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If I had a choice between saving my brother Taimur from a burning building, or saving 10 people I don’t know from another burning building – what would I choose?
Probably Taim tbh.
But what if it was 100 people in the other building? 1000? 10,000? I’d probably switch somewhere between 100 and 1000.
This raises a tricky question for utilitarians – people who think the ethical choice is whatever results in “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Isn’t it normal to prioritise family, friends, and ourselves over randomers?
Ok, that example is a bit extreme; I hopefully won’t need to save Taimur from a burning building anytime soon 🤞
So let’s say instead that I want to buy a new Mac Studio for $4000. It’ll improve my life by 1%, at least for a few months. But I also know that donating that $4000 to a super-effective charity like the Against Malaria Foundation would literally save someone’s life in a country like Uganda or Guinea (AMF’s “cost per death averted” is about $5000).
So is it ever ethical to spend money on luxuries, when other people are in need? If I have kids, should I tell them ‘you can’t have nice things, because other people need this money more than us’?
I discussed this with the philosopher and co-founder of the effective altruism movement Will MacAskill, on my Deep Dive podcast. And he basically said: yes. If you follow utilitarianism to its logical conclusion, you end up making massive personal sacrifices.
But Will also said that if you want to maximise the amount of good in the world, asking everyone to donate their surplus income to charity is a really bad strategy. That’s because 99.99% of people will just say “I’m never donating all my spare cash to charity, I guess I’m just immoral then”, and go back to their lives without doing anything at all.
So Will suggested two ‘realistic’ options for doing good that don’t involve as much personal sacrifice or mental effort:
Option 1: Donate X% of your income (eg 1%, 10%, or 50%) regardless of how much you earn. The Giving What We Can Pledge, for example, is a commitment to donate at least 10% of your income every year to effective charities (ones that save or improve lives the most per dollar).
Option 2: Donate everything you earn above a set number. So if you’re a software developer on $100,000, you might decide that you can live really comfortably on $50,000 a year, and donate the other $50,000 to effective charities. That would save up to 10 lives every year.
Will himself donates everything that he earns above £27,000. He described making that decision a few years ago.
When he was asking himself ‘do I want to give up this much money’, he’d look at pictures of children in developing countries suffering from curable diseases like elephantiasis, and he thought it’d be worth giving up all of his spare money just to save one of those kids.
So, since he knew he could save hundreds of those children over his lifetime while still living comfortably on £27k, it was a no-brainer to start donating the majority of his income.
Talking to Will has really changed my perspective, and right now I’m thinking about how I can have more of a positive impact with my business and YouTube channel. I’ll keep you updated.
Have a great week!
PS If you’re looking for a career path, there’s a third ‘realistic option’ to do good. Will is also the co-founder of 80,000 Hours – read more about them here 👇
⏳ 80,000 Hours - Find a High-Impact Career
Did you know you’ll have, on average, 80,000 hours in your career? That’s almost half your waking life.
So choosing a career is a massive deal, and probably your biggest chance to make a positive difference in the world. If you want to have a big, positive impact with your work but aren’t sure where to begin, then my friends at 80,000 Hours can help.
They’re a nonprofit dedicated to helping you find a fulfilling and impactful career, and they’ve spent the last 10 years doing research alongside academics at Oxford University to figure out exactly which careers have the biggest and best impact on the world.
Everything they provide is totally free, and incredibly well researched, like this amazing article about how imposter syndrome can hold you back from achieving your goals, or this one collecting evidence-based advice on how to be successful.
They also have their own podcast with super in-depth expert interviews (eg with Will MacAskill, Cal Newport, and Vitalik Buterin), a job board, and a newsletter. And if you like, they’ll send you their in-depth career guide for free. It’s definitely worth a read, take a look here.
Thanks to 80,000 Hours for sponsoring this issue of Sunday Snippets 🙏
👔 I’m Hiring an Executive Assistant
Exciting news, I’m looking to hire a full-time executive assistant (in-person, living in London). You’d hang out with me every working day and help me run the business, manage my life, and create content that helps people live their best life.
If you’re interested in applying or know someone who’d be great for the job, here’s the link.
♥️ My Favourite Things
🧠 Shortform Summary - 4,000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. Really good breakdown of Oliver’s ideas about time management, toxic productivity, and how we’re happy to distract ourselves.
🎙️ Deep Dive Podcast - How To Build Career Momentum with Noah Kagan. Noah and I talk about how he built an 8-figure business, what he learned from being fired from Facebook, and how to get a head start in your career.
📝 Article - Why You Should Start a Blog Right Now by Alexey Guzey. A pretty convincing argument for starting a blog that covers how to get started and what you should write about – even if you think you’ve got nothing to say.
👟 Trainers - Adidas Ultraboosts I want to do more walking around London, so my daily outfit now includes proper trainers to make walking (in theory) more comfortable.
🎬 New Videos
👔 - I Read 2,216 Resumes. Here’s How You Stand Out. My best, super in-depth advice on how to not mess up a job application. I cheekily used some real-life applications people sent me as good/bad examples (with personal details redacted, of course).
✍️ Quote of the Week
We assume the order of operations is: body gives me energy, I do stuff. But it seems the order really is: I do stuff, my body gives me energy.