The Case For Selfish Charity

While walking towards the beach on her vacation, Emily comes across a group of kids. After getting closer, Emily realizes there are 10 children under the age of 5 and an elderly man, all holding each other, crying. Feeling curious, Emily asks the elderly man why they are crying. The old man tells her that the kids have Pakidis disease and will be dead within the month.

Having read an article on the plane about Pakidis, Emily excitedly shouts “don’t you know, there’s a cure for Pakidis! All you need is one pill and it goes away forever”. The old man sadly murmurs, “of course we know that, but those pills cost $3000 each, and we have no money”. Emily responds “so you’re telling me that if I had $30,000, I could save the lives of these ten young children? Wow, that sucks for them” and then proceeds to walk to the nearby beach. The children all die within the month, but Emily has long forgotten about them as she enjoys the rest of her vacation and goes back to her busy life in Canada.


There’s only been one thought that crushed my worldview, that consumed me, that made me revaluate everything I know.

It costs a trivial amount of money to save a life.

It costs $5.15 for one bug net to be distributed in Malawi. For every 550 bug nets distributed, one child under the age of five will be saved. Yes, for $2838 dollars, you can prevent a child from getting infected with Malaria and dying. This isn’t even including all the non-fatal cases of Malaria prevented, or the other diseases avoided, or the lives of anyone over the age of 5 that’s saved.

Charities like this are rigorously tested, supported by strong evidence and documentation, and do not have any of the negative concerns sometimes associated with foreign aid. Yet, even though it is this cheap to make such a large impact, thousands of kids are needlessly dying every year because nobody buys them bug nets.

When you ask someone why they would jump into a river to save a drowning stranger, even though they will get wet, and cold, and ruin their clothing, they tell you, it’s because they ought to do it, because it’s the right thing to do.

Everybody enthusiastically agrees that if they saw someone dying, they would go out of their way to save them, whether that means writing a cheque, diving into a river or donating their time. But yet, when the stranger dying is out of sight, nobody is willing to save them, even if it’s just as easy.

How can it be that someone feels morally obligated to save a life when they see it in front of them, but reject the same moral obligation just because it is far away? If you are selflessly donating to help others, how can you not buy the bug nets?

The answer became clear to me after enough reflection. The reason I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to donate large amounts of money to saving children in Africa is that despite the moral conundrum, I still didn’t care. I realized that the only reason I would jump into a river to save someone drowning is not out of an ethical obligation, but because if I didn’t, I would feel sad. Conversely, if I saved the stranger, I would have felt great. I realized that my altruism was not driven by ethics, but a desire to placate my emotions.

Every time you buy something, you are making a tradeoff. When you buy the luxury model for your car, you are allowing children to die. If you ask yourself, what’s more important, getting the car with heated seats, or saving someones life, the answer is clear. But if the answer is clear (saving a life will win almost every single conceivable tradeoff), then why do you still choose the heated seats? I believe that if someone chooses the heated seats over saving a life, they cannot be altruistic.

To give an example: if you are constructing the roster for a professional basketball team with unlimited resources and instead of signing Lebron James, you sign your son to the team; can it really be said your concern is helping the team win? Sure, your son adds some value to the team, but it’s pretty clear that you are choosing to help someone you identify with because it makes you happy. In terms of impact, efficient charities are like signing Lebron James; inefficient Western charities are akin to buying a nice painting for the team’s dressing room.

I believe this example can be translated to philanthropy in general. The reason why people don’t buy bug nets to save African lives is that people are not driven by altruism, but driven by the motivation to enrich themselves. If you are acting altruistically to help others, then it shouldn’t matter the borders, the nationalities, the ethnicities, you should be doing whatever creates the greatest good.


Altruism has an important evolutionary origin. Helping ‘others’ with no benefit to oneself is necessary in building the required trust needed for bonding with potentially dangerous ‘others’. If you see someone struggling and expect to run into them in the future, it pays to help them now in case you might need help from them later. Being able to assist ‘others’ and cooperate was essential in our development of clans and eventually, societies. Considering that we’re bred for it, it is not surprising that altruism makes us feel good.

After a group of people were given $100 and asked to divide the money between themselves and a local food bank, fMRI scans of their brains showed activation of the ventral striatum, an area associated with pleasure and reward, also targeted by actions such as doing cocaine or seeing beautiful people. Those who donated more money in Germany were polled as have higher life satisfaction. After seniors were asked to give infants massages every week, they showed an improvement in health and stress reduction. In another study, simply asking people to engage in random acts of kindness led to an increase in happiness levels. In one experiment where people were given either a sum of money to spend on themselves or others by 5PM that day, those who were asked to spend their money on others reported greater levels of happiness.

Charity also has another positive effect; it signals to your community that you are a certain type of person. Donating to charity signals a certain level of wealth, that you are a good person, that you adhere to other people’s values, that you are part of their tribe. It might even give you status and power if you donate enough. To prove this effect, one study showed that in charity campaigns where donors were given recognition based on the tier of money they donated in (ie $100-200, 200-300, 300-400), people kept giving the smallest amount to make the next tier.


There are groups of people who donate as much money as their salary allows, once a year, only to the most effective charity. These people do not do this to make themselves feel good, but because they feel ethically obligated to help as much as they can.

I encourage everyone to start donating effectively. The world would certainly be a better place if everyone did. However, if people recognize that they aren’t willing to donate to the most important causes, they should also recognize that they are not donating out of altruism, but because it benefits themselves.

My belief is that it is important to accept the selfish reasons for donating, because once you do so, you can begin to get the greatest benefit out of your charity. One of the ways this is possible is by looking at charity like any other consumption purchase. Ask yourself, what will make you happier; spending $25 to go out for dinner, or giving $25 to the Humane Society.

I have many friends who have volunteered in African countries. On face value using the classical definition of charity, this seems like a horrible idea. These individuals could have donated the thousands of dollars they spent on their trip to effective charities and made a far greater impact. I believe this is the wrong approach. These trips likely offered an exciting new life experience, were deeply enriching, provided wonderful memories and left the volunteer feeling great about themselves. This sounds like a great trip!

Accepting this allows us to take advantage of some counterintuitive notions of charity. Typically, people with debt are advised not to donate to charity until they can afford it. If even donating insignificant amounts of money will make you feel great, then it is worth the interest you pay. Similarly, charities recommend donors only give to one charity, once a year, or create a system where they give recurring donations directly from their bank account. If one wants to capitalize on the benefits of charity, they should be giving to many different charities, on a frequent basis where each time, they spend time thinking about where they should donate to. This is important as the time spent looking at all the charities and the variety will make you feel even better.



***** many people like to argue giving to political/policy movements is more important than saving lives, because it has the potential for far broader effects. I believe this is a poor argument, because aside from being impossible to measure the effects of the donation, we simply have no idea what policies will lead to improvements. It is not as simple as saying “if only country X replaced their tyrant with fair elections, everybody would be better off”.

******** if you are interested in learning more about effective charities, I encourage you to look up the effective altruism movement and GiveWell at