Pick some low-hanging fruit
Why not? It's easy!
When people are starving, why not help out by picking some low-hanging fruit? Beneficentrism turns this into a moral principle: it’s really important to help others—the more, the better. But it doesn’t demand that you immiserate yourself in order to do it. If you’re scared of heights, feel free to leave the top branches for others. There’s plenty else you could comfortably do, which is still very much worth doing. This basic help doesn’t require hardcore dedication or self-sacrifice. You can have other goals that are more important to you personally, and still make an extraordinary—life-changing, even life-saving—difference to others, just by helping out with the low-hanging fruit.
Anyone reading this is likely in the top percentiles of the global income distribution. Historically, many people in much poorer economies have comfortably tithed 10% to their church. Given how much richer our society is today, it’s surely even easier (at least for many) to give comparable amounts to those in need today, saving and improving lives at a cost of approximately $100 per quality-adjusted life year. That’s an incredible opportunity to do good at minimal cost to ourselves, and one we plainly shouldn’t just ignore.
Of course, donating money isn’t the only way to help. Our time and effort might be put to more direct use, whether through various forms of volunteering or by selecting a high-impact career. Standard advice along these lines isn’t always especially strategic—the most obvious “helping” careers aren’t necessarily the most impactful, even taking into account the vital importance of personal fit. (N.B. I’m not recommending that anyone force themselves to follow a career path that would make them miserable. Rather, the low-hanging fruit here is for students to survey the appealing career options with an eye to potential win-win scenarios where they can do a lot of good through work that they find personally meaningful and rewarding.)
This moderate beneficence-focused moral perspective can also be applied at the level of public policy. In general, we should prefer policies that do more overall good, impartially considered. But sometimes those might involve difficult trade-offs, and it’s understandable that those bearing the costs wouldn’t be thrilled about it. Putting such difficult cases aside, we should at least all be able to agree to pick the low-hanging fruit: policies that offer to do immense good, at minimal cost. I’d further add: it’s worth investing a non-trivial portion of our political efforts into discerning which policies meet these criteria, and then promoting them.
I think one obvious candidate type here involves (to extend the metaphor) removing the fences that prevent people from accessing the orchard. Disallowing COVID challenge trials, for example, meant banning willing volunteers from taking on some (mild-to-moderate) risk in order to save potentially hundreds of thousands of lives. This deadly ban was moral insanity, and ought to be universally recognized as such to ensure that it isn’t repeated in future.
But quite apart from any particular verdicts, the broader point here is just (to repeat) that we should keep an eye out for policies that do immense good at minimal cost. Implementing such “low-hanging fruit” policies has got to be a priority, on any sane view.