I hope you have all been well — our lives are growing shorter by the minute, it would be a shame to waste them suffering or perpetuating suffering.
Many of you are now in self-isolation, lock-down or quarantine and might still be adjusting to the situation. If you are finding yourself with more time than you know what to do with, I have a book recommendation for you:
- The Life You Can Save by the brilliant Peter Singer.
Peter has been regarded as the most influential philosopher in the world and is known for spearheading the movement known as effective altruism. I have written about it before, but effective altruism is exactly what it sounds like — it is about doing good the best we can.
Using reason and evidence to alleviate the suffering in this world.
In his TED talk, Peter describes it as combining the heart and the head.
If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you do (it's about twenty minutes).
Did you know that the UN's Sustainable Development Goals laid out in 2015 include "ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere" by 2030?
In Steven Pinker's incredible 2018 best-seller Enlightenment Now he remarks that if news outlets wanted to they could run the headline Number of people living in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 yesterday every day for the last twenty-five years.
This is a tractable problem.
In our lifetimes we could very well see a day where extreme poverty is no more.
This is the point in Peter's book The Life You Can Save:
- Poverty and the raft of other problems we face as humanity are solvable
- We can and should take steps to address them.
Once again, here is the link to download the book. It is completely free.
You can get it as an eBook or an audiobook.
Better yet, the audiobook is narrated by a crew of celebrities including the cast of the popular television series The Good Place as well as the marvellous Stephen Fry.
One of my aims of writing this letter is to convince you — dear readers — to pick up this book. If a single one of you decides to read it, this letter has been a resounding success.
Earlier this week, I received this letter in my email inbox.
Named after the book, The Life You Can Save is a not-for-profit organisation that makes it easy to give to effective charities — that is; charities that make the most impact per dollar donated.
The money raised by Peter Singer's speaking and writing is almost entirely directed towards these causes.
Recently he was set to tour Australia and New Zealand with the company Think Inc — but because of the pandemic we are in — it was postponed to next year.
A side effect of this is that the expected donations to many of these effective charities have taken a sizable hit.
To offset this, a group of generous supporters has offered to match all donations given until the 19th of April 2020, up to A$60,000.
When it hit my inbox I opportunistically jumped on the opportunity and I am inviting you to join me. Two for the price of one — it is an effective giving bargain sale!
Another aim of this letter is to help you all develop the confidence to give more of what you earn, starting with this fundraiser.
If a single one of you donates any amount, this letter has been a resounding success and the time and energy I have put into writing it has been well worth it.
Click here to donate to The Life You Can Save and have you impact doubled!*
*Offer valid until the 19/4/2020.
Converting dollars to happiness
We know money isn't happiness. It is a category error. There are an abundance cases visible to the public, of the extraordinarily depressed among the rich and famous — and we may have reason to believe that the very happiest among us live in conditions of relative material poverty.
Nonetheless, it would obviously be wrong to say that there wasn't a connection. At the very least, before happiness we need to be breathing — food, clean water and sanitary conditions are needed to sustain life and money can help us acquire them. If we can take these things for granted, we are happier than if we have to devote a corner of our minds to constant worrying. If we can absorb an unexpected cost, if we can reliably receive treatment when we fall ill, it seems to me that we really are in a better situation than otherwise.
Money enables us to better solve our problems by tapping into the knowledge, labour and resources of others. When there are concrete tractable issues that obstruct us from being at ease in the world, material wealth is an effective panacea to our suffering.
In regards to the abstract problem of "being happy" itself, it doesn't work. Happiness cannot be a matter of the number that shows up when you open your bank account or how heavy your wallet is. I do not see how simply increasing personal wealth indefinitely can be a path to fulfilment.
I remember seeing a TED talk a long time ago, that looked at how wealth and happiness were connected. It wasn't a linear relationship, but a flattening curve.
I hope in these COVID-19 ridden times, you are all familiar with what it means for a curve to flatten.
When we have no wealth: we are cold, starving and probably sick — a little money goes a long way.
In poverty, increasing our cash flow is a reliable way to enable us to address the causes of our suffering.
