If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it
— Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence and Morality (1972)
Imagine you’re crossing a bridge on your way to work. As you reach the middle you hear splashing and a cry for help. There’s a young child in the water!
Glancing around you realise that you can’t see anybody else — if you don’t jump in and pull the child out they’ll drown for sure. This is going to inconvenience you, as you’ll have to go home and change your wet clothes. As soon as this thought crosses your mind you dismiss it of course. What kind of person would let a kid drown to avoid being late to work?
Inconvenience is not an excuse for letting a child die.
You pull the kid out, go home, change clothes and get to work slightly late but feeling fantastic.
The following week you are on the bridge again when you hear splashing. No way, you think, how unlikely. But sure enough there’s a child struggling in the water, calling for help. This time they’re further away though, too far for you to swim in your business shoes and suit.
You are carrying a briefcase though. You realise that the briefcase floats, so throwing it to the child will help them stay above the water and paddle to shore. Glancing down at the case you think for a second about the cost of replacing it and the papers inside. It’s not a really nice briefcase, but along with the contents it’s worth about £50 to you.
Again you shake your head and dismiss the thought — who would let a child die to save £50? You toss the child your briefcase and they make it to the shore.
Cost is not an excuse for letting a child die.
Another week goes by before you find yourself on the bridge again. This time you’re walking with a few of your friends. You’ve been telling them about your strange experiences on the bridge when, sure enough, you hear splashing and cries for help. This time there are five children scattered around the river! You jump straight in and pull one of the kids to shore.
Feeling good about your lack of indecision and moral fortitude you glance up to find your friends still standing on the bridge. They look appropriately concerned and are talking to each other about how awful it is that children drown in rivers, but they aren’t doing anything to help.
You feel frustrated for a moment. Why should I keep saving these drowning children when nobody else is helping? It’s not fair! You don’t mean it though, so you dive back in to pull as many children as you can from the river.
Lack of popular support is not an excuse for letting a child die.
I earn just under the average London salary. Giving What We Can’s ‘How Rich Am I?’ calculator tells me that donating 10% of my income would move me from the richest 1.7% of people in the world to the richest 2.1%. I would barely notice the change, but that money could cure over 4000 children of parasitic worms per year (statistically saving two children’s live).
If you would save a child drowning in a river you need to at least think about how you justify not saving at least some of the thousands of children living in poverty around the world.
I’ll write about the best ways to distribute your resources in Part 2, but if you want to learn more about Effective Altruism right now I recommend Peter Singer’s TED Talk and either GiveWell or Giving What We Can.