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Giving isn’t demanding*

Christmas is about giving.  But giving how much?  £50 might seem like a lot for a Christmas present.  But how about giving 50% of your annual wage?

There are now-familiar arguments that we in rich countries ought to give a lot more to the developed world than we typically do. In fact, Peter Singer and Peter Unger argue that we ought to give a lot.  They don’t specify a figure, but let’s pick, just for the sake of having a nice round number, 50% of one’s annual wage.

The standard response to the views of Singer and Unger, in the philosophical literature, is that giving such extortionate sums is just too demanding for it to be plausible as a moral requirement.

But is giving this much really too demanding?  I’ll suggest not, for two reasons.


First, you’re probably richer than you think.  If you are earning £40 000/yr, you’re easily in the richest 1% of the world’s population; if you were to give half that, you’d still be in the richest 2%.  If you’re earning £20 000 and were to give 50%, you’d still be in the richest 8%.

Imagine if, before you were born, when you didn’t know who you were going to be in society, you got told you were going to end up in the richest 10% of the world’s population.  Would you be happy?  You’d be over the moon!  But if that’s true, how could we complain about merely living in the richest 10%?

You might think that, well, the money goes much further in poor countries – so having a lower wage isn’t so bad if you live there, and so the figures I’ve given are skewed.  But those figures I’ve given are ‘purchasing power parity’ adjusted – that is, they’ve already taken into account the fact that money goes farther in poor countries.  Some people are poor!


Second, the latest psychological research suggests that, despite what you may think, income level really doesn’t make much of a difference to your overall happiness. Once we’ve got the basics in life – food, water and shelter – then other things, like health and relationships, become much more important. In particular, it’s been found that ‘prosocial’ spending of money – for example, giving the money to people more in need – provides a ‘warm glow’ that can keep you happy for weeks.

In fact, rather than being insanely demanding, giving away large chunks of your income will actually have very little effect on your wellbeing, and may well be a net benefit.


So giving really isn’t demanding.  This year, let’s put ethics into practice, and make the world a little better:

Merry Christmas!


*More information on these and related topics can be found at

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks Will for this very nice Xmas message. My father used to say, "Some people know how to make money. But I know how to spend it."
    Unfortunately, he didn't also know how to make it.
    I was interested in your comment that prosocial giving makes for a warm glow that can last for weeks. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. What pattern of giving would maximize personal well-being?
    I liked this blog a lot but I would be interested in what you consider to be well-being and how giving can promote that. I don't think that happiness is everything, so the fact that income level does not correlate with happiness does not answer the question of how income level relates to well-being. On more objective conceptions and some preference satisfaction conceptions, it might be highly correlated with well-being.
    So I guess I have 2 questions: (1) what is well-being? and (2) how does prosocial giving relate to that?

  2. OH, where to start here …

    "First, you’re probably richer than you think"
    While we can apply several rulers here for measuring what is richness, being rich is very subjective feeling.
    Many people who are objectively rich or even well off, don't see themselves as such

    "If you are earning £40 000/yr, you’re easily in the richest 1% of the world’s population; if you were to give half that, you’d still be in the richest 2%. "
    This is a bit of popolistic argumen, while the change might be 1% on a worldwide level, the impact on the standard of living moving from 40K to 20K is immense.

    Indeed it is seen in tests that people who gives (donate) during tests are happier but is there any indication that this is carried into 'real' life conditions?

    I would imagine that people would happily give 50% of what they were just given/won unexpectedly but the same people would find it hard to give away any amount of what they *already* have.

    Lastly, a link to what behaviour economists calls 'anchoring'.
    It is about app, but there's a general principal here

  3. Hi Will, thanks for a praiseworthy message as usual. In the wake of Julian's comment, I would also be interested in learning more about the evidence you cite suggesting that pro-social giving tends to have a significant positive impact on subjective well-being, as some might object that such an impact will only be found among leading philanthropists like you. One might also wonder to what extent religiosity makes a difference in this regard.

    Happy Christmas


  4. Thanks Julian and Alex! Here are some answers:

    Prosocial Spending:

    The main study is:

    DUNN, Elizabeth, Lara AKNIN, & Michael NORTON (2008). “Spending Money on Others
    Promotes Happiness”, Science 319, 1687-1688.

    In this study, participants were given an envelope containing a small sum of money, which they were asked to spend within 24 hours. The experimenter assigned subjects to one of two conditions:
    i) Where they had to spend the money on themselves (paying a bill or buying yourself a treat)
    ii) Where they had to spend the money on others (buying a present for someone or donating the money to charity).
    Those in the second group reported greater happiness than those in the former group (which was contrary to the subject’s expectations).

    The researchers also conducted a longitudinal study of 16 employees at a Boston-based company who received a profit-sharing bonus, finding that those who devoted more of their bonus to prosocial spending experienced greater happiness as a result of spending their windfall. A cross-sectional study of a representative sample of Americans also found greater prosocial spending correlated with significantly greater happiness, while personal spending turned out to be unrelated to happiness.

    (Here I should say thanks to Andreas Mogensen who is the main source for my knowledge on this topic).

    What is well-being?:

    Well, the results of happiness psychology are pretty relevant whatever conception of well-being you have. They just ask people to rate their subjective level of satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 100. That’s at least relevant whatever conception of wellbeing you have.

    The happiness psychology research is probably easiest to translate into wellbeing if hedonism is true (though it’s still very difficult). On an objective list theory, there’s more room to just stipulate that a greater level of material comfort is an objective good. But many objective list theories place much more weight on things like friends, love, knowledge – goods which aren’t so dependent on your level of income.

    I’m not sure how it translates on preference-satisfactionism. You might think that many people just have a surd desire for a greater level of wealth. But it seems unlikely to me: we desire money because of what it can bring. We overestimate how much pleasure we get from additional income. Desiring money because of this pleasure it gives us is often mistaken – there are better ways of getting pleasure.

    But, it seems to me, we also often desire money because of the status it brings. And money certainly does seem to bring status. In which case, greater income would satisfy one’s preferences better.

    Having said that, I think that giving to charity can be a high-status thing to do. Like a peacock’s tail, it’s a way of signaling to others that you have surplus resources. Though, of course, showing off shouldn’t be your sole reason for giving!

    What pattern of giving would maximize personal well-being?:

    Good question! I don’t know if this has been looked into, but I’d guess:
    i) Regularly
    ii) Where you can visibly see the benefit
    iii) Which involves social interaction

    Makes me think, actually, that the Giving What We Can approach is a bit off, regarding personal satisfaction! There are additional benefits though – being part of a strong community, and having a greater purpose in life, are great contributors to happiness.

  5. "Second, the latest psychological research suggests that, despite what you may think, income level really doesn’t make much of a difference to your overall happiness."

    Really, Will?

    "When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone."

    Though as you say "Desiring money because of this pleasure it gives us is often mistaken – there are better ways of getting pleasure. "

    Still, I fully support greater redistribution of wealth; as well as greater creation of wealth. The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative website that you link to supports the latter, given the effects of the disease on schooling and cognitive development. And it's also a very cost-effective treatment.

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