good intentions or being virtuous, but about trying to take actions that bring about the best possible outcomes.
Jeff McMahan: … and I’m not persuaded that that’s right, I’m not persuaded that it’s wrong. I just don’t know, and that’s why moral philosophers need to become more engaged with what you’re doing. So I’m not a card-carrying Effective Altruist; I’m a fellow traveller with effective altruism because I think the effective altruism movement has got to be right — that our reasons for helping people throughout the world who are suffering or dying prematurely are much stronger than common sense morality tells us that they are.
Leah Libresco: And it’s easy sometimes to settle for less, we go like, “Well this is such a hard problem, my answer probably won’t be the right one, so why bother?” This is super hard for everyone who works in charity, you know. It takes courage to start the charity, then shut it down, going, like, “You know what? We spent two years on this; we did some good, but we think it would be better to spend your dollars somewhere else now, that we’ve tried this.” That was good to learn, the worst thing to do would be to persist in the error. GiveWell is great about being super-upfront about, yeah, like, “We’d project, like, we’d probably pick different things if we had perfect knowledge, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Stephanie Tam: So, there’s a lot of room for growth, as well as a real potential for joy, in the process of learning, and loving, and learning to love.
Leah Libresco: It’s always important to ask, you know, why we care about saving people from malaria, and it’s because we care about people, right, we’re not just racking up a score against malaria. There should be moments of beauty and of friendship and love within your own life, because we’re saving lives for something, not just for the numbers. And your lives should reflect — because you're also as valuable as the person you are saving — it should reflect what it is you think is wondrous about human life.
Sam Deere: The thing that’s interesting is, how you've had people from very different moral backgrounds, but there's this unifying thing — and I think this is the most important thing that Jeff says — which is, whether you conceive of this as just common sense morality, or whether you look deeply into all of these different moral theories, they all seem to converge on this basic idea that helping others is a really important component of that morality.
Stephanie Tam: Yeah, yeah, I think one of the things that's so awesome about it, too, is this idea that — philosophically, religiously, and also psychologically — all of these things kind of converge…
Sam Deere: Yeah.
Stephanie Tam: … and helping others is not only something that can be a loving, good thing to do, but one that is really enriching and personally satisfying; and I think Matthieu says it's a win-win situation. I actually like Leah's point there, when she was talking about friends who are nearby asking for help, and that being a reminder that, okay, yeah, there are actually people on the other side of the world who don't just, kind of by chance, have the opportunity to ask me for help in the same way. But that our love for those who are close for us can also remind us of the need that is distant from us.
Sam Deere: Yeah. I think that's a really beautiful way of putting it, because you're not denying that that's the case.
Stephanie Tam: Right, right. And I think this is where people get most uncomfortable, and — also speaking personally — I think is when you end up hitting something like, "Oh, are you going to be selfish and save your mother, or are you going to donate that money elsewhere?" And those are really hard issues that…
Sam Deere: Yeah, so I think that's… We don't have to see the effective altruistic approach of thinking as universally as possible as a repudiation of the love that we feel for people who are close to us, and the care that we have and the compassion that we have for people who are in our immediate field of view. We can see that compassion as being, like, "Well, the main reason that these people evoke these feelings of compassion is because I know them, and I know their stories; I'm invested in their lives." But it doesn't mean that they're more or less deserving of compassion than other people. I think there's certainly something to be said for this idea that investing in your own community and your own relationships — just — people can't function without that. I don't think that anyone who's interested in effective altruism says, like, "You should forsake all of your close personal relationships and marginalize yourself in order to promote others." And I think this goes to this concern that… Jeff McMahan called it maximizing; which is basically that you have to, if you're trying to maximize the amount of total happiness, it might be that you can create more happiness by giving away all of your money and making yourself miserable, and it's certainly not clear that that's the best thing to do. What seems more clear to me is that often many of us do have the resources — obviously not all of us, but many of us have the resources — to give away some amount of money, and it really won't affect the quality of our lives at all. But because that money can go to things that are very cheap, like preventing tropical illnesses like malaria; that the amount of good we can do far, far exceeds the small loss to us.
Stephanie Tam: Yeah, yeah. And in that sense it is a very exciting opportunity.
Sam Deere: One point that I think is critical to effective altruism is this idea of operating under resource constraints. The reason that we have to be effective is not because there aren't lots of worthy causes, or that the cause that you want to support isn't worthy. It's that there are, you know, a phenomenal number of worthy causes, but you can only possibly help a very small number of them with your time and with your money. And so effective altruism, I think, is a way of thinking through, "Well, if I only have a certain amount of money, or a certain amount of time, how can I help the most people? How can I do the most good?"
Sam Deere: This has been Doing Good Better, a production of the Centre for Effective Altruism.
Stephanie Tam: Make sure you check out our next episode, where we talk about the importance of using the best available evidence to help us maximize our impact.
Sam Deere: And if you're interested in learning more about how we can focus our desire to help others, check out effectivealtruism.org. You'll find resources on these topics and many more.
Stephanie Tam: Thanks for listening. That's all for now!
Sandrine Chausson: Doing Good Better is a podcast series, co-hosted by Sam Deere and Stephanie Tam, exploring the why, the how, and the what around effective altruism. Our producer is Stephanie Tam and our sound engineer is Dominic Apa; our production assistants are Sandrine Chausson, Jhansi Hoare, and Kiran Lloyd; with help from Sam Deere, Irene Tortajada, and Nikita Patel.