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The Philosophy of Giving

Claire Hamlett reports on two new altruistic initiatives launched by philosophers.

If you’re reading this then it’s probably safe to assume that you have an interest in philosophy. If so, at one time or another you may have encountered some rather derisive attitudes towards our beloved subject, perhaps heard some snide comments about its uselessness and that of its practitioners. As an aesthetician, I may have some trouble convincing the world that it really does matter whether Hume’s standard of taste is circular or not (it’s not); but a cluster of recent initiatives suggests that moral philosophers might be making more headway in their attempts to incorporate philosophical thinking into the everyday lives of philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

We don’t need to look far to find evidence that philosophy can and does play a part in the choices people make. Not only has the ethicist Professor Peter Singer, like a vampire of moral reasoning, turned a large portion of the more philosophically-minded public into vegetarians, but his 1972 essay ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ has since inspired Oxford University scholar Toby Ord to found an altruistic organisation called Giving What We Can (GWWC). Members make a public pledge to give away 10% of their income annually for the rest of their working lives to the most cost-effective charities operating in Third World countries. Since its launch in 2009 the group has grown to have 233 such members, and seven international chapters. And for those who would like to pledge but are worried they’ll never make enough money, the complementary organisation 80,000 Hours offers advice on entering a career outside the charity sector which maximises your power to help others. So let’s delve into the minds of those who take philosophical ideas as guidance for their life choices, and see if we can’t prove some smug engineering students wrong about the usefulness of philosophy.

Giving What We Can

In ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Singer argued that as long as there are people living in poverty elsewhere in the world whom we can help, then “we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility – that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift.” Singer’s advocacy of an ascetic lifestyle will not appeal to everyone, but GWWC has taken the essence of his argument and toned it down to a more realistic level of altruism. The group allows that not everyone will want to live below a certain level of comfort, and encourages pledgers to work out the lowest income on which they can happily live, then commit to living on that amount for the rest of their lives (allowing for changes in personal circumstances). Their website givingwhatwecan.org features interactive tools to help you calculate how much you would be giving away over the course of your life without expecting you to drastically alter your lifestyle, and how much good you could do with that amount. In addition, the website makes recommendations, based on extensive research, as to which charities will enable your contribution to make the most difference. The idea is that giving more effectively is better than just giving more. As GWWC member and 80,000 Hours Managing Director Benjamin Todd pointed out to me, “If you intend to give to charity, you should aim to help the most people in the most effective ways you can.” The group believes that giving to effective charities is of paramount importance.

It may be easy to commend the generosity of GWWC members, but not everyone will go the extra step and take the pledge. The idea of parting with a good deal of your money every year can get people a little flustered, even a little defensive: it may be very well for some people to donate so much cash, but why should you feel pressured to give away the money you’ve worked hard for? You’ve earned it, life is expensive, and you really want an iPad. Or perhaps it’s your family’s luxury you’re concerned about. You want to take your spouse out for that fancy anniversary dinner. You want your children to grow up in a big house with a lush garden. If you earn a lot of money, it’s possible you could do all these things and still give a chunk of your income to charity, but if you’re on an average wage, maybe it isn’t so feasible. My point is that even if we think certain things are great in principle, when it comes to acting on those principles other, personal considerations often take priority. I see this again and again – for instance, when I hear friends say they know factory farming is cruel but a juicy T-bone is just too delicious to renounce. (Singer hasn’t got to them yet, but no one can hide from him forever…)

So let us consider our ethical inconsistency in light of the assertions on which GWWC bases its ideas, and see if we can’t inject a healthy dose of moral philosophising into our lives. The main claim motivating GWWC is that if you can do a lot of good without making a large sacrifice, then you ought to do so. Let’s call this the Duty Claim. If we accept or feel sympathetic towards this claim, we must re-order our thinking on two levels. Firstly, we would have to admit that we usually value the comfort and luxury of ourselves and our loved ones more highly than we do the lives of people whose needs are much greater than ours. Secondly, we would have to admit that we often discriminate, as Singer says, “on geographical grounds,” feeling naturally inclined to help citizens of our own country more readily than those of another.


