Monday, April 27, 2015

The Most Good You Can Do

I was excited to see Peter Singer's new book, The Most Good You Can Do.

He's letting the internet decide to donate $10,000 of the royalties. Play the Giving Game to vote!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Charity begins at home?

Sometimes people ask Jeff and me if we plan to raise our daughter in some special way as an effective altruist. The answer is “not really.” Some have asked if we consider her a sort of recruit, hoping that her future donations will outweigh the cost of raising her. The answer is “definitely not.”

Of course, we hope that Lily will become a kind and generous person. (Currently she’s at the stage of taking other babies’ books from them at the library, but we trust that will change.) But we wouldn't want to count on her donating a certain amount, or curing malaria, or anything else. It doesn't seem very realistic, and pushing her too hard to be like us might backfire and cause her to reject the whole idea.

Celebrating one year of being neither effective nor altruistic

I've seen some people react with dismay that anyone would give away a large portion of their income while also choosing to become a parent. They don't like the idea of "putting other people before your child."

If Lily really needed anything, we'd do our best to be sure she had it. Even after giving away half our income, we're left with more than the average American family. (And far more than the average world family.) As one friend says, "It's obviously possible to live on this amount of money, because almost everyone does it." So we're at least as able to provide for Lily as most other families you might meet.

And part of raising a child is teaching them that their wants don't always come first. You can't always have the biggest slice of cake, or your friend's toy, or the first turn on the swing when other children are waiting. Learning to share and to prioritize others' needs as well as your own is an important part of learning to live in human society.

I hope that giving will be a normal part of family life as Lily grows up. My mother grew up in a household where her parents tithed 10% of their income, and none of them considered that remarkable. My grandmother taught her children to allocate their 20-cent allowance with "a dime to spend, a nickel to save, and a nickel to give away." There are some attractive children's banks out there with different compartments for saving, spending, investing, and giving. I've also seen homemade ones if you're galled by the idea of paying for a piggy bank.

We hope to teach Lily to be kind in her personal life, and also to think of herself as part of a larger world in which she can help many people (even if she doesn't know them personally).

I like the idea of charity beginning at home. I wouldn’t want it to end there!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How much to push the envelope?

This sprang out of the last post on how to talk to people about giving.

If you're trying to persuade people, it's unclear how far to push things. I hope there are studies out there on the optimal approach, but I haven't seen them.

John Woolman was an 18th-century American Quaker who was ardent about the abolition of slavery before abolitionism was really a thing. His friends found him kind of embarrassing because he would do things like refusing to use silverware at his friends' houses because silver was mined by slaves, or paying his friends' slaves for their work when they served him dinner. But he was successful in persuading some of his friends to free their slaves, and in retrospect his actions look heroic because he brought abolitionism onto the map.

I once assumed that Woolman was the kind of person who found it easy to do socially provocative things  I think we've all met That Guy at some point. But when I read his account of his life, he actually describes finding it really difficult and embarrassing to break social convention. He did it despite his discomfort, because he believed it was really important. That makes me respect him a lot more.

I often find myself getting annoyed with vegan activists for breaking social convention. Then I wonder if I'm dining with modern day Woolmans.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X embody two different strategies about how much to push the envelope. King's civil rights movement was extremely careful to stay within conventional morality and to represent themselves as upstanding, respectable citizens. (Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington, was sidelined due to embarrassment about his being gay. Claudette Colvin was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, but was not highlighted by the movement because she was unmarried and pregnant. Those decisions sound pretty awful now, but I think they were probably the right thing for that particular movement to do at the time, given that white Americans were not even okay with black ministers in suits eating at lunch counters.)

Malcolm X was not worried about offending white sensibilities, calling King a "chump" and demanding social change rather than going the more incremental route. And yet he, too, was very careful about some aspects of presentation  I challenge you to find a picture of him not wearing a tie. There's one picture of him wearing a dashiki, but he's actually wearing a tie underneath.

Related: Peter Hurford on using weirdness wisely.

It might be good for a movement to have some of both strategies. Some people/organizations play it safer and gain respectability. Others push the envelope. This is probably an argument for having multiple branches/organizations within a movement, so that some can try more radical strategies while other go for more mainstream appeal.