Friday, November 12, 2010

Giving What We Can

I recently joined Giving What We Can, an organization whose members pledge "to give 10% of their income to the most effective charities they can find." Guided by GiveWell's careful research, I've begun by donating $1500 to Stop TB -- an action that can be estimated to save two adult lives. (I'll follow up with a similar donation next month.) I live pretty frugally, so won't especially miss the money, and it's neat to be able to make such a significant impact so easily. Hopefully the spread of GWWC will encourage more people to seriously consider this!

One encouraging sign is that a growing number of academics are now members of GWWC, including Toby Ord, Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge, Nir Eyal, and Adam Swift. I'm told that Derek Parfit and Janet Radcliffe Richards have said they'll join, and Julian Savulescu has endorsed the organization here. There are many grad student members too, especially philosophy grads. Anyway, as more people join, and tell their friends about it, this should help promote a 'culture of giving' that will make charitable giving easier and more salient as a live option for many people.

[I don't know about others, but a major barrier for my past self was just that I thought of charitable giving as something cool that "other people" did. (I certainly couldn't have seen myself jumping right in by giving away 10% of my income.) This naturally caused some cognitive dissonance given my consequentialist ideals, but it seemed difficult to overcome my habitual inertia and modify what I conceived of as "the kinds of things that I do." For anyone else in this position, I'd recommend a little experimentation: just try donating a smaller amount (say $100) to an effective charity, and then see how you subsequently feel about it on reflection. Assuming you feel pretty good about acting on your values in this way, you may eventually find your self-conception developing in a more philanthropic direction. And once you start to think of yourself as the kind of person who really wants to make the world a better place, you'll hopefully find the thought of signing on to GWWC's 10% pledge positively appealing.]

Anyway, do think about it! And if 10% sounds a bit excessive for you to begin with, don't be put off -- every little bit helps, after all. Peter Singer offers a much more modest pledge (as low as 1%, and just for the one year) on his The Life You Can Save website. That'd be a great place to start. [Update: See also GWWC's new Give More Tomorrow pledge option.]

Finally, once you've pledged to give, take care to give effectively. GWWC points out that some developing world health programs are "up to 10,000 times as effective as others"! I strongly recommend GiveWell: they start from such pessimistic assumptions that you can be confident that the few charities they recommend really will make effective use of your donation. I also recommend supporting meta-charities such as GiveWell itself. (You can kill two birds with one stone by donating money to GiveWell to re-grant, or by donating to a recommended charity through GiveWell's website, so that they can keep track of their influence and use these numbers as an incentive for more charities to submit to their evaluation process.)


  1. I think you are too hard on yourself, Richard. True, Singer says he gives 30 percent of his income to charity, but given that he must make-- at a conservative estimate-- five times what you do, that means that he is allowing 20 more people to die every month than he could if he chose your standard of living.

    On the other hand, since you seem to agree with Singer's views about the moral irrelevance of the doing-allowing distinction, I suppose that you must think that by not matching Singer's 30 percent you are doing something morally equivalent to killing four people a month. How do you sleep at night?

    Makes me glad I'm not a consequentialist.

    PS. Congratulations to you and your bride!

  2. *shrug*, it's not clear to me that were I to currently commit to giving significantly more, I would be able to sustain that commitment over time as well as I can this one. So the long-term results might not be better after all. But if I could, then yes, I'd agree that I'd have very strong reasons for doing so. (Saving more lives really is something well worth doing -- much more worthwhile than what we would otherwise typically spend our money on! Of course, you don't need to be a consequentialist to recognize this.) So hopefully I'll continue to increase my donating 'comfort level' over time!

    As for your implicit theoretical challenge, I'd be cautious about moving from the rejection of the doing-allowing distinction to the conclusion that we should now think of 'letting dies' the same way that we previously thought of 'killings'. My view is just that either case gives us equally weighty reasons for (in)action. It's a further question whether failures to follow such strong reasons necessarily mean we should beat ourselves up over it. We might think that practical considerations count against adopting such emotionally masochistic practices. Or perhaps the appropriateness of guilt depends in part on how our efforts compare to others in our society.

    So here's the general point: talk of "moral equivalence" is ambiguous between the moral dimensions of (forward-looking) choiceworthiness and (backward-looking) blameworthiness. I don't think the doing-allowing distinction has any fundamental moral significance, and in particular I don't think it makes a difference to the choiceworthiness of an action. Nonetheless, I think it very plausible that something like the doing-allowing distinction might re-emerge (as a merely contingent implication of some more fundamental principles applied to the circumstances of human society) as relevant to questions of blameworthiness.

    So I don't think that joining GWWC (or otherwise saving lots of lives) is obligatory in the sense of rendering one blameworthy for failing to so act. It's better thought of as something like supererogatory (though I'm inclined to a scalar view that doesn't see any fundamental distinction between the obligatory and supererogatory, I think the latter attribution is at least less misleading than the former). Again, I just I think it's something that's both doable and very much worth doing, and I hope that others might be positively motivated upon considering this.

  3. This is the second time in recent memory that moral philosopher has blogged me that while some behaviors are very, very wrong we need not (and he does not) "beat our selves up about" engaging in them. (The other was David Sobel, .)

    I confess to being flummoxed by this move. A soul less (intellectually) charitable than I might take this as a symptom of a disturbing lack of seriousness about matters moral. But I recognize that this cannot be so in the present case.

    It must be then that "beating oneself up" is a technical term of Consequentialist philosophy with whose meaning I am unfamiliar.

    Guide me then.

    Among things we might do that you hold to be equally, morally dis-recommended -- e.g. killing children vs. allowing them to die-- how should we decide which we should "beat ourselves up over"? Do you really think that that the appropriateness of "beating oneself up" might, as you say, depend on "how our efforts compare to others in our society"? Does this mean that it would be inappropriate to beat oneself up over killing a child or two if everyone else was killing them in greater numbers? Do you think that, should someone feel inclined to beat themselves up for, say killing a child, that this would be "emotionally masochistic"?

    And is there an opposite of "beating oneself up"? Something one does to oneself (for oneself?) when one believes one has done something supererogatory? Is there a term for that?

  4. As the opposite of guilt: pride, or self-congratulation, maybe?

    I don't have a settled account of the appropriateness of moral emotions. I don't think the social comparison can be the whole story because (as you point out) there are certainly possible cases where everyone is horrendously blameworthy. But it at least seems plausibly relevant in case of assessing charitable donations.

    The practical story might give more plausible results in your mass-murder case: it isn't mere masochism if a norm mandating emotional self-punishment in such circumstances would actually be effective in improving behaviour. But I'm not totally happy with such pragmatic accounts either. (Even if it would be useful to beat ourselves up for being less than perfect, that's not the same thing as its being warranted / appropriate / deserved.)

    Possibly the most promising move is to explore a 'quality of will'-based account of blameworthiness. Given the facts of human psychology, it just takes a much more malicious person to positively kill someone than to merely let a distant stranger die. Our inaction, though equally bad qua choice, does not manifest as bad a character or quality of will. (This account can also explain why we tend to think of contemporary racists as more blameworthy than behaviourally-similar racists of yore.)

    Anyway, I don't think the doing-allowing distinction is really the issue here, because most everyone agrees that it'd be morally abhorrent to let the child drown in Singer's pond case. Our intuitions instead seem to be tracking the psychological vividness or salience of the victim to the agent, which I think supports this last account I sketched.


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