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People on bridge Long Wei/ Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

Extreme Altruism

In the book Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar profiles people who live according to highly demanding moral standards – and notes the hostility and dismissiveness with which others react to those stories. Perhaps many people view altruistic people's lives as a standing reproach to their own.

PRINCETON – More than 40 years ago, in an essay entitled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” I invited readers to imagine that they are walking past a shallow pond when they see a small child who has fallen in and seems to be drowning. You could easily rescue the child, but your expensive new shoes would be ruined. Would it be wrong to ignore the child and walk on?

When I ask audiences for a show of hands on that question, they are usually unanimous in saying that it would be wrong to put one’s shoes first. I then point out that by donating to a charity that protects children in developing countries from malaria, diarrhea, measles, or inadequate nutrition, we can all save a child’s life.

It’s a simple argument, until we realize that, having saved one child by donating to an effective charity, we have the opportunity to save another, and another, and another. Must we stop all spending on luxuries, so that we can save yet another life, giving until giving more would make us as poor as those we are helping?

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