Wall St, Charity, and Saving the World

Today I started writing for Quartz magazine, the Atlantic’s new on-line business magazine.  My first article is on saving the world by funding charities rather than working for charities – a topic that I’ve written on previously for the Practical Ethics blog. The basic idea is that, often, one can do more good by choosing to fund not-for-profits rather than work for them directly – and that a good way to fund them is to ‘earn to give’, that is to deliberately take a high-earning career and donate a large chunk of one’s earnings to the best causes.

It’s been about a year since I wrote that Practical Ethics blog post, and a lot has happened since. 80,000 Hours, an evidence-based advisory service on careers that make a difference that I cofounded, has grown and grown. We have a number of people earning to give, and all those I know are finding it rewarding career choice, and are confident that they made the right decision. Some are able to make six figure donations in their first year and half of employment. Earning to give certainly isn’t the only way of making a big difference in the world – and we don’t recommend it as such – but it’s one way, and it’s an option people often don’t give enough attention to.

I’ll write more in future, including on issues to do with whether working in finance or other lucrative careers is harmful. For every article I write for Quartz, I’ll try to add some extra comments here and get discussion going.

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7 Responses to Wall St, Charity, and Saving the World

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I don’t know whether to thank you or not, Will, so I’ll just mention quite neutrally that your post sent me (a convinced atheist) to the Bible, more specifically to Mark 8.36.
    Perhaps Sunday School was not so bad after all…..

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “Earning to give”

    I suspect that taxing the daylights out of greedy rich people would be more sensible, and less tied to the ups and downs of individual egos. Robbing the rich to give to the poor is more ethically attractive than “look-at-me” martyrdom.

    • Dave Frame says:

      “I suspect that taxing the daylights out of greedy rich people would be more sensible, and less tied to the ups and downs of individual egos.”

      It’s not obviously just to tax the daylights out of anyone. For one thing, they (rich people) aren’t mere means to your political ends. For another, it’s pretty clear that if you want to be a consequentialist about this, very high EMTRs end up doing more harm than good because (1) innovation & people flee to more reasonable jurisdictions; (2) high EMTRs act as a brake on the efforts of those who stay. [There’s a big literature on this. It’s called the 1970s.] Very high tax rates are a bad idea for well-understood reasons.

      “Robbing the rich to give to the poor is more ethically attractive than “look-at-me” martyrdom.”

      If it’s a choice between the injustice of robbery vs the vice of narcissism* then I’d definitely prefer the narcissism. Robbery doesn’t strike me as ethically attractive at all.

      *I kind of agree with your diagnosis here. I call the whole 80K hours thing “conspicuous philanthropy”. A colleague of mine in Oxford calls it a moral ponzi scheme. But I’m not sure that those criticisms matter much. Does it matter that Mother Theresa was anti-abortion, or that Martin Luther King was a womanizer? Maybe to some. But probably not a whole heap to those helped by them.

      • This is slightly off topic, but what leads to these ‘unvirtuous’ diagnoses of groups like 80k? (‘martyrdom’, ‘narcisscism’, ‘ponzi scheme’ etc.)

        I agree with you that these motivational concerns are secondary if these groups end up causing lots of good consequences, but I’m a member of 80k and similar sorts of movements, and I’d prefer not to be unvirtuous. So what are we doing wrong?

        • Dave Frame says:

          Gregory wrote: “This is slightly off topic, but what leads to these ‘unvirtuous’ diagnoses of groups like 80k? (‘martyrdom’, ‘narcisscism’, ‘ponzi scheme’ etc.) […] what are we doing wrong?”

          It’s not a big deal, but I think that the objections I have boil down to three and a bit things: (1) the conspicuousness* of the philanthropy – the point of 80k hours is not to do good work quietly and humbly behind the scenes, but rather to do it as loudly and obviously as you can; (2) the collapsing of the beautiful, many-sided thing that is moral virtue into a single (self-serving) dimension, on which rich kids with high NPVs perform well and others (rest-home workers, carers for disabled people, people who volunteer for service organizations in their own communities) do badly; (3) attendant lack of humility** as you basically imply (or allow to be inferred) that while helping homeless people might be rewarding, it’s basically a bit crap since donating money to alleviate malaria is way more important and intellectually cool; (3.x) the total non-credibility of the promises 20-somethings make regarding the future. But that’s for the future, and I don’t particularly care about that anyway since I think hypocrisy is an over-rated vice.

          *Ordinary goods have dwindling marginal utility. You value the eighth slice of pizza less than the first, and the tenth even less than the eighth. Veblen goods (or whatever – they go by a few names) are different from that – they have increasing marginal value (across some range). The point of the second Rolls Royce is because the loser down the road only has one. They are status goods – the point of owning them is to differentiate yourself from others: “Steve is working as a quant because he’s driven by the desire to retire at 35; my purpose is altogether more worthy.” It’s an attempt (justified or not) to differentiate yourself from others by virtue of something you can purchase (in this case, consequences) – “Veblen gifts”, in essence. There are some nice competitive things about Veblen goods – sporting success and Nature papers strike me as Veblen goods that spur people on in ways that can have positive spin-offs (greater enthusiasm for healthy activity; more knowledge production). There are similar positive consequences from 80k hours, etc, too, but the potential is there for this to be just a new front-line for acceptable snobbery – “Oh, you only gave $50,000 to Schistosomiasis elimination last year? How understated of you.”

          **I think there’s a good reason the religious traditions emphasize both charity and humility. There are lots of ways of being a good person. Using cash transfers may be one way. But it is not the only one, and to suggest or imply that it’s somehow superior to all other ways is probably bad moral karma (that sort of “grab” for the high ground always alienates and repels people who should otherwise be broadly on-side). And yes, 80K, Giving what we can, etc do allow that implication, as paid members of those charities occasionally admit (privately).

          But you know, whatever, man. That isn’t to deny that these charities do good things, or that they aren’t worth supporting. Virtue is just one (largely unquantifiable) aspect of life.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Is this what you mean, Dave ?
    “11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself : God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
    12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”
    If so, I agree !
    (Not to mention that the thesis that one “saves the world” by giving to charity, as Will’s headline states, is rather simplistic from my point of view…..)

    • Dave Frame says:

      Anthony wrote: “Is this what you mean, Dave ?” [Luke 18 stuff]

      Yeah, pretty much. I like the bible.* Since I don’t much trust my own intuitions, I always feel if I’m somewhere near a semi-plausible Jesus position on major public policy issues, that gives me reassurance. [I also feel this way about Willie Nelson, which is why his position on agricultural subsidies troubles me so. (Willie, that is, not Jesus. Not sure Jesus ever did trade policy, did he?)]

      *I tried reading it once, but got bored with all the lists a couple of chapters in – all that “begat” stuff. I stopped reading because it got a bit dull, and was too derivative of a Ted Hughes poem.


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