I’m trying to add more short posts to the blog, for fleeting thoughts that don’t warrant a manifesto. Short posts won’t be comprehensive, and they won’t bristle with defensive measures against potential criticism, but if you see something you don’t like, let me know. I like writing follow-up posts, and I’ll try to change my mind if you’re correct. (No promises.)
I live in a city where homelessness is common, though I wouldn’t say “pervasive”. In a given week, I’ll encounter two or three people who ask me for money.
If I gave a dollar each time someone asked, I’d be out $40 or $50 by semester’s end. I could afford this; I spend that much on myself in a week or two.
Still, I’m reluctant to give to street solicitors, for the usual reasons: I’m not sure where the money will go, I’m wary of being asked immediately for more money (as often happens), and I believe that there are better forms of charity, both to help the homeless of New Haven and to help humanity.
But even if I think about those reasons as I walk away from an encounter, I feel guilty about refusing the request, and about my own financial privilege as a college student living mostly off my family’s income. I’m a calculating person, and a self-styled “effective altruist”, but giving money to someone in front of you still feels different from giving through the Internet—and the same goes for not giving.
When I turn down a request, I feel myself become another selfish, faceless Yale kid in the eyes of the person asking. I may shake off the feeling by the time I get home, but being someone I don’t like, even for just a few seconds, is not fun.
So now I’m doing something different. Whenever I’m asked for money and don’t give something right away, I make a note in an Evernote file titled “belated philanthropy”. Every few months, I’ll add up the notes; for each note, I’ll donate $1.00 to one of my favorite charities, in addition to the money I was going to donate anyway. My encounters with poverty now correlate with my giving (without being the only reason I give). I’ve partly resolved the temporal disconnect between the world’s moral demands and my moral response.
This isn’t the most logical way to give—in theory, I should donate whatever I can afford when a very good opportunity arises—but it’s a reasonable response to a common moral dilemma, and I think others could benefit from the same system, whether they use it for effective altruism or for local organizations.
Some people, of course, are better off without it. They may be inspired to give more in general after giving directly to panhandlers, or they may feel callous ignoring the people right in front of them. But keeping a “belated philanthropy” notebook suits my preferences, and I can imagine doing so for the rest of my life, scaling my donations with my personal income. Hopefully, someone else will read this who feels the same way.
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I heard a few years ago that Peter Singer does exactly this. I think he mentioned it in an interview. I’ve done it a few times too. The problem is that I think donating to GiveWell’s charities is less good than donating to, say, animal charities, so in some sense I’m causing net harm in the process. But I do it for what one of my friends calls “moral pluralism” reasons — i.e., doing at least a little bit for different value systems.
I sometimes also do something directly for the person, because the cost is small, and doing so removes concerns that I’ll make myself callous by ignoring the person. Rather than giving money straight, I offer to buy the person a meal or a supermarket gift card or something — thus ensuring the money won’t go to drugs or whatever.
Interesting! Do you have any idea where I might find that Singer interview?
Do you have reasons to fear yourself becoming callous? Given your long history of doing good and thinking about doing good, I’m surprised it’s still a concern, though it is of course excellent that you take measures to protect yourself against the threat.
I tried to search for the interview by keywords without success. It was some podcast from around 2011.
I fear becoming callous because (a) my degree of callousness changes even within a day or over a period of months, though most of that variation is due to mood, being hungry, etc. and (b) if I did become callous more permanently, it would be very bad, so I’d rather not test out the limits.
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