The Goods Of The Human Saga

Stories. Connection. Altruism.

Out of focus, someone is shot in the background of a movie. The perspective of the camera tells us that that death is an inconsequential detail. But what if, for a minute, we were able to fill that character’s shoes, behold his or her same gaze and from it knew our fate from the path of that bullet? Every death, be it the major or the minor role, bears the same apocalyptic enormity to the one dying. It does not matter whose story is being told, put on the scale the weights balance.

Casualties of war--a misnomer. Regardless of whether that death came with many others in a battle, there is nothing casual about any single death. It’s always the end of a world. We all play the lead role in our own story even if that story is nothing more than another untold tale of an ordinary life. To grasp this is to know that available to us is an acute awareness of another’s misfortune. It’s this connection that helps to bridge the gap between those that suffer and those able to end it.

The world is wild and spectacular enough to keep pace with our most imaginative fictions. But truth carries weight. Whether something could happen feels categorically different than something that did happen. It’s empathy to one that lived those stories and bore the burden of suffering or the weightlessness of triumph. Real life is what matters. And it’s those true stories told from both the distant shores of strength and fragility, the waters calm and rough in between, that connect us. And this is the goods of the human saga—our stories, the connection, and the help that follows.

What if we could rewrite that story of the death out of focus? Our intuitions as to what charitable efforts help the most are not well calibrated (1, 2), and the best charities do orders of magnitude more to alleviate suffering than the weakest (3, 4). Our efforts to improve the lives of others benefit from empirical research, creativity, reason, experiment, peer review, and iterative improvements. We find compelling evidence as to what significantly improves our world: humans, other species, the environment, both close to and far from us. This is altruism most effective. And this is GiveWell’s specialty. An independent organization tasked to find the charities that deliver on what matters the most. Be it vitamin supplementation to avert child mortality, deworming people in low-income countries, or providing insecticide-treated bed-nets to prevent malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. Five minutes and six mouse clicks away we can save a life (5). Their efforts deliver and the impact matters. It’s the best we have and worthy of our consideration.

We could set up monthly automated giving of even a small amount and not have to think more about it again, knowing we are significantly contributing to the greater good of our world. The result being that your very existence on Earth meant that others benefited. We could write our wills so that a portion of our estate goes to the organization best suited to contribute the most towards human flourishing when we are no longer here. To think that our inevitable passing will bring with it lights lit where once was darkness, cultivation where once was barren, rewriting the story of a death out of focus. That we saved one is to save a world.

I’d enjoy hearing from you if this article swayed you to donate to GiveWell or another project in Effective Altruism. And for every like, share, comment, or email I get regarding this post, I’ll donate 10$ to GiveWell.

Other projects in the general category of Effective Altruism:  

*There is an important difference between GiveWell and Charity Navigator. GiveWell is evaluating how effective a charity is at improving the lives of others and our world, “We look for top charities that meet our criteria of being evidence-backed, cost-effective, transparent, and in need of additional funding.”. While Charity Navigator is, “Rating charities by evaluating financial health and accountability & transparency.” (
7). And in their own words, “Our system does not currently evaluate the quality of the programs and services a charity provides.” (8). At the end of the day, what they aren’t measuring is what matters most.

*Blog thumbnail image istockphoto.

Tom Stewart1 Comment