Here’s a thought experiment:
Imagine that every day, on the way to work, we would have to walk past several thousand innocent, starving children. How would we react to this unimaginable suffering? Would we immediately step in to help them with our own hands, or maybe try to get a career in humanitarian aid? Perhaps we would work extra hard at our jobs, so that we could donate large amounts of our income to existing aid organizations? Most of us would, at the very least, want to do something about the problem, and many would surely try to help as many starving children as they possibly could. But what if the same catastrophe were happening in, say, a neighboring city? What about a neighboring country, or a different continent?
Why should distance influence our moral decisions?
The fact is that each day, more than 16,000 children around the world die because of poverty. Their suffering does not become less bad just because it is further away from us, yet most of us are not dedicating significant time nor money towards improving their predicament.
It seems inconsistent and irrational to hold that actively reducing suffering is only important if the suffering takes place nearby. Not only that, but empirical research proves that our decisions (not) to help effective aid organizations—be it through donating one’s time or money—make the difference between life and death on the other side of the world, whether we like it or not.
This is the core argument behind Effective Altruism (EA). EA is a philosophy and a social movement which holds that actively helping others is of central moral importance, and approaches the choice of possible strategies in a rational and scientific way. It is crucial to use the research methods at our disposal to find the best strategies, or we risk wasting our resources on ineffective, yet appealing methods that end up helping fewer individuals than would otherwise have been possible. If we ourselves were affected, we would also wish that as many as possible were helped, since this would increase the statistical likelihood that we ourselves would be among those protected from suffering. Effective altruists therefore try to use their limited resources of time and money optimally, so as to comprehensively improve the lives of as many sentient beings as possible.
If a moral catastrophe was taking place before our eyes, we would not hesitate to donate 10% of our income to funding sustainable, effective solutions, nor to consider how best to direct our own careers towards solving and preventing such catastrophes. When we consider that we live on a planet which sees such catastrophes daily, these measures seem moderate. Moreover, psychological studies on happiness show that donating can also make the donor happier. It is thus safe to say that EA represents a win-win from a personal and social perspective—all without asking too much of individuals.