Give it away

Supposedly it takes an “extraordinary altruist” to donate a kidney to a stranger. I call bullshit on this assumption. Having frequently donated my body and time for medical research, I suspect that many kidney donors (and I may be among them soon, now that I’ve been reminded again of that opportunity) have decided that they aren’t worth much except as spare parts for others. Of course they have to convince the medical staff that they don’t have a “psychiatric condition requiring treatment.” But that should be a no-brainer (or no-kidney) for a psychopath who’s desperate to downsize his organs.

Heck, I convinced an Alzheimer’s researcher last week that I’m not only compos mentis but also mens sana. This just a day before I began treatment with yet another psychotherapist. Luckily the question about suicidal tendencies on the PHQ-9, an instrument designed to diagnose depression, was phrased so that I could honestly answer it in the negative. Had I had “thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself”? Absolutely not! My fear of hurting myself is a big deterrent to commiting suicide. And “better off dead”? That’s nonsensical. It’s other people, and the planet itself, that would benefit from my death. I won’t be around anymore to care.

So meanwhile I have a new therapist, one who isn’t afraid to take on someone who hopes to die sooner rather than later. Maybe I should be concerned about her lack of concern, but it probably stems from her being “neuro-atypical” (her word) like me. When our time together is up, I will probably know more about her than vice versa. It’s the first time I’ve had such a logorrheic therapist. I figure that none of the others helped a whole lot, so I’ll try listening instead of talking for a change.

But enough about my favorite subject. What I really meant to write about was altruism, a condition from which I clearly don’t suffer. Yes, I volunteer to help people with their various problems and projects, but I do it so that I will feel useful, not out of any degree of selflessness.

The hottest new concept in philanthropy is effective altruism, which posits that one should determine which charities are quantitatively better, e.g., how many lives or trees they save. Seen in this light, donating a kidney isn’t altruistic at all, let alone extraordinarily so. Effective altruism requires that you spend the same amount of time, money, or body parts to save dozens of other lives, not just one. Even donating both kidneys wouldn’t increase your numbers by much, though it might qualify you for sainthood.

One tenet of the effective altruism movement is expressed in this slogan, which you may recognize from NPR underwriting credits: “All lives have equal value.” I disagree that the life of a hard-working, useful individual has the same value as that of a useless eater, but that’s not what Bill and Melinda mean. Rather they exhort us to value a child we don’t know in Equatorial Guinea as much as we do our neighbor’s kid (or, presumably, our own). That definition of equality, which I have no quarrel with, makes it easier to compare charities quantitatively, but I still think that wihin every community, whether near or far, there are some people who contribute more than others.

Of course “all lives” doesn’t include animals. The Gateses don’t seem to care much about them except insofar as animal health and productivity affect human welfare. Which is kind of sad considering that some species of animal, e.g., humpback whales, are probably the only true altruists among us.



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