This week I listened to an episode of the Making Sense podcast called "Doing Good" and have decided that I want to donate 10% of my income to charity. Now I'm a student working casually at a call centre, not someone who you'd think of as an everyday benefactor. But Sam Harris and his guest William MacAskill present some compelling arguments for why everyone should give to charity, so long as they're able.
The conversation is primed with the "Drowning Child" thought experiment made famous by Peter Singer. Hearing it made me interrogate my own sense of morality and opened me up to the idea of charitable donations so I shall also use it to prime this discussion. It goes like this:
Imagine you are on your way to work, you pass a pond, and you see a child struggling to keep a float. What do you do? Of course you walk in and save the child, even if it means you ruin your outfit and show up late. To do otherwise would be inhumane.
But now what if you became aware about a child in another country, who was in a similar position. Although not physically present, you could save them at no great cost with no harm to yourself, would you do the same?
In principle we all know the answer should be yes, both children's lives are equally as valuable. But in practice most people would only be inclined to save the child right in front of them. Perhaps witnessing the child suffering espouses a greater sense of compassion, a greater sense of responsibility, a greater sense of urgency and this is what generates a call to act. But really there is no distinction between our moral obligations in each situation. Putting it that way, to not help the child overseas would be immoral. In fact the extent of immorality could be considered even greater as there is such a large proportion of people overseas who require our help.
For the most part, I don't think people are intentionally immoral. For a start, many people fail to bring these kinds of questions into their awareness and interrogate them with the same logic. Resultantly, people are ignorant or do not consider themselves as having a responsibly to help others overseas. But from my experience there is also a feeling that I'm just one person who isn't very wealthy or in a position of power, someone who couldn't possibly have a tangible impact outside of my own bubble. This 'whats the point' mentality omits action.
But in reality most people have the capacity to distribute good deeds all over the world by donating to charity. Often people have skepticisms about whether donation for overseas causes is the best course for doing good. Why not volunteering at Oxfam, protesting for climate change or refusing to purchase brands running sweat shops? After all these are things which we can practice actively in our own lives and reap some immediate gratification or accomplishment from. All these actions are worthwhile, and by no means do I discourage them. But the simple truth is that charitable donations can have the most scalable impact and require the least personal effort compared to other deeds. This is highly appealing to people who are not motivated or don't have the time to "do good".
Practically speaking, the greatest number of people that can be helped with a relatively small amount of money live in developing countries overseas rather than in our own communities. This is because the developing world mainly faces challenges which can be solved easily, cheaply and quickly. This includes basic issues like access to clean water or fighting malaria, over more complex issues like homelessness or climate change. For example, $2 spent on a mosquito net to prevent malaria goes a lot farther in preventing suffering compared to that extra $2 spent on a vegan meal to reduce a small amount of carbon emissions. The point is that by donating to such causes, a better bang for your buck can be achieved in terms of "doing good". And on that point, you don't have to have a lots of bucks to donate meaningfully. With many billionaires in the philanthropy space it's easy to underestimate what's considered wealthy and impactful. But to put things into perspective if you are single and earn over $US 65K you are in the top 1% of richest people in the world. If you chose to donate 10% of your income, which is $US6.5K, you could fund 3,250 mosquito nets and a whole lot of difference.
It should be stated though, that not all charitable donations can be this effective. There are a lot of charities out there and not all of them do a good job or target the right issues. Deciding which charities to donate to can seem overwhelming, however there are some funds open which operate on principles of "effective altruism". These funds support causes which are the biggest, most tractable and have the least amount of funding. William MacAskill has set up a website called "Giving What We Can" which provides a directory of such funds and encourages visitors to take a pledge to donate.
I have personally decided to donate 10% of my income to charity. As someone who is in a relatively secure position who lives a modest lifestyle, I can comfortably live on 90%. For the reasons discussed above I know it is the logical course to take, especially if I want to hold myself to a certain moral standard, although I can already recognise in myself that the idea of charitable donations is mundane compared to some other actions I might take in my own sphere. But for me it is an opportunity to internalise the notion of not holding onto wealth so that when I start earning significant amounts of money it will be integrated into my way of life, to the point where it is non-optional like paying bills or taxes.
Other people certainly have different motivations for "doing good", it can come down to morality, giving meaning to life, feeling good about oneself, personal experience or belief in a particular cause amongst others. The key takeaway is that if you are a person that wants to do good and have a meaningful impact, charitable donations are a good place to start.