Deaths of the Most Helpful

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Woyimba’s idea that pleased me was that each of us should donate a lot of money to help the poor abroad. His “deep pool” thought experiment it shows why. When you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, you may feel obligated to save them even if it means ruining your new shoes. But then, Singer said, you can save the life of a starving child overseas by donating a new pair of shoes that would otherwise be wasted. And you can save one child’s life by donating instead of buying a new shirt, and another instead of eating out. Your religious beliefs require you to send almost all of your money overseas, where it would go a long way to saving lives. After all, what can we do with our money that is more important than saving lives?

It is the most famous argument in modern philosophy. It goes beyond the assumptions that lead the best people to give aid – that all human lives are precious, that extreme poverty is dangerous, and that those in good health have a responsibility to help. Singer’s unwavering “shallow pool” concept takes a lot of dedication. It has he told others give almost all their money even a kidney.

In 1998, I was not ready to make extreme sacrifices; but at least, I thought, I can find charities that save many lives. I started to create a website (now beyond parody) that will show evidence on the best ways to give – that will show volunteers, you might say, how to be more effective. Then I went to Indonesia.

A friend of mine who worked at the World Wildlife Fund invited me to a 1000th birthday party, so I saved my first professor’s salary and left for Bali. My friend’s bungalow, it turned out, was a hotbed for young aid workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, fleeing to Bali for New Year’s R&R.

These young workers included Oxfam, Save the Children, other UN agencies. And they were all tired. A gentle Dutchman told me that he slept on top of a pig on a remote island and had fever so often that he stopped taking blood tests. Two weary Brits told of dealing with local troublemakers who regularly find them stealing their equipment. They all washed, drank a lot of alcohol, rested for a few days. When we decided to cook dinner together, I took my chance to explore.

“Let’s say you had a million dollars,” I asked when they started eating. “What alms can you give?” They looked at me.

“No, really,” I said, “which treatment saves more lives?”

“None of them,” said one Australian girl with a laugh. Story after story came about the daily frustrations of their jobs. The corrupt local authorities, the ignorant benevolent bosses, the daily influx of poor people trying something new without offending them. By dessert, these good people, who gave their young lives to end poverty, were talking about lying in bed one night, hoping that their work would do more good than harm.

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