Why not give 90%?

(Cross-posted from my own blog. I also gave a talk on this at EAGxAus­tralia 2019.)

Agape donates 10% of her in­come each year to effec­tive char­i­ties. This dona­tion brings far greater hap­piness (or welfare, or what­ever you think is valuable) to the re­cip­i­ents than it’d bring to her. And 10% is no small thing. (You could say it’s a good at­tenth.)
But Agape has a com­fortable life. She could donate up to 90% be­fore it re­ally got tough. Be­fore each dol­lar would do more good for her than it would for those in poverty, or those on fac­tory farms, etc, whom she might benefit with it.
By only giv­ing 10%, is Agape do­ing the wrong thing?

Agape and her dilemma might sound fa­mil­iar. She’s me. She might be you too.

Per­son­ally, I give a lot less than 90%. So I worry about this a lot– am I do­ing some­thing deeply im­moral, by not sac­ri­fic­ing much more than I do? I sus­pect that many effec­tive al­tru­ists have the same worry, and per­haps even feel guilty about not do­ing ab­solutely ev­ery­thing they can.

And this doesn’t just ap­ply to dona­tions. It’s similar for ca­reers – you might, for ex­am­ple, go into a less high-im­pact ca­reer, maybe in academia, do­ing re­search which is a bit less benefi­cial to the world than some of the things you could do, but you re­ally en­joy that re­search. Or, you could go do a job that you don’t en­joy at all. Maybe earn­ing to give in fi­nance could be an ex­am­ple of this, if that’s some­thing you wouldn’t be able to bear. Not that that’s the most im­pact­ful op­tion for many peo­ple, but imag­ine your own hy­po­thet­i­cal high-im­pact ca­reer path that you’d find un­bear­able. The ques­tion is: by choos­ing a ca­reer which is more en­joy­able but a bit less im­pact­ful, am I do­ing the wrong thing?

Or, even more im­por­tantly, am I not be­ing a ‘Proper Effec­tive Altru­ist’™?

Here’s my preferred, and pretty stan­dard, defi­ni­tion of effec­tive al­tru­ism.

  • Effec­tive al­tru­ism: the prac­tice of 1) us­ing some amount of your re­sources to im­prove the world, and 2) spend­ing those re­sources in whichever way will have the great­est pos­i­tive im­pact, ac­cord­ing to the best available ev­i­dence.

Note that there’s no moral claim here, in the sense that it doesn’t say any­thing about what you should do. Effec­tive al­tru­ism is sim­ply some­thing you do, rather a be­lief about what you’re obli­gated to do. Re­gard­less of some­one’s moral be­liefs, if they use some amount of their time, money, etc to help oth­ers as effec­tively as they can, then they’re ‘do­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism’.

In Agape’s case, giv­ing less than she could, there’s no di­rect con­flict be­tween that and effec­tive al­tru­ism.

But a lot of effec­tive al­tru­ists do think we have moral obli­ga­tions to en­gage in effec­tive al­tru­ism – e.g., Peter Singer. I do too. I be­lieve the fol­low­ing, which I sus­pect Peter Singer would agree with.

  • Obli­ga­tory, de­mand­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism: When­ever our re­sources would pro­duce greater moral value if spent to benefit oth­ers than if spent on our­selves, we are obli­gated to spend those re­sources on oth­ers.

And any­one who be­lieves this should con­clude that we should use a large por­tion of our re­sources to help oth­ers. That would prob­a­bly in­volve giv­ing 90% of our in­come to char­ity each year, or to use the 80,000 hours in our ca­reers to do what­ever helps oth­ers most, no mat­ter how un­pleas­ant the job is.

Of course, this wouldn’t im­ply that we should give away 99% of our in­come, that we should sell ev­ery piece of cloth­ing and wear potato sacks to work, that we should liter­ally bring our­selves down to the poverty line, that per­haps we shouldn’t even spend money on wa­ter to shower. That would prob­a­bly be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. If you want to keep earn­ing money, or keep hav­ing an im­pact in other ways, you prob­a­bly need to smell okay, and not show up to work in a potato sack. Or you’ll get fired. (Maybe not in academia though…) Plus, it’s prob­a­bly worth pay­ing to have a place to live, a good night’s sleep, a de­cent diet and so on, so you can keep your pro­duc­tivity up.

