What Inspired Sam Harris to Donate to Effective Charity?

In episode #44 of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris spoke with Oxford philosopher William MacAskill about effective altruism, moral illusions, existential risk, and other topics.

Here’s a transcript of Sam Harris’ reflections after his conversation with Will, which inspired him to donate $3500 each month to the highest-rated charity by GiveWell.

“More or less all I do now is talk about ideas and write about ideas, and try to oppose bad ones with good ones. And I’m constantly making arguments and exploring issues for the purpose of changing people’s beliefs and either solidifying or changing my own in the process. But far too often the real world consequences of changing a person’s mind aren’t obvious.

If I convince you that there’s more of a conflict between science and religion than you realized or that Islam needs to reform in a way that Mormonism doesn’t, or that free will is an illusion, or that artificial intelligence will pose special dangers in the future, there often isn’t a clear course of action to take. If I convince you of any of those things, what are you going to do differently tomorrow? The best I can hope for, as a result of this kind of work, is that you’ll think and speak differently about these issues, and that this will gradually change the world we are living in.

But from time to time one finds a topic where a good argument can lead directly to action. In fact, in certain cases accepting the argument or realizing that you don’t have a counterargument demands action. And Will has got one of these topics in hand, and he’s just hammering away on it. And the effective altruism movement, which he essentially started with a friend, is doing something very interesting.

Now, I’ve obviously thought about these issues before, and giving money to worthy causes is something I’ve been doing for a very long time. But I’ve never been especially systematic about it. And I’ve never been satisfied with the relationship between my behavior and my ethical philosophy.

As I said in this podcast, I don’t think there’s a great argument against Peter Singer’s framing of the issue, where all of us, by virtue of not giving almost all of our wealth away, are essentially standing by a shallow pond, watching yet another child die because we don’t want to get our clothes wet. I’m convinced that the basic analogy is sound.

The most that I can say, I think, is that this isn’t the whole story. And that this negative judgement about our inaction leaves something out of the picture. But I’m not convinced that it leaves so much out that the basic claim is false. It clearly isn’t false.

Every day each of us spends time and money on our less than necessary aims in a world where millions of people through no fault of their own are suffering the worst forms of deprivation — deprivation, which, if it were ever to appear directly on your doorstep, so that you couldn’t ignore it, would demand a response.

For instance, I just spent $25 on lunch in a restaurant, and this was after doing a podcast with Will. Now, was this lunch essential to my survival? No. Was it essential for me to eat out at a restaurant to pursue some economic end that would allow me to help the poorest people on Earth in a way that I couldn’t otherwise? No. I just felt like eating out. When I could have eaten home far more cheaply and probably sent $23 to some worthy charity.

On this analysis, I may not be exactly the same as a person who just watched a child drown in a shallow pond, but I’m not entirely different either. Only the lack of salience, that Will and I spoke about, accounts for that difference. It’s only because the misery and death of people far away from me hasn’t been made sufficiently vivid, so that I can no longer ignore it. And I have collaborated in that failure of advertising by deciding not to pay as much attention to it, as I might. Certainly not so much that it provokes a crisis, where I feel myself always standing by the pond, watching another child drown.

I don’t really have an argument against this bleak picture, apart from from saying something else, which is [that] I want to live in a world in where restaurants that serve good food exist, and I also want to eat in them. And I think we have to get to a future which such abundance is the common inheritance of all humanity.

In this light, there is something merely paralyzing about Singer’s analysis. I know he doesn’t mean it to be that way, but there is no way that you can or will live up to its implications, and yet you will come away feeling that you should. So if you’re philosophically and ethically sensitive and you go down this path with Singer, you’ll probably still live more or less the way you want, but you’ll periodically feel like a total hypocrite.

Now, Will’s emphasis on the opportunity of giving cuts through this. Forget about measuring yourself against a standard of perfection, and just realize that by dint of sheer good luck you get to do tremendous good in this world whenever you want. Today you could rescue a child from a burning building. You really can. This isn’t merely a metaphor. You can save a life today or over the course of the next year. A life that would otherwise not be saved, but for your action.

So forget about the lives that you’re not saving or didn’t save yesterday when you were just playing with your kids at the beach. You want to live in a world where you get to play with your kids at the beach, but you also get to rescue someone else’s kid from a burning building, from malaria or cholera, or a civil war. You get to do that.

So I want to translate this insight into action and save a life through the podcast every month, just systematically — month after month. Now, the current estimate of what it takes to do this is $3500. So each month the first $3500 that comes into the podcast will go directly to the #1 rated charity at GiveWell.org. And this is currently the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes the bednets, that Will and I were talking about.

Somewhere in the range of 400 000 to 800 000 people die every year from malaria. The majority are children and pregnant mothers. In fact, according to UNICEF, children under five represent 78% of the deaths from malaria. Something like 1200 die a day from this disease. This a very good thing to prevent, obviously.

So thank you, Will! Your philosophizing is having a tangible effect on the world. You are the proximate cause of this change in my behavior. And now through this podcast, no matter how ineffectual or frustrating the conversations are, and there have been a few that have been just pure pain, every month I get to rush into a burning building and save a life. Which is awesome.”

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