One topic that really interested me when learning more about Effective Altruism was the idea that our biases can get in the way of doing the most good. What pointed this out to me in the clearest way was the train problem. This problem asks you a series of questions about if you would rather pull a lever to cause a train to kill one person, or let the train run over five people, and other variations of this question. The point of asking these uncomfortable questions is to get you to start thinking about helping people that you don’t have a connection to or even see in your daily life.
Do you have an obligation to help those who live halfway across the world? Why should you donate to a charity that has no effect on your community? Can you trust your gut instincts? These are all questions that came into my head after participating in this train problem set. I wanted to understand more about why I should be so keen to stop looking around my own community for charities to donate to and start looking around the whole world for where my donation will go the farthest.
This separation of emotion and reason was extremely difficult for me to initially grasp. For the example of animal suffering: why should I care about factory farming when there are people who do not have access to clean water, or are homeless in my own neighborhood. This dilemma was so hard for me to understand until I started thinking about it in Effective Altruism terms. The EA community is trying to turn people toward doing the most with their donation whether that be their time or money. For factory farming, it is an extremely neglected issue where funding is severely limited and the number of volunteers working toward a solution is considered understaffed compared to the scale of the issue.
By focusing more resources on this issue, a greater impact can be made than donating to issues that already have an incredible amount of funding or issues where your dollar will not go the same length. Other examples of helping extremely cost effective organizations are projects focusing on undeveloped countries where your dollar is more meaningful. Organizations that distribute malaria nets, help deworm children, and provide medicine to children in Africa are all charities where your funding can do more good if you gave the homeless person on the street a dollar. While this may be uncomfortable to think about at first, because you see the homeless person suffering and you don’t see children across the world suffering, with EA principles, it is about helping the world as a whole become a better place and helping the most amount of people in order to make a difference.