But as we grow in material wealth, the marginal benefit of each extra dollar we earn seems to lower.
Think about this; if you are starving how much of a difference will a sandwich make? How much will two make? How about three? How much difference will a thousand make?
If you are cold, how much of a difference will a jacket make? How much will two make? Would a hundred jackets keep you a hundred times warmer than one?
You might argue that as you increase your wealth, you run into different problems and that money will help at every stage — but not necessarily.
Most of the problems we tend to encounter in life aren't solved simply by throwing money in their direction, and wealth can have its own problems — like the continual effort to safeguard and maintain it.
The more wealth you have, the less benefit you will derive from additional wealth.
Given this is the case, surely it makes sense to give it away?
The very same dollar makes that little difference in our lives can make a world of difference in another.
To make this more obvious, the line for extreme poverty is defined on those living on US$1.90 a day.
This is adjusted for differences in currencies, meaning it is people that live of what you or I could buy at the supermarkets for that amount.
When you think about how much an additional dollar will make to you, and compare it to how much it would make to them it becomes clear: effective giving is a bargain.
How can we afford not to?
In fact, Esha Thaper argues that long before we are considered wealthy, donating our wealth to worthy causes can increase our happiness.
In her 2017 short piece she goes as far to describe generosity as a "quick pick-me-up" citing the Cleaveland Clinic.
Common Objections to Giving
Do you still have reservations toward giving away the fruits of your labour? Is fear holding you back?
Happily, the third chapter of The Life You Can Save addresses the reasons that people give for not giving.
I will briefly go through some of the objections and responses to them:
"There is no black and white universal code for everyone. It is better to accept that everyone has a different view on the issue, and all people are entitled to follow their own beliefs."
This is the demon of moral relativism pure and simple. It holds no credence. There is cause-and-effect in this world and the consequences of our actions ultimately have nothing to do with our beliefs — which are just guesses as to what they are.
Peter asks us to imagine someone holding down a cats paw on a hot electric grill. The cat squeals in pain. When they comment on how fun it is to watch the cat suffer, we don't respond "oh well, you are entitled to follow your beliefs".
"If someone wants to buy a new car, they should. If someone wants to redecorate their house they should, and if they need a suit, get it. They work for their money and they have the right to spend it on themselves."
On the point of fairness, many aren't even privileged to be born into social and economic circumstances that enable them to be able to work hard and achieve a comfortable standard of living. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimates that "social capital" is responsible for at least 90% of what people earn in wealthy societies. This includes having an efficient banking system, a police force, education and courts as well as infrastructure as roads and a reliable power supply.
When looking at all the factors in place that enable us to live as we do, it becomes harder to justify our spending by saying "we earned it".
Most of the poor work just as hard as any of us and in worse conditions. Many of them to create products that are used widely across the Western world.
Even if we established we had the right to spend money as we please, it doesn't settle the question how what we should do.
As Peter has put it, you may have a right to spend your weekend playing video games, but it can still be true that you ought to spend the weekend visiting your sick mother.
"We are certainly responsible for evils we inflict on others, no matter where, and we owe those people compensation... Nevertheless, I have seen no plausible argument that we owe something, as a matter of general duty, to those whom we have done nothing wrong."
This is simply callousness. I'm not sure I am a fan of the concept of "owing" or "responsibility", but there are people who could be helped a lot with only a little of what we have.
Peter often invokes the following analogy:
Imagine walking to work, in your business attire and passing by a child drowning in a very shallow pond. You could very easily jump in and save them, but then you would get your expensive clothes wet, and you would also be running a little late to work. Should you?
This sounds loaded, but these low hanging fruits are where we start to gain clarity.
Are we responsible for this child? Have we inflicted any evil on them? Have we done them any wrong?
Does it follow that we shouldn't help them?
"We are a generous nation. Our government is already giving more than our share of foreign aid, and we are paying for that through our taxes. Isn't that sufficient?"
This is simply untrue.
We give next to nothing to foreign aid.
As of 2018, the most generous countries in the world with foreign aid were Sweden and Turkey, who contribute 1%.
Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom also met or exceed the United Nations target of 0.7% of their national income.
