A chapter of One for the World is opening at Brown. OFTW is a national nonprofit organization that seeks to promote effective altruism — finding the most effective means of benefiting others, as informed by hard evidence — on college campuses. Started by Wharton MBA students, OFTW already has chapters at peer schools such as Columbia, Georgetown University and Harvard. An organization for effective altruism is a valuable addition to Brown, which is known for its culture of activism and engagement.
To illustrate the principle of effective altruism, here is a fairly straightforward philosophical dilemma, proposed by Peter Singer, the father of the effective altruism movement. Imagine that you are on your way to work and are walking next to a lake. You look and realize that a child is drowning in that lake. You have the opportunity to jump in to save him, but to do so would be inconvenient to you; you would get your clothes all wet and would then be late to work. Would you save the child? I imagine that everyone would do so without equivocation — the ethical obligation to the child’s life trumps the minor inconveniences. What if you were wearing an expensive suit that would be ruined by a jump into the lake? Still, the child’s life would be more important. Now imagine that the child lived in a distant country, yet you nonetheless had the power to save him and at only a small cost to yourself. Would you still be ethically obligated to do so?
To those who would answer affirmatively to that last question, effective altruism offers a way to help. Organizations guided by this principle, such as OFTW, help people to give rationally so as to get the greatest “bang for the buck.” They select charities that are the most effective — in terms of demonstrable outcomes, cost-effectiveness, feasibility and financial need, for example — and encourage people to donate to them. Because of these effective charities, it is relatively simple to help the equivalent of “the drowning child” in a distant country.
Effective altruism organizations have rigorous methodology for selecting charities. OFTW draws its charities from the nonprofit The Life You Can Save. Consider the Against Malaria Foundation, a favorite of effective altruists. It installs mosquito nets in places where malaria is still rampant. It estimates that every 50-250 mosquito nets installed — each of which costs a mere $2 — equals one life saved. Thus, it is estimated to cost between $100 and $500 to save a life. If many individuals donated just small amounts to the Against Malaria Foundation, then the sum of their donations could save an immense number of lives.
This is why OFTW encourages students to pledge one percent of their future income to effective charities. What is to an individual a small amount can have a disproportionate impact. Students can choose the amount of money they want to donate and the frequency of their donations. They can choose among several effective charities. Importantly, they do not have to donate straightaway; a broke college student, weighed down by student loans, can pledge to donate once they receive an income by postponing their initial donation by up to three years later. And students are of course not bound to any commitment that they later might want to modify.
Assessing the effectiveness of a philanthropic organization is never an easy task, and some may voice reservations about the manner in which certain philanthropic organizations have navigated institutional power dynamics. But going so far as to dismiss all philanthropy as inherently flawed is simplistic and perhaps even irresponsible. As Brown students, we have an obligation to think about how we can use our resources to contribute meaningfully to the world in which we live, and effective altruism provides a robust starting point.
One common objection to the pledge is that one percent is too much money. But the average salary of Brown graduates is $63,000 per year. One percent of that would be a donation of $50 dollars per month, which over time will substantially help the recipients of the effective charities. Of course, a certain amount of money is not equally burdensome to everyone, and OFTW is not asking anyone to donate what one cannot afford. It is nevertheless helpful at least to put these numbers into perspective.
Another objection is that pledgers cannot be sure whether their money is actually going to help those whom it is intended to help or is instead being used irresponsibly by the charity. But unlike some other philanthropic groups, effective altruism organizations prioritize transparency. The Against Malaria Foundation, for example, shows each donor robust and updated data on when their donation is used and the distributor, the country and district of the installed mosquito net. It also keeps updated statistics on its overall distribution patterns and on the number of people that it is reaching. Of organizations that accept donations, the data indicate these charities are among the most reliable.
OFTW is Brown’s first and only student organization for raising philanthropic donations that will hopefully increase students’ altruistic impact. As Brown students, we should think about the benefit to others that could come from putting aside a small amount of money. Of course, not everyone can afford this burden; but for those who can, I suggest considering taking the pledge.
James Flynn '20 took the OFTW pledge, and the OFTW student group will be in the Ratty from 11:30am to 1pm to answer any questions about OFTW. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.