Half Your Income Saves A Lot Of Lives

 

This Wonkblog article was posted on Twitter via @pegobry. It chronicles a new generation of altruistically-minded individuals who, rather than doing non-profit work or volunteering, are pursuing the most lucrative work possible and then donating (in the case of some of the individuals profiled here, anyway) half of the money to charity.

I think giving away half your income to help save lives is wonderful, but I have serious reservations about hitching it to a Peter Singer thought experiment, as one of the subjects of the piece does. Singer’s formulation goes like this: 

A man walking by a shallow pond notices a toddler struggling in the water. No one else is around. Rescuing the child would ruin his shoes and muddy his suit. Tending to the girl and finding her parents would take time, making him late for work. So he walks away. The girl drowns.

Singer first told this story in his 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and it is among the most famous in modern ethics. To Singer, the lesson is this: “If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

It’s the caveat, “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” which gives me pause. By that definition, if the man in the story determined that the value of his suit and time were comparable to the life of the girl, then, in saving the suit and not the girl, the man has met the burden of his moral obligation.  

This article also raises the question of the state of the giver and not just the gift. This type of monetary giving is indeed very generous and helpful, but it is also the least sacrificial form of giving, in my opinion.  

It’s really easy to give money online. It’s really difficult to dig a well. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t know of anyone whose life was irrevocably changed by clicking “SEND.”  I may be too harsh, and I’ll admit that I don’t know whether or not these individuals volunteer, or how they spend their time, but I don’t think I’m stretching it to say that purely monetary giving will have less staying power than if one saw firsthand how the monetary sacrifice was changing lives. This brings me to the bigger problem I have with Singer’s lesson learned: It seems to me that Singer’s idea of what we morally “ought” to do is a relative concept, and can just as easily justify saving a life or not; giving away half your income or not.  

I want to reiterate that I’m not criticizing the generosity of these individuals. They are commendable. I just see the moral driver as weak, and I also see this as yet another way in which progressives will beat us over the head for not caring about people as much as they do.

What are your thoughts?  What am I missing? 

There are 25 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrentB67

    Some good points here. Money is a key part of helping, but contact, caring, and encouragement count also.

    This is one of the reasons the welfare state is so corrosive. We lull ourselves into believing because we let the government at all levels ultimately confiscate about half of our earnings to distribute as they see fit that all of society’s less fortunate are cared for.

    Not only are they not cared for, but they are often sentenced to a lifetime of misfortune because we don’t embrace and encourage them personally.

    We should beat progressives over the head for the corrosive damage of the federal welfare state, dismantle it, and take responsibility for helping our neighbors at the community/local/state level without government interference.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn

    I’m sure the left side of Christianity would immediately see this verse in it:

    So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it. (James 4:17)

     It does tend to make a very tidy formula for what is and is not ethical: known good + ability to perform = ethical behavior. Of course, as you point out, it leaves a lot of slop on both the variables to play with.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @
    A.D.P. Efferson:   This article also raises the question of the state of the giver and not just the gift. This type of monetary giving is indeed very generous and helpful, but it is also the least sacrificial form of giving, in my opinion. 

    It’s really easy to give money online. It’s really difficult to dig a well. Not to put too fine a point on it,  I don’t know of anyone whose life was irrevocably changed by clicking “SEND.”

    Is the point of giving to be “sacrificial” or is to do good?  Is it to change our lives or the lives of the people we try to help?  It seems to me that both gift and giver should be evaluated in relation to the recipient(s). 

    I find the people in the article praiseworthy and inspiring.  I’m not a fan of Singer, because I disagree strongly with some of what he’s written (especially his pro-euthanasia position, which I think is a moral minefield), but I don’t have a problem with his parable of the child in the pond.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    It chronicles a new generation of altruistically-minded individuals who, rather than doing non-profit work or volunteering, are pursuing the most lucrative work possible and then donating (in the case of some of the individuals profiled here, anyway) half of the money to charity.

     

    Why only half?  Especially if they’re doing “the most lucrative work possible”?

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @TheKingPrawn
    Miffed White Male

    It chronicles a new generation of altruistically-minded individuals who, rather than doing non-profit work or volunteering, are pursuing the most lucrative work possible and then donating (in the case of some of the individuals profiled here, anyway) half of the money to charity.

