THE BLOG
07/31/2015 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Effective Altruism: The World is One Family

Robert Churchill via Getty Images

"अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् | उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् || "
"Discrimination saying 'this one is a relative; this other one is a stranger' is for the mean-minded. For those who're known as magnanimous, the entire world constitutes but a family." - The Hindu book Mahōpaniṣad, VI.71.

As an active member of the Effective Altruism (EA) movement, I believe in the idea that we should do the most good for the world that we can given our limited time, energy, and resources. The movement has been gaining momentum with the publication of Doing Good Better, a new Amazon bestseller, and the start of EA Global this weekend, a series of conferences featuring luminaries such as Elon Musk and Peter Singer. EA asks us to think critically, strategically, and rationally about issues such as what global causes to prioritize, which careers will enable us to achieve the most social good, and which charities can reduce the most suffering per dollar spent.

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It's a demanding philosophy. For example, if one organization can provide a cataract surgery to prevent or cure blindness for $3,500, and another organization can provide the same surgery for $35, we should donate our charitable dollars to the more cost-effective one. In fact, this is the actual cost difference between cataract surgeries in the US and in India. EA argues that we shouldn't care about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality when we decide whom to help - so even though I'm American, it doesn't follow that I should choose to prioritize Americans with my giving.

EA takes this a step further with the principle of cause neutrality. Let's say I want to promote music education. I search all over the world for the best music education program, with low overhead, competent management, cost-effective programs, and strong evidence that the kids actually learn. EA asks us to go a step further, and not only maximize impact within a cause, but across causes. With over 6 million children dying from preventable diseases every year, is music education really the best cause area to focus on?

Six million is a number of special significance to me. It's the estimate of how many Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, which my grandfather survived. His parents were sent to Auschwitz when he was 13, leaving him orphaned. In his memoir, he recounts the story of asking a man he knew for help in finding a place to stay: "The man was not angry but told me in no uncertain terms that I should never come around his business again." Soon after, he was arrested, and sent to a concentration camp. He suffered through five of them, including Auschwitz.

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That one moment could have gone so differently. Consider the story of Jerzy and Irena Krepec, who hid 20 Jews on their farm in Poland, and set up an
underground school for the children. Further abroad, in the Allied countries, there were people who created programs like the Kindertransport, which saved 10,000 Jewish children. On the other hand, there were also those who blocked Jewish immigration, chose not to bomb death camps, or buried news stories about what was happening.

Learning about this history drove home powerful moral lessons for me. Valuing human lives less due to superficial differences of race, religion, sexual orientation, or nationality, is evil, pure and simple. Morality obligates us not only to refrain from harming others, but also to protect and save lives when we have the power to do so. And that rule applies regardless of whether the life you can save is right in front of you, or halfway around the world.

Studying psychology helped me understand why genocides and atrocities happen. Our minds are tribal. Although we now live in a world of great abundance, we evolved in an environment where resources were scarce, and only the strong survived - the ones who could cooperate with their in-group and crush those in their out-group without remorse. We are the descendants of those people. Natural selection left us with a brain bug that orients us toward viewing our own group as good people, and "them" as inhuman objects.

But natural selection also endowed us with a capacity to reason, and a desire to be consistent. With philosophy as our guide, we can probe our moral intuitions and discard them if they contradict our core beliefs. What justifies this treatment of the out-group? How do we even draw the distinction between our in-group and out-group? (Hitler arbitrarily defined a Jew as someone with at least one Jewish grandparent.) Most importantly, if I morally object to how the world stood idly by as my family perished, how can I stand idly by while the families of others perish?

Through this process of moral reasoning and introspection, I try to extend the love I feel for my family to the rest of humanity. I love my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and third cousins, so why stop there? I know that all human beings share a common ancestor. The love I feel for my immediate family is stronger, and a different kind of love than what I feel for those family members I haven't met yet, but I still call it love because it goes beyond sympathy and compassion. It's not just that I feel morally obligated to help the poor; I want to help them. I care about them because I've learned to see past the meaningless differences that prevented me from caring about them in the first place. Nothing captures this better than the ancient Sanskrit phrase "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" -- the world is one family.

Once I began to internalize this principle, Effective Altruism started to make more intuitive sense. I love my brother equally regardless of whether he is in India or here with me in Boston - once you care about someone, their location seems irrelevant. From this perspective, cause neutrality makes more sense, too. If one of my children needed deworming pills, and another one needed violin lessons, I know which one I'd help first. How can you say that one worthy cause is better than another? Once you internalize the welfare of the people you're trying to help by thinking of them as your family, it's easy.

I believe the world is getting better, but it's still horribly broken in myriad ways. I wish I didn't have to make tradeoffs between people I care about, but I recognize the fact that my altruistic time, energy, and resources are limited, and that devoting them to one cause means I can't pursue another. Luckily, love is unlimited.

"For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have. And if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow." -Antoine de Saint Exupery

So let yourself care about the world and its inhabitants, love your neighbor as yourself, your brother, your sister. Sense the urgency, yet remain undaunted. Rather than self-sacrifice, help because you care. Do something, but not just anything - combine heart and head.