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How to save a stranger’s life

Here’s why I donated my kidney.

In Johns Hopkins before the surgery
The author at Johns Hopkins Hospital shortly before his kidney surgery in 2016.
Vox/Joss Fong

Two years ago, I donated my kidney to a complete stranger.

It was the best decision I’ve made in my life, and in the debut episode of Vox’s new podcast, Future Perfect, I explain why I did it. It has to do with an idea called effective altruism: the notion that we should be trying harder to use evidence and careful analysis to build a better world.

I talk to Alexander Berger, one of the people who inspired me to donate. (He gave his kidney back in 2011.) He helps run the Open Philanthropy Project, a philanthropic group that makes millions in grants to charities, scientific researchers, advocacy organizations, and others using effective altruist analysis, and we discuss some of the hard dilemmas people face when attempting to do good better.

How do we decide which causes to donate to? Do we have a moral duty to give to charity if that would save lives? And should you give up a bodily organ to help a stranger, even when that burdens the people we love most of all — in my case, my girlfriend and my parents?

You can listen to the debut episode of the Future Perfect podcast here, or by subscribing to Future Perfect wherever you get your podcasts.

To read more:

  • For more of Vox’s coverage on effective altruism and the bigger project of making the world a better place, see our new vertical, Future Perfect.
  • I talk more about Future Perfect’s mission here.
  • Here’s a longer piece I did in 2017 on my kidney donation, why I did it, and what the process of donating was like.
  • If you want to sign up as a kidney donor, click here.
  • Peter Singer makes the case for skepticism about feel-good charities like the Make a Wish Foundation.
  • Back in 2015, I profiled the Open Philanthropy Project, and while it’s changed a lot since, I still think the piece is a good introduction to the group’s work and thought processes.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.