I've been thinking lately about what kinds of altruistic actions we typically praise and how that differs for normal people versus the ultra-rich. Here are two observations:
Observation 1: For our peers, we praise both donations and altruistic personal choices. Any size donation is rightly seen as praiseworthy because it involves sacrificing more self-interested goals. Similarly, personal choices like acts of community service are praised because they involve sacrifice of time and energy.
Observation 2: For wealthy individuals, we praise donations but not personal choices. Whenever an ultra-rich person makes a large enough gift, we react positively. And although the media occasionally laments over Jeff Bezos' superyacht or private jet usage, we rarely hear praise about how Richard Branson buys 10 dollar wine or Charlie Ergen brown-bags his lunch.
The takeaway is that for normal, non-wealthy people, there are two ways to gain praise for altruism: donations and lifestyle. In contrast, the ultra-wealthy only have only avenue for praise: donations.
This is very bad. EA has successfully demonstrated that lifestyle choices are important in measuring one's benefit or harm to the world. 80K Hours proves just how impactful one's career choice can be. The Life You Can Save and Giving What We Can claim that irresponsible spending can constitute a form of indirect harm. Longtermism suggests that researching existential threats has the potential to save trillions of future human lives.
To be clear, I don't think we could or should convince the ultra-wealthy to begin a new career led by 80K Hours' guidance or spend the next decade researching a nuclear off-ramp. However, their lifestyle choices are deeply consequential, and we should talk about them more. Earlier this year, Warren Buffett made the news by donating $4B more to multiple foundations. This is obviously praiseworthy as many billionaires fail to give such large sums. However, the media failed to mention that a large part of how Buffett can make such large gifts because he lives modestly. While other billionaires attend the Monaco Grand Prix in 200 foot yachts, Buffett hangs out in the same Omaha home he's lived in for 6 decades.
While I am loath to suggest we celebrate rich people more than we already do (see Winners Take All for some big problems with that), we should better praise them for one action: frugality. As the ultra-rich get even richer and many vow to give away most of their fortunes, the amount of money they spend during their lifetimes directly determines the amount of good they can do. Therefore, we should begin to praise the ultra-rich for their personal spending choices just as much as their large donations.
Not to mention the fact that ultra-wealthy spending on items like large houses, yachts, and private jets does terrible harm to the planet through GHG emissions.