(1200 words, ~4 minutes to read)
One reason I was convinced to start writing a blog is that in the past, particular blog posts have had important impacts on my actions, thoughts, and values. I want to give them the credit they deserve; or, if that’s not possible, I want to at least formally thank them for contributing to my betterment. Below I highlight a few of these.
I’ll attempt to summarize each post, but of course I highly highly encourage you to read the full texts. A summary can’t capture what’s there, or its effect on me. On the other hand, even if you read them, you may not be as touched by the words as I was; these things depend on time, place, and mental preparation. So give it a try, but results will vary.
In no particular order:
1. Scott Alexander’s “Nobody’s Perfect, Everything is Commensurable” on Slate Star Codex
Scott speaks candidly about the paradox of moral duty. The world is full of suffering, disease, famine, and injustice, and each of us could do things to make that better, but how much must we do before we discharge our moral debts? The Singer-ian answer is: we must do everything, give everything, abandon all personal comforts for the sake of the least fortunate, and as long as we don’t do this we have failed in our moral duty. This is compelling and, honestly, hard to argue against. You happily eat that $6 ice cream cone when there are children dying of malaria in Mozambique for want of a $2 mosquito net? How can you possibly sleep at night when this is the case?
In the post, Scott acknowledges the force of this argument, but notes that its likely effect on many people will be to cause them to throw up their hands and give up on charitable action or giving altogether. He writes: “‘Your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough’… seems like a recipe for – at best – undirected misery, stewing in self-loathing,” and, importantly, “everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing.” Hence, the paradox.
This is not a call to pessimism, however. Scott skirts the paradox by appeal to a simple rule of thumb: give 10% of your income to charity and consider your debt paid. This is a simple number backed by both the excellent GivingWhatWeCan organization and, like, ordained by God. It’s already in the zeitgeist. And while it’s not a lot to ask, it’s enough that, if everyone only gave that much, the best charities would hardly know what to do with all the money coming in.
The effect on me was that it directly led to my taking the GivingWhatWeCan pledge, to give 10% of my income throughout my life to effective charities. I can honestly say this is one of the best things I’ve ever done, and in all honesty, I hardly notice that I have 10% less spending money each month. It only costs in the ballpark of a few thousand dollars right now to save the life of someone in the Developing World. You and I can do that, over the course of months or years. And I thank Scott for helping me realize this.
(I can’t write about Effective Altruism without linking to my favorite podcast I’ve heard over the last year, which is on this topic: Sam Harris with Will MacAskill.)
2. Nate Soares’ “The Value of a Life” on Minding Our Way
(Nate was inspired to write this by a very old Scott Alexander post (on the price of a life); however it no longer exists on LiveJournal, as Scott’s whole page is gone. After considerable time and effort, I tracked down an archived list of all his old LiveJournal writings and opened post after post until I found it. It is helpfully named “Stuff (Aug. 5th, 2009)“. Worth it.)
Above, I quoted GiveWell’s estimation that, as of right now, a life can be saved for the meager sum of a few thousand dollars. You might call this “the price of a life”, because in the right hands it is enough to keep someone from dying. This price matters: For example, suppose you run a medical charity and have $100,000 to spend. Your first candidate, Sally, needs a spinal fusion which costs about $100,000. Then you look to the waiting room and see 10 people needing an appendectomy, a $10,000 procedure. And what about the hundreds or thousands of people who just need access to a $20 medication they can’t afford? It turns out you can’t save everybody, so you need to figure out how to best optimize the (# lives saved)/$, or (quality of life)/$, or whatever else you care about. You can, and indeed must, put a price on life.
But this fact can lead to confusing and counter-intuitive conclusions, like that the film Endgame, which made ~$3 billion in the box office, was worth nearly a million lives. Wait, what?? But do the math; all those $6 movie tickets could have been spent in the Developing World to save numerous lives. Of course, the wrong conclusion to draw here is that it would be a good trade to sacrifice a million people’s lives to produce one Endgame; but given the previous paragraph, it’s also wrong to say that “you can’t put a price on life”. So what gives?
Using a very clever analogy with a village and a dragon, Nate separates the price of a life (discussed above) from the value of a life. This is separable because, firstly, some of our money is spent not saving lives, but creating a society in which lives are worth living, and that’s ok in some cases. And secondly, even if we were perfectly rational and had optimized our society to be the best for everyone, including the least fortunate among us–to be clear, we really really haven’t–above us still hangs the specter of death and disease and destitution, constituting an ever-present dragon that continues to ravage our village. This is the natural, default state of the world, until someday we are able change it.
As long as that dragon of death exists, we will continue to pay insultingly small sums of money to rescue the least fortunate from his grasp. Maybe today we can prevent an untimely death for only $1000; it’s simultaneously an insult and a blessing that the price tag is so low. But someday, when we solve all of the $1000 deaths, we will set out to solve the $10,000 deaths; and then the $100,000 deaths; and on and on. And at each step, Nate argues, it’ll be worth it:
There may well come a day when humanity would tear apart a thousand suns in order to prevent a single untimely death.
That is the value of a life.
The effect on me was a deepening concern for humanity’s long-term future. Although every death is a tragedy, for now we have to learn to live with that. Someday, if humanity survives long enough and we get our act together, we may defeat the dragon, and we won’t have to let anyone die before their time. That’s a future I’d like to see. And I thank Nate for putting that vision so vividly in my head.