The Giving What We Can Pledge

On one hand, I think the  Giving What We Can pledge (10% of your income to the most effective charities) is an excellent idea and I’d be thrilled if me plugging it led to an additional pledge.  On the other hand, I haven’t signed it and don’t plan on doing so.  This makes me feel kind of awkward suggesting other people do.

I have many aborted paragraphs written about why I think the pledge is a good idea but not for me, but in retrospect they’re mostly fluff.  It boils down to: I have a strong need to create my own number.

Scott Alexander talks about how satisfying having A Number that he can reach and then feel done is to him.  This seems extremely valuable, and 10% seems like a reasonable number.  But it doesn’t do that for me.  If I had billion dollars I’d need to give more, and if I accepted a job that paid $20,000/year but saved the bottom billion, I would hang on to that $2,000, thank you very much.  Not just because I earned it, but because spending the money on myself would actually do more good for the world, by freeing up my time and energy.

In order to feel done, I need to exhaustively examine my income, spending, and choices. That means the pledge can’t possibly save me work or increase my emotional satisfaction.  But if I signed it and circumstances arose such that me giving less than 10% was the right thing to do, I would feel awful about breaking it.  To the point I might subconsciously prevent myself from even considering the option.*

The other common reasons I hear for signing are to push better behavior in future!you, to create a community of giving, and as a useful conversation starter.  These are all excellent goals.  In my particular case, future!Elizabeth has been so consistently smarter and kinder than past!Elizabeth that think she will make better decisions than me and I don’t want to constrain her.  Given that, I think I’ll do a better job contributing to a culture of giving by fostering a culture of deep thought around giving (which not everyone will or should participate in).***

So basically, signing the Giving What We Can pledge is incompatible with my version of scrupulosity.  But it might be extremely compatible with yours.  If the idea of having a target and then being done appeals to you, I highly suggest you consider signing.  But if having a hard target feels awful and spending  several hours thinking about exactly much to donate feels fun or satisfying, consider coming to Seattle EA’s donation decision day (in person, but we’ll create a virtual meeting room if there’s interest) or creating your own.


*I did in fact take a pay cut to work for Sendwave, which enables people to send money to their families in Africa cheaply and easily.  I am going back and forth on how that affects giving.  Last year I did 10% + offsets for things with negative externalities (eating meat and my bullshit patent).  This year I  took a way more than 10% paycut to do way, way more good than I could possibly have done with donations.  So in a certain sense I’ve already given 10% of my potential income and could consider that obligation met. On the other hand, I would have accepted the same pay from if it meant working from home**, so there’s a strong argument that doesn’t count against my born-lucky tax.  On the third hand, I’m starting with UI testing and I hate UI testing, so doesn’t that count for something?  On the fourth hand, in the grand scale of human suffering, no, it does not.

The plan I made last year means donations this year are against last year’s tax return, so for now I can just follow that.  Except some of it will be in January so I can use more employer matching.  But I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.

**Which is everything I ever dreamed it could be.

***Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive.  Unit of Caring has pledged 30% and contributes a fabulous amount to discourse.

2 thoughts on “The Giving What We Can Pledge”

  1. This resonates with me, I have similar thoughts about ‘what’s the right amount’. But don’t let uncertainty delay action in this case – anything is better than nothing, and whether your number is 10%, 50% or 2% we should start today. Start cautious if you’re unsure – after all it’s important to retain your own financial stability to enable you to continue to have an impact – but if you’re gonna do it then do it. Signing a pledge is neither here nor there – its impact that matters, so make some.

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