This is the second post in a series on actually being a utilitarian in the world; for the first post, look here. Also, for a more theoretical series on utilitarianism, look here.
So, say that you're a utilitarian, and you're wondering what to do with your life. (Even if you're not a utilitarian but are wondering what to do with your life, most of this will apply.) What should you do? What, in the current society, can an individual do to make the world a better place? And what causes should you care about?
Is there anything you can do with your life to make the world a better place?
There are some complicated and hard to evaluate things you could do, like decide to become a politician and influence congress, or try to become famous and use your fame to convince people to do something meaningful with their lives.
But there are also more conventional things you can do to try to make the world a better place, which are much easier to evaluate: you could go work for a charity, or you could donate money to one. Which of these two things is more efficient largely depends on how much money you could donate; but, for instance, if you think that if you were to work for a charity your work would be worth $50,000 per year for them even if you were to work for free (an estimate of what it would cost them to hire someone to do your work), then donating $50,000 a year to that charity would do as much good as working for the charity. Note that working directly for them is even worse, compared to donating, when you take into account the fact that, even if they hire you, they'll have to pay you--you're only actually adding value to the extent that you're more productive than the marginal hire for them.
Also, note that many people decide to donate a little bit of money to a bunch of charities. This, to put it bluntly, is stupid, unless your donating an amount of money comparable to the entire operating budget of the charities. Unless you expect significantly decreasing marginal value of donations to an charity--something that should only happen if you're donating something on the same order of magnitude of the entire charity's income--whatever charity you think it best for the first $100 that you donate should also be the charity which you think is best for the next $100 that you donate. (The same logic applies to time you spend working or volunteering for charities.)
Note, by the way, that if you think you could make significantly more than $50,000 per year--and donate more than that--it can be more efficient to spend your life working in a high-paying profession and donating a lot of your money than working directly for charities, a strategy often called earning to give.
But whether you're donating to a charity, working for a charity, or something else, you can evaluate--at least roughly--how much value you're providing them, in units of dollars.
Which then brings us to the question: well, what causes are important? Or, put another way, what charities have the highest impact per dollar donated?
I should probably preface this post by saying that I don't think any cause I mention in this article represents the most pressing concern for this world or the most efficient use of time or money--I'm instead going to talk about conventional charities, the kinds of charities no one would ever look askance at you for supporting. But when evaluating how important a cause is it's important to have some sort of baseline to compare it to: if a friend came up to you and told you he was starting a charity that would help one drug addict to stay clean for the rest of their lives for every $10,000 donated, what would you think of that charity? Is it efficient? Is it a total waste of money? Is it an order of magnitude better than any other charity?
Or, to take a real example, is it a good idea to donate money to Komen in order to try to fight breast cancer? How about donating to the Berkeley Repertory Theater to support a local theater company?
Just how much impact can a dollar have?
Well, if you want a one sentence answer, here it is: one two thousandth of a life.
That's the answer that GiveWell has reached when evaluating the Against Malaria Foundation, one of their three top rated charities.
GiveWell is an organization that attempts to determine exactly how much impact charities per dollar donated, and they've estimated that the Against Malaria Foundation--a group dedicated to providing anti-mosquito bed nets to developing countries--saves a life for every roughly $2,300 donated. It's of course an imperfect process but I suspect that this number is at least right to an order of magnitude.
How does this compare to the drug addiction charity, or Komen, or the Berkeley Repertory Theater?
Well, let's start with that drug addiction charity. They claim that every $10,000 donated keeps a drug addict clean for the rest of their life. That's about four times the cost that it takes to save a life by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, and it doesn't really save someone's life--just make it better--so it's unlikely to be as efficient a way to donate your money as anti-mosquito bed nets are, but it's in the same ballpark.
OK, how about Komen? Some legitimate concerns exist about Komen, but let's ignore those for a second. Let's also postulate--much more favorably than could possibly be true--that if Komen's budget were permanently multiplied by ten, they could permanently cure breast cancer but that breast cancer would otherwise go uncured. This is about as favorable as one could possibly be to Komen. How would it stack up as a charity, then? Well, it's budget is around $400 million per year, so ten times that is $4 billion per year. Worldwide about 450,000 people die of breast cancer each year, meaning that it cost about $10,000 per life saved. So even under absurdly optimistic assumptions, it seems unlikely that this is the most efficient place to donate your money.
And how about your local theater company? Should you donate to them? Well, in 2009 (the latest year for which the theater put an annual report online) the Berkeley Repertory Theater sat approximately 160,000 audience members total, while spending about $10,000,000 putting on their plays--a total cost of about $63 per audience member. So, for the cost of saving a life in a developing country, you could subsidize about 30 tickets to a play.
These calculations, of course, aren't perfect, but they provide a reasonable baseline for how to evaluate how much good you can do.
In future posts I'll talk about the other things a utilitarian could do with their life, and why I'm not planning on donating any money to the Against Malaria Foundation. But I think it's useful to have a relatively easily quantifiable baseline to compare things to, and a pretty good one is: $2,300 to safe a life by donating money to the Against Malaria Foundation.