Getting inspired by cost-effective giving

post by William_MacAskill · 2013-05-20T04:00:41.000Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · None comments

Today Peter Singer's TED Talk on effective altruism went live. I was asked to post the story of how I got involved with giving on The Life You Can Save website, so thought I'd post it here too.

It began in a graveyard. In May 2009, I first met Toby Ord — in the gardens of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, which double as a place for burying the dead. I'd read Peter Singer's work, and was terribly concerned by the problem of extreme poverty, and was looking for someone who was really taking these idea and putting them into practice. But I'd found that though almost all my philosophical colleagues agreed that Singer's arguments were correct, no-one was really living by them. I'd read on Toby's website that he said he was giving 'the required amount', but I was very sceptical about whether he really was.

In that conversation (“getting a coffee” that lasted for 5 hours), though, he told me about his pledge to give everything he earned above £20 000 per year to the charities that do the most good, and blew my mind.

I remember I expressed visible shock when he first told me. Feeling a bit taken aback, and entirely misunderstanding my reaction, he earnestly explained that the £20 000 figure was a “high bar”, and that really he gave much more than this — living on £11 000, saving £2 000, and donating the rest. He wanted to make sure he didn’t publicly commit to a lower figure, he explained, so that he had some breathing space in case he faced any personal emergencies. But otherwise he would have committed to donating more.

It was at that point that I knew I was dealing with something new.

“Isn’t most aid ineffective?” I asked. “How do you know if it does any good?” He went on to explain to me at length the different metrics for evaluating charity cost-effectiveness, how you can use research from health economics to find out which are the charities that are really having a massive impact. He told me that by donating to the very most cost-effective charities, you can save a life for mere thousands of dollars. It turned out that he’d spent several years researching this question. “Hundreds of lives are on the line,” he told me. “So it’s important to get it right.”

“How did you choose the £20 000 figure?” He acknowledged that it was a little arbitrary. But he thought that it was better to have some fixed amount that he lived on, rather than have to decide every financial transaction on its own merits. He used to agonise over which type of cereal to buy every time he went to the supermarket — is this something that’s worth the extra expense? — and he thought it would be better for his motivation in the long run just to make one commitment and stick with it.

“What about your wife? She’s a doctor, right? So will she be paying the bills?” I really thought I’d got him at this point — easy for him if he’s got a high-earning spouse to live off. But then he explained politely that she was doing the same thing — giving everything about £25,000. After that, I stopped trying to be critical and just accepted his story. He had it all thought out. I started to reflect on whether I could do the same, and what my worries about doing so were, so I asked one last question.

“Don’t you feel like a sucker?”

“No,” he replied. “Actually I think it’s people who aren’t doing this that are the suckers — many people care about global poverty, and want to help, and they’re just not living up to their own values. I used to have a niggling feeling of guilt in the back of my mind — that I should be doing something, even though I wasn’t. But I don’t have that anymore. I’m much happier now.”

From then on, I was on board, and eagerly got involved in helping to set up Giving What We Can, and did quite a lot of the original cost-effectiveness research. I now give 10% of my PhD stipend, have pledged to give everything I earn above £20,000, and want to dedicate my life to doing whatever does the most good.

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