I’ve been toying around with the following:
There are two motivations for donating money – egotistic (e.g. it feels good to do) & altruistic (e.g. other people are better off)
The egotistic motivation is highly scope insensitive – giving away $500 feels roughly as good as giving away $50,000
Probably also scope insensitive qualitatively – giving $5,000 to a low-impact charity feels about as good as giving $5,000 to an effective charity (especially if you don’t reflect very much about impact)
This scope insensitivity is baked in – knowing about it doesn’t make it go away
EA orgs sometimes say that giving effectively will make you happier (e.g. 80k, e.g. GWWC)
These arguments ignore the scope insensitivity of the egotistic motivation – donating some money to charity will probably make you happier than not donating any at all. It’s less clear that donating more money to charity will make you happier than donating some (and especially unclear that the donation <> happiness link scales anything close to linearly)
Ergo, EA should stop recommending effective giving on egotistic grounds, and probably even encourage people to not do effective giving if they’re considering it because they want to be happier (related)
If the above is true, effective giving won’t make you much happier than low-impact giving, and donating large amounts won’t make you much happier than donating small amounts
e.g. $100 to GiveDirectly feels about as good as $1,000 to GiveDirectly; e.g. saving one (statistical) life via AMF feels about as good as saving two (statistical) lives via AMF
Advocating for effective giving on egotistic grounds (e.g. “it will make you happier”) is sorta a false promise
My impression FWIW is that the ‘giving makes you happier’ point wasn’t/isn’t advanced to claim that the optimal portfolio for one’s personal happiness would include (e.g.) 10% of charitable donations (to effective causes), but that doing so isn’t such a ‘hit’ to one’s personal fulfilment as it appears at first glance. This is usually advanced in conjunction with the evidence on diminishing returns to money (i.e. even if you just lost—say − 10% of your income, if you’re a middle class person in a rich country, this isn’t a huge loss to your welfare—and given this evidence on the wellbeing benefits to giving, the impact is likely to be reduced further).
E.g. (and with apologies to the reader for inflicting my juvenilia upon them):
[Still being in the a high global wealth percentile post-giving] partly explains why I don’t feel poorly off or destitute. There are other parts. One is that giving generally makes you happier, and often more happier than buying things for yourself. Another is that I am fortunate in non-monetary respects: my biggest medical problem is dandruff, I have a loving family, a wide and interesting circle of friends, a fulfilling job, an e-reader which I can use to store (and occasionally read) the finest works of western literature, an internet connection I should use for better things than loitering on social media, and so on, and so on, and so on. I am blessed beyond all measure of desert.
So I don’t think that my giving has made me ‘worse off’. If you put a gun to my head and said, “Here’s the money you gave away back. You must spend it solely to further your own happiness”, I probably wouldn’t give it away: I guess a mix of holidays, savings, books, music and trips to the theatre might make me even happier (but who knows? people are bad at affective forecasting). But I’m pretty confident giving has made me happier compared to the case where I never had the money in the first place. So the downside looks like, “By giving, I have made myself even happier from an already very happy baseline, but foregone opportunities to give myself a larger happiness increment still”. This seems a trivial downside at worst, and not worth mentioning across the scales from the upside, which might be several lives saved, or a larger number of lives improved and horrible diseases prevented.
There are diminishing returns to money buying happiness, but it looks like they set in after pretty high incomes (starting at $95,000, and even higher if you live in a wealthy area).
So donating more on the margin when your total income is less than $95,000 USD seems to trade off directly against your happiness.
One can probably realize a lot of the egotistic benefit of donating by giving small amounts, e.g. $30 / month to GiveDirectly.
Update: published an expanded version of this as a standalone post. Includes arguments from survey data as to not be entirely composed of armchair philosophizing.
I would love to see a canonical post making this argument, conflating EA with the benefits of maxing out personal warm fuzzies is one of my pet peeves.
Usually I would agree with you, but I think within the EA community people have strong egoistic motivation to make “effective” donations. Your reputation is related to giving effectively.
Huh, I feel like reputation within EA is mediated more by things like how insightful one seems in forums & how active one is in organizing community events.
I don’t know how much most EAs I know give. (I basically only know about people who published donation reports.)
Also there’s this effect where people who are doing a lot of work on the ground tend to accrue less reputation than people who are very active in community building, just by the nature of their work. e.g. compare New Incentives to 80k.
I definitely except that there are people who will lose out on happiness from donating.
Making it a bit more complicated, though, and moving out of the area where it’s easy to do research, there are probably happiness benefits of stuff like ‘being in a community’ and ‘living with purpose’. Giving 10 % per year and adopting the role ‘earning to give’, for example, might enable you to associate life-saving with every hour you spend on your job, which could be pretty positive (I think that feeling that your job is meaningful is associated with happiness). My intuition is that the difference between 10 % and 1 % could be important to be able to adopt this identity, but I might be wrong. And a lot of the gains from high incomes probably comes from increased status, which donating money is a way to get.
I’d be surprised if donating lots of money was the optimal thing to do if you wanted to maximise your own happiness. But I don’t think there’s a clear case that it’s worse than the average person’s spending.
Makes sense, though I think you can realize most of the “being in a community” benefit without making large donations.
I’ll consider making this rigorous enough to be a standalone post if there’s sufficient interest.