Taking the Giving What We Can Pledge
Formally committing myself to giving away 10% of my income
Recently, Sam Bankman-Fried, the billionaire and CEO of FTX, took the Giving Pledge, committing to giving more than 50% of his wealth away in his lifetime. Sam, like me, is an Effective Altruist, and has already said publicly that he plans to give 99% of his wealth away during his lifetime. So the fact that he took the Giving Pledge did not particularly add any new information to his specific situation.
But Sam’s post did get me thinking about the merits of making public commitments to doing at least a certain amount of charitable giving.
The moral obligation toward philanthropy:
A few years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school, I read Famine, Affluence, and Morality, by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The essay resonated with me, for a couple reasons. First, it was the clearest explanation of a lot of thoughts that had already been bouncing around my head. And second, because unlike any of the philosophy I had read previously (and most I’ve read since) it provided clearly actionable advice.
In the essay, Singer argues that the philanthropic obligations of affluent people in the developed world are far greater than we tend to imagine. He offers a thought experiment of a child drowning in a pond: if we’re walking by, wearing fancy clothes, most would agree we have an obligation to dive in and save the child. We have this obligation even though diving in will cost us a certain amount of money through the ruin of our expensive clothes. As he puts it, “getting [one’s] clothes muddy… is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.”
Singer then points out that many of us encounter situations analogous to the pond scenario every day, even if they’re invisible. Every day, thousands of children die of preventable diseases. If we – and by we, I mean “people living on more than the median income in an OECD country” – gave the money we use to buy inessential items to charities that help these children, fewer of them would die. The trade-off is essentially the same as in the pond scenario.
The merits of public commitments:
The ideas in Famine, Affluence, and Morality have shaped my life tremendously, and I still consider it the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read it, you really should.
In response to reading the essay, I internally adopted the charitable giving target Singer recommends, which is an annual donation of one tenth of one’s income. Over the last few years, I’ve given 10% of all the money I’ve made to highly effective charities (mainly The Humane League and the Against Malaria Foundation).
But I’ve never written or tweeted publicly about this, for a couple reasons. First, I think there generally tend to be social norms against publicly announcing one’s charity – we’re supposed to do good for good’s sake, not to gain social status or appear altruistic. And second, I didn’t think publicly announcing that I was giving money away was particularly important.
But recently, I’ve changed my mind about this, for two reasons. First, as one of my friends argued to me recently, public commitments to giving can inspire others to do the same, and help normalize the practice. This can multiply the effects of one’s donations, increasing the total amount of good that is done.
And second, a public commitment will help to tie my hands. Publicly pledging now that I will give 10% of my income strikes me as an easy thing I can do to make it less likely that I ever give less in the future.
So here’s my pledge.
I believe that if it is in my power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, I ought, morally, to do it. I recognize that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the world. Since I am lucky enough to be able to live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from today until the day I die, I will give at least 10% of my income to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of other humans and animals.
I make this commitment freely and openly, with full knowledge of what it entails, and of its permanence. I am proud to be the 7,588th person to make this pledge through the Giving What We Can organization. I hope that thousands and millions of people join me in the years to come.
The best current estimates are that a donation of roughly $4000 saves one life. Across the course of my entire life, I hope to be able to give many increments of $4000 dollars, and therefore to save many lives.
The Talmud teaches us that “anyone who saves a life, is as if he saved an entire world.” It is with the weight of this idea in mind that I commit myself to giving what I can.
June 30th, 2022
I hope you all begin to give what you can too.