Can we help change the world?

Debate: This is how we could change the world

Everyone knows the feeling. There is so much hardship and misery in the world that one no longer knows where to look and where to help most urgently. And there are so many indications of how one's own behavior could contribute to a better life in a healthier nature and with fairer trade that one no longer knows what is really advisable and possible. The feeling is called being overwhelmed.

William MacAskill claims to have found an answer to this problem. The Scot is only 28 years old and already a professor of philosophy at the British elite University of Oxford. Above all, however, he is the founder of a social movement that calls itself “effective altruism” and that colleagues such as the 70-year-old Australian Peter Singer, an expert on questions of morality, have also joined. What still sounds awkward as “effective altruism” clearly states a goal in MacAskill's words: How can I best help other people, “avoid unwanted harm and instead achieve the greatest possible effect” - like “doing good better”?

And his answer to it and thus also to the feeling of being overwhelmed cannot be found out of the feeling. But through sober research and cool arithmetic. After all, effectiveness can be calculated. So why not also in moral action? You transform the deeply human impulse of wanting to help into a cost-benefit analysis and find the answer in a quantifiable result. Compassion has to pay off - the approach may seem strange; MacAskill's examples presented results are astonishing.

Which donations are useful?

There is, for example, the doctor who plans to help on site in developing countries. But then he compares his suitability, sees the number of applicants for such positions and asks himself whether there are objectively more sensible ways for his subjective needs. Indeed, it turns out that at home in England he has an exceptionally good chance of high wages and that he can help more if he donates a larger part of it. MacAskill has even made such considerations its own branch of the initiative, a kind of career advice: "80000 hours", named after the average working hours in a human life, offers orientation on how everyone can be most useful with his or her requirements.

This begs the question of where such donations most sensibly go. The philosopher carefully researched the effectiveness of aid organizations in the use of funds. And this shows that in the fight against malaria, for example, it was not the large medical projects but the distribution of simple mosquito nets that saved the most lives. “According to the most careful estimates, it costs around $ 3,400 to save a human life in developing countries,” MacAskill calculates. That's 3000 euros. And because human lives are in principle worth the same, but can be saved for different amounts of money, the philosopher looks exclusively at the poorest of the poor. He calculates that the eradication of smallpox in 1977 avoided between 60 and 120 million deaths. The movement also includes a branch of policy advice, the “Global Priorities Project”, a think tank that aims to provide impetus where government agencies should also look to the most urgent issues.

The effective design of our life

When it comes to organizing our lives as effectively as possible, apart from work and donations, the philosopher also does away with a lot. To reject T-shirts from factories in Bangladesh because of the wage slaves there and to rely on fair trade products: not only ineffective, but often harmful. And on the environmental balance: "A hot bath increases the carbon footprint more than a phone charger that is plugged in for a year." The most effective methods for reducing our emissions: restricting meat consumption ("In particular, by avoiding beef, you can save about save a ton of CO2 equivalent ”), travel less (less driving = up to two tons), reduce electricity and gas consumption (insulation of a detached house = one ton) - or, even more effectively,“ climate compensation ”by paying for projects that avoid emissions elsewhere.

So can it be clearly calculated how the world is to be changed? Is it morally right that we automatically end up with the poorest of the poor and not with our neighbor? There are already heated discussions about this. Critics accuse the effective altruists around MacAskill and Singer of thinking that their thinking is technology-obsessed and apolitical, yes, "capitalist kid stuff" - it is downright absurd that here moral behavior is also judged by the standards of the economy, which is mostly nothing other than one Buying freedom from responsibility means.

But one thing remains virulent in all of this. MacAskill's statistical answer to why we should help. Because we can. He does the math: starting with a monthly salary of 2500 euros, we are among the five richest, and from 43,000 euros per year we are already among the richest percent of the world's population. And he wants to make it clear: "A good life includes strengthening the weakest." And Peter Singer adds the essential feedback for the helper himself: "By doing the best possible for others, you give your own life meaning."

Those who join the effective altruists undertake to donate at least ten percent of their income for the rest of their life. Around 650,000 euros have already been collected as a result. This makes it possible to save 220 lives in developing countries.

William MacAskill: Doing good better. How we can change the world with effective altruism. Ullstein, 288 pages, 18 ¤

Peter Singer: Effective Altruism. Suhrkamp, ​​240 pages, ¤ 24.95