     Why only half?  Especially if they’re doing “the most lucrative work possible”? · 0 minutes ago

    I knew a guy who donated half of his E-5 pay to charity on principle. He was working his way up to living on only 40% of his wages. Approaching it with his mindset (live on X% of my pay regardless of what that pay is) seems like the more sacrificial way to go about it.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @MiffedWhiteMale
    The King Prawn

    Miffed White Male

    It chronicles a new generation of altruistically-minded individuals who, rather than doing non-profit work or volunteering, are pursuing the most lucrative work possible and then donating (in the case of some of the individuals profiled here, anyway) half of the money to charity.

     Why only half?  Especially if they’re doing “the most lucrative work possible”? · 0 minutes ago

    I knew a guy who donated half of his E-5 pay to charity on principle. He was working his way up to living on only 40% of his wages. Approaching it with his mindset (live on X% of my pay regardless of what that pay is) seems like the more sacrificial way to go about it. · 0 minutes ago

    I admit I haven’t followed the link to read the full article yet, I’m merely responding to the characterization given here.  I have no objection to people giving large chunks of their own money away [or keeping it all].  But when I hear the combination of “Altruistically minded”, “most lucrative possible” and “RATHER THAN [emph added] than doing volunteer work or non-profit”, my “They’re justifying themselves” alarm goes off.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @robberberen

    If you earn a large income, you have necessarily enriched the people who gave you their money (assuming you’re operating in a relatively free economy).  Simply by earning it in the first place, you have served and given to others in an amount equal to your income.  So giving that income away, over and above the service you already provided in order to earn it, is immeasurably better than “doing nonprofit work or volunteering”. 

    So I’m all for this form of generosity — as long as the people doing the giving aren’t neglecting other financial obligations in their own lives (e.g. providing for their own families).

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @Sabrdance

    I am unmoved by the hypothetical because I am not a utilitarian.  I find nothing wrong with generosity in the form of donations.  We all have our gifts.  For some, that is to be massively productive, which in turn they use to support those whose gifts are more direct -service, labor, presence.

    Were someone who was generally a productive supporter lodged in the position of raising money or rescuing someone drowning in a puddle and decided it was more important to get to work, my indictment would not have been that the net amount of utility in the world was reduced -it would be that ignoring the particular and close evil that could be addressed in favor of the abstract and distant evil is a vice -which name I don’t know, but which Dicken’s called “Telescopic Philanthropy.”

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @NickStuart

    If you donate money to dig a well you do two things:

    • Help provide potable water to the people where the well is dug
    • Help provide an income to whoever dug the well

    Your sweat equity came in when you did whatever it is you did to earn the money.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @KevinF

    Richard Epstein has talked about the moral imperative to help in various interviews… Here’s a good one, starting at about 12:10: http://youtu.be/aYYIRJpXqGA?t=12m10s

    He also talks about it here, maybe around 2/3rds through the interview: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2008/Epsteinhappiness.mp3

    He basically makes the point that in a decent civil society like the US, you just don’t find evidence of that kind of gross indifference to human life like Singer describes. Rather, there is far more evidence of people dying in futile attempts to save people. The point is that social norms and our basic common humanity take care of this problem.

    As for whether it’s just as good to donate as it is to lend a hand yourself, I’d say absolutely. Suppose an hour of my income can buy two hours of charitable work. I may derive more satisfaction from doing the charitable work myself, but by doing so I cut my contribution in half. What’s more important – helping people, or feeling good about it?

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Moderator
    @AmySchley
    Adrastus

    A.D.P. Efferson:  

    It’s really easy to give money online. It’s really difficult to dig a well. 

    Is the point of giving to be “sacrificial” or is to do good?  Is it to change our lives or the lives of the people we try to help?  

    You are familiar with the concept of comparative advantage, ADP?  Suppose you can only dig a well a week (because you are a frail office-worker with a shovel), but a professional can dig 10 (because he has a backhoe and other appropriate tools.) If half of what you make in a week is enough to pay for the professional’s labor for the week, isn’t everyone better off for doing that?  There are 9 more wells than you could have dug.  You’ve done more good than you could have with your sweat, the people getting the wells have more wells than you could have dug, *and* you’re helped the local guy stimulate the local economy.

