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.