A Call to Open Minded Altruists: Effective Altruism Hong Kong

April 12, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

A Call to Open Minded Altruists: Effective Altruism Hong Kong
Miranda Yeung
Photo Courtesy of Effective Altruism Hong Kong

“Are you a vegan, or a vegetarian?” Brian Tse, Effective Altruism Hong Kong’s founder and HKU Philosophy student asked. I paused.

“Neither… And yourself?”

“98% vegan.” The other arbitrary 2%? Birthday cakes, he revealed with an easy grin, setting the tone for the EA’s monthly meet-up.

I soon discovered I was surrounded on my left and right by another vegan and a vegetarian, the latter a choice a little more “palatable” for those new to devoting their lives to “effective altruism”. This explained then the choice of our location. The sixteen of us were squashed beside the large glass-fronted windows of Central’s HOME – Eat to Live, a vegan favorite of Hong Kong Island’s health and ethically conscious elite. Perched on one of the little wooden tables that dot the downstairs space was an understated paper pyramid, printed with the words, “Effective Altruism”.
EAHK’s origin story traces back to April 2015, when Chapter founder, Brian Tse, then a student on exchange in the United States seeking a hobby and a direction, was drawn to the movement that proposed the idea of empirically doing good. Effective Altruism encourages the donation of at least 10% of one’s income, or future income, to charities that are mathematically efficient: least amount of money given to a maximum number of lives saved. “The idea was fascinating and I wanted to stay involved with this community.”

He gesticulated as he spoke, a conviction in the deep, measured voice. He would soon discover that in neither Hong Kong nor in fact, anywhere else in Asia could another chapter be found and then it dawned, “why don’t I do it”. “There’s a limit to what I can do as an individual,” he added, “it would be the equivalent of doubling my impact if I convinced somebody else to join, and if I found three…” That was it, a chapter had to be formed.

The idea blossomed. Among the thirty or so friends Brian called, nudged and pestered, a small number responded and the city chapter, Effective Altruism Hong Kong, was founded in September of that year. A year in, Brian has taken a step back and a new leadership team, helmed by Cynthia Chen, a former meet-up participant turned Executive Director and current Business Design and Innovation & Computer Science major at HKU, has taken on the task of urging the unconverted to “incorporate these ideas into their lives” and to “act on them”, the organisation’s ultimate goals.

At first glance a classically soft-spoken Chinese beauty, Cynthia seemed to switch on as the circle began to split off into little groups, deftly fielding the queries of her audience about EAHK’s work and philosophy with facts and figures from the Effective Altruism website and research from organisations like GiveWell, a non-profit that aims to mathematically calculate charity cost-effectiveness.

Effective Altruism itself, as Cynthia explained, was a utilitarian philosophy that combined logical cause prioritization with the “heart and desire to create value”, a commitment towards doing actions for good that were both effective, efficient and transparent. The same amount of money put into malaria nets could save many more lives, than could the same amount of money invested into a hospital in a developed countries, reasons EA, and so members are encouraged to donate money towards charities who lack funding, who provide transparent account of budgetary use and who provide cheap solutions to cause of preventable death. This extends further and members are encouraged to volunteer only if they have the necessary skills to provide specialized help. Better to work and donate than to waste time adding very little value.

It is very difficult to argue against donating to “effective” charities and Cynthia’s delivery was eloquent, persuasive. Nevertheless, her audience were just as quick to point out their concerns. What of the trade-off in self-actualization that comes with donating money instead of volunteering, one student asks, does that count for nothing? Cynthia nodded as if she has heard it all before, pausing just a second after the question before saying. “We’re not denying the value of volunteering in allowing one to become a more altruistic person. More social awareness is positive in the long term, but in the short term, it could do more harm.

Consider how the “orphanage industry” has affected Cambodia.” Parents in poverty in Cambodia are now more likely to send their children to orphanages safe in the knowledge their children will receive an education, often supported by foreign NGOs, without taking into account how growing up without a stable home and family could affect the children’s long-term well-being, results from a UNICEF study in 2011. What of the value of history and knowledge, certainly immeasurable by EA’s yardstick of human lives? How can one even define “effective”? And why are EA advocated more qualified to determine effectiveness?
Cynthia admits that all of this is debatable and “there is no ultimate truth and answer”, but the same intellectual challenge that that drew her back will bring others to them. For at its most successful, the meet-up becomes an open conversation about more than just altruism and effective action. Over veggie burgers and coconut water, participants discuss the value of research, the importance of mental health, the future of climate change, the threat of artificial intelligence … It becomes a space for people who care deeply about doing good and believe in human potential to question and be questioned, and EAHK’s greatest achievement may be the variety of people they have managed to gather and the implications of this diversity. Tonight’s circle has drawn over half a dozen curious attendees, HKU students interspersed between a wellness instructor looking to bring mindfulness to the workplace, a member of a tech social incubator, at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, altruists all seeking to create a positive impact in the world but currently tackling the issues from different angles.
As I am about to leave, I ask Cynthia to pitch EAHK to me. As an HKU student, why they were worth my time. Her answer, though unexpected, struck to the core of the Effective Altruist philosophy of maximizing efficiency. “We would not urge them to join.” She replies and at my look of confusion continues, “We are providing an opportunity. We only actually target those with the highest likelihood of conversion: those who are open-minded and like intellectual conversation.” Everyone else? Perhaps the lifestyle isn’t for them anyway.

Effective Altruism holds monthly meetups and runs a discussion session every Friday afternoon from 2:30 to 3:20 in the CAES Advisory Zone.

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