I just listened to a BBC radio interview with Toby Ord, philosopher and founder of Giving What We Can - a charity that encourages people to give away 10% of their income or more. Toby has pledged to give away a little over 50% of his.
Toby, and others from Giving What We Can, talked about the moral argument for donating much of their income. He earns close to £40,000 per annum but lives on only £18,000, including saving for retirement and his mortgage.
Most of those who called in to BBC radio during the interview were quite hostile. Callers said Giving What We Can does nothing but make people feel guilty, and that giving should only be done privately. Some accused Toby and his colleagues of coming on the radio to brag, and insisted they were lying about what they give or how much money they actually have. No one can live on £18,000 a year, one caller insisted.
I'd like to reframe this conversation.
First, the issue of guilt. Your money belongs to you. You can choose to spend your money in whatever way you see fit. Everyday, you are influenced about how to spend your money: from advertisers (buy this new flavor of coffee), from associating with peers (ooo, I like Carrie's new sweater...), and from cultural expectations (it's important to own a three bedroom house in a safe neighborhood). You can spend money according to those influences. You can also spend your money to improve the lives of others. Giving What We Can, like this blog, is hoping to influence you to do just that. Giving What We Can is just one more suggestion in a sea of suggestions about what to do with your money.
So why the hostility? Toby isn't just suggesting a way for you to spend your money. He's asking you to help solve a problem. He is asking you to save lives. If you ignore a commercial advertiser's spending suggestions, you forgo a new item. If you ignore Toby's, someone dies. Someone your money could have saved.
If that makes you feel guilty, congratulations! You have a conscience. You are not a sociopath. And if you want that guilty feeling to go away: donate a little bit of money to a highly effective charity. You'll even feel good about yourself. But don't shoot the messenger. Extreme poverty exists, whether you choose to admit it or not, and you can alleviate suffering by giving to charity, whether you choose to admit it or not.
Next, the issue of bragging. Why go on the radio to publicly state you are giving money away, if not to impress others and toot your own horn? Why, to influence peers and change cultural expectations around giving, of course! Most people do what their friends and family do, and they adopt the traditions of their community. It's why most of us wear clothes similar to our friends. It's why most engagement rings are (still) diamond. It's why most Americans (still) delight over the corpse of a bird on Thanksgiving. We are a social species. We follow the rules of our tribe. And if everyone in your peer group was talking about extreme poverty and giving money to Deworm the World, wouldn't you look into doing the same? If every leader in your community was publicly supporting Mama Hope, do you think others would follow?
There is a growing movement of compassionate people who believe giving money is only the first step to a solution: we have to encourage others to give too. And the best way to do that is to engage in conversation. Simply share information about your own giving, and how you came to the decision to support the charities you support.
I hope to join Giving What We Can by pledging 10% of my income to highly effective charities. Until then, I'm happy to be part of The Life You Can Save where I have publicly pledged 1% of my income. Take a look at all the others who have pledged. I'm in good company.