When Dr. Arthur Ward explained to his students that they would be apportioning some of his salary to causes of their choice, they knew they were in unfamiliar territory.
The assignment wasn’t merely an academic exercise--Ward’s students would need to determine how best to spend the money he gave them on altruistic causes that, in some cases, could save the lives of real human beings.
Ward is a philosopher who teaches about bioethics and altruism in the multidisciplinary Lyman Briggs College. Many of his students are on track to become doctors, and Ward is intent on honing their ethical instincts. In his senior seminar, this honing process involves a deep dive into “effective altruism”: what he calls “do-gooding” as measured by reason, evidence, and impact. Student groups are encouraged to ask every question imaginable about the appropriating of the money.
“First, I asked them: What questions do you have? Don’t do the research yet. Just think about what you do not know. What do you wish you knew to determine the right use for this money?” says Ward. “Predictably they come up with: what kinds of issues matter the most? There are different metrics that matter a lot. So, if a charity is focused on specific problem, how tractable is it? How widespread is it? How many people does it affect? That kind of thing.” Through their own research into effective altruism, the students eventually discovered charity-ranking websites that do much of the impact calculus for them. Ward sees this discovery as part of the process.
“Happily, for me, they found them only at the midpoint,” he says. The class also led a video interview with someone working for the charity navigator website “The Life You Can Save”
After the groups, which number three or four students each, selected the recipients of their donations, Ward introduced a significant wrinkle into the assignment.
“I layered it. Sometimes I’m a little sneaky when I unfold assignments for my students,” he says. “They had already picked their charities. Then I told them I was going to change the rules a little bit. I wanted to get them engaged in persuasion with each other. To do that, I said I’d sweeten the pot. If your group can get another group to switch to your charity, I’ll put in an extra hundred dollars. They’d already seen that dollars aren’t just dollars. Dollars are lives. So it mattered to them to try and persuade people to switch.”
As his students argued for the primacy of their respective charitable causes, their voices rising and their arguments more urgent, Ward saw his class working as designed: a truly interdisciplinary experience that combined study in ethics, research, persuasion, systems thinking, and meaningful collaboration.
“In the most recent incarnation of the project, two groups decided to go in together on one charity, which was a ‘deworm the world’ initiative,’” says Ward. “And the other two groups decided, through lots of careful, thoughtful research, that the best thing for their money was going to be to invest it, grow it over twenty years, then spend that pot on a charity of my choice” This was an unexpected choice that they jointly worked out with a financial planner.
Ward’s explicit course goals are traditional, if multidimensional: “We do some abstract philosophical thought and we do some applied scientific research into gene editing and geoengineering, that kind of stuff,” says Ward. “The final project was them coming up with ten year plans for themselves. So there’s also a self-reflective goal for them, where they’re thinking about themselves as learners, and career trajectory.”
But his “covert” objective is much grander. To Ward, the concept of student success is not simply about graduation, grade point average, or even preparing for a particular career path. It’s about teaching his students to ask themselves questions about their own purposes, and how to untangle their convictions about what it means to have a satisfying existence.
“Secretly, I have a course objective, for this course, to turn them into more altruistic people than they otherwise might have been. I don’t expect that to be an immediate thing,” Ward says. His experience reading the works of philosopher Peter Singer and others who write about altruism has haunted him throughout his life--at one point even prompting him to donate a kidney. Ward thinks being haunted by big ideas is an essential part of being a successful student and a citizen of the world.
“It doesn’t always mean they affect your action immediately, but sometimes, [these ideas] come through in unexpected ways. Over the course of a lifetime, it can shape things. I want this study of altruism to shape my students somehow. I don’t know how it will come out, and it’s not easy to measure, but in a way, that is the most important course goal.” He is currently teaching the course again this semester with a new group of students.