February 22, 2020

Things I say to myself to motivate myself to give

I've started giving 10% of my income to effective charities. Motivating myself to do this was hard, so I made a list to help.

Throughout I use “giving” as short for “giving at least 10% of your income to effective charities throughout your working life”.

Here's the list:

  • Think about how good you would feel if you pulled a drowning person out of a pond and saved their life. By giving you can do that a hundred times over.1
  • Think about how bad you would feel if you passed by a person who was drowning in a pond and failed to save their life. If you don't give, then you're doing that a hundred times over.
  • Giving isn't demanding. People give and still live rich and fulfilling lives.
  • You make more than $52,000 a year, which puts you in the top 1% of income earners worldwide.
  • Because of the diminishing marginal utility of money, an additional dollar benefits someone in extreme poverty at least a hundred times as much as it benefits you: “It's like a 99-percent-off sale, or getting 10,000 extra percent free."2
  • Suppose that you were face to face with someone whose children died because you failed to give. What could you say to defend yourself that wouldn't sound completely ridiculous? (One good defence would be that you spent the money on something even more important. But that defense isn't open to you if you keep the money for yourself.)
  • It's stupid to act like you're more than a hundred times as valuable as anyone else. But that's what you're doing if you let a hundred people die just so you can live more comfortably.3
  • Selfishness misunderstands the nature of persons.
  • Think about how bad you would feel if you killed someone, even accidentally. Well, you are letting a hundred people die if you don't give. Some people think that there is no morally relevant distinction between killing and letting die. But even if they're wrong, and letting die is less bad than killing, letting die is still at least somewhat bad. Suppose, extremely conservatively, that letting die is merely 1% as bad as killing. Then what you're doing if you don't give is as bad as killing someone.
  • For obvious reasons, you should take no comfort in the fact that most people think that it's morally OK not to give.

Caveats and further thoughts

Purpose of the list: These are just things I say to myself to motivate myself to give. I'm not suggesting that these are the best arguments in favor of giving. I'm also not suggesting that these are the best lines to take when trying to motivate someone else to give.

Carrots vs. sticks: There are both carrots (in the spirit of, “giving is a great opportunity”) and sticks (in the spirit of, “failing to give is terrible”) on the list. I find the sticks more effective in motivating myself to give, but I'd guess that the carrots are more effective if you're trying to motivate someone else to give.

Risk of demotivation: As I said, I now give 10%. But the points on the list count nearly as strongly in favor of giving 15%, or 20%, or more. So there is a risk of demotivation here: if failing to give, say, 20% is terrible, then I'm doing something terrible even if I give 10%. If so, then it's tempting to give up and give nothing. This is one reason why the carrots might be more effective motivators than the sticks.

One response to this concern about demotivation is to quantify the relevant degrees of terribleness. Maybe giving merely 10% (as opposed to 20%) is terrible, but it is significantly less terrible than giving nothing. So you can improve greatly by going from 0% to 10%, and you can improve even more my going from 10% to 20%. If I keep this in mind, I'm less demotivated by the thought that giving even 10% isn't enough.

Cause areas: Some of the points on the list risk exaggerating the importance saving lives relative to other possible interventions, such as reducing existential risk or reducing animal suffering. Nonetheless, I intend to be cause neutral in my giving.

The numbers: Some of the points on the list imply that you can save a hundred lives by giving. This is plausible, provided that your income is high enough. There is reasonably good evidence that you can save a life for around $2,800 if you give to an effective charity, such as the Against Malaria Foundation.4 At that rate, if you work for 35 years while making $80,000 a year and giving 10%, then you will save a hundred lives over the course of your working life.

  1. Cf. a quote from Toby Ord in MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning (2015): “We look at people like Oskar Schindler, who saved about one thousand two hundred lives, and we think, ‘That's an amazing kind of moral heroism’. But we could make fewer scarifies than he did and save more lives if we wanted to!” (p. 95). ↩︎

  2. The quote is from MacAskill's Doing Good Better (2015). The full passage is worth quoting: “It's not often you have two options, one of which is one hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for five dollars or buy someone else a beer for five cents. If that were the case, we'd probably be pretty generous—next round's on me! But that's effectively the situation we're in all the time. It's like a 99-percent-off sale, or getting 10,000 extra percent free. It might be the most amazing deal you'll see in your life” (p. 23). ↩︎

  3. Cf. another quote from Toby Ord in Strangers Drowning: “[I]t turns out that we can save a thousand people’s lives [by giving a large amount of the money that we make throughout our lives to charity]. If you don’t do that, then you have to say that it’s permissible to value yourself more than a thousand times as much as you value strangers. Does that sound plausible? I don’t think that sounds very plausible. If you think that, your theory’s just stupid” (p. 95). ↩︎

  4. The number is from a 2015 GiveWell estimate that I've often seen cited. GiveWell makes new estimates each year. ↩︎