Giving What We Can: Why I’m challenging you to more than an ice bucket

Because giving what we can, really can make a difference

charity donation effective altruism givewell giving giving what we can ice bucket challenge no make up selfie

There’s a famous case in psychology called the Murder of Kitty Genovese.

The story goes like this: a New York City woman was brutally stabbed to death near her home. Although her neighbours heard the screams, they did absolutely nothing to help.

The behaviour of the neighbours has in fact since been discredited, but it gave rise to the ‘bystander effect’: when we think others aren’t going to help, we don’t ourselves.  Whilst it may have turned out that Kitty Genovese wasn’t a victim of this phenomenon, billions are.

You might also be aware of a case in China, where a child was hit by a white van and left bleeding on the road. At least eighteen people walked directly past, not even pausing to consider helping her. Surely we all find this shocking?

You’re probably thinking that if you saw someone on the road bleeding, you’d stop to help. I’m pretty sure you’re right. But you don’t get off that lightly…

A recent Tab article made the point that it’s strange how we seem to need viral campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (check out Benedict Cumberbatch’s for another reason why he should be universally adored) or Kony 2012 to motivate us to do good.

Funny but we can do better

When we think about it, though, this phenomenon isn’t really that strange. As The Tab article points out, we’re very aware that there is lots of suffering in the world that we have the power to stop.

What we fail to realise is that it doesn’t take a million of us texting a donation, to make a difference.

After all, why should the fact that we don’t directly walk past the bleeding child make any difference to our strong obligation to help when there is no danger to ourselves?

The Tab article says that “we’re forced into being apathetic because we’re overwhelmed”. But I this this is an optimistic view of why we don’t help. The fact is, we just don’t spend our time asking ourselves who is most deserving, before giving up when confronted with too many options.

Instead we try not to think about it, and that’s because we’re terrified of guilt. Guilt for being born lucky. Why not rid ourselves of guilt by accepting we have no control over this and instead actually use our luck to help others?

There’s a better way to get rid of ‘first world’ guilt then making a meme out of it

Let’s take a step back for a minute. We currently live in a culture that, to a large extent, measures our value by the prices of the things we own. But it doesn’t take much investigation to work out that those who spend their lives pursuing material wealth were not necessarily destined to be happy.

Aristotle didn’t even think it needed explaining, and just look at Russell Brand – fantastically rich and famous, and yet one of the key critics of the way we live now.

Russell Brand: wealthy but decidedly fed up

But what if I told you there’s a way of securing fulfilment and happiness without drastically altering the way you live you life?

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was one of the most successful charity campaigns ever, raising over $115 million for the disease. Pretty amazing. But here’s the really amazing part. You could do more good than the entire ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign all by yourself.

It isn’t even be that difficult: fortunately for us, there are organisations that evaluate charities based on their direct impact. Giving What We Can was set up by a couple of guys in Oxford who decided to give away all of their earnings over about £20,000.

But more than that, and this is the important bit, Giving What We can, along with GiveWell, an American organisation, also tells us which charities can do the most good with our money. In effect they tell us who can save the most lives with the money we give.

If you become a member of Giving What We Can today, and pledge at least 10% of your income to the most effective poverty-alleviating charities in the world, over your lifetime you will save many, many, more lives across the world than the entire Ice Bucket Challenge did.

I made this decision just a few months ago. I was always starkly aware that as a North London, white, straight, male, able-bodied, healthy, educated and relatively wealthy Cambridge student I had enormous privilege, and therefore an enormous responsibility.

I could go through life letting the world continue as it is, materially benefitting me and allowing billions to suffer, or I could opt out. Opt out of consumerism. Opt out of the bystander effect. Opt out of guilt.

Not the only path to fulfilment

And by far the best part is, many, many families will be able to weep with joy to see their loved ones still alive, having been cured of  horrible but upsettingly cheap-to-cure disease because of people who choose, not even to radically alter their own lives, but to donate effectively.

To paraphrase a few philosophers, being moral is not a matter of adopting some good cause we particularly like. Rather, being serious about morality requires that we reflect carefully about our moral priorities and support the cause that matters most.

We have it within our power to start the world over. We can stand at the sidelines, or we can get stuck in and feel all the more wonderful, all the more human for it. We all want to help one another, and live by each other’s happiness rather than misery. So let’s make that a reality.

You can see this as yet another preachy article by some charity nonce and continue as you were. Or you can muster up the confidence to change.