Most activists, in his experience, would launch big campaigns about big issues and do things that they guessed would be beneficial, like running television ads or sending out direct mail, but they never did the work to figure out whether what they were doing was actually changing policy. He couldn’t stand that there were so many bad, inefficient nonprofits out there, eating up donor money. When a business was based on a bad idea, it failed, but nonprofits never failed—they just kept on raising cash from people who wanted to believe in them. He imagined himself travelling around the country as judge and executioner, closing down hundreds of ineffective N.G.O.s.
Larissa MacFarquhar, ‘Requiem for a Dream’, The New Yorker, March 11, 2013
Consider for a moment how you came to be doing the type of activist work you’re doing now. Which of the following better describes what led you down this path?
(a) One day, or perhaps over a period of time, you thought to yourself: “I don’t like suffering and injustice. I don’t like unnecessary death and destruction. How can I reduce as much suffering and destruction of life as possible?”
(b) Personal or circumstantial reasons led you to do the type of work you do: the issue is interesting to you, the issue affects you and your loved ones personally, your friends are involved in this type of work, you had been hearing about it a lot in the media, etc.
Chances are that most of us came to be involved in the work we’re doing for personal or circumstantial reasons. It’s much rarer that someone will make a dispassionate decision to try to create as much change as possible, as described in scenario (a).
Nick Cooney, Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us about Creating Social Change, New York, 2011, p. 20
[T]he sums that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA have spent and are planning to spend on their extensions and renovations would have done more good if they had been used to restore or preserve the sight of people too poor to pay for such treatment themselves. I am not suggesting that these museums should have done that. They were set up for a different purpose, and to use their funds to help the global poor would presumably be a breach of their founding deeds or statutory obligations, and would invite litigation from past donors who could perceive it as a violation of the purposes for which they had donated. (Perhaps, though, the museums could justify, as part of their mission, restoring sight in people who would then be able to visit and appreciate the art they display?)
Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically, New Haven, 2015, chap. 11
[I]n addition to the mathematical illiteracy of at least some respondents, those of us who measure such things as the value of life and health have to face a misplaced sense of righteous indignation. Some studies have shown that about 25% of people in environmental value surveys refused to answer on the grounds that “the environment has an absolute right to be protected” regardless of cost. The net effect, of course, is that those very individuals who would probably bring up the average WTP for the environment are abstaining and making the valuation smaller than it otherwise would be.
But I wonder if this sense of indignation is really a facade. Those same individuals have a choice right now to forgo any luxury, no matter how minor, to give charitable donations on behalf of protecting the environment. Right now, they could quit their jobs and work full time as volunteers for Greenpeace. And yet they do not. Their behaviors often don’t coincide with their claim of incensed morality at the very idea of the question. Some are equally resistant to the idea of placing a monetary value on a human life, but, again, they don’t give up every luxury to donate to charities related to public health.
Douglas Hubbard, How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of “Intangibles” in Business, Hoboken, 2012, 2nd ed., p. 210
I used to live above a small pizzeria and I knew the guy who owned the place. He worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He was there all the time and worked so hard for his little restaurant. I realized one day that I have to work just as hard for a restaurant as I do it for a multi-billion dollar company. If I have the choice, why not go for the big idea.
Ian Eslick, in Max Finger & Oliver Samwer, America’s Most Successful Startups: Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Wiesbaden, 1998, pp. 9-10
For most people, the goal of any altruistic act is simply to do something helpful. Very few of us choose where to donate, where to volunteer, and how to live our lives based on the answer to the question, “How can I do the most possible good in the world?” And yet it is that calculating attitude that is crucial to helping as many animals (or people) as possible.
Nick Cooney, Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom, Brooklyn, New York, 2014, chap. 1
[D]eveloped states have been more willing to appeal to moral values and to use such appeals in justification of initiatives—such as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia—that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. But these appeals only heighten the puzzle. If it makes sense to spend billions to endanger thousands of lives in order to rescue a million people from Serb oppression, would it not make more sense to spend similar sums, without endangering any lives, on leading many millions out of life-threatening poverty?
Thomas Pogge, ‘Priorities of Global Justice’, in Thomas Pogge (ed.), Global Justice, Oxford, 2001, pp. 6-7