Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What does it mean to be an effective altruist? A fascinating podcast interview has the answer

We are (mostly) happy to help people who are less fortunate than we are, provided it doesn't cost us too much in terms of time, effort, and money.

So how do you account for people who go out of their way to provide succour to those in need, no matter what it costs them in terms of time, effort, and money?

That was the subject of a fascinating Bookworm podcast discussion between host Michael Silverblatt and New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar, which I was privileged to listen to recently.

I was so impressed I not only ordered MacFarquhar's book, which focuses on what she calls "effective altruism"; I also urged my students to listen to the interview and submit their impressions in a short article afterwards. "There is no word limit," I told them, "but there are two conditions: You must use your imagination and you must make it interesting to read."

Out of the 30 or so submissions, I found Shreya Roy's write-up to be exceptional, so here it is for your reading pleasure:


Life. What is this life we are living? Have you ever taken a minute out of your life to think about life? By that I mean taking the time out of your busy schedule to think about the lives of others out there and not your own.

Just one minute. That’s all it takes.

Unfortunately we all know the answer to that question. We don’t! And why would we want to think about other people’s lives anyway. We are so busy struggling with our own we never think about what others are going through in life. We complain over and over again. Unfortunately, life isn’t a bed of roses.

There is just one word to define us individuals. Selfish.

Yes, that’s right. We are selfish human beings. All we think about is ‘I’ rather than ‘you’. We always see life from our own perspective rather than someone else’s.

Take a moment to think about what it would be to like to live the life of someone who has never seen her own mother or father. How would her life be different from that of yours? Does she even get 1% of the love that you get? What are her feelings? What goes through her mind every second of the day? Put yourself in her shoes for once.

Fortunately (and unfortunately for some of us), there are certain people in this life who care more about others than about themselves. They care about being effective irrespective of what others think of them. They are extremists in their own way of life and would go to any extent to help the needy, give them the love they deserve. These especially good Samaritans are the focus of Larissa MacFarquhar's first book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.

Strangers Drowning talks about many different kinds of people who have committed themselves to helping others in an extreme way. It’s more to do with "effective altruism", which is so rare to find these days.

And it is these altruists who make a difference in this world. They see things from a different perspective. Why? Because that is what gives them a reason to live. To serve society this way. They feel if they can have the means to buy branded clothes, why can’t they use the same amount of money to save a life? Precisely why MacFarquhar has included in her book the story of an American couple who adopt two children in distress. But then they think: If they can change two lives, why not four? Or ten? They adopt 20. But how do they weigh the needs of unknown children in distress against the needs of the children they already have?

It is interesting that MacFarquhar would never put herself in the category of the people she is writing about. She doesn’t believe in being an altruist herself, precisely why, she says, she became a writer. The fact that she put herself out there to find out more about what drives such people itself is praiseworthy. Not only does MacFarquhar put herself in their shoes but she also tries to explain what true effective altruism is all about.

Strangers Drowning showcases a world of strangers drowning in need and the different ways by which these do-gooders help to make their world a better place.

Moreover, is it right to care for strangers even at the expense of those we are closest to? Strangers Drowning challenges us to think about what we value most, and why.

Now that you have read Shreya's well-articulated thoughts on the podcast interview, surely you will want to listen in on that absorbing conversation between Michael Silverblatt and Larissa MacFarquhar? Yes? Just head on over to the Bookworm website  click here.
  • To learn more about the gifted host of Bookworm, read this interview. You can also learn what things to avoid when conducting an interview.
  • And to learn more about Larissa MacFarquhar, check out this interview in The Guardian.
  • Back in May last year, Shreya Roy had written a post for The Commits Chronicle about why she was glad she was joining Commits. Read her piece here.