Escape from the Bottomless Pit

This is the sixth of six posts I’m writing for Effective Altruism Week.


The preceding five posts in this series were about issues in effective altruism where I have a pretty good idea where I stand. In contrast, I’m going to end the series by talking about a problem that I haven’t figured out how to solve.

About seven million children are going to die this year of preventable poverty-related causes. According to GiveWell’s cost-effectiveness estimates, it is possible to save the life of one of those children by donating approximately $3,340 to the Against Malaria Foundation.

So here are two possible options that hypothetically might be available to me:

  • Do nothing. If I take this option, about seven million kids will die this year.
  • Donate $3,340 to AMF. If I take this option, about seven million kids will die this year.

From this perspective, the only difference between those two scenarios is that I’m $3,340 poorer in the second one. This does not make the second one look very appealing.

Of course, in reality there’s another major difference: on average, a child’s life is saved in the second scenario. In absolute terms, the difference between a world where that child lives and a world where they die is huge. It’s an entire human life, with all its joys and accomplishments over the course of decades. It is easily worth far, far more than $3,340.

But I’m never going to meet that child, or know anything about them. And when I look at the effects on a larger scale, the fraction of the overall problem that I’ve solved is so minuscule as to not be noticeable. Literally nothing I can do is ever going to make a significant dent in global poverty.

If everybody made a significant personal sacrifice, then we could easily solve global poverty, and far more than that. Everybody would get to feel the satisfaction of knowing that they’d saved not one life, but millions upon millions. I think you could frame this in such a way that most people would see the sacrifice as worth it. But we don’t have any effective ability to coordinate a solution like that, so I can’t rely on everybody else going along with what I do; I have to decide alone.

The fundamental problem here is that the number of people affected by global poverty is large, and human brains are really, really bad at dealing with large numbers. We can see that visibly saving one person’s life is worth a personal sacrifice. We can see that making a significant dent in the overall problem of global poverty is worth a personal sacrifice. But when the life you save is invisible, and the dent insignificant? That’s harder for our brains to see as actually worth it.

Even though it totally is.

There are a couple of things that I can do for myself to help mitigate this problem. One of them is to remind myself that I’m not relying on the warm glow. If donating feels like throwing money into a bottomless pit, but I know that it saves lives on average and is the right thing to do, then that’s enough for me to get myself to do it. And that’s what actually counts.

Another thing I do is follow the work of organizations that do research, and are transparent enough about it that I feel like I have a good picture of what progress they’re making. GiveWell, with their regular blog posts and research updates, is the paragon of this (with GiveDirectly earning an honorable mention). Reading their material gives me a sense that we are, slowly but surely, making concrete progress towards actually solving global poverty and the other giant problems in this world.

But still, it’s a problem. It’s all in my head, but it’s still real. And I think other effective altruists struggle with it too. If anybody has any effective techniques or ways of looking at the problem that help make dealing with it easier, I’m all ears.

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