My journey toward understanding altruism better began with my father. I was fortunate enough to learn many habits of financial generosity and honesty from him, but mostly the lesson that excess should be used for the greater good. At that time, there was no internet or significant scientific research to help people identify where money could most likely accomplish this greater good, but that was always the context for how I viewed generosity as I became an adult.
This was further honed throughout college and medical school by my maturing Christian faith. In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer correctly notes that the teachings of Jesus and his followers in the early church leave no excuse for accumulating excess at the poor’s expense. To see people under the label of Christianity give and spend wealth for little more than fancy buildings and relatively expensive social programs rarely focused on the world’s neediest—spiritually or physically—has become unacceptable to me, something I am working hard in many ways to reverse. But I think the largest contribution to effective altruism that faith has provided me is Jesus’ challenge to define generosity by the amount one keeps just as much as by the amount one gives (Mark 12:41-44). As Mr. Singer sensitively but rightly points out, those who are able to give billions do a lot of good that should be recognized, but they don’t provide a helpful model of generosity for the rest of us, communicating that it’s still necessary to keep millions of dollars to live off in order to be that generous.
My wife and I were looking for a more universally applicable way to practice altruism, and ironically, the impetus came when we were the poorest we’ll probably ever be: at the end of medical school. Buried under a mountain of what I was told was “good” debt, I dreamed one day with my fellow trainees in the hospital cafeteria about what we would do with our money once we actually had some! The typical responses regarding houses, cars, and boats were proposed, and then I rather naively blurted, “I plan to give most of the extra income to the greater good.” One resident drilled his eyes into me and flatly stated, “No you won’t.” Well, there’s no better motivation for a Type-A, slightly prideful person than that sort of challenge, and from that very moment, I was determined to always give more and keep less in order to support the greatest good.
My more humble wife was nonetheless fully on board, especially since we had so little money that we didn’t know what we would be giving up! Throughout residency, we solidified the mindset that our family would never live off more than the US median income (excluding our income taxes, education debt, and adoption expenses). Keeping expenditures at a fixed amount is an approach anyone can easily implement and confirm, wherever they are best challenged to set the bar, so we made that our commitment. Importantly, we also strove to make the crucial decisions about dwellings, neighborhoods, and social circles necessary to keep that commitment.
You might think our story became much more difficult when we had more excess to spend, but the transition into my Radiology practice did not feel at all sacrificial. Because we were so used to living below our means, we’ve easily achieved our goal every year, typically underspending without even trying. Because our new house and neighborhood aren’t any more affluent than previously, we enjoy a more ethnically and economically diverse social circle, perfect for our two African-American sons. Because we still have to cut some corners and look for bargains, we are better able to appreciate people more generous than us who still give while keeping much less. Because we live off a fixed amount of money, we paid off our debt and mortgage much faster than we would have otherwise and now enjoy freedom from those constraints. That brought even more excess not “available” to us, and it has been immensely fulfilling donating that to the most effective partners serving the most needy populations that we have the most passion for. The happiness of having things is truly minimal (especially when maintaining/repairing/replacing them!) compared to the fulfillment of being who you were created to be for those in the most need who you were created to serve.
When I read The Life You Can Save (and Doing Good Better by William MacAskill), I felt affirmed and further challenged to get even more out of altruism, and I am thankful for both books and authors. As a scientist and person of faith, I highly value objectively-proven effective aid to those who will benefit most. Directing much of our giving to Against Malaria Foundation and GiveDirectly was one important result of reading these books, and my wife and I are intentionally challenging our faith community and more fully engaging in the Effective Altruism community as well. We now know how much human joy, health, and fulfillment—for ourselves and many others—gets sacrificed by setting aside the grand opportunity of saving the lives you can, yet it’s a loss none of us needs to endure. Best to you and your pursuit of the greatest good for those most in need!