Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?

It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.

Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life ( estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?

This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).

On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).

First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.

Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.

Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.