But ba­sic hy­giene and so on of­ten won’t cost the ma­jor­ity of your in­come. Maybe 10%, leav­ing you 90% to give away. Or maybe it takes you 50% to satisfy those ba­sic needs. It’ll de­pend on the per­son.

But whether it’s 90% or 50%, Obli­ga­tory, de­mand­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism seems to en­tail that al­most all of us should do a lot more than we cur­rently do. So, are most of us do­ing some­thing deeply wrong? Should Peter Singer be dis­ap­pointed in us?

No, I don’t think he should. I think we’re do­ing okay. In fact, I think we may be re­quired to give a lot less than 90%. Peter Singer should still be happy with us.

To make the case for this, I’ll first have to in­tro­duce you to Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate—a clas­sic ex­am­ple from philos­o­phy.

Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate
A stu­dent is ap­ply­ing for a grad job at the last minute and needs a refer­ence. She emails Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate on Mon­day, ask­ing him to write her a refer­ence let­ter. If he says yes, she will send him more info on Tues­day. The refer­ence is due on Fri­day.
Pro­cras­ti­nate is the best per­son to do the refer­ence and he can do it on time. How­ever, he knows that he (al­most) cer­tainly will not do it on time (P<5%). He is a ha­bit­ual pro­cras­ti­na­tor and will (al­most) cer­tainly choose not to finish it. This failure would not be due to out­side fac­tors (e.g., a nat­u­ral dis­aster). What’s more, Pro­cras­ti­nate’s failure to de­liver would have very bad con­se­quences. The stu­dent would not have time to seek an­other refer­ence, so would not get the job.
If Pro­cras­ti­nate says no on Mon­day, the stu­dent will ask Dr Reli­able, who would write the refer­ence on time. It wouldn’t be quite as good as Pro­cras­ti­nate’s – per­haps good enough to get the job at a lower salary—but this would be much bet­ter than no refer­ence.
What should Pro­cras­ti­nate do on Mon­day? Say yes or no?

Of course, the best thing that Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate can do that week is to say yes on Mon­day and then write the refer­ence on Tues­day-Fri­day. But we’re in­ter­ested in what he should do on Mon­day.

He can’t con­trol his fu­ture ac­tions; he can’t en­sure that his fu­ture self will carry through. In fact, he’s nearly cer­tain that he won’t. Per­haps past ex­pe­rience has shown him this over and over. And yes, that may make him a bad per­son. But does it mean that he should say yes this time?

Sup­pose I and Pro­cras­ti­nate were a two-per­son aca­demic team. And it was up to me whether to an­swer emails—to say yes or no to the stu­dent—and then up to him to ac­tu­ally write the refer­ence. Surely I shouldn’t say yes un­less I ac­tu­ally think he’ll do it. If I’m al­most cer­tain he won’t, I should say no. I think this situ­a­tion is the same in the rele­vant ways as above—Pre­sent!Pro­cras­ti­nate and Fu­ture!Pro­cras­ti­nate are effec­tively sep­a­rate agents. And Pre­sent!Pro­cras­ti­nate should say no—do­ing so saves the stu­dent from dis­ap­point­ment. (I talk more about the case for say­ing no in this post.)

Back to Agape now. Here’s the case from above, but with some ex­tra de­tails. You might no­tice that it’s start­ing to sound similar to the case of Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate.

Agape donates 10% of her in­come each year to effec­tive char­i­ties. This dona­tion brings far greater value to the re­cip­i­ents than it’d bring to her.
But Agape has a com­fortable life. She could donate up to 90% be­fore it re­ally got tough. Be­fore each dol­lar would do more good for her than it would for those in poverty, or those on fac­tory farms, etc, whom she might benefit with it.
Agape re­ally likes a bit of lux­ury, e.g., her sports car. Without her lux­ury com­forts, she’d be ‘de­mo­tor­vated’, you might say.
By her best es­ti­mate, if she had to sub­sist on 10% of her in­come, there’s a 50% chance each year that her fu­ture self would give up on donat­ing al­to­gether and keep ev­ery­thing for her­self. She has 40 years left in her ca­reer.
By only giv­ing 10% this year, is Agape do­ing the wrong thing?

