Anthony Colarusso: Consuming Altruism

Anthony Colarusso:

When we make donations, we like to think about it as contributing to a cause. People donate to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation because they support the cause of fighting breast cancer. They want to contribute to the goal of finding a cure.

If we truly want to make a difference, however, this is precisely the wrong way to view altruism. Effective altruism focuses on results. The central question isn’t what cause a charity supports, but instead qualitative results it receives - how much it actually helps.

This approach may seem unnatural, but it’s a question that we are all used to asking ourselves - not as altruists, but as consumers. Viewing altruism as a consumer activity may seem wrong to do when human lives are at stake, but in fact, treating donations as transactions can maximize the good we do in the world. If we aren’t trying to maximize lives saved, we aren’t treating the value of a life with maximum importance.

When you go to the store and try to decide which product to buy, you don’t focus on your cause, to buy the product itself. What you really care about is how you can get the most bang for your buck. If you need to buy bottled water, and you have the option of 1 for $.50 or 1 for $1, you make a comparison. Assuming all water brands taste equal to you, you could easily rule out the second option - it is not reasonable to spend more when you could spend less and achieve the same result. Acting as a consumer, you would want to get your water for the most cost-effective price. Being a smart consumer, you choose the first option.

If we apply this thinking to being an altruist, and making donations, we should compare prices for saving lives. We may be able to save 1 child in poverty for $3,000 or 1 breast cancer patient for $4,000, depending on what charity we donate to. Assuming all lives have equal worth, the principal concern in this situation is maximizing quantity of lives saved for the lowest price, or getting the most bang for our buck. If we want to maximize cost-effectiveness, the first option is the lowest per capita choice to save a life. If we can save lives at $3,000 each, no consumer would choose to pay more than $3,000 per life saved.

A flaw we make in choosing how to donate our money is not acting as consumers. We might not take into account a charity’s cost-effectiveness and comparing our options. We may forget that giving is a transaction and spend our money focused on the cause and without regard for the results. Of all the times in our lives when we must act as responsible consumers, making donations is the most important instance. There is no good reason we should compare what water to buy for the lowest price, but ignore this consideration when trying to save as many lives as possible. We can’t be reckless consumers of altruism when human lives are on the line.