This evening, while reviewing last month's budget and planning the next few weeks, I donated ten percent of my monthly income to the Against Malaria Foundation. I've done so at the end of every month, in fact, since I first learned about Effective Altruism last year. I've contributed to several of Peter Singer's recommended charities, and with each small donation, I learn more about the monumental impact of my money in the developing world.
For many would-be altruists, the most difficult decision will be choosing to give at all.
Numbers turned me into an altruist. When I learned that I could spend my exorbitant monthly gym membership (I don't even want to tell you how much it cost) on curing blindness instead, the only thought I had was, "Why haven't I been doing this all along?" That question changed my life forever. I read The Life You Can Save in less than 48 hours. I rethought all my financial priorities. Because sentimentalism had ruled my charitable choices up to that point, Effective Altruism was like a beam of clarity.
But for those with families and mortgages to spend money on, the response to the challenge to give may simply be, "How could I possibly do this?" When two parents are sharing one car, for instance, the demands of getting to work each morning seem much more pressing than the need for clean water in a remote, foreign nation.
And yet we still choose to give?
The reality is that the cost of improving lives in the developing world is mind-bogglingly low. The money I might spend on luxuries in the U.S. can easily purchase and distribute hundreds (or thousands, if your luxuries are that luxurious) of mosquito nets that prevent disease and death.
Monetary sacrifices seem less burdensome when weighed against the alternative: living with the knowledge that we could drastically improve the lives of others, but instead choose to ornament our own.
I admit that currently I contribute more to my savings and retirement accounts than I do to effective charities. I do this so I can continue to lead a comfortable life according to the standards of my society – in which malaria, HIV, and measles are not daily threats to my existence. But instead of contributing all my additional income to the dream of self-sufficiency in retirement, I've decided to give away some of that money now, with the additional hope that by the time I reach retirement age, many of the problems posed to altruists like me will have been solved.
We ought not to make ourselves feel guilty or shameful for having been born into affluent societies. We cannot apologize for the arbitrary facts of our existence, but we can take some measure of responsibility along with our good fortune. If we accept the premise that human lives are equal regardless of their circumstances, then we also accept that each of us has the power to alter those circumstances for the better.