In sunny Australia — the land of plenty — we give only 0.23% of our tax dollars to helping those abroad.
In the United States, where many of you might be from, only 0.17% of every tax dollar is invested in foreign aid.
There is no basis here to refrain from giving.
"Philanthropy is just a band-aid, addressing the symptoms but not the causes of global poverty."
Here the claim is that we are alleviating the effects but not addressing the root problem.
I want to point out that there is research being done into the deeper causes of poverty and what can be done to alleviate it. If the person bringing up this point isn't donating to them — they strike me as hypocritical.
Even if we cannot yet address the roots of the problem, there are people hungry today. Band-aids work. If you have a deep cut but lack the expertise to stitch it, covering it up to prevent infection is a very good thing to do.
A real solution is better than a patch, but a patch is better than nothing.
As Peter puts it: If you can't heal the wound, that's not a reason for refusing the band-aid
- I believe it can work as a solution. When people are pulled out of starvation they can put their time and energy to use and bring themselves out of their condition.
There is strong evidence of lasting impact in the lives of the recipients of effective charity.
"Giving people money or food breeds dependency."
Peter agrees that in general, we should not be giving food directly to the poor, except in emergencies like droughts, earthquakes or floods to keep people from starving in the short-term.
With money, however, it is a different question.
The traditional "wisdom" is that giving money directly to the poor will result in them spending it on alcohol, prostitutes or gambling.
This is profoundly mistaken.
There have now been many studies on unconditional cash transfers dismantling this cynical outlook.
Their results reveal that giving money to poor families:
Does not reduce the amount that adults work, but reduces child labour
Raises school attendance
Increases economic autonomy
Increases women's decision-making power
Leads to greater diversity in diet
Stimulates more use of health services
GiveDirectly which specialise in these direct cash transfers is now considered among the most effective of charities in helping the poor.
I have written more about Unconditional Cash Transfers and GiveDirectly in a past letter.
"Aren't we just pouring money down a black hole?"
No, this is false.
Our efforts are proving fruitful. As I mentioned earlier 135,000 are being lifted from extreme poverty every day. We may very well be on track to eradicating it in our lifetimes. Our decisions matter, our actions make an impact and we can make a difference.
I also want to point out that this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe our circumstance cannot change, you will not try to change it.
"There are too many people already!"
Too many people for what exactly?
To clear up one misconception: it is not that we do not have enough food.
We have many times over enough food to feed everyone, we simply distribute it incredibly poorly.
The United States is the world's largest corn producer, but less than one-third of this is eaten by humans. Forty per cent is turned into ethanol to fuel cars and planes and twenty-six per cent is fed to animals along with many other grains and soybeans.
Worldwide 36% of all calories go towards farm animals, and most of this is burned up as body heat go goes into the non-edible parts of them.
"The world is not running out of food. The problem is that people in high-income countries have found a way to consume four or five times as much food as would be possible if they were to eat the crops directly"
I have written more about how wasteful our current agricultural practices are in The Logic of not eating meat
There are valid reasons to be concerned about overpopulation in the world's poorer nations — but would abstaining from helping them really be the best way to address?
We know that birth-rates are inversely correlated with wealth.
One theory is that when there is a high risk of child mortality, parents opt to have more children to increase the chances of at least one making it to adulthood.
The correlation between child-mortality and extreme poverty lends credence to this theory.
Another is that poorer families require more hands to help with all the necessary work to support themselves and opt for more children for this.
The aforementioned link between cash transfers and reduced child labour seems to support this.
Joe Hasell has written a relevant piece in Our World in Data: Do famines curb population growth?
Is letting people starve really the most effective way to solve the problem of overpopulation?
Any more objections?
If anything you have read here has stirred up your thoughts or emotions on the subject, please reply to this letter and let me know.
I would love to hear what you have to say.
Have you changed your mind on anything here? Have you learned anything?
If you let me know, it would be really helpful to me.
In case you have...
Here is the link from above to donate to The Life You Can Save and have your donation matched for double impact!
Thank you once again for reaching the end of one of my very long letters.
I hope you have had even a fraction as much fun reading it as I have had writing it.