How Many Lives Should I Save?
by Julian Savulescu
Toby Ord is a brilliant young Oxford post doc. He has established Giving What We Can. On the website, you can calculate how many lives you could save by giving to the most effective charities he has evaluated. He calculates that even a person on the median salary could save 1350 lives. Here is an example of how Toby calculates the number of lives which could be saved.
Let’s focus on a young adult earning the median income, but really trying to save lives, so prepared to live their life like a grad student (i.e. better than many working class people, but worse than middle class) and not having children.
£18,500 is the UK median personal income
keep £9,000 (= £8,000 after tax)
thus give £9,500 per year * 40 years in work force (a low estimate) = £380,000 = $610,000 USD
divided by 3.41 dollars per DALY (Disease Control Priorities Project, DCP2, page 476) = 180,000 DALYs
divided by 30 DALYs per 'life saved' (a standard conversion) = 6,000 'lives saved'
or more directly $610,000 divided by $450 per death averted (DCP2 midpoint estimate) = 1,350 lives saved
Children cost about £200,000 on average in the UK, so £100,000 per parent (and a family *trying* to keep costs down could do so). If the person had a child, that would lower their overall income by a quarter, lowering the lives saved by a quarter. If they had two children, that would halve the lives saved.
You could compare this with Oskar Schindler who saved just under 1,200 lives.
What Toby argues is that if a person on just the median salary lived a life better than the average person in the working class, he or she could save 1350 lives by donating £9500 per year. For those on higher incomes, the impact on their quality of life would be even less.
Toby has set a compelling challenging that I believe all of us must respond to. Practical Ethics is not about accepting someone else’s reasons or arguments and doing what they think is right. It is about thinking for yourself about their arguments and forming your own judgements of what is right. Toby has a wealth of arguments on his website. I urge you to consider them.
I don’t have any especially good responses to his arguments, at least for people on higher incomes. I myself have existing commitments which I believe I should fulfil. I undertake to commit a minimum of £10 000 per year to Giving What We Can when my commitments to my existing children are complete.