Altruistic Kidney Donor: Jacob Mountain
Last year on my birthday, I donated my kidney to a stranger. It is the most consequential thing I have ever done.
I learned about non-directed kidney donation in college. The utilitarian calculus seemed almost too good to be true: suffer a minor inconvenience to extend another person's life by a decade or more. So I added it to my index of beliefs, talked about it in the dorm common room, and then forgot about kidney donation entirely for a few years.
In January 2021, two weeks after I graduated college, I read a post memorializing the late Tommy Raskin. Tommy was an effective altruist. He was my age. We shared the same ideals, but Tommy "lived as though the truth were true." I was preoccupied, content to set aside my beliefs for the more immediate concerns of everyday life. The news of his suicide shocked me out of my moral torpor. I resolved to stop intellectualizing my values and start living them. I began the process of donating my kidney the next day.
Eight months later, I was on the operating table. To get there, I attended hospital appointments, provided half a dozen bloodwork and urine samples, and eventually convinced my loved ones that I wasn’t crazy. Electing to have the procedure done on my birthday probably didn’t help my case.
My donation is not important because it was hard—it was easy. I have a more challenging time eating vegan each week. It’s not important because it was the act of a saint—like I said, it was easy, and saints do hard things. It’s important because it was necessary. If I didn’t do it, a human being would’ve died 15 years too early—and like Peter Singer so powerfully demonstrates with his parable of the drowning child, it doesn’t matter how far away the person in danger is: when inaction means death, one must act.
My donation has profoundly shaped my self-conception. Philosopher Tobias Rees asked a question in a talk I watched recently: “What would it mean to think about oneself, experience oneself . . . in terms of the borrowed life?” My life is borrowed from my family, my community, the bacteria in my body, and the algae in the sea. Life conceptualized this way is burdened by an unpayable debt but elevated by boundless gratitude. Through my donation, I vividly experienced both.
I continue my work in this domain by educating others on kidney donation. I share my reasoning with friends. I’ve presented to coworkers about the donation process and advocated for improvements to my company’s donor leave policy. Kidney donation was one part of an ongoing effort to act in accordance with my beliefs. This is my most important work to date, and it is the work of a lifetime.
Jacob and his puppy, Ruby.
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