Giving Out of the Goodness of our Brains

(Neha Gupta, IB Year 2)

Say you’ve just gotten off the bus stop, and you’re on your way to school. In a shallow pond beside you, you see a child drowning. Do you jump in after her? Even if you didn’t push her in? Even if it’ll make you miss an important exam? 

Reading this thought experiment in an obscure research paper on moral philosophy, I didn’t understand why it manages to inspire such controversy. The answer seemed obvious: what kind of a person would ignore a drowning child because of the discomfort it causes them? A few sentences later, I took in a sharp breath.

The paper quoted a figure by UNICEF, which claimed that in 2011, 6,900 children died from preventable, poverty-related diseases. It then went on to describe an organization called GiveWell, a non-profit that creates cost-benefit analyses of the work of various charities to determine how effective they are. According to its reports, it takes $3,340 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation to save a life. If you make $200,000 a year, that means for less that 2% of what you earn, you can save a life every year. Suddenly, I realized the gravity of the thought experiment. What does it matter if the children are a couple thousand miles away? What does it matter if there are others who could save them? No, what these numbers are telling us in their cold, hard terms is that every day, every hour, we’re casually walking on as a child drowns.

In 2011, 6,900 children died from preventable, poverty-related diseases.


We’re accustomed to regarding people who donate to the poor with respect, organisations which handle donations are called ‘charities’; giving is considered an act of generosity, something to be held up and admired. But if we stop and think about it for a moment, perhaps that’s not exactly the case. Prejudices and preconceived notions aside, thinking logically, it seems that maybe the idea of not giving is horrifying, that giving is not something we ought to be praised for doing but blamed for not doing. Maybe it’s simply our duty to donate.

And at this point of time, a little part of me couldn’t help but protest, sure, maybe there are people out there desperately in need of help, and maybe it wouldn’t cost me much to give that help, but at the end of the day, whatever happened to the right to free will? If I’m the one the money belongs to, if I’m the one who’s spent the hours and effort in earning it, how can anyone possibly tell me it’s my duty to spend this money on something I don’t want to spend it on?

The idea of not giving is horrifying, that giving is not something we ought to be praised for doing but blamed for not doing.

Well, they could, if that money shouldn’t belong to me in the first place. Consider the ways in which an individual might gain access to wealth. Perhaps they got lucky, were born into an affluent family and inherited a fortune. Or perhaps they weren’t born rich but since they were at least fortunate enough to be afforded an education they managed to secure a well-paying job.  Or maybe they managed to crawl out of the gutter due to their sheer intellect or talent. In each case, luck plays an essential part in the success of these individuals, whether it be the financial status they were born into, or the natural talent they were endowed with. On what grounds is it fair to allow chance to determine who can enjoy three-course meals and who starves? Since the wealth that we’ve acquired is in such a significant manner due to factors external to ourselves I would argue that we have no right to reap the rewards of that wealth. 

Rescue during 2018 Indonesian quake, tsunami

This outlook on giving, fueled not by pity but a rational understanding of the need to give, is what inspired effective altruism, a movement that advocates selflessness with the intention of making a concrete difference. Oftentimes, we are spurred into action by a particularly poignant campaign about child abuse or heartbreaking photographs from the site of the latest earthquake. While donating to these ends is a worthy cause, as William MacAskill, one of the founders of effective altruism, would put it, we can ‘do good better’. Such causes tend to be the ones that most appeal to the general population and are hence usually oversaturated with donations. Instead, the effective altruist would search for the cause which has the greatest impact for every extra dollar given to it, which gets the ‘biggest bang for buck’.

This is where GiveWell comes in so handy. After analyzing gigabytes of data on hundreds of charities, it came to the conclusion that the Against Malaria Foundation is one of the most effective charities out there. The organization provides long-lasting insecticidal nets to populations at high risk of malaria, primarily in Africa. A net costs less that $3. For slightly more than you spend on potato wedges, you could help protect a vulnerable child from deadly disease. Yes, nets that trap mosquitoes aren’t exactly the stuff of heartwarming, tear-jerking tales, but this is precisely what makes effective altruism so powerful: it combines the natural empathy of the heart with the scientific practicality of the mind. 

Seven year old Steven from Zambia, recovered after having received nets

A few centuries ago, slavery was the status quo. No one was blamed for treating human beings as property, no one felt any guilt for doing so; it was simply expected. Just because everyone is doing something doesn’t make it right. Just because no one is doing something doesn’t make it any less crucial. That example at the beginning wasn’t just an abstract thought experiment; those children in the photographs, they are real, this is now. I think it’s time we start to think about the significance of our inaction. It’s time we opened our eyes. It’s time we finally wade in and let our clothes get a little wet.

Click on this link to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation and this one to check out GiveWell. Everyone who edits this paper contributed to the foundation. We hope you do too.

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