- Published 9 Mar 2021
- Updated 20 Mar 2021
Almost everyone in the world appreciates the value of charity to some degree. In fact, many popular religions have altruistic foundations, such as the practice of tithing (giving 10% of one's income) in Christianity and Judaism, Zakat (typically giving 2.5% of one's wealth) in Islam, and Dāna (the general concept of generosity and charity) in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.
Beyond the seemingly universal inclination we have towards donating to charity — or, more generally, to doing the right thing — why should we donate? What are some specific reasons why charity should be an important part of our lives? Merely thinking that charity is important is one thing, but it is crucial to bridge the gap between intention and action if we are to help those who are in need. In this article, I provide three key reasons why charity is a necessary ingredient for making the world a better place: it is effective at helping people in need, it can improve our own wellbeing, and it can make the world a much fairer place overall.
Global poverty, the mistreatment of nonhuman animals, and other social injustices cause so much suffering in the world. For those of us who are relatively well-off, what responsibility do we have (if any), to improve conditions for those less fortunate? What does it take to "do good" or to be a good person? These questions concern not just ivory-tower philosophers but many of us who place a crucial importance on discovering the ingredients necessary to live ethical, happy, and fulfilling lives.
One individual who has thought deeply about these kinds of questions is Peter Singer. Singer is widely considered to be one of the most influential living philosophers, and is one of the effective altruism movement's key intellectual forebears. In 1972, he wrote an essay titled Famine, Affluence, and Morality, where he argued that "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." Singer's ethical arguments have influenced so many others because of their sheer simplicity and how cohesive they are as a framework for thinking about what it means to live an ethical life.
See if you agree with each of the following statements from Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality:
Suffering and death from preventable causes (e.g., a lack of food, shelter, or medical care) are bad.
If we can stop bad things from happening without significantly reducing our own wellbeing, we should.
Most of us in high-income countries can make a meaningful impact on the lives of others without substantially reducing our own wellbeing.
If these statements sound reasonable to you, it follows that most people in high-income countries should do what they can to prevent suffering and death in other parts of the world. Donating to highly effective charities is one way to do that.
Another key consideration, beyond our moral obligation to donate to charity, is to think about our moral obligation regarding the cost-effectiveness of our donations. This point is argued by Toby Ord, a co-founder of Giving What We Can and another key figure in the effective altruism movement.
In a publication called The Moral Imperative toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health, Ord argued that it is not just important to emphasize cost-effectiveness, but it is morally crucial that we do so.
Ord imagines a scenario in which there is an individual who has a $40,000 budget that they wish to donate to fight blindness. This amount could be used to provide a guide dog for a blind person — a clear quality of life improvement, but not something that will restore the person's vision. Or, as Ord points out, the same amount of money could instead be spent on surgeries for trachoma, an infectious disease that can lead to blindness if left untreated. The cost of treating trachoma is around $20, meaning that $40,000 could either prevent roughly 2,000 people from going blind or help one person navigate blindness with a guide dog's help.
Few people, if any at all, would be able to convincingly argue that an outcome in which one person can more comfortably navigate blindness is preferable to one in which 2,000 equally deserving others can avoid blindness in the first place. Any donor willing to give $40,000 is remarkably generous, but the consequences of ignoring cost effectiveness have deeply unsettling moral implications. It is, thus, a moral imperative that we consider the cost-effectiveness of our donations. Failing to do so can mean that more people suffer unnecessarily. Just think of the 1,999 others who wouldn't receive any help if $40,000 was donated to charities that train guide dogs instead of ones that prevent trachoma from causing blindness.
Giving to charity can be one of the easiest ways to make yourself feel good. It is a highly effective way of generating that amazing warm glow feeling — the same one you feel when you help your neighbour, your friend, a family member, or a co-worker. Charity is not just for the ultra-wealthy. You (yes you, the exact person reading this sentence right now) can make a massive difference in the lives of others while simultaneously benefiting yourself — one of those coveted win-win scenarios!
Here are four reasons why being charitable can benefit your own health and wellbeing:
1. People who help others are happier. There is empirical evidence from both correlational and experimental studies that people who spend more money on others report greater happiness and wellbeing. These results were seen across many different countries worldwide, suggesting that feeling good from donating to others might be a universal feature of how our brains are wired.
2. The benefits of donating can be detected in both the brain and the body. One study used MRI scans to suggest that donating causes the brain's reward centres to activate. Another study used measures of salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) and produced evidence that participants who kept more money for themselves felt more shame. (Shame is associated with higher cortisol levels and thus higher stress levels.)
3. Wealth and happiness do not have a linear relationship. To study the relationship between wealth and happiness, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, both Nobel laureate economists from Princeton University, found that the effects of income on emotional wellbeing peak at an income level of roughly $75,000 USD. The pair ultimately conclude that "high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness."
4. Acquiring ever-increasing amounts of wealth has diminishing returns. Another study by Matthew Killingsworth found that, while happiness and life satisfaction increased past $75,000, the increases were relatively small and were less pronounced the richer an individual was. For example, the difference in happiness between two households earning $20,000 and $60,000 a year was found to be the same as the difference between two households earning $60,000 and $180,000 a year, respectively. The implication is that as you become wealthier, it takes progressively more money to improve your wellbeing. In contrast, that same amount of money could increase the wellbeing of many more individuals with lower incomes by the same amount. So, going from an income of $50,000 to $100,000 would increase your happiness by the same amount as going from $1,000 to $2,000 would — except that the $50,000 increase mentioned previously could provide that same increase in happiness for 50 people with incomes of $1,000 instead of one person with an income of $50,000!
