The Bystander

Trigger Warning: adolescent violence, deaths, malaria, scrupulosity

We stood by, thirty or forty of us, and watched silently as two kids, one much larger and older-looking than the other, fought. It wasn’t much of a fight, even by high school standards. The larger kid pummeled the smaller kid for what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, he fell. The smaller boy fell, and the older boy continued punching until there was blood everywhere. Finally, he turned around and seemed to stop, before turning back and giving one final, devastating kick. There was a crunching sound.

We stood by and watched, silent, less than 10 feet from the fight. I wanted to run in and pull the older teenager off. I wanted to shout (or at least whisper): Stop! I wanted to run for help, but I didn’t. I could have tried to stop him. I should have tried to stop him. Ultimately I didn’t, and I will remember that for the rest of my life.

I went on to college. There, I learned some semblance of martial arts, such as how to throw a punch and the best ways to block one. I discovered various ways to kick, break an armlock, get out of a chokehold, and fall gracefully. I learned how to protect myself and others.

At the same time, I also increased my knowledge of math, politics, and economics. I learned how to separate signal from the statistical noise and how great international wealth inequality is. I read about developmental economics and randomized control trials (RCTs), and how some interventions are over 100 times more effective at accomplishing the things we want-education, opportunities for all, diminished mortality and reduction of suffering-than others. And somewhere down the line, I learned about the Giving What We Can pledge, a lifetime pledge to give 10% of (pretax) income to the most effective charities.

I also learned about other bystanders in history. I read about how the US government and public denied visas to hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. I studied the Bengal famine of 1974, where over a million people starved to death due to withheld food aid. I pored over text after text on how the UN’s noninvolvement during the Rwandan genocide hastened the death of over 800,000 Tutsis. Reading about the banality and sheer apathy of evil, I always knew, in the back of my mind that I might have done the same thing in their position, that it could have been me.

One of my childhood heroes was John Heinrich Detlev Rabe, a German businessman and registered member of the Nazi Party. During the Nanjing Massacre, Rabe helped to establish the Nanjing Safety Zone, which sheltered approximately 200,000 Chinese people from rape and slaughter during the massacre. Rabe and his zone administrators tried frantically to stop the atrocities. From Wikipedia: “His attempts to appeal to the Japanese by using his Nazi membership credentials only delayed them; but that delay allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to escape. The documentary Nanking credited him for saving the lives of 250,000 Chinese civilians.” By all accounts, John Rabe had previously lived his life as an ordinary businessman, without doing anything special or distinguishing. But when faced with unspeakable horror, he rose up to it. John Rabe was courageous. He was not a bystander.

I used to have this belief, this fantasy, that I could gather up all my courage in a reservoir, or hoard it like Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. That if I never spent any of it, when the truly decisive moments come, I — like John Rabe — will just do what I believe is right. Without hesitation. But in life, in the vast majority of cases, courage does not work in that way. Courage and virtue and compassion and rationality are habits to practice, slowly ingrained over the course of a life.

And in a sense, the idea that we have to wait for “truly decisive moments to come” is a misunderstanding of the world. We live in a crisis situation right now. Over 700 million people live in extreme poverty. Over 5 million children died in 2015, more than half from preventable disease. Malaria alone kills between 400,000 and 800,000 people, most of them children under five years old, every year. Malaria takes a terrible toll, not just in lost lives and productivity, but emotionally, in the fear and hopelessness it visits upon its victims. Malaria is not unstoppable: we know of a cheap, effective way to prevent malaria with long-lasting insecticidal bednets. They cost under $6 to purchase and distribute, and, although there is much uncertainty around these figures, the independent charity evalutor estimates that it costs the Against Malaria Foundation around $3,000 to avert a death from malaria and give someone their life back.

I’ve done extensive research on these numbers and facts, and typed them, and read them again. But it still doesn’t fully resonate with me. Every single death brings with it not only individual pain and familial grief, but the loss of somebody’s hopes and dreams and fears, opportunities dashed in what could have been. Yet it’s easy to get lost in the order of magnitudes and statistics and abstractions, to focus on the data and otherwise numb myself. Perhaps understanding one nation’s experience is more visceral: The WHO estimates that in 2012, malaria caused approximately 180,000 deaths in Nigeria, or roughly 500 a day. Imagine a typical yellow school bus with 20 bus seats filled almost to capacity, three toddlers to a seat, their legs too short to touch the ground. Zoom out a bit. Imagine standing by, just watching, as the bus swerved off a cliff. In quick succession, seven more buses follow.

By GiveWell’s estimates, it will cost less than $1.5 million to save all eight buses.


The final decision was easy: I took the Giving What We Can pledge this New Year, and pledged to donate 10% of my future earnings to the most effective charities. I want to fully join the Giving What We Can and broader “effective altruism” community and work towards training the habits that will make me a better person. What I really like about effective altruism is the full understanding that, to paraphrase a bumper sticker I saw about Christianity in the back of a van once, “[Effective altruism] is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints.” The idea is that although imperfect, our actions can do a lot of good, and we can and should always improve and aim higher. Giving What We Can pledgers include philosophers, nurses, charity workers, techies, economists, doctors, writers and homemakers. In other words, normal people. They are not saints, or perfect, or even (by conventional definitions of the term) necessarily good people. They’re simply trying. You don’t have to be perfect to help many people, and sometimes that’s okay.

As a heavily flawed person, I really appreciate this idea. I’m messy. I can get petty. I make stupid mistakes. I don’t always keep my promises. I’m subconsciously biased in a hundred and one ways. I’m lacking in conscientiousness. I don’t call my parents as often as I should. My diet is not as ethical as I want it to be. I’m a coward. If faced with a similar situation again, I still do not know if this time, I will actually step in to stop the fight.

But at least when it comes to global poverty, I will not, I cannot, just stand by.


As part of a Giving What We Can “pledge drive,” I am taking the pledge along with over a hundred others to start off 2016. You don’t have to be perfect or even change your career. If you want to help us tip the cosmic scales to make the universe just a little bit more fair, and you’re in a position to do so, I will strongly urge you to consider the pledge as well.

Where you can take the pledge online:

Feel free to comment here, email me or message me on Facebook to share your thoughts.

Quoted figures in my article above are about the Against Malaria Foundation:

(However, the pledge itself does not oblige you to give to any particular organization, only the ones that you genuinely believe helps others the most).