Hans Husmann (MBA ’22) argues why Effective Altruism is an idea worth considering for every HBS graduate .
Hans Husmann, Contributor
“Imagine there is a house burning and you see people inside. You realize that you hold the key to unlock the door. You could save those people. Sounds like a crazy story, another philosophical thought experiment, but this is a close analogy of what you could do in your lifetime with targeted giving, Hans.”
This is what a friend of mine said to me a couple years ago upon telling him that I had just landed a coveted job and would start earning money now. He introduced me to the world of Effective Altruism, a movement of students that believed philanthropy lacked a consistent measurement of effectiveness; or simply, in case method lingo—how do we maximize the amount of lives saved per dollar given?
Let me elaborate—particularly as the class of 2022 is about to graduate from Harvard Business School—why I am convinced that people like us could find these ideas not only appealing, but also sensible given our earning potential, and perhaps most importantly, the right and good thing to consider.
Effective Altruism as a movement was born out of a group of students around the philosopher Peter Singer. Singer had famously argued in a 1971 essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality that well-off people, if they want to live truly ethically, should give shares of their income to those in need until they reach a point of marginal utility. That is the point, at which the giver would be worse off than the receiver of aid.
Today’s supporters of Effective Altruism are not as drastic, but aim to give a good share of their income (10% typically). They use platforms like GiveWell, which selects the most cost-effective, evidence-based charities, to give their money. Example projects include malaria nets, Vitamin A supplements, or deworming. There is even a construct for MBAs called One For The World, an organization I have been active with here at HBS. At almost all of the leading graduate schools, an increasing number of graduates pledge to give up to one percent of their earnings every year.
Throughout the two years here at the school, we are exposed to many models of what we could do with our lives. You do not have to take ALD or Leadership and Happiness (although I hope you did, highly recommend!) to realize that pure ambition for money and fame without deeper meaning can lead to desolate emptiness down the road.
So what do we do then with the wild and precious life that was given to us? I have great faith in the class of 2022 to make a difference in the world. There are so many problems of inequality, adversity and simple injustice wanting to be solved. What gives me pause however, is fading idealism once we get on the tracks of our comfortable careers. Tracks that are perhaps desirable, but also lead us to a great distance from the rest of society. That is in American society, not even compared to a global outlook.
The median salary plus signing bonus for a graduate of the class of 2021 was near $180,000. That staggering figure puts you into the top 1% income bracket globally. Giving only 1% of your post-tax income amounts to ~100$ a month—not much more than one or two dinners in most places we choose to live. If a section of 70 people would give 1% every year we could save around 28 healthy lives each year based on Effective Altruism calculations on the most effective charities.
Personally, the “I can” on philanthropy feels thus reasonable, even right after graduation. Where it gets more personal is the why “I should.” For me, this is about realizing how much luck has paved my way. We can claim all day how we got to HBS by merit, but it would be foolish to ignore the birth lottery at play—being born into a peaceful society, with health care access to flourish and every need covered, so that we could even contemplate our purpose. That privilege to me comes with a simple obligation to give back where it is needed the most. And to not masquerade as pure selflessness here, I am also inclined to give as it makes me feel better and happier than spending that extra dollar on my own consumption.
In the end there is no debate that the figurative house is burning all around us. Giving back and extinguishing some fires is hopefully something all of us consider in our own individual lives and careers. My classmates and I all have lofty ambitions for what we want to do with our wild and precious lives. But starting this passively with a share of our income is likely the most immediate and realistic chance to “make a difference in the world.”
Hans Husmann (MBA ‘22) was born in Hanseatic Northern Germany and is a European by choice. He loves all sports connected to the water and is an avid reader.