Effective Altruists Are Changing the World With Philosophy

Jakub Ferencik
Oct 25, 2018 · 7 min read

‘Numbers turned me into an altruist. When I learned that I could spend my exorbitant monthly gym membership (I don’t even want to tell you how much it cost) on curing blindness instead, the only thought I had was, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this all along?’ That question changed my life forever. I rethought all my financial priorities. Because sentimentalism had ruled my charitable choices up to that point, Effective Altruism was like a beam of clarity’ ”

— Rachel Maley, a Chicago based pianist (The Life You Can Save, 88).


Stories on Giving, Is It Bragging?

Many of you reading this probably give money and time already. A lot of people don’t tend to talk about it. Peter Singer, however, awoke me to the reality that I could be doing so much more. One of the ways in which we can do more is if we are vocal about our spendings and how much we choose to give.

This is where people tend to say that “your heart is not in the right place if you tell people about the amount you give away.” There is a serious misconception about this idea of boasting. I don’t plan on publicly stating how much I plan on giving every time I get the chance to. Nor do I plan to speak about specific figures on this blog.

The difference between someone who boasts and someone who does it for encouraging others is that the man that boasts does it to get a certain societal standing because of his so-called generosity. The person who does it to encourage the people around him to do the same does it literally just for that same reason: so that others would feel compelled to give more. People that are young need money. They need money for education, rent, food, to start families. There’s never enough resources for us young people. If someone that does not have a lot of money and has his whole life in front of him (such as the examples I am about to give), can give away money. Why can’t someone else?

Effective Altruism

Peter Singer (in the picture above) explains in his book, The Life You Can Save that Effective Altruists are:

“sufficiently concerned about the welfare of others to make meaningful changes in their lives. Effective altruists donate to charities that, instead of making an emotional appeal to prospective donors, can demonstrate that they will use donations to save lives and reduce suffering in a way that is highly cost-effective. In order to be able to do more good, effective altruists limit their spending or take a different career path so that they will have more to give or will be more useful in some other way. They may also donate blood, stem cells, bone marrows, or a kidney to stranger” (75).

What is the Motivation?

If you are making above $1,800 a year you need to consider how blessed you are.

Almost 7 billion people in the world — today — earn less than that which puts you in the top 10%. I believe it is our moral responsibility to donate money where it can be donated and as efficiently and responsibly as possible, if we have the luxury of Chai Lattes and heaters and a sink from which we can get water from any time of day.

Should we abstain from all sources of pleasure to give as much as possible and become Mother Teresa figures? I am sure there is a lot of benefits to doing that. We could help a lot of people if thousands of people decided to devote their lives to care for the sick.

But what would be the most effective way?

Maybe the best way would be to start that company and spend a lot of resources and time to make it successful so that you could then give as much money as possible. Rather than sell everything you have from the start, try to live intentionally so that you could have enough to spare. It is good to have a long-term perspective, as much as a short-term one.

Singer says that

“You need to dress respectably to get a job, and today you may need a laptop and a smartphone too. The best way of maximizing the amount you can give will depend on your individual circumstances and skills, but trying to live without at least a modest level of comfort and convenience is likely to be counterproductive” (28).

We should consider these important factors as well in giving generously.

Rhema Hokama — A Story to Inspire Generous Living

Rhema Hokama also demonstrates how this is done from a modest income. She is doing her doctorate in English Literature at Harvard University. Her income is comprised of teaching, research stipends, and freelance writing work, which adds up to about $27,000 a year —which is modest for the amount of work she must put into her degree.

Nevertheless, Rhema started by giving 2 percent of her income and has been increasing that percentage over time.

When this book was published, that percentage raised to 5 percent (2015). Rents are very high at Harvard University and so to live within her salary and still have money to give, Rhema rents an apartment just outside Cambridge, Massachusetts (where the University is located), but just close enough to not have to rent a car. Instead, she chooses to walk, bike, or use public transit. She also instead of eating out, as her colleagues tend to, brings food from home.

She says that she reminds herself that her salary is sixteen times the average global income of $1,680 a year, which places her in the world’s richest 4.4 percent. In other words, of the world’s approximately 7.2 billion people, 6.9 billion of them earn less than Rhema does.

Let that sink in.

Her colleagues can’t imagine on living on less than they have (32–3).

I don’t expect the person that already gives intentionally to be challenged. I also think that a lot of you reading this are probably giving deliberately. What I wanted to challenge you within this blog post, is to make sure that it is as public as you would find healthy. Boast about being deliberate, so that others would be encouraged to do the same.

As someone that has written a lot about morality in the past, I wholeheartedly believe that we should not just give, but give vocally and intentionally. This book by Peter Singer has helped me realize the importance.

It’s Time

We should be ready to admit that these things are still an issue. It is hard to come to terms with how unfair the world is that we live in. But that humbles me to the reality of how blessed I — and we — actually am/are.

It is a blessing to be reading and writing every day. As much as I understand why people complaining about the many daily tasks that we have to do, it’s always better to have to finish these 8 assignments by next week, then to have to walk 6 miles to the closest source of clean water. I prefer the former to the latter. I am editing this in a Microeconomics class after a nice vegetarian lunch with some friends. Life isn’t that bad.

On the one hand, this information makes us sad, but then it also helps us put things into perspective. It makes us more productive and hard working. There are things we could be doing that actually change the world. Even if they’re on a smaller scale. That $20 a week could add up to a lot more by the end of the year.

“Discussion . . . is not enough.

What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously. In this circumstance, taking our conclusions seriously is acting upon it . . .

The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.” — Peter Singer

Organizations to Look Out For & Donate to

  • 80,000 Hours (a meta-charity, a charity that evaluates or promotes other charities. Other meta-charities include Giving What We Can, GiveWell, and The Life You Can Save)
  • Innovations for Poverty Action
  • GiveDirectly — clear and specific about what it does with money and conducts rigorous, transparent research to document the impacts of its transfers. The founders worked with independent researchers to conduct a randomized controlled trial and preannounced the study in order to tie their hands and make sure they couldn’t hide any failures. Their vision for the future is to establish cash transfers as the benchmark that donors use to evaluate whether other, more traditional approaches are worth what they cost.
  • Oxfam, UNICEF (both deal with saving children’s lives)
  • (I will add to this list, as I hear about more organizations. Feel free to recommend organizations that you know about as well.)

I am currently reading William MacAskill’s book Doing the Most Good: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference & plan on writing a blog post covering some of his ideas there.


Before you go…

🗣 I love connecting with fellow thinkers. Find me on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or Instagram.

I’d love if you’d share the article on Facebook/TWITTER if you want your friends to benefit from it in some way at all.

I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,

keep reflecting.

The Humanists of Our Generation

Philosophy publications are scarce on Medium. Philosophical minds are scarce in Politics. They are scarce in the public. That has to change. This is a publication that treasures humanists. We question what sort of society we should build for a communal environment to flourish in.

Jakub Ferencik

Written by

Exploring Ethical Living | Not Pretentious | From Slovakia to Portsmouth to Oxford to Canada | Book Reviews on IG: jakubreads | Guitar vids on IG: jakublearns

The Humanists of Our Generation

Philosophy publications are scarce on Medium. Philosophical minds are scarce in Politics. They are scarce in the public. That has to change. This is a publication that treasures humanists. We question what sort of society we should build for a communal environment to flourish in.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade