What we could, what we should, and what we must

May 27 JDN 2458266

In one of the most famous essays in all of ethical philosophy, Peter Singer famously argued that we are morally obligated to give so much to charity that we would effectively reduce ourselves to poverty only slightly better than what our donations sought to prevent. His argument is a surprisingly convincing one, especially for such a radical proposition. Indeed, one of the core activities of the Effective Altruism movement has basically been finding ways to moderate Singer’s argument without giving up on its core principles, because it’s so obvious both that we ought to do much more to help people around the world and that there’s no way we’re ever going to do what that argument actually asks of us.

The most cost-effective charities in the world can save a human life for an average cost of under $4,000. The maneuver that Singer basically makes is quite simple: If you know that you could save someone’s life for $4,000, you have $4,000 to spend, and instead you spend that $4,000 on something else, aren’t you saying that whatever you did spend it on was more important than saving that person’s life? And is that really something you believe?

But if you think a little more carefully, it becomes clear that things are not quite so simple. You aren’t being paid $4,000 to kill someone, first of all. If you were willing to accept $4,000 as sufficient payment to commit a murder, you would be, quite simply, a monster. Implicitly the “infinite identical psychopath” of neoclassical rational agent models would be willing to do such a thing, but very few actual human beings—even actual psychopaths—are that callous.

Obviously, we must refrain from murdering people, even for amounts far in excess of $4,000. If you were offered the chance to murder someone for $4 billion dollars, I can understand why you would be tempted to do such a thing. Think of what you could do with all that money! Not only would you and everyone in your immediate family be independently wealthy for life, you could donate billions of dollars to charity and save as much as a million lives. What’s one life for a million? Even then, I have a strong intuition that you shouldn’t commit this murder—but I have never been able to find a compelling moral argument for why. The best I’ve been able to come up with a sort of Kantian notion: What if everyone did this?

Since the most plausible scenario is that the $4 billion comes from existing wealth, all those murders would simply be transferring wealth around, from unknown sources. If you stipulate where the wealth comes from, the dilemma can change quite a bit.

Suppose for example the $4 billion is confiscated from Bashar Al-Assad. That would be in itself a good thing, lessening the power of a genocidal tyrant. So we need to add that to the positive side of the ledger. It is probably worth killing one innocent person just to undermine Al-Assad’s power; indeed, the US Air Force certainly seems to think so, as they average more than one civilian fatality every day in airstrikes.

Now suppose the wealth was extracted by clever financial machinations that took just a few dollars out of every bank account in America. This would be in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not a terrible thing, especially since we’re planning on giving most of it to UNICEF. Those people should have given it anyway, right? This sounds like a pretty good movie, actually; a cyberpunk Robin Hood basically.

Next, suppose it was obtained by stealing the life savings of a million poor people in Africa. Now the method of obtaining the money is so terrible that it’s not clear that funneling it through UNICEF would compensate, even if you didn’t have to murder someone to get it.

Finally, suppose that the wealth is actually created anew—not printed money from the Federal Reserve, but some new technology that will increase the world’s wealth by billions of dollars yet requires the death of an innocent person to create. In this scenario, the murder has become something more like the inherent risk in human subjects biomedical research, and actually seems justifiable. And indeed, that fits with the Kantian answer, for if we all had the chance to kill one person in order to create something that would increase the wealth of the world by $4 billion, we could turn this planet into a post-scarcity utopia within a generation for fewer deaths than are currently caused by diabetes.

Anyway, my point here is that the detailed context of a decision actually matters a great deal. We can’t simply abstract away from everything else in the world and ask whether the money is worth the life.

When we consider this broader context with regard to the world’s most cost-effective charities, it becomes apparent that a small proportion of very dedicated people giving huge proportions of their income to charity is not the kind of world we want to see.

If I actually gave so much that I equalized my marginal utility of wealth to that of a child dying of malaria in Ghana, I would have to donate over 95% of my income—and well before that point, I would be homeless and impoverished. This actually seems penny-wise and pound-foolish even from the perspective of total altruism: If I stop paying rent, it gets a lot harder for me to finish my doctorate and become a development economist. And even if I never donated another dollar, the world would be much better off with one more good development economist than with even another $23,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. Once you factor in the higher income I’ll have (and proportionately higher donations I’ll make), it’s obviously the wrong decision for me to give 95% of $25,000 today rather than 10% of $70,000 every year for the next 20 years after I graduate.

But the optimal amount for me to donate from that perspective is whatever the maximum would be that I could give without jeopardizing my education and career prospects. This is almost certainly more than I am presently giving. Exactly how much more is actually not all that apparent: It’s not enough to say that I need to be able to pay rent, eat three meals a day, and own a laptop that’s good enough for programming and statistical analysis. There’s also a certain amount that I need for leisure, to keep myself at optimal cognitive functioning for the next several years. Do I need that specific video game, that specific movie? Surely not—but if I go the next ten years without ever watching another movie or playing another video game, I’m probably going to be in trouble psychologically. But what exactly is the minimum amount to keep me functioning well? And how much should I be willing to spend attending conferences? Those can be important career-building activities, but they can also be expensive wastes of time.

