By Bill Barlow
Originally published in the Harvard Law Record
I want you to help save a life this summer. This year, 440 of the 550 members of the class of 2016 took jobs from private firms attending EIP, myself included. The overwhelming majority of these are very well paid: $3,000 a week in the major markets. Most programs last 8-12 weeks. In total, members of our class will reap some $13,200,000 from these jobs, or approximately $10,000,000 after taxes and refunds. It is a telling indicator of the vast economic privileges given us. This enormous economic sum will be used to pay off past debts, to save for the future, and, no doubt, to live well in the present. But it also affords our class one of the greatest opportunities to serve the poor and oppressed that we so often chide the system of overlooking, yet so seldom prioritize with our own time and money.
The cost of saving a child’s life from malaria is estimated to be roughly $3,500. That’s the estimate of GiveWell.org, which has painstakingly analyzed thousands of charities to arrive at those few with empirical, statistically sound evidence of their effectiveness. That same amount could remove parasitic worms from roughly 300 children, thereby improving their health, school attendance and education. If the class of 2016 voluntarily used just 1% of its after tax summer income to help the truly needy, 25 children under the age of 5 could be saved from malaria, or over 7,500 children could be dewormed.
It is fundamentally immoral for us to do nothing when we have the power to relieve that suffering. As HLS students, we are in a uniquely privileged position to improve the world, either directly or indirectly. We are so used to thinking of public service in terms of our career choices that we have failed to see how the simple prioritization of our economic power in the high paying jobs that over 80% of our class will eventually enter can be one of the greatest untapped sources of effecting change in the world. By cutting back a few percent on our consumption, we can reduce suffering by tremendous amounts. But it’s important to think carefully about where we give our money, and do our homework beforehand. Say we donate $7,000 to a cause that also fights malaria, but does so only half as effectively as the Against Malaria Foundation. Had we not been so careless, we could have saved two lives instead of one. The responsibility for that one life that we could have saved still rests upon our shoulders.
For those of us who choose to go into Public Interest or Government work, the overarching question remains of how to have the biggest impact. When we choose a career path in the public interest, the foremost concern should be choosing a career that maximizes the good served to the public. This is a debate we should be having on campus more often – not just what to do about a particular issue, but also how to prioritize.
Harvard Law School needs an organization to organize and encourage students to act according to these principles. To that end, I am today announcing the foundation of the Harvard Law School chapter of the Harvard University Effective Altruism Student Group (HUEA). Our mission is to engage students from across the University in active dialogue about the idea of Effective Altruism, or how one can do the most one possibly can to improve the world with the resources, skills, and time that one has. Our first goal is to organize students taking firm jobs this summer to donate at least one percent of their post tax income to the most effective causes. I understand that many students think it unwise to give at this time, given their heavy debt burden. But that is why we are only asking for 1 percent, which we expect will average some $228 per student. This will establish a pattern of giving and reinforce the belief that we have a moral duty to relieve the avoidable suffering of others.
Our first meeting will be at 12:00 p.m., Tuesday, February 24th, in WCC 3019. We will provide a brief overview of our mission and goals, collect the email addresses of those that are interested, and discuss the next steps for our organization. Even if you are not willing to pledge 1% of your summer income, or even if you are taking a job that will make it more difficult for you to do so, please do not hesitate to join us. Together, we can save many lives and impact many more.
In the meantime, I invite anyone here to email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the organization.