    The point of charity is to help other people, not to go on a “look how hard I worked” ego-trip.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @LucyPevensie
    Sabrdance: I am unmoved by the hypothetical because I am not a utilitarian.  I find nothing wrong with generosity in the form of donations.  We all have our gifts.  For some, that is to be massively productive, which in turn they use to support those whose gifts are more direct -service, labor, presence.

    This certainly is complicated, isn’t it?  Lots of us would be pretty poor at digging wells, and have specialized skills at which we are very good indeed, and for which we earn a substantial amount of money. I’m with Adrastus in asking whether the purpose of philanthropy is to help ourselves or someone else, and I am a bit uncomfortable with the universe of short-term mission projects that has sprung up at least in part with the apparent intention of giving the participants an enriching experience.  The big problem is that the government has made it so difficult for people here in the US to be helpful to the needy immediately around us. 

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @Sabrdance
    Lucy Pevensie

    Sabrdance:

    I am a bit uncomfortable with the universe of short-term mission projects that has sprung up at least in part with the apparent intention of giving the participants an enriching experience.  · 1 minute ago

    While I would agree that mission-trips as a resume building exercise are somewhat missing the point, I included “presence” in my list of direct charity for a reason.  I may not have any particular skills doing whatever service project is needed -but I can sit with others and let them know that their travails are important to me.  Giving up time from work to go visit those in need is a powerful thing.  It is not the only thing, though.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Contributor
    @ADPEfferson
    Amy Schley

    Adrastus

    A.D.P. Efferson:  

    It’s really easy to give money online. It’s really difficult to dig a well. 

    Is the point of giving to be “sacrificial” or is to do good?  Is it to change our lives or the lives of the people we try to help?  

    The point of charity is to help other people, not to go on a “look how hard I worked” ego-trip. · 2 minutes ag

    Thank you for your example, I am indeed, familiar with that concept.  I absolutely agree, the point of charity is to help people.  I think I was clear that I find monetary giving admirable.  With respect to my “digging a well” comment, I was speaking more about how that act of service, or any act of service, impacts the individual who gives, versus say, giving online, not necessarily about the outcome of the service. IMO, I think there is greater staying power in charity that requires more personal sacrifice, whatever, that might be.  I think people are moved to continue giving when they are personally involved.  What are your thoughts?

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RichardFinlay

    I think it depends on how effective the recipient of the money-gift is.  The receiving organization might exist primarily to fund themselves in return for letting the donors feel good about their “sacrifice,” which may not even be painful if their income is “lucrative” enough.  Does anyone believe that Bill Gates, for example, personally feels the impact of his foundation?

    If these 50% donors are giving directly to worthy projects/people, I would value that more highly than if they were merely donating to an intermediary organization.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @RyanM

    I think singer’s formulation is inherently ridiculous.  Nobody – regardless of the quality of his suit – would let a toddler drown in order to save himself some convenience.  I don’t think he is implying that anyone would ever do such a thing, but what heis implying (or what liberals are implying when they use that example) is that people who engage in cost/benefit analyses that are not quite as obvious as that are somehow doing the same thing.  You have money, so by not giving away all but what you absolutely require to survive, you are killing babies.  Frankly, I’m not too convinced of this from a group of people who regularly “fight” for the killing of babies…  which brings me to another point.  They almost always require that this money be given to the government.  If I had 5 dollars and there was a dying toddler in front of me who could be saved by that fiver, then of course.  That’s easy.

    Let’s say instead of a toddler, it’s a company like Solyndra or GM about to drown… or Planned Parenthood or PBS about to go under?  I’d let them drown.

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @FrederickKey

    It’s an interesting question.

    Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church organized a group that sort of goes in for that, a kind of club of high earners whose generosity makes other good works possible. I’m sure it’s greatly helpful, but perhaps less so to the high earners themselves. Putting yourself out there makes all the difference. We remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

                                     A child’s kiss, Set on thy sighing lips, shall make thee glad ; A poor man, served by thee, shall make thee rich ; An old man, helped by thee, shall make thee strong ; Thou shalt be served thyself by every sense Of service which thou renderest.

