Altruism for the Chicago Economist

In order to do genuine good, we must think and give pragmatically.


By Soham Mall

This Black Friday, I bought a $10 shirt and felt terrible about it. I usually stay away from mega sales—you don’t need to be a psychologist to figure out that they’re designed to make you spend more, not less. I’m not too skeptical of the theory that Jeff Bezos’s wife left him after catching him in bed with last year’s Black Friday profit margins. It was just $10, but in quintessential UChicago fashion, I couldn’t help but look at my new shirt and think of a thought experiment I recently heard about, one that applies not just to the $10 tee but also to every single purchase I’ve made in my life. This thought experiment has led me down a path towards a new kind of altruism, one that I think is well adapted to UChicago's unique culture.

I heard about the idea while listening to a podcast interview with the philosopher Peter Singer. In the interview, Singer discusses the “drowning child” hypothetical that is at the core of his most popular work. To briefly paraphrase the hypothetical in a UChicago context: You’re walking by Promontory Point when you see a child drowning. You can jump in to save the child, but you realize that jumping in will mean you will be late for your Goldman Sachs interview and that you’ll have to replace your stylish jacket, costing you hundreds of dollars. For most people, this choice is simple. Obviously, you would save the child. The catch is that this situation is not hypothetical. Each time you spend money on something you don’t really need, you’re choosing to let that child drown—you could have spent that money on giving to someone who needed it more, but you didn’t. This is not moral grandstanding—I didn’t either. How do we resolve the fact that although we wish to do good, and have the capacity to, we often choose to act otherwise? The mere desire to give back is insufficient—we need to find outlets that make this desire actionable and find effective ways to make the world a better place.

Making a meaningful impact on the lives of the less fortunate can seem like a Sisyphean task. You’ve seen the statistics on the millions that die or suffer from disease, climate disaster, starvation—the list is endless. When I volunteered in high school, it was obvious that certain people were only participating in community service to fulfill a requirement or pad their résumé. Now, when I attend one-off community service opportunities as a college student, I can’t help but feel that one day of teaching kids science or volunteering at a shelter is not going to make a profound impact on their lives. That’s not to say that service-focused RSOs are unproductive—organizations such as Alpha Phi Omega, the Emergency Fund, campus branches of the American Civil Liberties Union, Red Cross, and the like continue to do important work both for Chicago and the wider world. I encourage everyone to get involved with these organizations. However, individual community service needs to be supplemented with more expansive efforts.

One way that people circumvent this issue is by donating to charitable organizations. This runs on the belief that organizations can effectively use the money to make a greater impact than any one individual can—after all, the average person can’t really volunteer to perform heart surgery or travel to war-ravaged areas to provide assistance. Donations are well-intentioned actions, but they don’t always generatethe best outcomes. In a classic example of such ineffectiveness, it takes about $42,000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person. It would theoretically take the same amount of money to fund eye surgeries to restore the sight of 1,344 people in Africa who suffer from trachoma. As UChicago students, we are exposed to a lot of theory in our coursework, including theory about what it is to be human, and why we should be good. At the same time, competitive finance culture at UChicago means we are also exposed to the econ bro’s mantra of efficiency. I think we can agree that the wish to improve lives, when combined with reason and a pinch of utilitarianism, provides the pursuit of giving much-needed direction. This is the concept of effective altruism, popularized by Peter Singer. It is the lovechild of philosophy and economics—using evidence to find the most effective ways to benefit others. UChicago’s Effective Altruism club was reinitiated last year. Though they might seem strange bedfellows, efficiency and altruism bridge the pragmatism of UChicago economics and the idealistic bent of the philosophy propagated in Hum and Sosc.

Fortunately, the heavy lifting has already been done for us. Organizations like The Life You Can Save, started by Singer, and GiveWell have done rigorous research to find the charities that do the most good per dollar spent. What’s more, this research is publicly available. Most of the charities researched deal with human diseases and health, but there is no shortage of similar research organizations for issues of animal advocacy and climate change.

We’re in the midst of a heavy gift-shopping season. If you’re buying holiday presents, you might want to consider making a donation in the recipient’s name instead of getting them a shirt or a PS4 or a Canada Goose. If you’re like me and don’t celebrate Christmas, the next time you’re shopping—whether for a birthday, cultural or religious celebration, or just impulse shopping after that one promotional email slipped through the UChicago email quarantine system—put some potent, goodness-maximizing, efficient giving in your cart. Pay more than just lip service to making the world a better place—post it on social media, tell your friends and family. Write about it. You might be virtue signaling, but so what? If that makes more people donate, it is nothing to be ashamed of. Use that brain that has conquered P-sets and essays and the heart that school hasn’t sucked all the life out of yet. Speaking of heart—as much as I denigrate finance bros, your six-figure salaries will give you considerable latitude for generosity. As critical thinkers, we can take our generosity a step further and really make it count.