Bioethics Blogs

What Kind of Altruism is Most Effective?

Imagine that you have been left a large legacy, and would like to donate it to a charity, with a view to doing the most good possible.

It’s natural to think that one set of charities you should consider are those which cheaply save people’s lives, and perhaps particularly young people’s lives. For then you can count the good in the rest of those people’s lives as a good you’ve brought about.

In fact, the calculation has to be a bit more complicated than this. If you want to produce the most good overall, then you have to take future generations into account, and remember that people use resources. Let’s assume that, other things equal, future people matter as much as present people (just as people distant from us in space matter as much as people closer to us). If you save a life now, and claim that this is part of doing the most good, then this commits you to the view that the resources which will be consumed by the person you’ve saved are probably better used by them than by some future person or people. That’s a hard thing to show, especially when one takes into account that human beings are likely to use resources more efficiently in the future and that our current use of resources threatens the existence of future people.

Of course, by saving someone’s life, you will also prevent a good deal of suffering which their friends and relatives would otherwise have experienced. But grief, though bad, seems considerably less bad than certain diseases which, though they do not kill those whom they affect, cause severe and chronic suffering.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.