Giving What I Can

Published in Effective Altruism / Featured - 12 mins to read

I’ve read several LinkedIn posts on why people chose to take the Giving What We Can Pledge. Many of them include something along the lines of “I’m not posting this to seem smug and morally superior - I’m posting this to help normalise talking about giving significant sums of money to charity”. They then proceed to seem smug and morally superior.

Which is to say that I am going to try my best to avoid being that way, I’m probably going to fail, but at least I’m not going to bullshit you about that.1

Today is my 29th birthday, and my present to myself was to take the pledge. If you’re unfamiliar, that means that I have committed to giving away 10% of my income to effective charities, for the rest of my career. I’m not going to go into detail as to why I think this is The Right Thing To Do, other than to link Peter Singer’s classic drowning child thought experiment and the Giving What We Can “How Rich Am I?” calculator. I don’t have anything to say that would be more persuasive than those two.

Instead I want to talk about the complicated reasons that I decided this was the Right Thing for me, as it’s a decision that took me a long time to come to. I don’t think that doing something because it’s The Right Thing To Do stands up to very much scrutiny. Everyone has a different idea of Right, and if I’m going to defer, it seems to make sense to defer to whatever the consensus is. Clearly there is not a consensus that one has an obligation to give away 10% of one’s income2, and so it took time to figure out whether it fit with my values.

Last week, Scott Alexander posted about donating his left kidney to a stranger.3 The whole piece is absolutely worth reading, but one paragraph in particular stuck with me:

Still, it’s not just about that. All of this calculating and funging takes a psychic toll. Your brain uses the same emotional heuristics as everyone else’s. No matter how contrarian you pretend to be, deep down it’s hard to make your emotions track what you know is right and not what the rest of the world is telling you. The last Guardian opinion columnist who must be defeated is the Guardian opinion columnist inside your own heart. You want to do just one good thing that you’ll feel unreservedly good about, and where you know somebody’s going to be directly happy at the end of it in a way that doesn’t depend on a giant rickety tower of assumptions.

Equating donating 10% of my income with an unassailably morally virtuous act definitely relies on a tower of assumptions - Scott himself acknowledges that, in another post from last year that nudged me in the direction of pledging. I’m mostly hoping that this particular tower has strong foundations and sound architecture.

I’ve always had a pretty weak sense of identity and generally low self esteem. I’ve wanted to be a “good” person, to feel adequate, and I’ve found that feeling difficult to cultivate. Worthiness and morality are complex, confusing and vague. There are very few things that I feel extremely confident are “good” things to do. Donating in this way seems like it could be one of them.

On one hand, I think making any serious financial decisions around trying to feel better about myself seems myopic and a little reckless.4 Shouldn’t I just have more therapy, go on a 10 day vipassana retreat, hike the Appalachian Trail, or whatever it is people do to realise that they loved themselves all along these days? On the other hand - don’t all GWWC pledgees do it to feel better about themselves? Is there any other reason anyone ever does anything?

For a long time, I noticed I felt a strong aversion to giving away so much money. The desirability of financial stability and wealth was instilled in me from a young age. One of the main reasons I chose to read law at university was because I thought it offered a clear path towards a career where I could make a lot of money. My ego is wrapped up in the number on my payslip. I often find myself wishing I had more money, for reasons that I don’t find intellectually compelling at all; but when my environment puts such a strong emphasis on the intrinsic value of wealth, I am unable to wholly reject the values it imposes upon me.

Considering the pledge gave me some motivation to actually look directly at those thoughts, rather than allow them to skulk in the shadows of my consciousness. On some level, I already viscerally appreciate that money isn’t strongly correlated to my happiness. In the last 5 years I have approximately quadrupled my salary, and I certainly have not quadrupled my happiness.5 Five years ago, I managed to live just fine with what I had.6 Don’t get me wrong, more money has definitely made me happier, just not proportionately. I’m confident that I can gain more happiness from donating the money than I could otherwise derive from keeping it myself.

In a way, it feels liberating to take the pledge. I often feel trapped on the hedonic treadmill, feeling like I just need to get a little more money, a little thinner, a little more status to feel happy; getting those things, feeling briefly happier, reverting to the baseline and repeating. Intellectually I can see exactly what’s happening, but emotionally I’m just a hamster in a wheel. Giving some money away feels like one way to begin to accept viscerally, rather than just rationally, that earning more won’t magically make me content.7

In fact, it feels like I am letting go more than just a desire to have as much money as possible. Perhaps by giving up striving for more wealth, I can slowly begin to give up striving for other, similar mirages. During the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to realise that I need remarkably few things to be happy, and in fact having an abundance of things (social contacts, side projects, hobbies, topics to learn, books to read, games to play, people to reach out too, and a myriad more) seemed to have a negative causal effect on my mental health. Since then I’ve found myself wanting to live a simpler life, but have found it impossible to do so - despite the fact that it is my own life, and I ought to have total agency over it. This feeling of powerlessness over my own situation has been, at times, incredibly distressing to me. And so, perhaps donating the money is a way of not allowing myself to give in to the temptation of these things, in some small sense. To make my life simpler, and in so doing, to regain some control over it.8

I first came across the drowning children over two years ago now, and it has taken me a long time to commit to start saving some of them. Part of that was practical - historically I have had a poor grip on my own finances, and that has only recently changed. I now have a budget, a credit card and an ISA, all things which I didn’t have 6 months ago. I invested in my own financial health because I wanted to make this commitment.