    Although that doesn’t mean that fruitless volunteer work that only makes the volunteer feel good, or interfering with trained first-responders at emergencies, or going to rubber-chicken charity balls are helpful, either. Sometimes sending the check and shutting up really is the best thing you can do.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay

    I have a lady who gives me 4000 bucks around thanksgiving to distribute to the needy. How cool is that!

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @PonyConvertible

    What you are missing is the point that by making the money in the first place they are helping society.  In honest work, people earn money by giving others what they want.  By spending your time doing the most lucrative work you can, you are maximizing your benefit to others.  Giving it away after you earn it is a double bonus.  When did we get to the point where we no longer recognize working for profit as the best way to provide benefit to society?

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @BrianClendinen

    Charitable giving should be like any other financial investment, you should try to get the maximum return on your investment. That means doing a lot of research and even trying to figure out a  metric to messure returns. That is a big reason I give most of my giving to my church and pretty much the rest to people I am friends with. I can see were the money is actually going and the impact. Big non-profits, I just don’t see the impact.

    That is just like when you invest you should invest in something you know about, when you give to charity you should give to something or someone you know about.

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @RushBabe49

    There is a big difference between Income and Wealth.  The “big givers” like Buffett and Gates don’t give their income, they give their wealth, which they have accumulated over a number of years doing honest work and investing wisely.  Now, I heard that the largest component of Bill Gates’ “donation” was Microsoft stock.  If you follow the market at all, you will know that Microsoft has been a VERY poor investment in the last 15 years or so-little to no stock appreciation at all.  When I inherited 100 shares, I sold them and invested my money elsewhere.

    In the Bible, the very best sort of charity is that donated totally anonymously, both to the donor and the recipient.  Next best is giving an unemployed person a job, so they may earn their own wealth.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member
    @Larry3435

    With all due respect, I find too many of the comments here take the easy way out.  The truth is that not one of us has not bought something frivolous when we knew that the money we so spent could have made a huge impact on a poor child’s life.  Maybe even saved that life.

    So your choices are admitting to hypocrisy, or being an evil greedy bastard.  Unless…  Unless you admit that taking care of yourself and your family is, in your mind as in everyone’s mind, a higher imperative than taking care of a stranger.

    I do not accept that one has a moral obligation to take care of every stranger.  It is a mitzvah (to use the word of my people) to help where you can, to be sure, but it is not an obligation.  

    Unless, of course, you’re a lefty.  But if you’re a lefty, you want to help strangers by using other people’s money and sacrifice – not your own.

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Moderator
    @AmySchley
    A.D.P. Efferson

     IMO, I think there is greater staying power in charity that requires more personal sacrifice, whatever, that might be.  I think people are moved to continue giving when they are personally involved.  What are your thoughts? · 3 minutes ago

    Certainly, being more involved does help people keep giving.  But involvement need not be measured in personal pain — e.g. for many years, my parents have sponsored the secondary and college education of a girl in Honduras.  The money they give is not so much it requires real sacrifice, but they are involved with her through occasional visits to Honduras and frequent letters back and forth.

    It is the *relationship* that keeps people giving.  Shared sweat and blood can build bonds, but so can shared tears and time.

    • #23
  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DocJay

    I think people should do as they are moved.  The more the better, but one person’s send button is another’s ditch to dig.  It’s all good until liberals demand it, then it fails. 

    I choose who I give my time and money to.  

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Inactive
    @RedRules

    Heck, I’ll say it: just giving money is lazy. The example of a well is spot-on. These people are *already* working to make as much money as they can. Giving ‘half’ of it away means nothing if the other half is still some absurd amount of money (by my standard at least) and they don’t sacrifice anything because of their ‘generosity’. Of course this assumes a 6+ figure income.

    But the flip side of that is whether those billions will matter to anyone else. Yes, of course. Some hungry people will be fed. Some homeless people clothed. But you know who else will benefit from those billions, and in my opinion to a much greater degree that the ‘poor’? The lawyers. The 6-figure income executives. The accountants. The bureaucrats. And they will multiply like rabbits left together in close proximity, sucking up more and more of that money meant for the poor.

    Know what might be better? Gates quitting his job and opening a series of homeless shelters and personally operating them. Adult education centers? Free family counselling? Lots of things can be done that are better than dumping cash into a sarlacc pit.

    • #25

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.