- Published 29 Dec 2020
It is the end of the month, so for me, it is the time to go over my income and expenses (a possibly futile way of telling myself that I have control over these kinds of things). I look over my major monthly expenses quickly, so it isn't too painful to contemplate, and, of course, I check out my salary. Then, I review other payments, like monthly lessons, loan fees, and, for almost two years now, my monthly pledged contribution to effective charities. I am generally a cautious guy, so every time I make the payment, I find myself asking the question: why?
Reaching adulthood is a difficult transition. It means worrying about what you eat, drinking those eight daily glasses of water, and so many other things that weren't concerns when you were younger. Also, money becomes an actual issue. Once you are making your own money, there seem to be two directions you can take. The first one is to spend, to "live the good life"- go out to nice restaurants, indulge your hobbies, and so on. On the other hand, you can also save money, hopefully in a smart way. The question behind these two aspects, really, is how can I use my money well?
For spending, the answer was quite clear for me: I will spend what I actually can, and on what I actually want to. Truth be told, for me there are not too many things I actually want to buy. It always comes down to the question "is it really worth it?", and the answer, quite often, is "no, it is not."
What about saving? When I first ventured into the jungle of adulthood, and still sometimes today, there were well-meaning, if slightly irritating, friends and family members who would remind me of the importance of putting my money to work. In my bank account, my cash was comfortably sleeping, not bothering anyone, working as a backup cushion but it was not being "useful." They urged me to take a more active approach to managing my money, citing term deposits, mutual funds, and the like. But for me, to be frank, the idea of making money to make more money for money's sake didn't really appeal either. I delayed researching investment options. After all, what I made was already enough for me, and I was managing to save a healthy amount each month.
A few years ago there was an author who really caught my attention, so I looked him up on the TED website (I am a nerd who likes spending time on sites like Quora, Ted, and other blogs). It was Peter Singer, and he gave a short speech about something called "effective altruism".
Singer opened his talk by citing a UNICEF statistic that 69,000,000 children die every year due to preventable diseases. He then asked the audience directly: the moral question here is can we do anything about it? And he answered that question with an emphatic yes, as long as we reflect on how to do it effectively. This comment caught my attention, for I always associated altruism, first, with purely good intentions, and second, with some sort of a general occupation or full-time profession that was distant from my job as a litigant lawyer. But Singer argued that it is not just an issue of pure will and good intentions, nor a full-time job. He said there also has to be some thought about the how.
With these ideas in mind, I realized there were new possible answers to the questions I asked as I became an adult. In a first approximation, it had seemed that what I did with my money was an individualistic question - the question about "how can I use my money well?" appeared to be "how can my money be the most useful to me?" As I became aware of effective altruism, though, the question became both simpler and more complicated: "how can my money be the most useful?"
"How can my money be the most useful" is a profound question. So let's say that I have $100 to spare monthly. I could spend it on a fine jacket that I really like, or on a new lens for my camera. I could take my girlfriend out for a (really!) nice dinner, or invite my brothers and parents for a meal. Any of these options would be nice, for me. But wouldn't that same money be better-spent on a vaccine for a child that cannot afford it, preventing a fatal infection? We can change the examples, but the question remains: how can my money be the most useful?
I started by describing my end-of-month routine (though it is usually more chaotic than the way I present it here!), and the thoughts that come along with it. Even though, every month, I continue to ask myself the same questions about how to spend my money, I continue to donate a portion of my salary. I want to acknowledge, though, that I keep asking myself about why I give, and that it is a difficult question to answer, much more difficult than the paragraphs above suggest. I want to acknowledge, too, that the framework I described depends on whether a person can afford these kinds of choices. Not everyone has the luxury I have to make the choice to give. It all starts from the point of individual abundance; otherwise, it is just not possible.
There are other questions that trouble me, too:
- Why is it that individuals have to do this task of redistribution, and not our modern state?
- Am I closing the door to an actual and more systematic redistribution of wealth?
- Am I being paternalistic?
- Isn't the decision of "just" giving away money an easy way to clear my conscience?
- What about the more human aspect, the attachment that every human relationship needs?
- Does my contribution imply that other measures are not useful?
- Where is the limit of the individual contribution?
- Does this mean I cannot spend on things I like, but that are not really necessary?
These and other questions wash over me from time to time. I think this is only natural, for behind effective altruism there is a dense philosophical tradition related to utilitarianism, its offshoots, and its critiques. The good thing is that, if you are reading this, you are not the only one concerned with these issues. There is a global community of people with the same general concerns, who have probably asked themselves many of the same questions (and who might have come to different answers). We can connect with each other through groups like Giving What We Can, pose these questions, and work through them together.
So, it is the end of the month. Here I am again, attempting to keep my finances under control, reflecting on why I spend the way I do, and on why I give. It is interesting for me to look back on the winding path that has led me here. I hope it may be interesting, and perhaps even inspiring for you, too.