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 away a percentage of his banker’s salary. His paycheck ends up with those who need it most, rather than in the Rolex dealerships and salons of questionable virtue it might have reached in the hands of another bank employee.
Alexander works closely with the effective altruist careers advisory service 80,000 Hours (80k). As well as taking its advice on where his money would be best used, he mentors young students and graduates looking to change the world with their careers. 80k have coined a term for what Alexander is doing: “earning to give.” While it’s a common solution, earning to give isn’t the only option 80k recommends. For some graduates, medicine or other conventionally altruistic careers do make sense, and 80k helps such workers maximise their effectiveness.
Another important factor for those earning to give is where their money will best be used. 80k’s sister organisation Giving What We Can conducts cost effectiveness research into seven categories of intervention, each with its own specialised measure. In health, for instance, it studies WHO and Disease Control Priorities Project data to measure how many lost years are averted thanks to a particular project, quantified in daily adjusted life years per $1000.
These ideas are proving increasingly popular. At the time of writing, The Life You Can Save lists 16,163 people as having pledged at least 1-5 per cent of their income to altruistic causes. According to Executive Director Ben Todd, 80k now has over 500 members and a web audience of 8000 a month—not bad for an organisation launched in October 2011.
But isn’t this just short-termism? A quick fix to make an unequal system marginally more equal? Will MacAskill, a philosopher and co-founder of 80k and Giving What You Can, doesn’t think so. “People do worry that… we focus too much on global health,” he says. “I wouldn’t in any way think it’s irrational to focus on less easily quantifiable activities like political change,” but he insists that cost-effective improvements in global health will themselves drive long-term change and the reduction of inequality. Equally important, to me, are the implications of replaceability. If the financial sector were to be filled with altruistic individuals, it would operate fundamentally differently.
Despite this, doesn’t Alexander feel like a mindless provider of money? While he concedes that this issue can arise for mentees, he’s quick to deny it in his case: “I decided to be Superman, and now I’m pursuing being Superman, and it’s awesome.” He ascribes this feeling to the evaluation of his charities, which allows him to see the effects of his actions. This explains the movement’s appeal among philanthropists in the business world: “A lot of people who have been in the investor’s position themselves have thought about [effectiveness], but very few have had the tools [before].”
Earning to give strips away sentimentality to reach the core of what charitable giving should be: a personal, considered and largely selfless pursuit. If nothing else, there’s something to be said for the bragging rights. Says Alexander: “I saw this ad, [saying] that a polio injection can be bought for 30p. That’s three people for a pound. So I thought… if I can get a job, give away 60k of that, that’s 180,000 people a year. Superman couldn’t even hope to do that.”