The Trigg Response

How much are we guided by rational principle? As a matter of rational principle, it doesn’t matter if a helpless person is half a pond away or an ocean away. Yet most of us would save a drowning child, when the cost to ourselves is fairly minimal, only if that child is physically right in front of us.

Jason Trigg is an exception. Impressed by the inescapable force of Singer’s argument, which he encountered in philosophy class one day as a student at MIT, Jason Trigg has set out to save as many lives as he can. The way to do that, he calculated, is to make a lot of money and give it away. According to the Washington Post article:
"Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn. The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer. Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan. Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do. He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.” (Dylan Matthews, "Join Wall Street, Save the World." Washington Post, 2013 May 31. ARTICLE HERE)
What do you think of that story? It’s a rare thing, even for an MIT student majoring in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), to have such a moral commitment that is so abstract, so cognitive and principled, as Jason Trigg’s. (In his TED talk, Peter Singer mentions a few other examples of people like Jason. See video below, or CLICK HERE.)

And I’m not sure what to think of a case like that. Is this where his deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? He’s addressing the world’s need, but if he isn’t also addressing his own needs for human connection, relationship, then his virtue – a virtue that begins as what flows forth from connection – is oddly disconnecting. There's at least a disconnect between the people he's around, day-to-day, and the people toward whom his compassion is directed.

Our cognitive -- our rational and principled -- capacity is essential. We'd be wrecks without that capacity modulating our limbic energy. At the same time, the cognitive, rational, and principled can sometimes get in the way of the emotional awareness that is the source of real connection. (This, I take it, is the basis of David Brooks' complaint about Jason Trigg: SEE HERE.)

My hope for Jason Trigg, altruists like him, and for all of us, is that however far we go with cognitive commitment to good principles, we will also attend to cultivating our awareness of emotional connection – take up the trainings in the ways of heartfelt compassion in relations to people around us, face to face and hand to hand.

Singer's Recommended Websites:

Giving What We Can http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/
80,000 Hours http://80000hours.org/
The Life You Can Save http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/
Give Well http://www.givewell.org/
Effective Animal Activism http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Why Not Evil?"
Previous: Part 3: "Professor Singer Makes a Point"
Beginning: Part 1: "Two Questions"

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