Singer acts as though jeopardizing your career prospects is no big deal, but this is clearly wrong: The harm isn’t just to your own well-being, but also to your productivity and earning power that could have allowed you to donate more later. You are a human capital asset, and you are right to invest in yourself. Exactly how much you should invest in yourself is a much harder question.
Such calculations are extremely difficult to do. There are all sorts of variables I simply don’t know, and don’t have any clear way of finding out. It’s not a good sign for an ethical theory when even someone with years of education and expertise on specifically that topic still can’t figure out the answer. Ethics is supposed to be something we can apply to everyone.

So I think it’s most helpful to think in those terms: What could we apply to everyone? What standard of donation would be high enough if we could get everyone on board?

World poverty is rapidly declining. The direct poverty gap at the UN poverty line of $1.90 per day is now only $80 billion. Realistically, we couldn’t simply close that gap precisely (there would also be all sorts of perverse incentives if we tried to do it that way). But the standard estimate that it would take about $300 billion per year in well-targeted spending to eliminate world hunger is looking very good.

How much would each person, just those in the middle class or above within the US or the EU, have to give in order to raise this much?
89% of US income is received by the top 60% of households (who I would said are unambiguously “middle class or above”). Income inequality is not as extreme within the EU, so the proportion of income received by the top 60% seems to be more like 75%.

89% of US GDP plus 75% of EU GDP is all together about $29 trillion per year. This means that in order to raise $300 billion, each person in the middle class or above would need to donate just over one percent of their income.

Not 95%. Not 25%. Not even 10%. Just 1%. That would be enough.

Of course, more is generally better—at least until you start jeopardizing your career prospects. So by all means, give 2% or 5% or even 10%. But I really don’t think it’s helpful to make people feel guilty about not giving 95% when all we really needed was for everyone to give 1%.

There is an important difference between what we could do, what we should do, and what we must do.

What we must do are moral obligations so strong they are essentially inviolable: We must not murder people. There may be extreme circumstances where exceptions can be made (such as collateral damage in war), and we can always come up with hypothetical scenarios that would justify almost anything, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of time, these ethical rules are absolutely binding.

What we should do are moral obligations that are strong enough to be marks against your character if you break them, but not so absolutely binding that you have to be a monster not to follow them. This is where I put donating at least 1% of your income. (This is also where I put being vegetarian, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.) You really ought to do it, and you are doing something wrongful if you don’t—but most people don’t, and you are not a terrible person if you don’t.

This latter category is in part socially constructed, based on the norms people actually follow. Today, slavery is obviously a grave crime, and to be a human trafficker who participates in it you must be a psychopath. But two hundred years ago, things were somewhat different: Slavery was still wrong, yes, but it was quite possible to be an ordinary person who was generally an upstanding citizen in most respects and yet still own slaves. I would still condemn people who owned slaves back then, but not nearly as forcefully as I would condemn someone who owned slaves today. Two hundred years from now, perhaps vegetarianism will move up a category: The norm will be that everyone eats only plants, and someone who went out of their way to kill and eat a pig would have to be a psychopath. Eating meat is already wrong today—but it will be more wrong in the future. I’d say the same about donating 1% of your income, but actually I’m hoping that by two hundred years from now there will be no more poverty left to eradicate, and donation will no longer be necessary.

Finally, there is what we could do—supererogatory, even heroic actions of self-sacrifice that would make the world a better place, but cannot be reasonably expected of us. This is where donating 95% or even 25% of your income would fall. Yes, absolutely, that would help more people than donating 1%; but you don’t owe the world that much. It’s not wrong for you to contribute less than this. You don’t need to feel guilty for not giving this much.

But I do want to make you feel guilty if you don’t give at least 1%. Don’t tell me you can’t. You can. If your income is $30,000 per year, that’s $300 per year. If you needed that much for a car repair, or dental work, or fixing your roof, you’d find a way to come up with it. No one in the First World middle class is that liquidity-constrained. It is true that half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency, but I frankly don’t believe it. (I believe it for the bottom 25% or so, who are actually poor; but not half of Americans.) If you have even one credit card that’s not maxed out, you can do this—and frankly even if a card is maxed out, you can probably call them and get them to raise your limit. There is something you could cut out of your spending that would allow you to get back 1% of your annual income. I don’t know what it is, necessarily: Restaurants? Entertainment? Clothes? But I’m not asking you to give a third of your income—I’m asking you to give one penny out of every dollar.

I give considerably more than that; my current donation target is 8% and I’m planning on raising it to 10% or more once I get a high-paying job. I live on a grad student salary which is less than the median personal income in the US. So I know it can be done. But I am very intentionally not asking you to give this much; that would be above and beyond the call of duty. I’m only asking you to give 1%.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s