Of course, keen observers will note that I could still live comfortably on less than 90% of my salary, and that innocent people will counterfactually suffer and indeed die because of my decision to retain that 90%. Those people are exactly right. I am still at the beginning of trying to understand what this means for me, and how I should act in accordance with my values.

I am standing on the shoulders of giants in taking this pledge. I have been inspired by many along the way, and I doubt many of them realise it. One thing that I believe Effective Altruism has to offer the masses is the encouragement to invest time into thinking about ethics, and further to act in a way that reflects newfound understanding therein. I am grateful for those that shared that idea.

Similarly I am grateful to the people who have talked to me about effective giving or the GWWC pledge, or simply those who have taken it themselves and inspired me by example. I believe that this is the right decision for me, but it’s not one that I would’ve come to in a vacuum.

And finally I am grateful to just about everyone else in my life, for supporting me and allowing me to be in the position where I am able to do this. I am almost certainly the luckiest person I know, and that is never more obvious than when I look around at the people who chose to invest their time and energy into me. I love you all.

  1. To get into the weeds a bit more, I feel quite strongly that we ought to apply a discount rate to all moral patients that aren’t ourselves (i.e. I ought to consider myself the most important person in all moral considerations).9 Having accepted that, I am then drastically uncertain about how exactly this discount rate should work, and so I am sympathetic to arguments that one actually should use a much larger rate, therefore removing a moral obligation to give 10% of your income away. Giving away 10% of my income could be a mistake, but maybe not giving away 50% of my income is a mistake too, so I am choosing to hedge a little against both and give away 10%. If you want to allocate your moral risk portfolio differently, I don’t think that makes you less moral than me. ↩︎

  2. I’m confident that many people might say that such a thing is “right”, however I’m equally confident that the number of people who would say that and the number of people who do that is radically different. I also know most religious traditions involve some form of charitable giving11, but as far as I can tell they all do it differently, and besides, I live in a fairly secular society. ↩︎

  3. I’m aware I defer to Scott a lot, probably too much. Another relevant quote from the post: “Something about that last line struck a chord in me. Still, making decisions about internal organs based on a Vox article sounded like the worst idea. This was going to require more research." ↩︎

  4. One objection I take a bit more seriously, and something I am worried about, is that I might be laying a new trap for myself, where I feel like I have to give more than 10% of my income in order to feel morally virtuous and therefore “good enough”. I’m going to keep an eye out for this. ↩︎

  5. OK, I guess it’s inevitable that this is a bit of a brag, but you should mostly interpret this to mean that I used to not be paid very much rather than that I am paid an obscene amount now. Even if you do interpret it the second way, this whole thing is about how I’m giving 10% of it away, which hopefully goes some way to minimising the obscenity. ↩︎

  6. Again, for transparency, while I was living solely on the money that I earned (including renting a shared flat in Guernsey), I was always aware that if I needed emergency money for rent/medical bills etc, I could ask my parents and they’d very likely give it to me. I often tell myself that I have earned what I have, but the security of that safety net, even if largely unused, has allowed me to take high-EV risks that I might not have been able to otherwise. ↩︎

  7. It seems to me that it is altogether too easy to Goodhart yourself over your net worth. ↩︎

  8. It is very easy to read books and blogs and articles about why status is bullshit, and will ultimately leave you permanently unhappy. It is much harder, in my experience, to make that a core belief and then to act in accordance with it. Donating the money means that I will lose some of the potential status I could gain by being wealthier, but it does mean I could potentially enter a whole new iteration of the status game that revolves around who donates how much. I’m going to do my best to avoid succumbing to the latter. ↩︎

  9. Some people might disagree but I think this is correct for a mixture of practical and abstract, meta-reasons. The practical: following a value system that puts myself first makes it easier to stick with that value system, likely yielding better moral results. A relevant example: I pledge to give anything I earn above the UK median income. After a couple of years, I want to buy a house and have children, and I want to provide said children with a good life10, suddenly I wish I had more money to be able to provide them with that life, I don’t have much saved, so I stop giving entirely. I never return to giving away a portion of my income, and perhaps I donated £100k. In a different scenario, I “only” give away 10% of my income, but that still allows me to save a decent amount of money, so that when I have children, I don’t need to cut back on my donations. I continue giving all the way through my career, and end up giving £300k total. The more abstract reasons come in various shapes and sizes, but mostly I want to hedge against there not being any moral patients other than myself, or indeed no moral patients whatsoever. The obvious, albeit trite, example here would be the Simulation Hypothesis. ↩︎

  10. In theory I don’t think I ought to apply a discount rate between my hypothetical progeny and other people, in practice that is obviously what is going to happen. I’m even less certain about how the offspring → others discount rate should look than I am about the myself → others, but fortunately I don’t have to worry about that just yet. ↩︎

  11. Giving away 10% of my income seems like quite a nice way to hedge against Hell being real. Like, I guess it’s probably not going be enough to get me through the pearly gates, but maybe it’d at least tip me over the edge into an eternity of purgatory? ↩︎