I have pledged to donate 25% of my income to charity. I expect that this percentage will increase over time.
There are a number of ways in which I would argue that giving a substantial percentage of your income to charity is a good thing to do. Different arguments appeal to different people so here are a few:
The world in 2012 is better than it’s ever been, when measured using almost any metric you like: people are happier, wealthier, and healthier than they have ever been before.
However the sad and sobering fact is that over a billion people still live below the poverty line, and survive on less than $1 a day. That’s not too bad you might think, I’ve been to some countries where I could get a decent meal for not much more than $1, that sort of money goes a lot further in developing countries. This is wrong. The $1 is parity adjusted – that is the amount of money these people live on is equivalent to living on $1 a day in a developed country. Can you imagine surviving in the UK or the US on $1 (~£0.60) a day? Not so easy.
Additionally there are millions of people who are dying each year from easily preventable causes such as malaria (you can buy anti-mosquito nets), and the so-called neglected tropical disesases (you can give someone an annual treatment for $0.50 against all seven of these). You can stop people dying, reduce suffering, and greatly improve people’s lives for a small sacrifice on your part: give SCI $30 and you’ve potentially saved someone from parasitic worm infections for 60 years (or 60 people for one year which is as good).
If you’re reading this then you’re almost definitely living in a developed country with internet access, you have a roof over your head, you have easy access to clean water, you have more than enough food to survive, you can visit a doctor if you’re feeling unwell.
Check out Giving What We Can’s wealth calculator to find out how your wealth compares to the rest of the world.
Peter Singer asks you to imagine that you are walking past a pond in which a small child is in obvious distress and will drown soon. You can wade in and save the child without endangering yourself. What would you do? Everyone would save the child of course. Now consider the same scenario, but this time you are wearing your new shoes that you just bought for £100, and which will be ruined by the slimy pond water if you wade in. Would you still rescue the child?
Again, everyone will say of course they would rescue the child, how could you compare a pair of shoes to the life of a child? Leaving the child to die for the sake of your shoes would be a deeply immoral thing to do.
Should it matter that the child is 10 feet in front of you, or 10,000 miles away? Why should morality be affected by physical distance? If you are given the opportunity to save a child’s life by giving up your new shoes then you should do it. This line of reasoning leads inexorably towards the conclusion: given that there are charities who will save a life for the price of a new pair of shoes, then should you be spending your £100 on the shoes or donating it to the charity?
There are a number of responses to this argument which Singer effectively demolishes in his book Practical Ethics. The bottom line is that charity effectiveness can be measured, you can put a number on how many lives a charity will save with a given donation, and if you disagree with the numbers then you just need to scale the thought experiment (maybe you think £1000 is needed to save a life: then would you run into the pond to save the child if your laptop in your bag would be destroyed in the process?)
“If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it”
- Peter Singer
If you’ve been convinced by any of these arguments, here are some suggestions:
Make a pledge to give
It doesn’t matter if it’s for a small amount, say 1% of your income. If you’re a student, or if you would really struggle to donate more than this then it’s still extremely valuable to get started now: your chosen charity will get more funding (even small donations can have a big impact when you donate to an effective charity), and once you’ve made a public pledge you are far more likely to stick with it (and increase it in future).
Give earlier rather than waiting
You might be tempted to hold off giving until you’re making $X a year or have savings of $Y. However it’s much easier to factor a 10% pledge into your budget before you get comfortable living with $Y a year
Make sure you do some research
Don’t jump straight in and give your money to the first charity you think of. The effectiveness of a charity is of huge importance: how much good will your donation do at charity A versus charity B? It turns out that some charities are literally thousands of times more effective than others, resulting in your money doing thousands of times more good at charity A than at charity B.
You can change the world with your donations
Do you think the world would be better if people were healthier for longer? Donate to the SENS foundation who fund research into longevity.
Get started now!
Get started now: donate £5 to the Against Malaria Foundation today. This will pay for one long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito net and the cost of distributing it to where it’s needed. GiveWell and Giving What We Can both rate the AMF as the most effective charity they’ve investigated: you get the most bang for your buck, or do the most good, by donating to them.
Giving to charity makes you happier and your donations will directly save or drastically improve lives. Start now with a modest pledge and you have the power to save hundreds or thousands of lives over your career.
If you’re really excited about these ideas and are interested in pursuing a career which will let you do the most good (not necessarily through donating a large amount of your income, but that is one approach), then check out 80,000 Hours.
LessWrong also have a good article about effective charity. Also well worth reading is an article about heuristics and biases which can trip you up when trying to maximise the good you do with your donations.