Giving isn’t demanding*

post by William_MacAskill · 2011-11-25T05:00:04.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · 2 comments

Christmas is about giving.  But giving how much?  £50 might seem like a lot for a Christmas present.  But how about giving 50% of your annual wage?

There are now-familiar arguments that we in rich countries ought to give a lot more to the developed world than we typically do. In fact, Peter Singer and Peter Unger argue that we ought to give a lot.  They don’t specify a figure, but let’s pick, just for the sake of having a nice round number, 50% of one’s annual wage.

The standard response to the views of Singer and Unger, in the philosophical literature, is that giving such extortionate sums is just too demanding for it to be plausible as a moral requirement.

But is giving this much really too demanding?  I’ll suggest not, for two reasons.

First, you’re probably richer than you think.  If you are earning £40 000/yr, you’re easily in the richest 1% of the world’s population; if you were to give half that, you’d still be in the richest 2%.  If you’re earning £20 000 and were to give 50%, you’d still be in the richest 8%.

Imagine if, before you were born, when you didn’t know who you were going to be in society, you got told you were going to end up in the richest 10% of the world’s population.  Would you be happy?  You’d be over the moon!  But if that’s true, how could we complain about merely living in the richest 10%?

You might think that, well, the money goes much further in poor countries – so having a lower wage isn’t so bad if you live there, and so the figures I’ve given are skewed.  But those figures I’ve given are ‘purchasing power parity’ adjusted – that is, they’ve already taken into account the fact that money goes farther in poor countries.  Some people are poor!

Second, the latest psychological research suggests that, despite what you may think, income level really doesn’t make much of a difference to your overall happiness. Once we’ve got the basics in life – food, water and shelter – then other things, like health and relationships, become much more important. In particular, it’s been found that ‘prosocial’ spending of money – for example, giving the money to people more in need – provides a ‘warm glow’ that can keep you happy for weeks.

In fact, rather than being insanely demanding, giving away large chunks of your income will actually have very little effect on your wellbeing, and may well be a net benefit.

So giving really isn’t demanding.  This year, let’s put ethics into practice, and make the world a little better: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/schisto/donate

Merry Christmas!

*More information on these and related topics can be found at www.givingwhatwecan.org

2 comments

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comment by Austen_Forrester · 2014-08-16T03:27:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW

"The standard response to the views of Singer and Unger, in the philosophical literature, is that giving such extortionate sums is just too demanding for it to be plausible as a moral requirement."

Those "philosophers" wouldn't find it too demanding if they were the ones who were had to endure the suffering of the Third World. It's so wrong that people only put themselves in the shoes of the haves, rather than the have-nots when formulating their "morals". Although, I think that framing cannot be underestimated here. Framing serious philanthropy as a moral necessity has a negative effect because no one wants to be told what to do -- all that will happen is people will pull away and actually strengthen their selfish justifications. Framing serious philanthropy as an ideal, however, should have a positive effect, as people love nothing more than to strive for ideals THAT THEY FEEL THEY HAVE CHOSEN! Even the word "ethics" implies requirements that make you a "bad person" if unmet. I think that replacing the word "ethics" with "values" would have the effect I'm talking about -- making hardcore philanthropy appear as aspirational and self-esteem-building rather than an attempt at convincing yourself you're "not a bad person."

comment by Pablo_Stafforini2 · 2014-08-16T03:36:00.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Austen. You write:

Those "philosophers" wouldn't find it too demanding if they were the ones who were had to endure the suffering of the Third World. It's so wrong that people only put themselves in the shoes of the haves, rather than the have-nots when formulating their "morals".

Yes, Singer makes this same point in a reply to criticism from Colin McGinn (from Dale Jamieson (ed.), Singer and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1999, p. 304):

I disagree […] with the conclusion McGinn draws from his imaginary world in which a Charity Channel, plugged into our brain and therefore compulsory viewing, floods us with information about people in urgent need of our aid, which we have the means to provide effectively. McGinn says that he finds this a dystopian prospect. No doubt he is thinking of himself as a potential donor rather than as a person in urgent need of aid. From that perspective, the thought of being bombarded with images of people suffering is indeed dystopian. But if I imagine myself as a victim of a natural disaster, and think of my life and the lives of my family as being saved by the existence of the Charity Channel, I have a very different view.