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.[1] Therefore, we should begin to praise the ultra-rich for their personal spending choices just as much as their large donations.

 

  1. ^

    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.

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I don't think the primary reason rich people are rich is from having frugal lifestyles. I also would be surprised that the primary reason once-rich people become poor is through extravagant consumption (as opposed to bad investments).[1]

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

To the extent that you think shaming works, you should/could instead shame people for not donating enough to charities, or donating to obviously-ineffective-but-feel-good causes. 

I continue to think that in general we care way too much about the personal virtues and excesses of powerful people, and not enough about their consequences on the world. 

  1. ^

    Though I don't have data on this, happy to be corrected otherwise.

I never claimed that the rich are rich because they are frugal. I made the normative claim that the rich ought to be much more frugal, and in order for them to do that, we should praise their frugality as altruism (so long as they donate the money and not pass it down as generational wealth).

I also never claimed that the rich “become poor” through spending. The rich seldom truly become poor, even if they make terrible investments.

I agree with your last point - that’s precisely the kind of argument I am trying to make with this piece: we care far too much about the ultra-wealthy’s virtue signaling and not enough about what they actually do with their money.

I love this. Living more simply does so much good for so many reasons. I would extend this as a challenge to the EA community, as well as something to be praised in the ultra rich. Living more simply creates value on so many fronts no matter how rich you are, including...

  • Minimise waste
  • Minimise carbon emissions
  • Minimise spending to maximise giving
  • Builds integrity  in your EA position (More than just a bunch of rich tech bros who want to feel good about themselves) , and forge a small degree of solidarity with the poor we claim to be supporting.
  • (Perhaps most importantly) Creates curiosity from others as to why you live simply, allowing EA evangelistic opportunities ;).

I would say however that living simply is so much more than doing nothing. The norm of modern society is to spend as much (or more than) you earn, so it takes great thought, discipline and even sacrifice to live more simply. It's far far harder than doing nothing

I have wondered why effective altruism doesn't make a bigger deal of simplicity within our own community, especially from an Evangelistic point of view where I think it can work wonders.

Thanks for the comment! I agree with all of your arguments for value creation - thanks for expanding the claims in the original post. Fair point that living simply is far from doing nothing - sort of a glib title I suppose.

Simple living is a key tenet of Singer's ethics, so it was definitely emphasized in early EA, but I agree we have strayed from those roots. It's worth thinking about our actions as individuals and a community through this lens, too - maybe people earning to give should set spending thresholds, maybe EAG should be held virtually, etc.

Interestingly, I think we've lost some of this frugality rhetoric because it is dangerous from an "evangelistic" POV. Telling people they should give more to charity is one thing, but telling them they need to buy less stuff and also give more is even harder...