I took the GWWC Pledge in 2018, while I was an undergraduate student. I only have a hazy recollection of the journey that led to me taking the Pledge. I thought I’d write that down, reflect on how I feel now, and maybe share it.
In high-school, I was kind of cringe
I saw respected people wear suits, and I watched (and really liked) shows like Suits.
I unreflectively assumed I’d end up the same. The only time I would reflect on it was to motivate myself to study for my upcoming exams — I have memories of going to the bathroom as a 17-year old, looking at myself in the mirror, and imagining being successful. I imagined the BMW I might drive, the family I could provide for, and the nice house I could own. A lot of this was psychologically tied up in aspirations to be in great shape.
I was bullied a bit in primary school and early high-school. Whether because of that or not, I unconsciously craved being respected. And respected people wore suits.
Despite what I assumed I would become — what I was actively working to become — I wasn’t totally unreflective. On an intellectual level, I found it really strange knowing that the people around me earned so much that even a fraction of their earnings amounted to life-changing amounts of money for entire families — and not just some of the worst-off families, but probably for most families on the planet.
I sat with this cognitive dissonance for a while, and sometimes grappled with it. Over time, I gradually thought that I’d have to do something like donate to charities (I assumed only the “good ones”, and was happy to kick the work of finding those “good ones” down the road). I didn’t know how much I should give or what felt like “enough”, but 10% seemed fair. I think at this point, effective altruism hadn’t been coined — I’m pretty confident I’d never heard anything about it. Obviously, I didn’t donate anything. I was 17 and worked at McDonald’s.
In early university, I didn’t really know who I wanted to be
At this stage, I had radically different and inconsistent conceptions of what I wanted from life.
Just taking my career ambitions as an example:
Sometimes I wanted to be a police-officer (definitely because I watched The Wire).
I even considered joining the military (probably because I watched Band of Brothers — but also because they have good ads and there was a program I could have applied to that would involve the Australian military paying for my degree and giving me something like $40k AUD a year).
But mainly, I assumed I’d be a lawyer. I didn’t really have a good reason for this (beyond liking debating and having good enough grades). Mind you, at this stage I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer. I identified as very left-wing, against greed and the system, so I’d become a criminal barrister.
While all this was happening, I was watching every science/educational channel that could hold my attention, and listening to every podcast about moral philosophy, economics, and psychology that I could find. It was pretty standard stuff for someone with those interests: Sam Harris, Very Bad Wizards, Veritasium and the like. I also studied philosophy and was utterly convinced that moral realism was true (I now doubt that), Peter Singer was right (...I still largely think this) and that consciousness was interesting but hella confusing (still confused). This more intellectual side of me was now certain I needed to give at least 10% to effective charities, if not much more. But I was free to think this because I basically had no money and still worked at McDonald’s.
More importantly, my best friend, Kieran, was constantly and forcefully insisting I try to be a better person. It often wasn’t fun. I didn’t like hearing about the harms associated with many careers that seemed appealing to me, how unethical the meat I consumed was, or how morally bankrupt the inequality in the world was. These conversations contributed to a slow but steady change in my identity, from someone who was happy to unreflectively pursue whatever it was I wanted (whether or not I knew what that was) to someone who aimed to reflect on what I valued, and pursue that.
Then, I started giving
In 2016, I listened to Will MacAskill on a Sam Harris podcast. He talked about the Giving What We Can Pledge, and GiveWell. I was completely on board, and shortly after, I took my first step and began donating $50 a month to GiveWell charities. At the time, this might have actually been 10% of my income.
I recall agonising over the decision theory — should I split my giving, or give it all to AMF (which GiveWell said was the best at the time). On the one hand, I wanted to do the most good. On the other hand, there was considerable uncertainty about which charity was actually best — if I just gave to one, it was less likely any of my money would go to the best one.
I decided to split my giving (though I realised later that I’d done my decision theory wrong).
Then, I took the Pledge
Two years later, I think I watched Derek Parfit give a talk. Or maybe it was that I listened to another Sam Harris podcast. In any case, I remember that immediately after, I opened my browser, signed the Giving What We Can Pledge and upped my GiveWell donations accordingly.
I want to reflect on how it feels, five years in. It’s probably easier to start with what it doesn’t feel like:
- Warm fuzzies (it’s rewarding in a way, but I feel better after doing a big favour for a friend or stranger than I do donating)
- A conscious choice (I spend extremely little time thinking about how much to give — 10% feels mandatory, and if I think I can spare giving more, I do)
- Difficult (I find things like waking up early, going to the gym, or meal-prepping far harder)
Instead, it doesn’t really feel like anything? I have a similar attitude to giving as I do paying taxes — of course it’s something I have to do, and of course it’s the right thing to do. The money does so little for me compared to what it could do for others.
Given this, when I read about other GWWC members’ attitudes towards their giving I sometimes feel a bit sheepish, maybe even like a bit of an imposter. It’s probably apt to feel warm fuzzies, to be viscerally horrified by the state of the world and to regularly think about and care deeply for the beneficiary. I sometimes do, and I want to lean into this when I can, but when I try to be honest with myself, these motivations don’t resonate with me as much. For me, it’s more like paying a sort of tax — but more convenient.
Part of this is that I live, and continue to live, a ridiculously privileged life compared to many, and I don’t really resonate with the identity of an especially moral and altruistic person. While I might sometimes pat myself on the back, I don’t think I should. If someone ever compliments me on being generous, I have no idea how to respond.
I wonder how many other Pledgers feel this way.
Does how we feel about giving matter?
I expect platitudes like “everyone’s journey is different” is in fact the wise attitude to have here.
The most important thing is that we don’t accept living in a world where every few hours enough children die from malaria to fill up a Boeing 737. That billions of factory farmed animals suffer in torment so horrible we would rightly put someone in jail if they did it to one of a select few animals we decided to care about. And that all of humanity’s progress might prematurely come to nothing, at our own hands.
Giving 10% of your income to the most effective solutions to these problems is part of not accepting that. I think more people — including most people reading this — should take The Pledge.
But there are many ways to act with integrity, or more generally be of good character. And there are many good motivations for taking the Pledge. For some, it may be a useful commitment device to act as they believe they should, even if it’s psychologically difficult. For others, it might be an act of compassion towards the beneficiaries they want to support. For me, it was a part of a personal journey of wanting to do the right thing, and giving up some of my more vain motivations.
Either way, taking the Giving What We Can Pledge was among the most important decisions I ever made. I don’t like speaking for others, but at least on this point, I’m sure most Pledgers feel the same.