Two objections to the Duty Claim spring to mind. The first relates to the point about geographical discrimination just mentioned: in fact there are people in our own country who live in poverty, so if we accept Singer’s interpretation of the Duty Claim it seems we are in effect valuing the lives of people far away more than those of people here. GWWC’s response is that since our money can go a lot further in Third World countries than it can at home, we would not be maximising the benefit from it if we give it to local charities. So although you do a good thing when you donate to local charities, you also have to accept that you are then guilty of a geographical bias towards your own country. Ultimately, this first objection to the Duty Claim does not amount to a rejection of the claim that one is obliged to help the poor; rather, it ignores the fact that your money can go a lot further in a Third World country.

The second objection is perhaps more instinctive, and it’s one to which Singer and other advocates of effective altruism give a lot of attention. The objection is against the Duty Claim as a whole, asserting that while it may be good to give to charity, it is not wrong not to give. This is surely the train of thought of most people who would reject the message of GWWC and similar organisations. In reply, Singer presents us with a scenario in which we see a child drowning (Practical Ethics, Singer, 1993). Someone might think it is not wrong not to wade in to save the child (instead letting them drown), because (a) no one else is trying to help, (b) they don’t want to ruin their nice clothes, or (c) someone else might come along to save the child. But if we don’t accept those types of excuses, then we also cannot plausibly give the excuse that it is not wrong not to save a child just because they are dying somewhere else rather than right in front of us. Someone who wants to live their life in an ethically consistent manner would have difficulty getting around this, unless they are also willing to say that a, b, or c are good reasons for doing nothing. Again, it is possible to say that excuses a, b, and c are not justified while maintaining a geographical bias – but that does not mean that any of us can be let off scot free from our obligation to give. The only question that remains is, how much good do you want to do by giving?

80,000 Hours

If you think ethical careers require you to move to Uganda and dig wells, and if you think the financial sector is a faceless, insatiable monster, then brace yourself, for you are about to have your notions forcefully challenged by an internet-based group called 80,000 Hours. The group, which was founded by Will Crouch and Benjamin Todd, is Oxford-based but through its website has members around the globe. It aims to show that ‘making a difference’ to the world is often not what we think it is. Digging a well in Uganda is what the organisation calls ‘doing good directly’. Nevertheless, the group’s website argues, a greater difference can often be made by doing good indirectly. This notion relies on the idea of ‘replaceability’, whereby you make a real difference only if you do something that would not have happened otherwise. So, while there are currently a large number of people who want to go into the charity sector to dig wells and so forth, there probably aren’t many bankers who would choose to donate a big chunk of their considerable salary to effective good causes. For this reason, if you become a banker and take the GWWC pledge, then you are literally making a difference, because that action would probably not have been taken otherwise – whereas by digging wells, although you are doing good directly, you are not doing anything that wouldn’t have been done anyway. That is not to say that people who do good directly don’t make a difference – but it is often a smaller difference than they could have made by being irreplaceable as a rich but altruistic banker. Of course, if everyone took this argument to heart there might not be anyone left to dig the wells that the altruistic bankers were paying for. But then, not everyone will want to go into the financial sector rather than the charity sector. Nor is it the case that you couldn’t find a way to both do good directly – by, for instance, campaigning or volunteering on weekends – and make a substantial difference by choosing a highly effective ethical career. (Members of 80k are interested in any career that does a lot of good and is not replaceable, including certain types of campaigner or researcher, for example. Please visit www.80000hours.org/high-impact-careers.)

The argument of 80,000 Hours has several layers of appeal, including that it demonstrates how one can choose an ethical career without, say, moving countries or having to train as a doctor. It also shows how people can live ethically even in careers that are not usually perceived as ethical. Finally, it gives a picture of how a bit of philosophical thinking can have profound effects on our life-decisions. And proving that philosophy is profoundly useful is its own sweet reward.

© Claire Hamlett 2012

Claire Hamlett is studying aesthetics at Warwick University.

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