A color photograph of a huge stone Buddha in Bodh Gaya, India. The photo is taken from a low angle so the Buddha towers over the viewer. In the foreground, his hands are folded in his lap and they appear enlarged. His distant face is stern.

I spent most of last year earning no income, and I also spent a lot of time learning about Effective Altruism. The EA philosophy, as I understand it, is that people who can afford to be charitable ought to give some money to the most effective charities. We should send money where it will do the most good, even if it helps distant strangers rather than the people we know in our families and communities.

As I said in a dharma talk last year, Effective Altruism bears some resemblance to the principle of “universal goodwill” in my religion, Buddhism. In the Karaniya Metta Sutta, Buddha said:

Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life,
even so, let one cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.

Buddha emphasized the practice of compassion toward all beings, more than effective action to materially benefit them. Here I part ways with the old man. I do not actually care about distant strangers in poor countries. But I can nevertheless muster the willpower to donate ten percent of my income to their material welfare, so now that I’m earning a salary again, that’s what I’m doing. For the moment, I’m donating to the GiveWell Top Charities Fund, it seems like they’re trying hard to optimize effectiveness.

You might have some objections to Effective Altruism: their big donor Sam Bankman-Fried is a criminal, and the Longtermist offshoot has weird ideas. But that doesn’t dissuade me from giving ten percent of my income to effective charities. Scott Alexander has a short and funny essay about criticisms of EA that closely matches my feelings.

You might not agree that we have a moral obligation to help distant strangers. In that case we have different moral foundations, or we reason from different axioms, and arguing about moral foundations leads to the void of nothingness underlying ethics: Why choose some axioms rather than others? Why use logic to reason about right and wrong? I don’t know. I’m probably a nihilist if you corner me, but it feels good to act like a Utilitarian anyway. And it feels good to publish this blog post encouraging you, if you’re able, to act like a Utilitarian too. So please consider donating a substantial portion of your income to effective charities. If you don’t already, I hope my example will inspire you.

Image: Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya.