Alexander had big plans for life after university. Upon completing his engineering degree, he was going to fly out to Africa and build dams. In the end, he took a mergers and acquisitions job in the City. Rather than a story of idealism lost, however, this is one of idealism redirected. Alexander now gives around 50 per cent of his salary to charity, one of the growing number of converts to moral philosophy’s latest revolution: effective altruism.
The Life You Can Save, an organisation founded by Peter Singer and associated with the movement, describes effective altruists as “individuals who devote a significant part of their life to improving the world as effectively as they can.” The movement as a whole seeks to normalise rational and effective giving. Most people would help a struggling individual in their immediate community, or aid a cause because they have a personal reason to support it. Effective altruist organisations create structures to help them combine this gut instinct with reason, applying the same drive to do good on a macro level.
Much of what sets effective altruism apart from other charity is its quantifying of altruistic activity. It emphasises cost effectiveness, and weighs the path one takes against the path one did not.
The problem with Alexander’s first plan was that he wasn’t sure how much good he would actually do. “I remember I had a frank conversation with my brother,” he says. “He wants to be a doctor, and I said, ‘you’re going to be able to do a lot more good than I’m going to be able to.’” His brother confessed to the same fear: “everything I do will be offset by the guy who would have been employed before me.”
What Alexander’s brother was talking about was replaceability: the effective altruist idea that an ethics-based decision about one’s career must factor in the result of not taking a particular job. If Alexander’s brother didn’t become a doctor, some other well-meaning soul would. If Alexander didn’t go off to build his dams, he’d be replaced by another strapping engineer. In real terms, the impact they had would be small.
So Alexander decided to focus on giving…