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Blog: Humanist Voices

drowningImagine you are walking to work one morning passing by a nearby lake when you hear the sound of water splashing and cries for help. Looking around, you see a small child drowning in the lake. You have the ability to wade in and pull the child to safety, but you would surely ruin your expensive pair of clothes. What would you do – save the child, or ignore the situation to avoid losing money on new clothes?

We all know the answer to the above thought experiment. It is morally unacceptable to let a child in front of us suffer to death when we have the means to do something about it.

Now let us change the situation a little bit. The child is no longer in front of us, but 8000 miles away in a village in India. The child is not drowning to death, but succumbing to diarrhoeal disease, the second leading cause of child mortality in the world. The child can be saved by providing a regiment of ORS solutions, zinc supplements and nutrient rich foods, which could be covered with your pocket change.

Comparing the hypothetical situation with the real one, we notice that none of the moral criteria have changed. There is still a suffering, dying child who we can save. Yet the perception of our moral obligation may have diminished. The further away the dying child is from our direct experience, the more invisible and less important she becomes. This is well seen in the general focus of most U.S. charities on community-based charitable giving. One may ask – why should our community take precedence over others around the world? If our sole motivation were to reduce the greatest amount of human pain and suffering, our money would always go to countries in Africa, South Asia and the Mediterranean where poverty and death show their ugliest faces. Yet only about 5% of American charitable contributions go towards international charities (though this figure is growing).

Part of the psychological hurdle with donating money is not having enough facts about where the amount is really going, and what impact it may have. Thankfully, there are solutions around that. Independent organizations that evaluate charities have sprung up in the last few years that use evidence based approaches to investigate and rate philanthropic organizations around the world. GiveWell is the leading charity evaluator in this arena. It uses the following criteria when rating charities – 1.) Strong documented track record 2.) Highly cost-effective activities 3.) Room for more funding 4.) Transparency and accountability to donors. Its website is astounding in providing a wealth of information that elaborate on the principles used to assess evidence and evaluate studies on charities. Equally impressive is its self-evaluation process, which includes revealing any mistakes the staff may have fallen prey to. Organizations like GiveWell make it hard for people to justify inaction.

Humanist philosopher Peter Singer proposed the thought-experiment at the beginning of this blog post as a premise to his book ‘The Life You Can Save’. I feel like it is a useful way to challenge ourselves to donate more of our income to save lives around the planet. And there are self-serving benefits to being altruistic. Studies have shown that generosity and kindness have a profound effect on our happiness. Help save the world, and you may feel happier than you have ever before – now why would anyone not choose that path?

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