Why would she give up on her plan to donate? It might be due to burnout, which is dis­cussed a lot in the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity. Or it might just be due to chang­ing her mind later on. I think that too is a risk worth pre­dict­ing and miti­gat­ing. Just as it is for Pro­fes­sor Pro­cras­ti­nate.

If I was donat­ing 90% ev­ery year, I think my prob­a­bil­ity of giv­ing up per­ma­nently would be even higher than 50% each year. If I had zero time and money left to en­joy my­self, my fu­ture self would al­most cer­tainly get de­mo­ti­vated and give up on this whole thing. Maybe I’d come back and donate a bit less but, for sim­plic­ity, let’s just as­sume that if Agape gives up, she stays given up.

And Agape has 40 years left in her ca­reer. Sup­pose she tries to give 90% each year. Then, over 40 years, the ex­pected amount she donates is:

𝔼(amount donated) = 0.9 + 0.9×0.5 + 0.9×0.5^2+...+0.9×0.5^39 = 1.8

That’s in units of “years’ worth of in­come”. And 1.8 years’ worth of in­come isn’t a huge amount.

What if she tried to donate just 10% each year? And she has no risk of giv­ing up. Then we have:

𝔼(amount donated) = 0.1+ 0.1 + 0.1 + … + 0.1 = 4

That’s more than twice as much—more than twice the pos­i­tive im­pact (as­sum­ing con­stant marginal im­pact per dol­lar). And, if we sup­pose that her in­come in­creases over time, then the differ­ence would be even greater.

Now, what if she donated 20%? And that brought her up to 5% an­nual risk of giv­ing up?

𝔼(amount donated) = 0.2+ 0.2×0.95 + 0.2×0.95^2 + … + 0.2×0.95^39 = 3

Again, that’s less than if she donated 10% with no risk! And that seems sur­pris­ing. She’s giv­ing twice as much as she was at 10%; at 90% she was giv­ing 9 times as much! But, with that ad­di­tional risk, the ex­pected to­tal shrinks down to even less. This is be­cause the prob­a­bil­ity of failure is com­pound­ing over 40 years, and ends up awfully high. For in­stance, with a 5% per year chance of giv­ing up, that ends up be­ing an 86% chance of giv­ing up by the end.

So Agape’s to­tal im­pact is more sen­si­tive to changes in that an­nual prob­a­bil­ity here than it is to how much she’s ac­tu­ally donat­ing each year. A similar re­sult holds in gen­eral. When­ever she could donate twice as much per year and that would in­cur an ad­di­tional 5% an­nual risk of giv­ing up, it’s ac­tu­ally not worth it! Any ad­di­tional com­pound­ing 5% prob­a­bil­ity ends up cut­ting your im­pact in half over 40 years. Which is pretty coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but that’s prob­a­bil­ity for you.

Of course, I’ve made up all of Agape’s prob­a­bil­ities. I don’t know of any good data on the prob­a­bil­ity of effec­tive al­tru­ists giv­ing up based on their level of dona­tion or ca­reer de­mand­ing­ness, so I’ve picked num­bers out of thin air. If you, dear reader, want to figure out what to do in your own situ­a­tion, you’ll have to figure out how much more likely you are to give up if you had a cer­tain amount less spend­ing money. You might be un­af­fected by that, or you might re­ally strug­gle (as I prob­a­bly would).

But, in gen­eral, I think we can jus­tify donat­ing less than 90%, since that’d be enough to make any of us very likely to give up. In fact, we might be able to jus­tify donat­ing a lot less, de­pend­ing on how sen­si­tive our mo­ti­va­tion is to be­ing de­prived of nice things. As­sum­ing that we’re at least a bit sen­si­tive, we should prob­a­bly donate quite a lot less.

In fact, donat­ing a full 90% would then be reck­less. You’d end up do­ing a lot less good. Ac­cord­ing to Obli­ga­tory, de­mand­ing effec­tive al­tru­ism—the same view that ini­tially recom­mended giv­ing 90% - you’re ac­tu­ally morally obli­gated not to!