Homeless people were a new sight to me as an 8-year old boy. We had just moved from a Swiss mountain town to a rundown neighbourhood of Philadelphia. I remember seeing adults who ate out of trash cans. This made a deep impression on me. How could men and women live such destitute lives directly beside our comfort and wealth?
A certain dissatisfaction with injustice was thus planted in me. And it stayed. It is a longing for a world made whole. Or – using Micah’s centuries-old description – a longing for a world where everyone will peacefully sit under their own fig tree (rather than having to search through others’ half-eaten leftovers). The longing is real. During intercessions at church, I often have bleary eyes just imagining the prayers coming true.
I was once on the verge of losing my faith and I noticed that in the absence of faith, this longing appeared oddly naked, free-floating and pointless. With faith, the longing had a home. In the Bible, the destitute, the poor, and the outsiders are lifted up and celebrated. Their true destiny is portrayed as wholeness, both spiritual and material. Once you see this concern for the poor in the Bible, you can’t unsee it: gambling my life on the biblical vision gave me hope.
But hope wasn’t enough: my revulsion towards the ugliness of injustice came with a fascination for the selfless heroes who fought it. The radical determination of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and many others captivated me as a teenager.
There was a difference, though: their fight was racism. I wanted to fight poverty. When it came to racism, evil had a face. Racism was actively brought about by the bad guys. King, Parks, and Mandela confronted people who jailed, hated and oppressed. But poverty often doesn’t exist because of people actively or even deliberately bringing it about – poverty exists because of people’s inaction. I have tried getting angry at evil companies and powerful millionaires. And yes, sometimes this was righteous anger. But just as often it seemed contrived. For example, even in my first summer job – doing mindless factory work – I already earned a salary in the top 3% of the global income scale. I could have used this money to save the lives of my brothers and sisters in poverty. Instead, I spent it on travel and a new, comfortable bed.
My two best friends once suggested that we write down our life goals. One of my three goals was fighting poverty. Given the enormous resources available to me as a well-educated Swiss of the 21st century (and given some youthful naiveté), I specified the goal in ambitious terms. This forced me to think backwards: How could I possibly achieve it?
This is where effective altruism came in. I absolutely love effective altruism’s dogged attitude of finding out what really works, and its emphasis on strategically choosing how to fight poverty. This radical, evidence-based, results-oriented attitude makes all the difference, because it saves people’s lives.
I will readily admit that this emphasis on effectiveness came naturally to someone like me: an economics student, the child of bargain hunters and a lover of Excel spreadsheets. But ultimately it’s not a matter of personality. I don’t care about effectiveness because I’m nerdish or academic, but because I want to show love towards the people whose access to a poverty-free life depends on me doing so.
This whole story makes it seem like I’m consumed by a self-sacrificial fight for a better world. Unfortunately, the truth is sobering. I let my day-to-day life extinguish the inner fire time and again. Sure, the Giving What We Can pledge is a nice trick to ensure I get at least something done. But beyond that, there is so much I would love to do which I simply don’t do. This makes me grateful for being a Christian: every Sunday I meet with my friends and we start the service by explicitly acknowledging our shortcomings. But instead of wallowing in guilt, we seek forgiveness and, just as importantly, we seek mental fuel for moving forwards. Effective altruism seems hard to me without this space for facing failure – and for renewing my longing for a time when “all shall be well”.
– by Dominic Roser
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