Saturday, December 20, 2014

The thing to do

People often want to help out, to make the world a better place, but it is a damn tricky thing to figure out what sort of help is best and how much help exactly you need to deliver to feel good about yourself and be justified in putting your feet up and relaxing.  If I volunteer at the food bank is it enough, or should I be working a second job to have more money to donate to educating young girls in developing countries?  This article has some great thoughts and the beginnings of answers and it got me thinking a lot on this topic.

Simply put there will always be problems and no matter what any individual does everything will not be fixed.  That leads to decision paralysis and people giving up because they can never reach the point of feeling like they have done enough - there is no obvious signal to tell you it is time to head to the bar.  What we do have though is the knowledge that if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charities we could wipe out pretty much all of the world issues easily solved with money immediately.  So there you go, we have a straightforward, measurable, reasonably achievable objective.

More is needed than that of course because you not only need to help but also avoid doing more damage in the first place.  Donating a lot of money to charity is obviously not a licence to go about saying "Dude, that is just so gay!" as an insult while maintaining impeccable moral standing.  You need to listen, learn, and adapt your habits to try to do less damage with your passing.  Giving charitably is a wonderful thing but no amount of it can remove the need to not be an asshole.

I had a discussion with Pounder awhile ago on this topic and he asked how I felt about the moral implications of someone who makes a lot of money and donates a huge amount of it to charity (Example:  $100,000 salary of which $30,000 is donated) when compared to someone like me who spends a lot of time yelling about social justice and puts in a few volunteer hours here and there.  I think the clear answer is that the $30,000 trumps my contribution in terms of raw efficacy but that doesn't translate necessarily into the moral high ground - after all, I have much less money to give.

This really reinforces a very important point about trying to improve the world:  People will contribute in any number of ways and as long as they are in fact helping we must respect those contributions even when they are not the contributions we would choose ourselves.  If you can't figure out if you are helping enough or how you should help that simple benchmark of 10% is a fantastic guide.  It isn't as though is it objectively right but it certainly meets the standard of being plenty good enough.


  1. I particularly love this paragraph from the link above:

    "It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in precisely that way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much."

  2. I think his analysis of political action way too deeply buys into the idea that we can just monetize everything, which seems pretty contrary to what he is trying to do. Suppose all of the people involved in the suffrage had instead given their time to charities and created a society that had very little hunger but where women were still not allowed to vote. Would we be better off now? I think that the fundamental injustice of women not having the right to vote wouldn't really allow us to build a better society. Basically, the idea that we can fix everything by solving problems like malaria without solving problems of social injustice just doesn't work. It was social justice that defined those people dying of malaria *as people* in the eyes of the people who are donating. You can't do one without the other.

    Sure, if *everyone* donated 10% then we'd solve a lot of problems, but the richest 1% own about half of global wealth. So why try to convince 6.93 billion people when we can focus our efforts on 70 million people? And given that we should logically focus on those 70 million shouldn't we cater the whole message to their tastes and focus on what tugs at their heartstrings? Shouldn't we try to solve problems that they care about first because without them on board we are screwed? The idea of giving 10% doesn't work because it is *also* the idea of making everything about rich people, and making everything about rich people is more than half the problem in the first place. If that wealth were substantially more evenly distributed then we wouldn't need to give 10%.

    I don't think that hashtag activism is getting much of anything done, and I don't think anyone with any real power is interested in the Ferguson protests. Who gives a crap about those people. They'll be dead soon (one way or another) and the new people who replace them will have grown up with a better chance of understanding what the problems are and how to empathize with people unlike themselves. Generational churn is the real force of change, not dollars. Giving 10% is the give-a-man-a-fish solution (I mean, what a great idea, we there are a lot of hungry people who could use a fish) but trying to do some kind of dollar-by-dollar analysis to compare it to political action is nonsense.

  3. Secular Tithing! Nice:)
    I'd like to reccomend (if you're interested in getting strong results per dollar spend) the list at 'The Life You Can Save' found here:

    The Science Nerds (like me) will particularly like one called Evidence Action which includes two projects. One to set up cheap/easy water purification dispensers and the other called Deworm the World (for Deworming the World....).

    And since we know that talking about charitable giving increases the likelihood of others in your circle giving (yay research!) I'll now brag in poor taste about how we will be donating something like $700 to EvidenceAction and the Fistula Foundation this Christmas (and hope that others will beat me).