You may be wondering: even if donating to charity makes us feel good, could it have negative effects on our happiness down the road? Fortunately, there are good empirical and theoretical reasons to believe that donating 10% of your income will not reduce your happiness in any significant way. You can also frame it this way: you get to keep 90% of your income to be used on whatever you like!
If you are 1) reading this article and 2) employed, you're likely in the top 10% of earners worldwide. In fact, you may well be in the top 1%, or even well above that threshold.
Check out our How Rich Am I? calculator to see for yourself.
You might not feel rich. That's perfectly understandable. You have probably scrolled through Instagram before and seen profiles of the rich and famous folks who drive sports cars and live in places like Beverly Hills. Comparatively speaking, you might not have that kind of wealth. But globally speaking, you're probably closer to them in terms of your financial status than you are to the poorest of the global poor!
Take, for example, Malawi, a low-income country in sub-Saharan Africa with a population of nearly 20 million people, 70% of whom live under a poverty line of $1.90 a day. According to data from the World Bank's Development Research Group, Malawi has a median annual household per capita income of $480 USD (in 2011 prices). This number, which is 40x lower than the equivalent for the United States, already takes into account the cost of living differences between Malawi and the United States.
Earning a salary of, say, $35,000 USD in the United States isn't enough to catch an invite to the Met Gala or to afford a brand new Tesla. But earning $35,000 does put you in a unique position to change deserving people's lives in countries like Malawi. That is because donating 10 percent of $35,000 gives you the chance to do a tremendous amount of good in the world. That amount would be enough to double the income of seven people earning the median annual household per capita income in Malawi. It could also be used to purchase 700 insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria, a debilitating illness that affects hundreds of millions of people annually. Or, you could provide over 3,500 treatments for children who suffer from intestinal worms.
Teslas are cool, but protecting 700 people from malaria or 3,500 kids from intestinal worms is even cooler. In fact, effectively helping others is the coolest thing in the world!
You might now be wondering why governments — be it Malawi's, or wealthier ones like the United States' — don't fund these interventions. The same could be asked of private corporations looking to make a profit. Surely there is enough political interest, or sufficient market forces, to get people the resources they need. Why do we need charity if these institutions exist? And why should private citizens foot the bill when we already pay taxes?
The budget dedicated by wealthy governments to address these pressing problems is often inadequate, and the profit motive of corporations isn't always sufficient for directing resources to those who really need them. There is, therefore, a crucial need for charity within the global economy. Those who deserve to have their interests considered often cannot make their voices heard within our economic and political institutions.
Nonhuman animals are a clear example of a group of individuals that is both disenfranchised from traditional decision-making bodies and deserving of our moral consideration. Every year, trillions are killed for food, many of whom suffer in miserable conditions while alive — particularly those who are part of the factory farming system, such as chicken, pigs, and fish.
Animals cannot vote out politicians who ignore their interests. They cannot influence politicians by funding lobbying groups and by making targeted political donations. Wealthy animals cannot donate to improve the living conditions of other, less fortunate animals in their communities. Animals can suffer, however. And much like it is illogical to ignore humans who suffer strictly because they are far away from us, it is also illogical to only include our own species in our boundaries of moral concern. Suffering is suffering. That is why it is important to make sure that animals can live reasonably happy lives. One way we can help is by donating to highly effective animal charities that have a track record of making considerable progress on these issues.
Some ways we can make a difference in the lives of animals include funding charities that:
Run corporate outreach campaigns to increase animal welfare standards;
Promote alternatives to animal products (such as plant-based and cell-based meat and dairy);
Conduct research on how to help wild animals.
Another example of disenfranchised beings is humans of future generations. Our present actions can significantly affect an astronomical number of people later on, perhaps hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years from now. It is thus crucial that we try to prevent disastrous events from destroying or seriously harming all life on our planet. These kinds of risks are called existential risks, and include nuclear war, man-made pandemics, advanced artificial intelligence, and climate change, among others.
Like animals, people in the far (or even the near) future cannot vote, lobby, or fund research into ways that we can prevent existential risk in the present. Their voices quite literally do not exist. And yet, morally speaking, their wellbeing is also important.
Think of your grandchildren, or your great-grandchildren, or your great-great-grandchildren, and so on. While you may never meet them (much like you won't meet many individuals in foreign countries who still are clearly deserving of charity), they should be able to live the kinds of happy and prosperous lives that we all aspire to. People should not suffer just because they live in places far away from us geographically. In the same vein, we should do everything we can to prevent suffering in places far away from us temporally.
A few examples of things we can do today to help future generations include:
Funding longtermist research;
Spreading the core ideas of effective altruism and long-term thinking;
Promoting public policy that ensures the interests of those in the far future are taken into consideration;
Training practitioners that work on mitigating existential risks.
This article covered many reasons why donating is so important. It outlines evidence supporting the claims that (i) charity helps people who need it, (ii) giving to charity promotes donors' wellbeing, and (iii) charity can help make the world a fairer place. It also surely missed a number of other reasons why donating is an important part of doing good. Perhaps at least one of the reasons above will nudge you into taking decisive action to improve the lives of others, regardless of where you come from, what kind of job you have, or what kind of moral or political views you hold. You have a chance to do a substantial amount of good in the world, especially if you decide to pledge 10% of your income to some of the most effective charities in the world.
For more inspiration, you can read some of the stories and quotes contributed by our members about their giving.
Not ready to pledge? You can also donate to an effective charity, sign up to our newsletter, read our blog, attend an event, join an effective altruism group, or reach out to me directly if you'd like to discuss anything.