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Moral Dilemma: Effective Altruism

Last weekend my Dad offered to pay for me to take three friends to see the Celtics. I love basketball, having been a star on the JV bench for a world record four years! At the same time, I was planning to hand over the scholarship grant for $1,000 that I had secured through something known as the VING Project. The money is going to a young Dominican woman to try to help her stay at UMass Dartmouth. As an alternative, he offered to match the scholarship thus provoking a rather tricky ethical dilemma. Is it morally wrong to spend money on one’s self when through sacrifice one could do so much good?

This question is a variation on a thought experiment from philosopher Peter Singer. He suggested that if we were to see a child drowning in a shallow pond on our way to school, we would not hesitate to wade into the pool and save the child, ruining our $20 shoes and causing us to have to buy new ones. We don’t hesitate to give up $20 to save the life of someone next to us, why should we hesitate to donate that $20? As Singer wrote, “would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself?” Singer originated the ‘effective altruism’ movement, an ideology which seeks to make every dollar count and bring maximum benefit to the most people. There are a number of important ramifications to this, but some of the most important are the need to donate as much as possible to charity, both time and resources, and to choose a charity which benefits people the most. As it happens, combating malaria has the best lives-saved-per-dollar ratio due to the availability of cheap preventative measures. So, should we all give 90% of our money to malaria prevention?

While this may seem difficult to argue with, it somehow is distinctly unappealing. Simply put, Singer’s idea of morality is too strict. He assumes first and foremost that we don’t owe anything to ourselves, and that we need to give up all that we enjoy in order to attempt to be moral people. Such a high standard for morality is largely unattainable due to human imperfection, and as a result, does not do much to encourage people to behave more morally because they cannot hope to reach his standards. Secondly, Singer does not put any value on anything other than the basic necessities of life. Things like Celtics’ games are a complete waste of time and money because they do nothing to help others. In reality however, entertainment is, in part, what makes life worth living in the eyes of many. Ignoring so removes that which separates us from the animals, and few people would be willing to do so. We should be allowed to make ourselves happy, even if it means making proximity a consideration within our own morality. Oh, you wanna know what I decided to do? Ask Hamza if he went to the game!


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